‘Dover Beach’ by Mathew Arnold


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 begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles 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 the distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and the round earth’s shore

Lay like folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

It’s 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.

Strand: beach

Tremulous: quivering

Cadence: rhythm

Sophocles: Ancient Greek tragedian

Aegean: the Aagean sea, located east of Greece

Turbid: muddy, unclear, confused


5 thoughts on “‘Dover Beach’ by Mathew Arnold

  1. This poem was written in June 1851 shortly after Arnold visited
    Dover on holiday with his newly married wife, Lucy. However, it is
    perfectly legitimate – some would say preferable – to read the poem
    without reference to these biographical details.
    What is evident is that, in the poem, Arnold’s agnostic approach to
    religion is very evident and clearly of great concern to him.

    Line 3: straits: the strait(s) of Dover is the narrowest part of the
    English Channel just before it becomes the North Sea. The coast
    of France can often be seen over the water from Dover.
    Line 6: can be taken as addressed to his companion, his new
    bride, in his hotel.
    Line 11: high strand: the upper part of the beach
    Line 15: Sophocles was a Greek tragedian. On several occasions
    he compares the misery of Man to the ebb and flow of his local
    sea, the Aegean. Here is just one example from the play Antigone:
    ‘When a house has once been shaken by the gods, no form of ruin
    is lacking, but it spreads over the bulk of the race, just as, when the
    surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath
    of Thracian sea-winds, it rolls up the black sand from the depths,
    and the wind-beaten headlands that front the blows of the storm
    give out a mournful roar.’
    Line 17: turbid: muddy; can be used figuratively to suggest
    muddy or confused thought.
    Line 20: this distant northern sea: the English Channel as
    distinct from the southern
    sea of Sophocles, the Aegean.
    Line 21: The Sea of Faith: a change to a metaphorical
    Sea – that of certainty of belief. At first it is depicted
    at high tide, later retreating.
    Line 23: girdle furled: a belt or band, rolled up
    Line 29: again reminding us that he is addressing
    the poem to his wife at Dover.
    Lines 30-31: one might expect the couple to be optimistic
    as they start out on a holiday at the beginning of their
    married life together.
    Line 35: darkling: dark, shadowy
    Lines 36-37: Arnold seems to evoke here the picture
    of a battle by night. The armies are ignorant because, unable
    to tell who is their friend and who their foe, they are totally confused.
    It has been suggested that the poet refers to the battle of Epipolae in
    the Peloponnesian War, but the exact reference is unimportant.

    What visual and aural images are evident as “the sea meets the
    moon-blanched land” and how does that relate to the
    loss of “The Sea of Faith”?

  2. Mathew Arnold wrote this poam while he was on his honeymoon with his wife, Lucy. He uses the sea as a metaphor for England. Arnold is disturbed by the effects of the industrial revolution and is also troubled by the loss of faith around the world. It seems ironic that he should ponder over such depressing issues while on his honeymoon.
    Arnold uses the first stanza to establish the beauty of the sea and the beach at night through words such as “the moon lies fair” and “the sea is calm tonight”. He describes a sense of saturation and satisfaction in the atmosphere. The first stanza is a metaphor for England’s success in the industrial revolution. “the cliffs of England stand “. The environment is beautiful and rich and “glimmering and vast”, but the words” gleams and is gone” communicate a brief sense of loss. These words foreshadow the loss and sorrow that Arnold will describe in the next stanza.
    The majestic, tranquil night sky described in the first stanza is sharply contrasted with the restlessness described in the second stanza. “Listen! you hear a grating roar”. The grating roar serves to show that beneath the calm sea, all is not tranquil. This is comparable to the life of workers in the industrial revolution. The success of the revolution came at the cost of their lives.
    The workers lives were monotonous and repetitive.The words” begin, cease and then again begin” seem to echo the lives of these workers. Their jobs were menial and they barely benefited from their tireless work. The life of a worker is an “eternal note of sadness”. Arnold;s heart goes out to these workers and he begins to question the success of England. Can a country with such a colossal class divide really be called successful?
    The fourth stanza focuses on the loss of faith and the loss of religion around the globe. Arnold is troubled by the “melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of religion. He believes that religion is our identity and that if we lose our faith the world will be nothing more than “naked shingles”. Arnold expresses his dissapointment at the way the world is progressing. It seems to be a case of” one step forward and one step back”.
    The poem ends with the line” where ignorant armies clash by night”
    This line is a reference to the peloponessian battle in which soldiers, blinded by the darkness, killed others on their own army. Similarly we as a race seen to be killing others of our own species in the name of progress and advencement.

  3. Dover Beach
    Dover Beach is a lyrical poem written by Matthew Arnold during the Victorian era. It’s lyrical because it plays with various emotions. But due to the presence of his lover, who he talks to, makes this poem a monolog. The poem is based upon the fact that faith, in general, which was once rich is fading away with time and wars. The setting is on the evening at the Dover’s Beach, looking across the British channel towards France. There is a lady who could potentially be his wife, to whom the poet is talking to. They seem to be lovers. As he tries to persuade his lover to be truthful to each other, he also addresses the world in general about the fact that religion is fading away, leaving a world with hate and anger. The poem opens with imagery of the beach, moves on to human misery and then ends with a comment on the lack of the faith of the world.
    Dover Beach consists of five stanzas, each containing a variable number of lines having an uneven structure of blocks. There are no particular pattern as to when there are short lines and long lines. But it seems that in stanza 3 there is a series of open vowels. There are uses of enjambments which make particular parts dramatic. “At their return, up the high strands, Begin, and cease, and then again begin…” The use of punctuations also aids the dramatic effects to the poem. These uneven structures of these lines are similar and project the image of waves. As we move half way of the fourth stanza the pace increases as the poet describes the awful but true situation of the world. Consequently, the pace varies depending upon weather the poet is describing the awful reality or the imagined lovely world. “Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” and “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind.” As for the metrical scheme, there is no apparent rhyme scheme, but rather a free handling of the basic iambic pattern.
    The poet relies mostly on vowel and soft consonant sounds to carry the mood of sadness. It also depends on number on imageries for the effect. The poet captures the history by drawing parallels to the imageries with incidents in the past. He uses the consonance of rolling “r” to imitate the sound of the pebbles. He makes the reader use the sense of sight to describe the setting, but then changes his way of writing to make the reader use the sense of sound. These are the senses that prompt the shift of thought. The example could be the “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”
    A lot of negative words are used for the sense of sadness. The whole poem is sprinkled with these words. ”The sea of faith” helps in the transition of talking about the sea to discussing about faith. At the firth portion the imagery of the sea is in focus. In the last two verses his thoughts shift to ‘faith’ or rather the faithless world. He uses the metaphor “The Sea of Faith” to pull out this shift.
    The mood is sad throughout the poem. At the beginning of the poem it is sort of soft and calm but as soon as the third verse is read the mood changes from calmness to disturbing and sorrow thoughts. The tone becomes aggressive as we glance to the fourth verse with thoughts of frightlessness and destructive speech. The last paragraph started with a positive thought but the rage of the poet still continues to express itself due to the repetition of the actions of wars. “…ignorant armies clash by night.”

    The writer Mathew Arnold showed us an insight of the simplistic Victorian era. With brilliant illusions and descriptions Arnold achieves to explain the loss of faith off all kinds. With great allegiance he manages to differentiate between the false and the hard unsettling truth of reality which the world is. How the melancholy world is mistaken with the “land of dreams.” Sand, winds and the uneven flow of waves; all these are the elements used by the poet to reflect the topic of faith. He explains how faith is fading as technology is rising. But faith is always present as long as there’s love. Believing in this, Arnold persuades his lover to be faithful to each other even if the Victorian era is taking over.
    Sagnik Aich

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