Analyzing “Dover Beach”
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is not, as it appears on reading the first stanza, merely a pleasant description of a beautiful scene, nor is it -only- a lament for the waning influence of Christianity, as the second stanza would seem to indicate. Rather, the poem is a statement to the effect that the world is a dark and dangerous place, with the only safety and certainty to be found in close human relationships, such as that of man and wife.
The Famous 'White Cliffs of Dover'
Though Arnold’s natural scenery contains much of the same power and beauty found in Wordsworth, it does not perform the same function. As noted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Arnold’s “evocations of nature…rather than simply providing a picturesque backdrop…draws the poem’s meaning together” (Greenblatt 2093). Thus, “Dover Beach” begins with a peaceful view from the speaker’s window, and ends with the frightening image of a “darkling plain…/Where ignorant armies clash by night” (35, 37).
Considering that the poem contains only thirty-seven lines, Arnold manages to cover quite a lot of territory. The poem begins with what will be its unifying image, the seashore at night.
The sea is calm tonight.
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 (1-6)!
It is an idyllic scene, and the speaker urges his lover (or wife, since Arnold was married) to share it with him. All is tranquil; even the waves are gentle.
The first hint of Arnold’s deeper meaning appears in the second half of the first stanza, as he urges his lover to listen to the “grating roar/Of pebbles” which the waves pick up and then hurl at the shore (9-10). These three lines, “Begin, and cease, and then again begin,/With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/The eternal note of sadness in” foretell a gloomier bent in the poet’s thoughts (12-14).
The second stanza’s first few lines seem to continue this same thought, referencing a chorus from Sophocles’ Antigone “that compares human sorrow to the sound of the waves moving sand beneath them” (Greenblatt 2105). Being a child of Victorian England and not of ancient Greece, Arnold hears in the tide’s ebb and flow a metaphor for the waxing and waning of Christianity’s influence.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like a bright girdle furled (21-23).
Upon reading the poem’s second stanza, it seems that Arnold struggles with the same uncertainty that plagues most of his contemporaries; long-accepted theological concepts and behavioral ideas are being challenged by new scientific discoveries and philosophical theories, leaving the poet feeling somewhat forlorn. The “Sea of Faith” is no longer “at the full” and the poet regrets its withdrawal (21-22).
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 (24-28).
No missionary impulse follows this observation, though. Arnold is the son of a clergyman, but no devout Protestant himself (Greenblatt 2091). It is not Christianity’s truth that Arnold finds necessary, but its ability to “make humanity more civilized” (Greenblatt 2095).
Supposing that Christianity no longer enfolds the world as closely, the poet moves on in the third stanza to the last thing he can really count on -or hopes he can- the love he shares with his wife.
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, no peace, nor help for pain; (29-34).
Here Arnold connects the peaceful, and apparently real, beach scene from the first stanza with the idea that such tranquility is ephemeral, fleeting. Without the comfort and certainty of being closely enveloped by “The Sea of Faith”, the world is really a cold, frightening, unhappy place (21, Greenblatt 2106). Thus cast adrift, the speaker says,
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night (35-37).
These lines could certainly refer to battles fought in Arnold’s time, as well as the ancient Athenians’ failed nighttime invasion of Sicily (Greenblatt 2106). But, given that very little else in the poem seems to have only a literal meaning, Arnold’s “confused alarms of struggle and flight” and the “ignorant armies” could also refer to a clash of ideas. Industrialization; social reform movements, including women’s rights; perceived tensions between science and religion; atheism; all these threatened to overwhelm the thinking Victorian. Amidst all the confusion and change, the poem’s speaker clings to his closest relationship as to a life raft; “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!” (29-30).
The speaker of “Dover Beach” fails to acknowledge God as his “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble”, instead viewing the world with a certain amount of cynicism--or perhaps despair--and fastening on his human lover as an ally against life’s vagaries (Psa. 46:1 NIV). This is hardly shocking though, given Arnold’s humanist approach to religion (Greenblatt 2095). Even so, the poem is not without aesthetic and spiritual value. “Dover Beach” is a beautifully written description of one of England’s most famous sights; an admonition that Christianity’s influence has ebb and flow and should not be taken for granted; and, perhaps most poignantly, a reminder that despite the darkness and chaos in the world, we must be true to the people we love.
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach”. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen Ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 2105-2106. Print.
Blue Letter Bible. "Book of Psalms 46 - (NIV - New International Version)." Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2013. 31 Jan 2013.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Matthew Arnold”. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th Ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 2091, 2093, 2095. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th Ed. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 2105, 2106. Print.
- The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Single-Volume 8th Edition): Stephen Greenblatt, M. H. Ab
The Norton Anthology of English Literature (Single-Volume 8th Edition) [Stephen Greenblatt, M. H. Abrams, Carol T. Christ, Alfred David, Barbara K. Lewalski, Lawrence Lipking, George M. Logan, Deidre Shauna Lynch, Katharine Eisaman Maus, James Noggle
- Matthew Arnold: An Overview
Matthew Arnold's page on the Victorian Web. It's a great resource to learn more about the poet, his works and his time.