Dover Beach, A Poem by Mathew Arnold
Table of Contents
The poem, Dover Beach was first published in 1867 in the New Poems which include such poems as Empedocles and Thyrsis.
Summary the Poem Dover Beach
The poet stands on the Dover beach and observes the English Channel. The sea is calm and quiet. The sea is at full tide, and bathed in the moonlight. The light is seen to shine faintly on the French coast and to disappear soon. The cliffs of Dover stand glimmering on the bay. The poet asks his ladylove to stand near the window and enjoy the calm, quiet beauty of the sea. The waves of the sea dash against the shore whitened by the moonlight. As the waves recede, they cast back pebbles on the shore. When the waves again come on the shore in a rush they strike the pebbles and produce a slow. musical sound which brings in a note of eternal sadness.
Sophocles long ago heard the same note of sadness sounded by the waves of the Aegean sea, which reminded him of the ebb and flow of human misery. Tonight the poet and his ladylove hear the same melancholy sound in the distant northern sea and are filled with the same thought of human misery
Like the sea which is at full tide tonight, faith too was in the past at its full. But now the poet sees faith retreating from the society.
The poet addresses his ladylove and says that they should be faithful to each other. This world which appears so beautiful to us has really neither joy nor love nor light nor certitude nor peace. It is like a battlefield where men fight with one another in the darkness of night, without knowing what they are fighting for.
An Analysis of Dover Beach
Dover Beach is one of the brightest gems in the casket of English poetry “It is the one work,” says J. D. Jump, “by which Arnold ought to appear in even the briefest anthology of great English poems.” It has been said-and not without justification that Arnold is too intellectual to abandon himself to unpremeditated, careless lyrical rapture. His thoughts running always on the riddle of this painful world come to cloud his vision and arrest his lyrical rapture. Dover Beach illustrates this. In it Arnold pours his full heart “in profuse strains of unpremeditated art.” But the meditative element comes in towards the end to check his lyrical rapture.
Dover Beach is a quintessential expression of melancholy which is the predominant note of Arnold’s poetry. In it Arnold bemoans the loss of faith in religion. His heart writhes in pain to think that faith, which once encircled the world like the sea, has now become a thing of the past, that the world has now slipped into the grip of doubt, dispute, distraction and fear. The last eight lines of the poem give a fine poetic expression to Arnold’s melancholy which borders on stark pessimism. He cries that this world which appears to be a dreamland has “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.”
The pessimism of these lines surpasses that of Thomas Hardy, another thinker of the Victorian age on the riddles of this painful earth. Though Dover Beach gives pessimistic expression to Arnold’s view of life, there is nothing maudlin, nothing unmanly about it.
Dover Beach illustrates fully Arnold’s characteristic attitude to nature. Arnold “loved,” as Jones says, “nature in her quieter and more subdued moods; he preferred her silences to her many voices, moonlight to sunlight, the sea retreating from the ‘moon-blanched land’ with its melancholy long withdrawing roar’ to the sea in tumult and storm. The sea was, for him, the one element in which he discovered the deepest reflection of his own melancholy and sense of isolation. The poem opens with the description of the calm, quiet sea and the waves receding from “the moon-blanched land” with melancholy, musical sound. The calm, quiet moonlit night and the sea retreating with “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” provide a fitting background for Arnold’s melancholy reflection on the painful riddles of human life.
As David Daiches says,
“The opening of Dover Beach is perhaps the finest expression of the symbolic scene of night quiet which provided the setting and the emotional background of so much Amold’s elegiac meditation.”
“Moonlight for Arnold does not go,” as David Daiches says, with roses and romance, but with melancholy, meditation and sometimes even despair.” This is seen in Dover Beach “in which the Victorian problem of loss of faith is given its most memorable utterance: public values have disappeared, and all that is left are private affections, the ‘little society’ (as E. M. Forster was to call it) of love and friendship.” (David Daiches)
As regards the style the poem is a quintessence of classicism-of lucidity, restraint and proportion. The slow, majestic movement of the verse befits the poet’s mediation. The line, “Begin and cease, and then again begin” reproduces the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves.
“Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, 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.”
The poet stands on the Dover Beach, and looks on the calm, quiet sea before him. Moonlight bathes the vast sea-scape and the lights glimmer in the distance. The waves of the sea rush on the shore, and then retreat to the sea with a slow, tremulous cadence which brings the poet in a note of eternal sadness. The poet imagines that Sophocles, the famous Greek tragedian must have experienced the same melancholy feeling when he stood on the shore, looking on the Aegean sea. The rushing of the waves on the shore and the withdrawal of the same from it, with the long, melancholy roar, must have reminded Sophocles of the alternate rise and fall of the tide of human sorrow. And tonight the poet and his beloved hear the same quivering musical sound produced by the ebb and flow of the turbid waves of the northern sea (i.e. the English Channel), and this sound charges their mind with the thought of human misery.
These lines illustrate Arnold’s characteristic attitude to the sea, which was, for him, the one element which produced in him the sense of isolation of man from man, and of the wretchedness of human destiny.
Notes: Sophocles (405-495 B. C.) was one of the most celebrated Greek tragedians. His famous plays are Oedipus the King, Electra and Antigone. His plays are deeply pessimistic and picture the ebb and flow of human misery His presentation of life is marked by irony which has been called Sophoclean irony or tragic irony.
“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!”
The sound of the melancholy waves breaking on the chalky cliffs of Dover charges the mind of the poet with a note of sadness. Like the sea which is now at the full tide, faith too was at its full in the past. But faith is now fast receding from human life producing a melancholy sound on the pebbles of the vast and desolate shores of the world. With the withdrawal of faith man’s mind has nothing to vivify it-it becomes a dreary waste. Addressing the lady-love the poet says that in this faithless world they should be faithful to each other. Constant love can alone bring them peace and comfort.
These lines reveal Arnold’s stoicism. In spite of the loss of religious faith he does not lose his heart, as he still finds consolation, a haven of rest and peace, in true love.
“…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.”
These are the concluding lines of Arnold’s Dover Beach. The poet is standing near the Dover Beach and seeing the seat waves recede to the deep sea with a long, melancholy roar, leaving bare pebbles on the shore. This sight of the recession of the waves reminds the poet of the withdrawal of religious faith from the world and the consequent inroad of doubt. The poet then addresses his ladylove and says that the world which appears to be a dreamland of beauty and romance has really no joy, love, hope, peace, certainty, or relief from pain. He compares the world to a battlefield. The whole battlefield is full of the confused noise of men and clatter of arms. It is dark and the fighting armies cannot see each other; nor do they know what they are fighting for. Similar is the case with men in this world. They are striving hard without knowing what they are striving for. They are in the dark about the purpose of their life. The world is full of din and bustle and knows no tranquility.
“The image of the ignorant armies clashing by night is, significantly an echo of Thucydides description, in Book VII of his History of the Peloponnesian war, of the last disastrous battle between Athenians and Spartans in Sicily, fought at night in darkness and confusion and marking virtually the end of the Athenian chances. Periclean Athens remains Arnold’s ideal of civilization.” (David Daiches)
The pessimism of these lines can hardly be paralleled. It surpasses even that of Hardly, the prince among the pessimistic writers.