Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"

Updated on October 6, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Matthew Arnold


Inhumanity to Man

"Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!" —Robert Burns


The poem, "Dover Beach," displays in five riming stanzas. The stanzas are uneven; the rime scheme is complicated and would require a new essay to discuss its many and varied implications.

First Stanza: "The sea is calm tonight"

The speaker is standing at a window, musing and looking out at the ocean. He seems to be talking to a loved one, whom he invites to come and join him: "Come to the window, sweet is the night air!"

Such an invitation could be a romantic gesture, offering the beloved the chance to share with him the lovely ocean view: "The sea is calm tonight / The tide is full, the moon lies fair."

But that scene is not in the offering, and the reader soon finds a very different mood is being dramatized.

Second Stanza: "Only, from the long line of spray"

The second stanza features the speaker dramatizing the crashing of the waves upon the ocean shore: "Listen! you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back." He observes that the ocean waves can be heard as they, "begin, and cease, and again begin."

While the waves continue to repeat their sounds, they "bring / The eternal note of sadness in." In place of enjoyment of the lovely, calm scene, this speaker's thoughts have turned to the possibility of the universally shared brutality and sadness of the world with it inhumanity to man and its endless wars.

The crashing waves as they begin and end put him in a negative frame of mind. The process of beginning and ending reminds the speaker of the rounds of good and but also evil events that have been perpetrated upon humanity by humanity itself.

Third Stanza: "Sophocles long ago"

The speaker offers evidence for his melancholy musing as he alludes to Sophocles who would have listened long ago to the "ebb and flow" of the Aegean Sea. The speaker further emphasizes the allusion by saying, "we / Find also in the sound a thought, / Hearing it by this distant northern sea."

Similar to Sophocles' own rumination regarding the ebb and flow of "human misery," this modern day speaker, however, has further thoughts on the matter, and he will unfurl them as he continues his drama.

Fourth Stanza: "The Sea of Faith"

The speaker then lays out his lamentation regarding the status of humanity: in an earlier time, humanity remained ensconced in a religious faith, which, "Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled."

One should note that the speaker does not name any particular "faith," nor does he attribute to that faith the idea that it protects. And, of course, he does not mention "God" or any other name for the Deity.

The speaker merely names the mysterious quality, "faith," as he metaphorically likens it to the sea "at the full, and round earth's shore." In his own day, however, things are different from that earlier, seemingly protected time, and now he hears only "[the sea's] melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."

While the sea continues to roar, it, nevertheless, is "Retreating, to the breath / Of the night wind." "Faith," therefore, is compared to a sea that possesses only the dour aspect of the roar as it is in retreat.

The speaker further denigrates the act by asserting that faith's retreat flows "down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world."

Fifth Stanza: "Ah, love, let us be true"

The speaker then appears to offer a lone cure for the abysmal loss of faith that is being suffered in his time. Of course, the qualifying notion must be added—if there need by a cure at all.

The speaker then again appears to speak to his beloved, whom he had earlier beckoned to come join him at the window. He seems to address his loved one thus: "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!"

The speaker then makes quite an astute observation of the world: that it may seem at times to be "so beautiful, so new," but the reality is that the world, "Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain."

The speaker concludes his lamentation with an image of the greatest lamentation of all throughout human history: Essentially, humanity exists on a "darkling plain," and it is hurtled about by alarming "struggle and flight," and on that dark plain there are always "ignorant armies" who "clash by night."

Final Remark

While the opening of the poem seems to have the speaker inviting a loved one to join him at the window, it more likely that he is inviting all of humanity to join in his musing on the status of the world.

If the speaker were inviting merely one person—a lover or a spouse, for example—to join him, he would have said in the final stanza, "let us be true / To each other!" But he says, "to one another!" indicating that he is addressing more than one person.

The speaker is concerned with a profound subject: the condition of all of humanity and how it lives in this material world. Thus, it is much more likely that the speaker is addressing all of humanity in his momentous musing.

Let's consider his appeal: by addressing one's spouse or beloved and asking that the speaker and that person be true to each other, he would not be suggesting much of an improvement in world events.

But by asking all of humanity to "be true to one another," he is asking much, and taking seriously and thus granting that request would, in fact, offer a great improvement in humanity's status in the world.

By following such a request, the world could be restored to a virtue that the speaker can only imagine existed in an earlier time.

Reading of Arnold's "Dover Beach"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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