Dover Beach Matthew Arnold Poems Summary & Analysis

Dover Beach
Dover Beach

Dover Beach Summary

“One night, the speaker of “Dover Beach” sits with a lady inside a house, searching over the English Channel near the town of Dover. They see the lights on the coast of France just twenty miles away, and therefore the sea is quiet and calm.

When the sunshine over in France suddenly extinguishes, the speaker focuses on the English side, which remains tranquil. He trades visual imagery for aural imagery, describing the “grating roar” of the pebbles being pulled out by the waves. He finishes the primary stanza by calling the music of the planet an “eternal note of sadness.”

The next stanza flashes back to ancient Greece, where Sophocles heard this same sound on the Aegean and was inspired by it to write down his plays about human misery.

Stanza three introduces the poem’s main metaphor, with: “The Sea of Faith/Was once, too, at the complete, and round earth’s shore.” The phrase suggests that faith is fading from society just like the tide is from the shore. The speaker laments this decline of religion through melancholy diction.

In the final stanza, the speaker directly addresses his beloved who sits next to him, asking that they always be faithful to each other and to the planet that’s laid out before them. He warns, however, that the world’s beauty is merely an illusion since it’s actually a battlefield filled with people fighting in absolute darkness.

Dover Beach Analysis


Arguably Matthew Arnold’s most famous poem, “Dover Beach” manages to discuss his most recurring themes despite its relatively short length. Its message – like that of the many of his other poems – is that the world’s mystery has declined within the face of modernity. However, that decline is here painted as particularly uncertain, dark, and volatile.

What also makes the poem particularly powerful is that his romantic streak has almost no tinge of the religious. Instead, he speaks of the “Sea of Faith” without linking it to any deity or heaven. This “faith” features a definite humanist tinge – it seems to possess once guided decisions and smoothed over the world’s problems, tying everyone together inmeaningful way. it’s no accident that the sight inspiring such reflection is that of untouched nature, almost entirely absent from any human involvement. In fact, the speaker’s true reflection begins once the sole sign of life – the sunshine over in France – extinguishes. What Arnold is expressing is an innate quality, a natural drive towards beauty.

He explores this contradiction through what’s possibly the poem’s most famous stanza, that which compares his experience thereto of Sophocles. The comparison might be trite if the purpose were mere that somebody long before had appreciated an equivalent sort of beauty that he does. However, it’s poignant because it reveals a darker potential within the beautiful. What natural beauty reminds us of is human misery. Because we will recognize the sweetness in nature, but can never quite transcend our limited natures to succeed in it, we’d be drawn to lament also as celebrate it. the 2 responses aren’t mutually exclusive. This contradictory feeling is explored in many of Arnold’s poems – “The Scholar-Gipsy” and “A Dream” are two examples – and he shows in other poems an instinct towards the tragic, the human inability to transcend our weakness (an example would be “Consolation,” which presents time as a tragic force). Thus, the allusion to Socrates, a Greek playwright celebrated for his tragedies, is especially apt.

Such a dual experience – between the celebration of and lament for humanity – is especially possible for Arnold, since mankind has traded faith for science following the publication of On the Origin of Species and therefore the rise of Darwinism. Ironically, the tumult of nature – out on the ocean – is nothing compared to the tumult of this new way of life. it’s this latter tumult that frightens the speaker, that has him beg his lover to remain faithful him. He worries that the chaos of the fashionable world is going to be too great, which she is going to be shocked to get that even within the presence of great beauty like that outside their window, mankind is gearing up for destruction. Behind even the looks of religion is that the new order, and he hopes that they could use this moment to stay them together despite such uncertainty.

The poem epitomizes a particular sort of poetic experience, during which the poet focuses on one moment to get profound depths. Here, the instant is that the visceral serenity the speaker feels in studying the landscape, and therefore the contradictory fear that that serenity then leads him to feel. To accomplish that end, the poem uses tons of images and sensory information. It begins with mostly visual depictions, describing the calm sea, the fair moon, and therefore the lights in France across the Channel. “The cliffs of England stand/Glimmering and vast” not only describes the scene but establishes how small the 2 humans detailed within the poem are within the face of nature.

Perhaps most interestingly, the primary stanza switches from visual to auditory descriptions, including “the grating roar” and “tremulous cadence slow.” The evocation of several senses fills out the experience more and creates the sense of an awesome and all-encompassing moment.

The poem also employs tons of enjambment (the poetic technique of leaving a sentence unfinished on one line, to continue and finish it on the next). The effect is to offer the poem a faster pace: the knowledge hits us in rapid succession, forming a transparent picture in our minds little by little. It also suggests that Arnold doesn’t wish to make a reasonable picture meant for reflection. Instead, the gorgeous sight is critical due to the fear and anxiety it inspires within the speaker. Because the poem so wonderfully straddles the road between poetic reflection and desperate uncertainty, it’s remained a well-loved piece throughout the centuries.

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