Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold cover image

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold: Detailed Analysis and Meaning

“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold is a dramatic monologue in which the speaker explains how the Industrial Revolution has taken a toll over human lives. How people in the Victorian Era have started questioning faith and are full of doubt, uncertainty and skepticism.

Faith is the only light in the world without which the world is full of darkness. People are soulless without faith and since the world is now devoid of faith, love is the only thing that is going to last. 

What is religious faith to you? Something that you follow blindly whether it is right or not? Or something that you question each and every moment? We all have different views and opinions on religious faith.

Some people believe that faith is the only light in our lives, without which the world  is a dark place to live in. Or, faith still exists but it has no logical answers. As people we are always left uncertain and doubtful without faith, but with  faith the path is certain.

The poem makes us question our faith, our beliefs and our life. We come to understand how we lack faith and are dependent on only logical reasonings. But can people have faith and be logical at the same time?

Dover Beach

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!
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.
 
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 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.
 
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
- Matthew Arnold

Meaning and Summary

“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold is a poem that discloses his melancholic preoccupation with the thought of the inevitable decline of religious faith. The poem is a love poem, but it lacks the rapturous quality of love poem.

It does not have the exuberance of passion or emotion. The speaker presents a natural and beautiful scenery in the beginning of the poem and then relates the Sea to the sea of faith.

The poem is written about the clash between science and religion in 19th century England. The speaker describes the sea as calm and quiet, further he describes the strait as bright in the light of the moon.

The landscape describes the balance and stability which one feels when they are faithful. The speaker then suddenly hears the “grating roar” of the pebbles by the sea, and the rhythmic alternate advancing and retreating waves which bring a note of sadness. 

Moreover, he mentions the famous Greek dramatist, “Sophocles” and continues to describe the rise and fall of human suffering . The speaker then compares religious faith to the sea, which was once full and encircled the world.

But what happened now? The sea of faith has run dry, giving way to doubt and skepticism. He is now in a world devoid of spiritual consultation. People are now like “naked shingles” lying on the sea shore, i.e., people without faith are hollow and soulless. 

But in spite of all the uncertainty in the world, love is the only source of comfort and peace. The world which was once full of faith, dreams, certitude and joy is no more.

People are on a battlefield in the dark because faith was the light. When the light is not there anymore, people are going to lose their way and become ignorant about whom they are fighting against and what they are fighting for.

Therefore, the mood of melancholy prevails throughout and we understand about the receding faith in the world. The receding faith does not only imply darkness but a place without joy, peace and certitude. 

Analysis of the Poem

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!

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.

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the scenery from his window. The speaker stands by the window and describes the sea of Dover as calm, the tide as full and the strait of Dover between England and France looking bright in the light of the moon.

The moon light is also reflected across the English Channel and the cliffs of England stand glimmering and vast in the tranquil bay. The setting of the poem is not as important as what it represents. The landscape describes the serenity and balance that Arnold desired for himself.  

The light which gleams and then vanishes represents the vanishing faith of the English people. But, the speaker does not want to be the only one to encounter this scene, he calls someone else to the window to feel the “sweet night air”.

The speaker points towards the land which has turned pale or colorless because of the light of the moon and pays attention to the “grating roar” of the pebbles by the waves.

The alternate advancing and retreating away the pebbles from the beach and bringing them back to the beach continues ceaselessly and though it makes a harsh sound there is a rhythmic movement in it. It brings in a note of sadness to the poet.

The waves bring in a note of sadness because the wave is the wave of faith and people are the pebbles. Sometimes they have faith and are in the sea, otherwise they are left on the shore. Arnold was sick of materialism, skepticism and despair in the Victorian Age. His own sadness is echoed in the sound of the beach.

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker makes a reference  to a Greek dramatist, “Sophocles” and explains how Sophocles had also heard this note of sadness on the Aegean Sea in Greece.

The waves to him represented the rise and fall of human misery. It describes the confusion, despair, disorder, suffering and distress that the  people faced. Moreover, the speaker also finds a sad thought in the sound of the waves of the English Channel. It means that he can hear the sound of human misery even from far away.

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.

In the third stanza, the speaker compares religious faith to the sea. Once the religious sea of faith was full and it encircled the world like a girdle(a type of belt which is made out of cloth). It implies that faith was the only thing keeping the world together in a place, now that the sea of faith is retreating the world might collapse.

The sea has run dry in the Victorian Age and the heart of the speaker writhes to think that faith which had full control over a man has now become a thing of the past. People have lost their way, and are overpowered by doubt and skepticism.

Faith gives peace and solace to mankind but the speaker now hears the melancholic roar of the retreating sea of faith, leaving the edges of the sea coast dry, dreary and cheerless.

People have now become naked shingles or pebbles that lie lifeless on the sea shore. The sea of faith does not reach the pebbles anymore and they are dry. The only thing that remains is spiritual doubt, disbelief, agnosticism and atheism.

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.

In the last stanza, the speaker denotes that love is the only thing that will prevail in a world devoid of faith. He tells the other person present in the room to be true and honest with him.

The world which was a better place before, which was full of joy, beauty, serenity and certitude now is barren. And the barren land  only consists of doubt, controversies, competition, and conflict. 

People lacking faith are like ignorant soldiers fighting in a dark battlefield, who are not aware about whom they are fighting against and what they are fighting for. Therefore, people who lack faith in their life are stricken by  melancholy, confusion and ignorance. 

Themes

The theme of the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold is lack of faith, human continuity, nature and alienation and love. The speaker throughout the poem expresses the loss of faith that he feels in the world.

During the Victorian era, there was a clash between science and faith and people were confused. The speaker implies that loss of faith means loss of certainty, and that uncertainty is reflected in the sight that the speaker sees from the window. 

Lack of faith is reflected through the eternal note of sadness and the “naked shingles” lying on the seashore. Lack of faith not only means lack of faith in God but it also means loss of trust in ourselves.

Arnold emphasizes on human continuity by making a reference to Sophocles who had also heard the note of sadness in the Aegean Sea. This tells us that humans even thousand years ago have longed for certainty and peace, and without it they just suffer.

The sea represents the continuity of faith, sometimes it retreats and sometimes it advances. Humans continue with their belief and disbelief, it is something never ending just like the sea.

The poet does not find happiness or peace while looking at nature like most of the Romantic poets, rather he feels a deep sense of melancholy. It is the natural scenery from his window which makes him think about the receding faith in the world.

The scenery, though beautiful, is a powerful reminder of nature’s alienation to humankind. The sea which brings the eternal note of sadness not only to the speaker, but also to Sophocles who lived years and years ago.

This tells us that the sea was always a reminder of the loss of faith in mankind but it is only certain people who notice the uncertainty in the grating roar.

Since the world faces a crisis of religious faith, the speaker turns to love and believes that it is the only thing that lasts. The poet has tried to imply that people might lack faith, but love between people can make up for the loss of connection between God and humans.

After faith, love is the only thing that is going to give certainty to people. When people are together, it gives us the courage to face anything. The speaker finds love as the potential solution to the receding faith but he isn’t sure whether or not it is going to give the same certainty to people as faith did. 

The Literary Devices of the Poem

The literary devices used in “Dover Beach” poem include:

Alliteration – A few examples of alliteration from the poem include:

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

To lie before us like a land of dreams

Allusion – Allusion is a literary device in which the poet makes a reference to something outside the poem. For example: the poet alludes to the Greek  dramatist, Sophocles. 

Imagery – The poet uses pictures or words to create an image in the mind of the readers. For example:

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Simile – The poet uses simile to compare between two things. For example:

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Caesura – The poet uses caesura to create a break in the middle of the line. This signifies the break of faith in people.

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

Enjambment – Enjambment prevails throughout the poem to explain the loss of faith in people. For example:

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

Metaphor – The poet uses a metaphor to explain the receding faith of people in England. For example:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Conclusion

“Dover Beach” gives us an in depth understanding about what would happen to a world without faith. People who lack faith only add confusion, conflict and competition in their life, but faith gives us hope, joy, peace, certitude and certainty.

One does not necessarily have to be only faithful or only logical, we can be both. Both in the sense that when there is a topic of faith we can be faithful and believe that there exists a greater power, but when there is a topic about science and logic we can be logical as well. All we need is that balance that gives us a way for both. 

I believe that the poet did not write this poem just for the Victorian Era, he wrote this poem because he knew that the Victorian Era was just the beginning of loss of faith.

Faith does not only have to be to a certain God, faith is something that we can have within like a will, which will guide us throughout because that is going to be our hope, and hope is light. Therefore to believe in something, first we must believe in ourselves.

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