By Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)
A Study Guide
Time and Place
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) wrote "Dover Beach" during or shortly after a visit he and his wife made to the Dover region of southeastern England, the setting of the poem, in 1851. They had married in June of that year. A draft of the first two stanzas of the poem appears on a sheet of paper he used to write notes for another another work, "Empedocles on Etna," published in 1852. The town of Dover is closer to France than any other port city in England. The body of water separating the coastline of the town from the coast of France is the Strait of Dover, north of the English Channel and south of the North Sea.
The poet/persona uses first-, second-, and third-person point of view in the poem. Generally, the poem presents the observations of the author/persona in third-person point of view but shifts to second person when he addresses his beloved, as in line 6 (Come), line 9 (Listen! you), and line 29 (let). Then he shifts to first-person point of view when he includes his beloved and the reader as co-observers, as in Line 18 (we), Line 29 (us), Line 31 (us), and line 35 (we). He also uses first-person point of view to declare that at least one observation is his alone, and not necessarily that of his co-observers. This instance occurs in line 24: But now I only hear. This line means But now I alone hear.
The person addressed in the poem—lines 6, 9, and 29—is Matthew Arnold's wife, Frances Lucy Wightman. However, since the poem expresses a universal message, one may say that she can be any woman listening to the observations of any man. Arnold and his wife visited Dover Beach twice in 1851, the year they were married and the year Arnold was believed to have written "Dover Beach." At that time Arnold was inspector of schools in England, a position he held until 1886.
Arnold’s central message is this: Challenges to the validity of long-standing theological and moral precepts have shaken the faith of people in God and religion. In Arnold’s world of the mid-1800's, the pillar of faith supporting society was perceived as crumbling under the weight of scientific postulates, such as the evolutionary theory of English physician Erasmus Darwin and French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Consequently, the existence of God and the whole Christian scheme of things was cast in doubt. Arnold, who was deeply religious, lamented the dying of the light of faith, as symbolized by the light he sees in “Dover Beach” on the coast of France, which gleams one moment and is gone the next. He remained a believer in God and religion, although he was open to—and advocated—an overhaul of traditional religious thinking. In God and the Bible, he wrote: "At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is."
“Dover Beach” is a poem with the mournful tone of an elegy and the personal intensity of a dramatic monologue. Because the meter and rhyme vary from line to line, the poem is said to be in free verse--that is, it is unencumbered by the strictures of traditional versification. However, there is cadence in the poem, achieved through the following:
Alliteration Examples: to-night, tide; full, fair; gleams, gone; coast, cliff (first
Parallel Structure Example: The tide is full, the moon lies fair (first stanza); So various, so beautiful, so new (fourth stanza); Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain (fourth stanza)
Rhyming Words Examples: to-night, light; fair, night-air; stand, land; bay, spray; fling, bring; begin, in (first stanza)
Words Suggesting Rhythm Examples: draw back, return; Begin, and cease, then begin again (first stanza); turbid ebb and flow (second stanza)
Although Matthew Arnold completed "Dover Beach" in 1851 or 1852, the poem was not published until 1867. It appeared in a collection entitled New Poems, published in London.
By Matthew Arnold
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in......................................14
Notes, Stanza 1
moon . . . straits: The water reflects the image of the moon. A strait is a narrow body of water that connects two larger bodies of water. In this poem, straits refers to the Strait of Dover (French: Pas de Calais), which connects the English Channel on the south to the North Sea on the north. The distance between the port
cities of Dover, England, and Calais, France, is about twenty-one miles via the Strait of Dover.
light . . . gone: This clause establishes a sense of rhythm in that the light blinks on and off. In addition, the clause foreshadows the message of later lines--that the light of faith in God and religion, once strong, now flickers. Whether an observer at Dover can actually see a light at Calais depends on the height of the lighthouse and the altitude at which the observer sees the light (because of the curvature of the earth), on the brightness of the light, and on the weather conditions.
cliffs . . . vast: These are white cliffs, composed of chalk, a limestone that easily erodes. Like the light from France, they glimmer, further developing the theme of a weakening of the light of faith. The fact that they easily erode supports this theme.
moon-blanched: whitened by the light of the moon.
grating . . . .pebbles: Here, grating (meaning rasping, grinding, or scraping) introduces conflict between the sea and the land and, symbolically, between long-held religious beliefs and the challenges against them. However, it may be an exaggeration that that pebbles cause a grating roar.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea............................20
Notes, Stanza 1
Sophocles . . . Aegean: Arnold alludes here to a passage in the ancient Greek play Antigone, by Sophocles, in which Sophocles says the gods can visit ruin on people from one generation to the next, like a swelling tide driven by winds.
it: "the eternal note of sadness" (line 14).
Aegean: The sea between Greece and Turkey. In the time of Sophocles, the land occupied by Turkey was known as Anatolia.
turbid: muddy, cloudy
Find . . . thought: In the sound of the sea, the poet "hears" a thought that disturbs him as did the one heard by Sophocles.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world..........................;........28
Notes, Stanza 3
Sea . . . full: See theme, above, for an explanation.
girdle: sash, belt; anything that surrounds or encircles
I only hear: I alone hear
shingles: gravel on the beach
There was a time when faith in God was strong and comforting. This faith wrapped itself around us, protecting us from doubt and despair, as the sea wraps itself around the continents and islands of the world. Now, however, the sea of faith has become a sea of doubt. Science challenges the precepts of theology and religion; human misery makes people feel abandoned, lonely. People place their faith in material things.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night......................37
Notes, Stanza 4
neither . . . pain: The world has become a selfish, cynical, amoral, materialistic battlefield; there is much hatred and pain, but there is no guiding light.
darkling: dark, obscure, dim; occurring in darkness; menacing, threatening, dangerous, ominous.
Where . . . night: E.K. Brown and J.O. Bailey suggest that this line is an allusion to Greek historian Thucydides' account of the Battle of Epipolae (413 BC), a walled fortress near the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. In that battle, Athenians fought an army of Syracusans at night. In the darkness, the combatants lashed out blindly at one another. Brown and Bailey further observe that the line "suggests the confusion of mid-Victorian values of all kinds . . . " (Brown, E.K, and J.O. Bailey, eds. Victorian Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Ronald Press, 1962, page 831).
Let us at least be true to each other in our marriage, in our moral standards, in the way we thnk; for the world will not be true to us. Although it presents itself to us as a dreamland, it is a sham. It offers nothing to ease our journey through life.
Arnold uses a variety of figures of speech, including the following examples. (For definitions of the different figures of speech, see the glossary of literary terms:
Alliteration Examples 1: to-night , tide; full, fair (Lines 1-2); gleams, gone; coast, cliff; long line; which the waves; folds, furled
Assonance: tide, lies;
Paradox and Hyperbole: grating roar of pebbles
Metaphor: which the waves draw back, and fling (comparison of the waves to an intelligent entity that rejects that which it has captured)
Metaphor: turbid ebb and flow of human misery (comparison of human misery to the ebb and flow of the sea)
Metaphor: TheSea of Faith (comparison of faith to water making up an ocean)
Simile: The Sea of Faith . . . lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled (use of like to compare the sea to a girdle)
Metaphor: breath of the night-wind (comparison of the wind to a living thing)
Simile: the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams (use of like to compare the world to a land of dreams)
Anaphora: So various, so beautiful, so new (repetition of so)
Anaphora: nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain (repetition of nor)