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Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Matthew Arnold

Introduction and Text of "Dover Beach"

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

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

Reading of Arnold's "Dover Beach"

Commentary

The speaker in "Dover Beach" is lamenting the loss of religious faith during a time of progress in science and industry.

First Stanza: Musing on the Ocean

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.

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: The Drama of the Waves

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.

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 its 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: Melancholy and Rumination

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 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 Protection of Faith

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.

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: The Protection of Love

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.

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."

Invitation to Humanity

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 28, 2019:

Dear "Sensitive":

Thank you for your comment.

Unfortunately, you have missed the point of the poem, and you are confused about the difference between what I say in my commentary about the poem and what the poem says. For one example, you write, "How can you say that this world, i.e. nature. 'has neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain'?" I am not saying that; you are quoting directly from the poem.

Regarding the idea that "the poem lacks sufficient counterweight of positivism": "sufficient" for what? The poem does what Arnold wanted it to do. Poems are not required to offer any "counterweight of positivism." Whether a poem contains negative or positive attitudes and features depends solely on what the poet wished to express.

Of course the poem is "extremely pessimistic" because the speaker is lamenting the loss of religious faith during a time of progress in science and industry. He 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.

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 its 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 but also evil events that have been perpetrated upon humanity by humanity itself.

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.

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."

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."

Sensitive on April 28, 2019:

This is an extremely pessimistic poem, a sort of near-death or concentration camp experience. How can you say that this world, i.e. nature. "has neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain"? There's mother love and romantic love for joy and love. - and "light"? What about sun and moon and electricity and enlightenment? For certitude, there's death or the seasons; the certitude of experience, of the senses, of family, etc. There is the peace of sleep, of happiness, of reconciliation there are thousands of natural, herbal and human remedies for pain;- most of all these impermanent of course, but real and universal. The poem is written at night and is highly evocative, ironically refuting by its own beauty the brutality and darkness of its assertion, and the darkling plain it contemplates where mad politicians plot new wars, though Arnold fails to mention that the sea of faith was also muddied by endless wars, internecine wars of dogmas as well as greed.

Imagistically, the bright girdle of faith (the monkish sash comes to mind!) falls away revealing the 'naked' human reality beneath. Like Lear in his madness, Arnold envisages "the thing itself" - Poor Tom's a'cold! But Lear was demented and is cured by sleep and the love of a daughter. The poets come up with the same answer - Auden too - "we must love one another or die", as Sophocles' Oedipus found peace and love.

I conclude that we must see Arnold as generalizing a mood; one that afflicts most of us as adults at times; an overwhelming sense of human frailty, stupidity, ignorance, malevolence, precipitating needless suffering and waste and injustice. However, the poem lacks sufficient counterweight of positivism It is a sad poem with somehow small consolation, though marvelously atmospheric and dramatic.