Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

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.

Short Summary

In the first stanza the poet sees the calm sea in full tide at the Dover beach.In the second stanza the roar of the ebbing sea strikes a note of sadness in his mind.In the third stanza, he says that Sophocles was reminded of human misery as he heard the roar of the sea-waves at the Greek coast.In the fourth stanza, the poet talks, that once the sea of faith girdled this earth, but it is now retreating.In the last stanza, he asks us to love each other as this world is really a joyless place.

Analysis

Theme

Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ captures beautifully the poet’s deep dissatisfaction with his age and its loss of faith. He puts for the idea that the root cause of the miseries of men in the modern world is lack of faith. This is an idea prevalent in both the prose and verse of Arnold.

Expression

The idea is expressed in the form of a beautiful metaphor. Humanity is presented as a seashore, faith as the sea. In the past ages, the heart of man was full of faith like a beach covered with sea-water at the time of the flow of the tide. Today the human heart is dry, like a beach at ebb-tide. Only the dry and soulless religious formulas, ceremonies and practices remain in it like pebbles on sea beach.

Naturalness

This metaphor is sustained throughout the later part of the poem, except in the last three lines, where modern life is presented as a dark plain where a mad battle is on. The metaphor of the sea emerges naturally out of the poem in gradual degrees. Nothing is forced.The poem has all the suggestiveness associated with great poetry.

Pictorial Power

Apart from the idea that this poem puts forth, it is remarkable for the beautiful and effective picture of Dover Beach presented in it. With a few touches the poet succeeds in presenting a picture of great beauty vivid and clear. The sound of the waves beating against the shore is also beautifully captured.

A Note of Sadness

The poem has sad music about it sad like the slow, mournful beat of the waves described in it. It has that note of sadness and dissatisfaction that is so common in Arnold’s writings. All things considered, it is one of the most beautiful poems in the language – simple and suggestive weighed with a heavy sweetness, yet restrained in expression as well as sentiment.

D.S. Tatke makes the following comment on this poem – then heightens the meaning in the next eight lines by using the images to express the last journey which every one must make,so does Arnold in this poem build a beautiful picture of the calm sea and the moon-blanched shore and makes us aware of the fact that though from the distance the picture is so calm and peaceful yet those who live near enough always hear the grating roar of pebbles and the eternal note of sadness and then deepens the meaning by giving it a philosophic content.

Transition to Philosophic Meditation

The transition to philosophic meditation comes in the second stanza. The third uses the image of the first stanza to express the present predicament – the loss of faith and the consequent gloom which is the most prominent note of Arnold’s poems. The fourth stanza is an appeal to a beloved woman to be true to each other for that alone can sustain them in this land of dreams whose reality is very different from its appearance.

Need for a Positive Faith

The poem successfully expresses the fascination and the need Arnold felt for a positive faith and the reluctance with which he must accept the painful, unavoidable reality.

Note the perfect picture of the age with all its complexity in the last three lines of the poem –

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

His poems are marked by a restraint and, a conscious control. Neither excessively musical nor deliberately rugged the expression diction, imagery, rhythm – is marked by a perfect clearness, competence and precision. He is far too meditative a poet to be lyrical. His best poetry is reflective, always burdened by thoughts of the predicament of his generation. Ina letter written in 1869 Arnold claimed that his poems ‘represent the main movement of the mind of the last quarter of a century’.

‘Dover Beach’ is one of Arnold’s most famous poems. It is one of his most characteristic poems too. It has a sad tone and it expresses Arnold’s sorrow at the loss of faith in the modern world.

When we analyse the epithets used in the poem, we find that Arnold does not use colour epithets anywhere in this poem. Even in the first stanza where he describes the landscape,no colour epithet is used. But this deficiency does not in any way mar the literary merit of the poem. Arnold describes the landscape in a way that the reader is easily able to visualize the landscape, and its varied colour. “On the French coast, the light / Gleams, and is gone.” We can very easily visualize the colour here. Where he speaks of the “moon-blanch’d sand” he makes us see the sandy place shining white in the moon-lit night without using the colour epithet.

Another way in which he makes up the deficiency of colour epithets is by making ushear the sound of the waves striking the shore and then returning. He says:

Listen ! you hear the granting roar
Of pebbles which the waves such back, and fling
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cese, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.”

He again says :-

But now I only hearIts melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the beath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

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