Dover Beach – Matthew Arnold – Analysis

The following are my thoughts on the well-known poem ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) –

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night,
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. ……….…………………. 14

S1 … Lines 1 – 14 …

The first sentence is factual describing the scene. It looks like a full moon on the straits of water which separate Dover and Calais. It is evening and the light fading in the west towards France. Whether the French coastline is actually visible is debatable – it is a distance of 21 miles and conditions must be favourable – but in contrast the Dover Cliffs are outstanding if you forgive the pun! But it is a peaceful tranquil setting bathed in moonlight (I like – moon-blanched).

The second sentence is a personal invitation to come to the window to see the scene. Matthew Arnold was at Dover twice and in 1851 when this was written he was newly married so it could have been an invitation to his wife to come to the window. But this does not matter what he wants to point out in the sweet night air is the continual push of the waves as they draw back and then fling forward with grating roar – for Mathew Arnold this is an eternal note of sadness.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, 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 ………………………. 20

S2 … Lines 15 – 20 …

The sound of the sea gave thoughts to the Greek Playwright Sophocles. Sophocles likened the swelling tide to the continual ruin that could be passed on by the Gods from one generation to the next in his play Antigone. This might link in to Arnold’s own melancholic mood and his statement on eternal sadness. But from this Arnold now moves to his own personal thoughts prompted by the grating action of the 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. …………………………. 28

S3 … lines 21 – 28 …

It looks like there was a time when faith was easy and comfortable to his being – but now the situation is different and he finds his faith-foundation-stone eroded. It helps to know that Matthew Arnold, an inspector of schools, was a deeply religious person and in 1851 when this was probably written the world was in upheaval. Rapid change was taking place not only from industrialisation but in the understanding of life through the advancement of science and especially the birth of evolutionary thought through Darwin. I like that word shingles because apart from being a reference to the beach-pebbles it is a nasty medical condition – a great irritation to the skin. Of course in this context Arnold is threatened by change and is experiencing a mental irritation.

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 …………………. 37

S4 … lines 29 – 37 … Apparently he may have been on his honeymoon and in the first two lines he could have been talking to his new wife=love. Despite the down sliding world (the darkling plain) it is important to be true to one another – a concentration on the micro personal world where there is some control. I see this as a glimmer of light in his depressed state. And as we enter a new year with the horrors of the world continually brought to our attention by the media such advice might be relevant today.

The last line really wraps it all up, my interpretation – Matthew Arnold is in a state of unresolved thinking … the two armies at large the old world concepts and the challenge of the new … both of course are ignorant armies … a unresolved chaotic state of affairs and at night we don’t always see things too clearly.

It is also worth noting that this free-verse poem is a clear break from the poetic expression of his day … so in a sense he has already advanced to new thinking in the development of this poem.

From the analysis of this poem on Wikipedia … The metaphor with which the poem ends is most likely an allusion to a passage in Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War (Book 7, 44). He describes an ancient battle that occurred on a similar beach during the Athenian invasion of Sicily. The battle took place at night; the attacking army became disoriented while fighting in the darkness and many of their soldiers inadvertently killed each other.

Note … Matthew Arnold remained a believer in God and religion, although he was open to—and advocated—an overhaul of traditional religious thinking. In God and the Bible, he wrote: “At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.”