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Summary and Analysis of the Poem 'Dover Beach' by Matthew Arnold

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold and a Summary of 'Dover Beach'

'Dover Beach' is Matthew Arnold's best-known poem. Written in 1851 it was inspired by two visits he and his new wife Frances made to the southern coast of England, where the white cliffs of Dover stand, just twenty-two miles from the coast of France.

Many claim this piece to be a honeymoon poem and that is understandable as the main theme of romantic love, albeit of a Victorian nature, features strongly. But there's no doubting the poem goes much deeper into the notion of happiness and humanity's spiritual state.

Despite the popularity of this particular work, Arnold was a reluctant poet. He made his living as an inspector of schools as well as a cultural critic and wrote influential books such as the curiously titled Culture and Anarchy, published in 1869.

He couldn't stop the muse from surfacing, however. He said of poetry: 'More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.'

It should be remembered that he was writing at a time when religion was under tremendous pressure from the sciences and evolutionary theory. Technology was taking a firmer grip on every day life. Matthew Arnold thought that poetry would replace conventional religion and become the new spiritual force in society.

'Dover Beach' broke with the old forms poetically speaking. It is an open-ended poem that has irregular rhyme and rhythm and follows no classical template.

'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.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis

'Dover Beach' is a complex poem about the challenges to theosophical, existential and moral issues. Important questions are raised after reading this poem. What is life without faith? How do we gauge happiness and loneliness? What gives life meaning?

First Stanza

The first stanza starts with a straightforward description of the sea and the effects of light, but note the change in pace as the syllabic content forces then relaxes with long and short vowels, mimicking the sea as wavelets shift the pebbles:

the moon lies fair

Upon the straits;

And again:

Gleams and is gone.....

Glimmering and vast.....

Then, in lines 6 and 9, there is an invitation - to come and fill your senses - for the reader or for the speaker's companion? The speaker, despite momentary excitement, concludes that the moonstruck sea evokes sadness, perhaps because of the timeless monotony of the waves.

Second Stanza

A certain melancholy flows into the second stanza. Note the allusion to Sophocles, a Greek dramatist (496-406BC), which brings a historical perspective to the poem. His play Antigone has an interesting few lines:

"Happy are they whose life has not tasted evils. But for those whose house has been shaken by God, no mass of ruin fails to creep upon their families. It is like the sea-swell...when an undersea darkness drives upon it with gusts of Thracian wind; it rolls the dark sand from the depths, and the beaches, beaten by the waves and wind, groan and roar."

So the tide becomes a metaphor for human misery; it comes in, it goes out, bringing with it all the detritus, all the beauty and power, contained in human life. Time and tide wait for no man so the saying goes, but the waves are indifferent, hypnotically following the cycle of the moon.

Third Stanza

Stanza three introduces the idea of religion into the equation. Faith is at low tide, on its way out, where once it had been full. Christianity can no longer wash away the sins of humanity; it is on the retreat.

Matthew Arnold was well aware of the profound changes at work in western society. He knew that the old establishments were beginning to crumble - people were losing their faith in God as the advancements in technology and science and evolution encroached.

Fourth Stanza

This vacuum needed to be filled and the speaker in stanza four suggests that only strong personal love between individuals can withstand the negative forces in the world. Staying true to each other can bring meaning to an otherwise confused and confusing world.

It's as if the speaker is looking into the future, with regard for the past, declaring love for a special companion (or love for all humanity?) to be the way forward if the world is to be survived.

Wars may rage on, the evolutionary struggle continues, only the foundation of truth within love can guarantee solace.

Literary/Poetic Devices Used


'Dover Beach' is split into 4 stanzas of varying length, making a total of 37 lines. The first stanza is a mixed-up sonnet with a rhyme scheme abacebecdfcgfg, a sure signal of a break with convention. Perhaps Arnold had intended to only write a sonnet but found the subject matter demanded a longer form.

The second stanza of 6 lines also has end rhymes, as does the third stanza, and the fourth stanza of 9 lines concludes with a repeat of the initial end rhymes.

  • Rhyming always brings with it a clear relationship between pattern and harmony, between voice and ear. The more frequent the rhyme of regular lines the more confident the reader becomes and arguably, the less complex the poem.

When that rhyme is varied, as in Dover Beach, more interest is generated for the reader and listener. Line length, enjambment and internal rhyme also help to add spice.

  • Enjambment is very important in this poem as it reinforces the action of the tidal sea, coming in, relaxing, then moving out again. As in lines 9-14 for example. Enjambment works together with other punctuation to maintain this pattern throughout Dover Beach.

The third stanza, with figurative language, contains a fascinating word mix, the consonants f, d and l being prominent, whilst assonance plays it role:




Two examples of simile can be found in lines 23 and 31.

Anaphora, repeated words, are used in lines 32 and 34.

Combinations such as bright girdle furled and naked shingles of the world add to the liquid feel of the scene.

Alliteration can be found in the last stanza:

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

And the final two lines are packed with an irresistible spread of vowels:

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Arnold sees life ahead as a continual battle against the darkness and, with the decay of Christianity and the demise of faith, only the beacon of interpersonal love can light the way.

'Dover Beach' is a poem that offers the reader different perspectives on life, love and landscape. Arnold chose to use first, second and third person points of view in order to fully engage with the reader. This adds a little uncertainty. Note the changes in lines 6, 9, 18, 24, 29, 35.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2016 Andrew Spacey