‘Dover Beach’, a beautiful lyric, is concerned with the loss of faith and its effects in the world. As the faith declines, it results in doubts, confusions and uncertainties which leave mankind sad and dejected. Love is the only way to overcome the melancholy and disenchantment is a faithless world.
About the Poet
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) is one of the leading poets and critics of the Victorian Age in England. His place as a poet is next only to Tennyson and Browning. He was born on December 24, 1822. Though he was the son of Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby, his school education was erratic. In 1841, he joined Balliol College, Oxford, and soon distinguished himself as a poet and won many prizes. He came into contact with William Wordsworth. After completing his education he became Secretary to Lord Lansdowne. Thereafter, he became Inspector of Schools, in which capacity he did a great service to the cause of education.
Arnold’s first collected of poems The Strayed Reveller was published in 1849. His other published works include Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems (1852) , Poems : A New Edition (1853), a selection from the two earlier volumes included new poems, ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ and ‘The Scholar Gypsy’. In 1854 Poems : Second Series appeared, another selection of his poems from his earlier volumes. It included the new poem, ‘Balder Dead’. In 1837, he was appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford. His Essays in Criticism (1888) , two collections of his lectures, appeared in 1888. Culture and Anarchy is his major work in social criticism.
As a poet, Arnold’s poetry expressed melancholy, pathos, doubts and uncertainties which were the characteristics of the age in which he lived. This is clear from his famous poems, ‘Sohrab and Rustum’, ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ and ‘The Dover Beach’.
About the Poem
‘Dover Beach’ is one of the best poems of Matthew Arnold. It is one of the most representative poems of the Victorian Age. Its theme is the loss of religious faith. The poet thinks that despair, hopelessness and frustration of the people result from the loss of faith. In a world of declining faith people lead a life full of doubts, confusions and uncertainties.
The poem opens on the description of a scene, but as it advances it becomes more reflective and less descriptive. The poet looks through the window of a house on the shingled beach at Dover (England) in moonlight. He describes the scene vividly. The sea is calm. The moon is shining fairly on the Dover Strait while the light on the French coast is becoming dimmer and dimmer. The sea provides the setting of the whole poem. As the poem advances, it becomes a symbol of eternal human misery. Then it is used as a symbol of faith. Hearing the waves, the poet recalls how once the Sea of Faith encircled the whole earth and sustained all human beings. The Sea of Faith is now fast receding. This faith is the faith in religion and God. In a sad tone the poet says that a world without faith is like a barren sea-coast. In the absence of faith life seems to have lost its purpose and meaning. The world looks beautiful but it is deprived of joy, love, hope, certainty and peace.
The poet feels that only love can come as a solace to the disenchanted people. That is why, he tells his beloved – whose presence is felt throughout, as in a dramatic monologue – that they should remain loyal to each other.
The Night Scene at Dover : Looking at the beach at Dover at night (through the window of his room) the poet finds the sea calm and the tide full. The moon is shining in the sky. The Strait of Dover is bathed in the moonlight. The moonlight on the distant French coast is dim and then it soon disappears. The cliffs of England, brilliantly shining in the moonlight, extend up to the calm strait.
The Glimpse of the Sea : The presence of the beloved in the room comes to be known as the poet invites his beloved to come and see the beautiful scene. The night air that blows is very pleasant. A long line of water rises up where the sea touches the land bathed in moonlight. The poet draws the attention of the beloved to the harsh sound made by the pebbles as they strike against the shore. As the rising waves recede these pebbles are thrown back on the sandy shore of the sea. The waves rise and fall in a set pattern and produce a slow, trembling kind of music. This slow music brings in the note of everlasting melancholy.
Allusion of Sophocles : The slow, sad music of the sea-waves reminds the poet of Sophocles, a great Greek dramatist, who heard the same sad music of the Aegean Sea (the sea between Greece and Asia Minor). This sad music brought to his mind the wretchedness of human life. This inspired him to write great plays in which he dramatises various aspects of human misery and tragedy. The poet remarks that like Sophocles they (the poet and his beloved) also find a note of human misery in the sound of the sea at Dover Beach. The sound of the sea, thus, gives expression to human misery that was there in Sophocles’ times and is there in their own times.
The Declining Sea of Faith : The poet says that once the Sea of Faith was full and it had encircled the whole earth. But now it is declining and receding. As the wind of the night blows and the sea withdraws, the shore is covered with only rounded stones or bare and naked pebbles. In other words, as the faith declines, the harsh reality suggested by the naked and dreary pebbles on the beach leaves mankind sad and disillusioned.
The World of Confusions and Uncertainties : The poet asks his beloved to be loyal to each other in an age of doubts and uncertainties. The seemingly beautiful world has neither joy, nor love, nor light of knowledge, nor any certainty about anything . It is shorn of peace and remedy for any pain. We human beings in this dark world are like two opposing armies fighting each other in total darkness, not knowing whom they are killing – friends or foes. Thus, the poet brings about the confusions, doubts and uncertainties prevailing in his times.
Stanza by Stanza Explanation
‘The sea is …………. of sadness in’
Tonight the sea (at Dover) is calm. The tide is full. The moon shines brightly on the whole strait. The moonlight shines dimly on the French coast and it soon disappears. The cliffs of England stand firmly, bathed in the moonlight . They extend up to the calm strait.
Come to the window. The night atmosphere is very pleasant. A long line of water drops rises up from the sea to touch the land bathed in the moonlight. The poet, then, asks his beloved to listen to the harsh sound of the pebbles as they strike against the shore when the waves advance. When the waves retreat they throw the pebbles on the sandy shore of the sea. The rise and fall of the waves in a set pattern produces a slow, trembling kind of music which brings in a note of melancholy which is everlasting.
‘Sophocles ……….. northern sea’
Long ago Sophocles listened to the sound of the ocean, the Aegan Sea (that lies between Greece and Asia Minor) and he too found the note of sadness in that sound. That sound reminded him of all the wild confusion and distress prevailing in human life (And he gave expression to it in his tragic plays). Like Sophocles , we are also reminded of eternal human misery as we listen to the slow sound of this northern sea water.
‘The Sea of Faith …….. the world’
Just as the sea is full now, once upon a time the world was full of faith. (The sea here becomes a symbol of faith). Once this sea had encircled the whole world. Now this sea is fast retreating, leaving behind bare and naked shingles as the wind of the night begins to blow. The harsh reality (symbolised by the naked and dreary pebbles on sea-shore) leaves mankind sad and dejected.
‘Ah , love ……… clash by night’
Oh, my beloved, let us be loyal to each other, because the world that lies before us, like a land of drams, beautiful, charming, full of newness and variety, actually has in it nothing. This world has neither joy, nor love, nor light (of knowledge) , nor any certainty about anything . It is devoid of peace. It has no remedy for any pain or sorrow. And we all on this earth are like two opposing armies fighting each other in the total darkness of night, overcome by fears, doubts and uncertainties.
Decline in Faith : ‘Dover Beach’ brings home the idea that the religious faith has declined. It was this faith that was once a sustaining force for the whole mankind. With the developments in science a large number of people have lost faith in God. Many more are confused and uncertain. The loss of faith has only brought upon the world endless pain and sorrow. The world without faith,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
The people in Arnold’s times, the Victorian Age, found themselves in the doldrums. They did not know what to believe. Neither could they shut their eyes to the new scientific discoveries nor were they willing to accept their religious faith was irrational and false. The result was a conflict in their minds.
It is this mental conflict which is expressed through the sea imagery in ‘Dover Beach’. The sea is closely connected with the main theme of the poem. The sea, at once place, becomes a symbol of eternal human misery. Later, it becomes a symbol of faith. The decline of faith is compared to the receding of the sea, leaving behind the naked shingles of reality. The world without faith is barren, dark and ugly. People now live in a dark world without any hope and carry on an aimless struggle, beautifully depicted in the image of a battlefield of utter confusion and chaos:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Alternative to the Loss of Faith : Another theme of the poem is obliquely expressed by the poet when he addresses his beloved:
Ah, love , let us be true
To one another !………..
The alternative to the loss of faith is mutual love. If we remain loyal to one another we can still be at peace with ourselves. Love and loyalty still seem to be certain in a world of uncertainties.
Symbols : The poet uses many symbols which are quite relevant and thematically significant.
- The vast sea becomes a symbol of eternal human misery.
- The sea is also used as a symbol of faith.
- The naked shingles and pebbles on the sandy beach are symbolic of harsh and ugly reality confronting mankind with the loss of faith.
The sea of faith lying round the earth is compared to “the folds of a bright girdle furl’d”:
The Sea of Faith
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
- The retreating of waves in the sea is a good metaphor for the decline of religious faith in the world.
- Men without religious faith are likened to ignorant soldiers fighting in darkness.
- Lay like the folds of bright girdle furled (‘I’ and ‘f’ sounds repeated here)
- Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight (‘I’ sound)
The poet alludes to Sophocles, an ancient Greek dramatist, in the second part of the poem:
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegon ………
The poet thinks that Sophocles too must have heard the melancholy note in the sound of the Aegean Sea thousands of years ago. He must have found in this melancholy note the misery of mankind which he must have then expressed in his plays.
Background : In order to fully comprehend the thematic importance of ‘Dover Beach’ , one of the fine lyrics of Matthew Arnold, we need to know the temper of the Victorian Age in general. As a result of Charles Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species, Freud’s analysis of the human mind and many other scientific discoveries, a large number of people lost faith in God and the Biblical vision of the human world. A great number of people became confused, doubtful and uncertain. This conflict between religion and science deprived man of peace and the spiritual force that sustained him in all miseries and misfortunes.
It is this lack of faith which is at the centre of ‘Dover Beach’ . The poet remarks that the Sea of Faith is fast receding. There was a time when faith, like the sea, girdled the world and sustained human beings. Now the world has become barren and people live in the darkness of ignorance, carrying on aimless struggle and leading a confused life, beautifully imaged in the last lines of the poem.
And we are here as on a darkling pain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
An Elegy : The poem is written in a sad mood. It is a sort of elegy, a lamentation on the declining faith in religion. A feeling of sadness pervades throughout. The sound of sea waves makes the poet think of human misery which was there in the past and which is there in the present and is likely to be there in the times to come. The world which seems to be beautiful now is, in fact, a picture of misery, hopelessness, restlessness and uncertainties :
……….. for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither you, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
Imagery : The poem is remarkable for its imagery. The visual imagery in the opening lines is sensuous and touching : the sea is calm; the tide is full; the moon shines brightly on the Strait of Dover; the cliffs of England loom large in the bay:
The sea is calm tonight
The tide is full, the moon lies fair ……….
The auditory image is vivid in the following lines :
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Form and Structure : The poem is basically a lyric. However, its tone of melancholy turns it into an elegy. Some critics treat it as a dramatic monologue as well. It is so because the poem has some features of this form, too : the speaker’s observations and reflections, the dramatic opening, the presence of another person, etc.
Its stanzas, uneven in length, have uneven rhyme scheme. However, all the rhyming words are connected with the main idea of the poem. They help build the atmosphere.