Summary and Analysis of the Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

Updated June 17, 2022

Mathew Arnold, the noted Victorian Era poet, critic and essayist, is known for his social criticism and didactic writing style. In the poem “Dover Beach”, Arnold’s characteristics as a writer are well reflected. The poem “Dover Beach” was published in 1867 by the Matthew Arnold. It is written in free verse and plays on metaphors, similes, auditory images as well as alliterations.

The speaker in the poem refers to the Christian faith. It is not explicitly expressed in the first stanza; but when the speaker comes to the end of the poem he addresses the Word “faith”. He mentions a variety of metaphors which represent the loss of true Christian faith. For example, vanishes of light, which represent the diminishing of the English people, and also the people around the world. So, “Dover Beach” is a dramatic monologue of the poet’s shaking beliefs, hopelessness, and despair.

Summary of Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold 

The speaker sits and looks out upon a calm sea, where he observes the fullness of the tide and the beautiful moon reflecting on the water. While looking across the English Channel, the speaker sees the lights on the French coast gleaming, and after that it disappears; but the cliffs of the English coast are standing by themselves “vast” and glimmering” in the bay. Now the speaker suddenly addresses someone else, and implores this person to come and look at what the speaker is looking at, and to enjoy the night’s pleasant air.

Going on further, the speaker spends on describing the sounds of the water that the speaker (Matthew Arnold) is viewing. The speaker says to the other person to listen to the sound of the pebbles as they roll over one another, creating “grating roar”. This action is happening over and over again as the sea recedes and returns.

Here, the speaker notes this slow repeating action, and identifies it with eternal sadness.
In the next stanza, Matthew Arnold or the Speaker thinks about the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, and here the speaker imagines that “Long Ago” Sophocles also heard the same sadness in the Aegean Sea as the speaker hears now on the English coast.

Then the speaker states that the resemblance of the sad sound of the waves to the general sorrow of humanity (human misery), must have brought or inspired Sophocles to write his play “Antigone”. Sophocles was one of the best known dramatic writers of Ancient Greece.

In the third stanza, it becomes clear that Arnold is in fact speaking about the loss of true Christian faith in his countrymen and women. The speaker describes that religious faith as a sea that was once full like the tide. At that time, it reached around the earth and held everyone together like a girdle.

Now, though, the speaker just hears that sea’s sad retreat. The speaker says that no longer is the populous united by a common Christian faith in God as it is spread apart by new sciences and conflicting opinions.

In the fourth stanza, Matthew Arnold addresses the companion as “love,” and he states that they need to treat each other with honesty and authenticity. So, it becomes clear that the companion who is looking out over the water with the speaker is mostly likely his lover or a romantic partner.

This is because, though the world or earth is a dream of Land having a variety of beautiful characteristics, it doesn’t actually offer joy, love or clarity. The speaker claims that it doesn’t provide certainty, peace, or relief from pain.

Then the speaker concludes the poem with a pessimistic note. He compares the collective situation of people around the world to standing on a flat and dark piece of land, which is caught up in the chaos of fighting. Here, they are fighting for the things they don’t understand; real suffering is going on and faith is slipping away.

Analysis of Dover Beach

Matthew Arnold, a Victorian poet, essayist and critic published his poem “Dover Beach” in 1867 in the volume entitled New Poems. This poem is made up of four stanzas containing different number of lines. There is no consistent rhyme scheme throughout the poem. Moreover, it is written in irregular iambic pentameter

“Dover Beach” reflects Arnold’s views on life and religion. The poet begins with beautiful descriptions of a night on the serene beach at Dover. He writes about the tranquil sea, the rhythmic sea waves, the pebbles and the English cliffs. But the beauty of the scenery is only a visual treat.

The harsh noise of the waves flinging away pebbles on the shore reminds the poet of the “eternal note of sadness” in the sounds of the waves. The poet relates to what Greek playwright Sophocles had said about the human misery. Sophocles had written about the sound of the sea that reminded him of the sufferings of human beings. Similarly, the poet can feel that the world around him is becoming a sad place. The poet is also seeing the “Sea of Faith” lose its vitality. He says:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full,…
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Just as the poet is seeing the retreating sea, he feels that Faith and Religion have lost their hold on the society. In the end of the poem, the poet insists his companion to remain truthful to him in the confusing and ignorant world. His “land of dreams” is changing into a place where people are constantly pitted against each other for survival and the poet wants his companion to provide him solace in the saddening world.

“Dover Beach is written in free verse with varying lines and metres. Arnold makes use of enjambment to present the action of sea- the beginning of waves, the coming of pebbles and then the withdrawal of the waves that leave the land barren. The poet uses simile to bring out the similarities of the stability of the sea and the firmness of a waist girdle or belt.

He also calls the world as “a land of dreams”. The poem is an overall metaphor of the sea representing Faith and Religion. Arnold explains that a few years ago, before the intervention of science in the way of life, religion was supreme. But now Faith is losing its reverential status and turning into a “melancholy, long withdrawing roar.

In the poem “Dover Beach”, Matthew Arnold has presented world through a wide time window. He begins the poem in the present day, takes it to the ancient times of Sophocles and comes back to the present. Arnold’s imagery is calm yet upsetting. His loss of faith in religion is depicted in his loss of charm of the beautiful scenery that he has described in the poem. His diction expresses his growing pessimism.

He clubs together the beautiful world of nature and the man-made confused world around him to draw a conclusion that nothing is permanent and there is always an impending doom around. He hints at a future catastrophic where people will suffer from miseries, indifference and melancholy.

“Dover Beach” was composed when industrialization and materialism were taking over the world and religion had taken a backseat. The ignorant armies in Arnold’s poem are in general the human race that does not know which way to go, what to believe and how to live. He writes:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms o struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

Arnold employs sounds to support his eternal note of sadness”. The poet has effectively raised existential and moral issues through his poem.

Dover Beach: In Conclusion

The poet has represented the spiritual crisis of Victorian England. He draws similarity between the confused human race of his age and the uninformed army that fights in darkness. His message in the poem is presented in the last stanza when he calls upon his companion to build a strong, faithful and honest relationship in the falling world.

Arnold believes that only strong personal relationships can save people from falling apart in the miseries of human life. Mankind will only find solace in true love. In an elegiac tone, Matthew Arnold has tried to build a truthful account of the age of restlessness and suggests the readers how to stick during the hard times in the Dover Beach.

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