Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”

When I was trying to decide which poem to analyze, my 17-year-old sister came into the room and mentioned she was reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold is featured in this novel, and since it’s been over five years since I read it, I figured this was a good chance to look at the poem with fresh eyes and more knowledge.

Arnold was a British poet and critic who lived in the 1800s. In addition to writing, he was a government school inspector and eventually became a professor of poetry at Oxford. The website poets.org describes some of the themes of his poems as “psychological isolation” and “dwindling faith.”

The poem takes place on a beach, and the speaker begins by describing a peaceful place, where “The sea is calm” (line 1) and “the moon lies fair” (2). However, that peaceful image is broken when the speaker says “Listen! you hear the grating roar” (9). The use of the exclamation point here disturbs the calm atmosphere, and Arnold uses caesuras throughout the entirety of his poem to separate ideas and bring attention to them.

After this, the speaker begins to introduce things that aren’t peaceful anymore, including “The eternal note of sadness” (14). He describes how “Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery” (lines 15-18). When I looked up Sophocles, I found out that he wrote tragedies, so he understood that that the world was full of “human misery.” Although Sophocles existed a long time before Arnold, this shows that human suffering has existed across human history.

The speaker discusses how “The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full” (21-22). This “Sea of Faith” could symbolize faith in general or religion, and once all people were faithful. However, now the speaker can only hear “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (25) and see the “naked singles of the world” (28). Shingles in this reference would mean exposed pebbles on a beach, so without faith, the world becomes “melancholy” and empty.

The speaker then says that the world seems “So various, so beautiful, so new” (32). However, it’s not. Instead, the world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (33-34). Although on the surface, the world seems beautiful, when you take a closer look at it, you realize how terrible the world truly is. This idea is continued as the poem ends with the speaker saying people are “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night” (36-37). The “ignorant armies” of people fight each other for reasons they do not truly understand, and because they fight at night, this means they are in the dark and not truly seeing each other or trying to understand each other. This could be attributed to the absence of faith in the world that the speaker discussed earlier in the poem.

Because of the “Sea of Faith” reference, it definitely seems like the speaker attributes the negative aspects of the world to an absence of faith. The sea is constantly present throughout the poem, spanning across time, as a higher power would be. Because the speaker is paying attention to the sea, he is able to see the world as it truly is, so it seems like he’s saying if people would have faith in God or a higher power, then they would understand the world and the true meaning of life.

Source: Poem, Your Choice

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