Analysis on ‘Dover Beach’ and ‘The Voice

Explore how two of the following poems present the idea of grief and despair. Support your ideas with details from the poems.

Report to Wordsworth
Dover Beach
The Voice
(I have chosen the last two)

Hardy and Arnold utilise similar sets of techniques, which often overlap, to express their emotions. However, as will become evident, The Voice makes more use of form and diction, while Dover Beach mainly exploits the meaning of the words.

The most obvious way in which Arnold conveys grief is through his choice of vocabulary. He explicitly mentions “the eternal note of sadness” in stanza two and “human misery” in stanza three. Also utilised are a range of modifiers, including “drear”, “melancholy” and “tremulous”. His descriptions of the world as a place of chaos show his lack of all hope for a better future: he presents humanity as a “confused” and “ignorant” race, living in constant darkness – which is clearly meant in a spiritual sense. Although he often uses to night to represent this, Arnold’s darkness is permanent, not temporary like natural night. This is evident from the use of “eternal”, from the description of the world as being devoid of light and as a “land of dreams”, implying that, like dreams, it exists entirely in the night.

In “The Voice”, Hardy makes use of pace and rhythm to control the mood of the poem. In the first line, the words “much missed” are awkward to say quickly, and have the effect of slowing the diction of the poem. Their heavy sound accentuates the ponderous atmosphere. In the third stanza, “listlessness” and “wistlessness” have a similar effect. Along with “across” and “dissolved”, they create a sibilance which mimics the sound of the breeze in a vivid appeal to the sense of hearing. This is particularly effective because the sound of the wind is associated with emptiness and loneliness: people only listen to the wind when their surroundings are silent and lack anything better to pay attention to. This perfectly expresses Hardy’s feelings of desolation in the absence of his wife’s companionship.
The aforementioned slowing effect is also present in the last stanza: the “f” sounds of “faltering”, “forward”, and “falling”, and the “th” sounds of “thin through the thorn”. In this stanza, the poet’s loneliness reaches a climax, and the previously rhythm established rhythm breaks down. The first line, in particular, is very short, and broken in the middle by a semicolon. It sounds breathless and exhausted; this halting diction reflects exactly the “faltering” mood of the poet, as if he has been broken by grief and cannot continue to live. This is reinforced by the incomplete sentence structure: although, like the other stanzas, this is one long sentence, it is unique in that it is not grammatically complete. It consists of a series of minor clauses strung together, with no finite verb, as if the speaker is too exhausted or depressed to form a proper sentence, and is simply throwing out phrases that pertain to his situation.

Repetition is another important technique in “The Voice”. In the first stanza, the gentle vowels of the phrase “call to me” is repeated, creating an ephemeral effect. The echoing makes the line sound surreal and ghostly, reinforcing the feeling that Emma’s ghost is actually speaking to him, even haunting him. It suggests that he can hear it constantly, without any respite: such is the depth of his grief. At the end of the third line, “all to me” is basically another repetition, and has more significance than simply maintaining the rhyme scheme. This time, the phrase illustrates the way Hardy once idolised his wife, and so, as well as its contribution the diction, it has the added effect of highlighting how vulnerable and bereft he is during this period of mourning.
The rhyme scheme itself is very pronounced. Entire phrases rhyme; not only do the words sound similar, they often are very close and can almost be considered repetition, such as “knew you then…view you then” and “call to me…all to me”. They serve as reminders and links to the preceding material, ensuring that the poem remains strongly focused and creating the effect that Hardy has been overwhelmed by his grief, to the point where he fixates on it exclusively. Furthermore, it suggests that monotony dominates his existence without Emma. There is nothing fresh or new in his life, nothing that he finds interesting apart from his grief, and his life consists of mechanically going through the basic routines for survival – this is the extent to which his loss has stunned him.

Similarly, Dover Beach uses a repetitive list to highlight what the poet sees as the grim nature of the world. After establishing the apparent attractions of the world – “so various, so beautiful, so new” – Arnold completely refutes them by bombarding the reader with its flaws: “hath…neither joy, nor love, nor light, / nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”. This long list, whose short words facilitate rapid and emphatic diction, overwhelms the reader with pessimism, making it seem impossible for anything good to stand up in the face of this stream of despair.

The third stanza of The Voice incorporates the images of wind and water, both of which are associated with softness and weakness. Line 1 mentions the breeze’s “listlessness” – the sibilance and length makes it seem limp and dispirited – and water is invoked through the use of “wet mead” and “dissolved”, conjuring up associations of sogginess and dreariness. This is continued in the description of the wind as “oozing”. It is as if the poet’s will and determination have been dissolved along with “you” – he does not have enough energy to do anything but drift with whatever currents he encounters. This sense of powerlessness is also present in the last three lines of Dover Beach. The darkness and the verb “swept” create a sense of helplessness before the “ignorant armies” in their panicked “flight”.

The downward motion of the falling leaves in the last stanza of The Voice follows the mood of the poem, which by this stage has darkened from an original hopefulness to deep depression. Furthermore, the image invokes associations of death and decay, and the prominence of the “thorn” reinforces the impression that all the leaves are gone. The image not only reflects the passing of Hardy’s wife, but also suggests that he too has come to the autumn years of his life and has little more to look forward to. Indeed, the wind’s passage is a parallel to Hardy’s own existence. “oozing” suggests that the wind’s movements are sluggish, as if its journey through the sharp thorn has left it cut and bruised. Similarly, the poet is wounded and exhausted by grief, and dragging himself through life.

Arnold’s despair is highlighted by the use of strongly contrasting imagery in the fourth stanza. The wholesomeness “full and round” is completely opposite to the roughness and coarseness of “shingles”, “bright” contrasts with “night-wind” and “naked” is utterly foreign to the idea of a “girdle”. They are, of course, metaphors: the positive images represent the original, pure, faithful world; their darker counterparts the contemporary, and to the poet deeply disturbing, state. The juxtapositions between them make the negative images seem much harsher, and increase their impact on the reader.

These concepts – texture, light and darkness, nakedness and modesty – are essential parts of the way in which humans perceive and think about the world, no matter their background. Thus, they universalise the concepts that they represent, making them relevant to every reader: a world without religious faith is as indecent and vulnerable as an unclothed person, and piety, the light which illuminates the human existence, is being snuffed out, leaving all in darkness, with all its terrors. With these images to facilitate understanding between poet and audience, the conveyance of despair is so much more effective.

Arnold also employs the symbol of the sea to embody his abstract emotions, giving them a more substantial form which appeals to the senses, to heighten their impact on the reader. It appears in all of the first four stanzas. At the start, “the sea is calm”; later, it is compared, by means of a simile, to a “bright girdle” and used in conjunction with “the full and round”. This positive imagery, appealing to the sense of sight, endears the sea, and the religious faith it represents, to the reader. Thus, when it is seen to “draw back” and “withdraw” in the fourth stanza, the sense of loss is far keener, because it is so easily visualised. The sense of sound is also used: in the third stanza, its “tremulous cadence slow” and “the eternal note of sadness” are reminiscent of a funeral dirge or a death song, again creating a sense of mourning.

As we can see, the two poems have a number of methods in common in conveying their grief and despair. However, it is clear that The Voice is more subtle in its presentation of these ideas, taking advantage of rhythm and pace, while Dover beach is by far more explicit, tending to use vocabulary and language and sacrificing subtlety for power and grandeur.


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