Arnold's Dover Beach: A Critical Estimate

Updated on April 24, 2020
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Poet, blogger, college professor, literature, and film enthusiast. Excited about critical and creative writing. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English.

Dover Beach: A Poem of Duality

Nineteenth Century Hellenism, a romantic fascination for folk tales and legends, and a preference for solitary meditation in evocative surroundings render a distinctive note to Arnold’s poetry. “Dover Beach” is his attempt to meditate upon the redemptive elements in the laps of benevolent Nature. The description of the moon-blanch’d landscape in the opening lines suggest stability, balance and serenity that Arnold desired for himself:
“The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits.”

These lines are, perhaps, the finest expression of that symbolic scene of night which provided the setting and emotional background for Arnold’s elegiac meditation. The entire sentence projects a sense of richness (and therefore, security). However, a closer look at the following lines reveal a negative withdrawal in the description of the waves:

“Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles that the waves draw back…”
One can almost visualize the movement of the waves to perceive how the waves bring “the eternal note of sadness in.”

Such association of positive hope and negative dejection runs throughout the poem. Each stanza, except the second one, is clearly divided into alternating tones of optimism and pessimism. The first part consists of visual imagery which exudes a sense of positivity when suddenly auditory senses are aroused to inoculate the negative strain. It was possibly because Arnold felt that the sensation of sight leaves little room for Imagination and therefore, ironically, conceals truth about the real spiritual order of things. This view, much in line with Plato’s philosophy was shared by eminent Romantic poets like Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth.

What is Victorian Compromise?

Since the Victorians, under the strict reign of Queen Victoria, had to compromise many essential features of individuality and modes of expression, the term ‘Victorian Compromise’ came to be coined and applied to this particular age.

Dover Beach: Dominant note of Melancholy

The fundamental note of Arnold’s poetry is, therefore, sadness. It is essentially a romantic melancholy, gaining sterner tones from the more definite anxieties of his times. Religion had been an imposing fabric of society up to mid-nineteenth century in England. However, there was a certain weakness in its foundation which the movement of scientific study was soon to undermine. The impact of Darwinism was distinctly felt. Moreover, the rapid rate of industrialization, followed by a massive exodus towards the urban centers led to the alienation of the English people from the beauty and benevolence of Nature. Above all, poets and thinkers like Arnold suffered from an acute loss of cheerfulness that one owes to the possession of a satisfying faith. The vague Christianity of Arnold, the moral pantheism towards which all his philosophical reflections tended, seems to have left in him a void which finds utterance through his poetry. Consequently, such an utterance brings with it a romantic nostalgia:
“The sea of faith
Was once too, at the full
And round earth’s shore”
(Which is now)
“retreating to the breath of the night wind.”

“It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.”

— Mathew Arnold

A Poem about Darkness and Compromise

He continues to speak about the vulnerable unprotected state that the loss of faith has led man to. It is a deep-rooted religious and metaphysical anguish which renders an element of eloquence to “Dover Beach”. The ultimate retreat of a positive faith makes the poet seek refuge within the world of private affections. He feels that only through the communion of two souls can a reconciliation be attained. However, in his very own style, he reminds himself of the fret and fever of reality. He transits soon from the idealized “land of dreams” to “a darkling plain” where “ignorant armies clash by night.” The image is a reflection of the last battle between the Athenians and Spartans, fought in darkness at Cicily, which brought disaster upon the confused Athenian army. However, what is more important is the withering away of security that the line implies. Such a security was part of the Romantic Age in which the poets could draw some sustenance at least from Nature even during the great upheaval of the French revolution.

PELOPONNESIAN WARS. Destruction of the Athenian Army in Sicily during the Peleponnesian War, 413 B.C.: wood engraving, 19th century.
PELOPONNESIAN WARS. Destruction of the Athenian Army in Sicily during the Peleponnesian War, 413 B.C.: wood engraving, 19th century. | Source

Arnold: A Victorian with a Romantic Legacy

Arnold speaks with the voice of a true Victorian, vexed by agonizing doubts and rendered melancholic permanently. However, he is illuminated by flashes of vision from ancient Athens and is comforted by the Wordsworthian conception of the relationship between man and the spirit of the universe manifested in Nature. “Dover Beach”, essentially pessimistic in its calm pathos, is characterized by a disciplined sobriety despite the undercurrent of Romanticism. Indeed, as J.D.Jump points out, “It is the one work by Arnold which ought to appear in even the briefest anthology of great English poems.” It is, after all, not a superficial observation by an outsider, but a genuine vision of an anguished poet who was completely a part of his Age.

© 2019 Monami


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