Analysis on ‘Dover Beach’

Explore how Matthew Arnold uses language to give us insights into the life of modern man in ‘Dover Beach’.

The life of modern mankind is presented very negatively and ignorantly by Matthew Arnold in the poem Dover Beach by the fact that religious faith evanesce with the Industrial Revolution. Arnold creates the image of the dark future for the people without unwavering faith or religion.

Modern men are bastardised with the thought that new the Industrial Revolution will give them advantage over nature. This thought of gaining superiority made humans arrogant by which this appearance is broken by the reality of nature’s dominance. People also seem ignorant with the wishful thought. These pebbles which ‘the waves draw back, and fling’ are completely powerless and are thrown around by the waves that move these “pebbles” at ease. Arnold uses pebbles as a metaphor for humans to show the inferiority in comparison to nature. The ignorance of humans is emphasised by the historical allusion to Peloponnesian War. In the dark, soldiers could not differentiate between their own army and the opponents; and so they killed their own soldiers. This is used by the poet to show the stupidity of modern man throwing away the religion which was everything to people before the Industrial Revolution; something to believe and rely on when people prayed. However, this old belief is thrown away and Arnold sees it as a very naïve decision.

The Industrial Revolution gave the source of arrogance and confidence which took place among the Western countries. This revolution was revolutionary itself; humans could mass produce, with improved quality, and at ease. These machineries became the limbs of human society. What came with the industrial revolution was the idea of realism. People could nearly produce goods to near-original standards, all thanks to improved technologies and science, and hence began to doubt the existence of God and supernatural beings. Realism contrasts the theology which is all about belief without questioning that God exists; and people believed it before the times of the machineries. It gave people hope and modesty under the mighty existence of God. However both hope and modesty disappeared with the Industrial Revolution which Arnold laments for. Bitterness is suggested when Arnold exclaims ‘Ah, love’ to show that in this changing world, one can only rely on the partner, and be trustful and true. Sarcasm is used to describe the modern world as a ‘land of dreams’ as there is no more hope for the world, as there is no more faith.

As the poem proceeds, the transition of mood is noticeable as the grief of the loss of faith extends to a sense of resignation towards the end and having a sarcastic, sour approach to the issue. The ‘tremulous cadence slow’ helps to convey the gradual process of the wane of doctrine which adds to the idea that the change of people’s lives is almost unnoticeable. This gradual process hurts Arnold because people are caught unaware of the changes taking place and so do not think it is particularly wrong and sinful. Arnold presents his sorrow with the historical allusion to Sophocles who, was a Greek playwright, had heard the sound of waves crashing as the ‘eternal note of sadness’. The ‘sadness’ of the mankind turning away from religious beliefs is a parallel to the ‘melancholy… withdrawing roar…retreating’ of the waves. Before the development of science and technology, people had truly believed in the religion and thought that they were in total control of god. The metaphor ‘Sea of Faith’ which presents the religious faith people have, used to be ‘full and round Earth’s shore’ but now is ‘retreating… down the vast edges’ which shows the decreasing religious beliefs. Arnold points out that, without faith, humans are ‘naked’ and have no protection and defence which reflects the vulnerability of man and their lives.

With carefully chosen words, Arnold presents the uncertainty of the future of humans. The new industrialised world seems “so various, so beautiful, so new” but it is again a mere appearance. The reality is that this mechanic, stiff world will have “neither joy, nor love, nor light” because this mechanics cannot feel love, hence no joy, and no vision as humans need love and the warm characteristics of humanity. It is thus deducible that the future will have no “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” which are the essentialities of humans. Humans can only survive the harsh world when everybody believes and trusts each other, and this will be broken with the introduction of industrialisation. This change of the world will bring “confused alarms on struggle and flight” which creates an imagery of a “darkling plain”; a dark vision for humans. Furthermore, the “turbid” ebb and flow shows the cloudy, uncertain future of ‘ebb and flow’ which is the repetitive cycles of nature. Can humans only survive when they make harmony with the nature, and to go against the natural cycles can only mean extinction of humans. The ‘cliffs’ of England ‘gleams’ and ‘glimmers’; gleams and glimmers have a sense of shakiness, precariousness and unknown which echoes the uncertain modern man. Also the alliteration of ‘g’ and ‘m’ creates a stuttering tone which adds to the idea of uncertainty. This imagery portrays the withering away of cliffs as a decline of religious beliefs and whatsmore, deterioration of the Earth itself as humans exploit resources out of the Earth which the modern development enabled men to do.

The flaws of modernism and realism are expressed in this poem. The flow of the poem is cut off by uses of caesura which is a parallel to the imperfect modern world. Arnold gives a hint that modernization of the world will have some flaws which will inevitably bring loss of faith and result in loss of equilibrium. In science, there is no hope; everything is measured out and exact. Hence in the modern world reality there can be no hope as it looks vain. Again, Arnold sympathises with the loss of hope in reality. In a different sense, the calm, naturalistic description of a beach at night in the first stanza is the appearance which contrasts to the reality that is sad, unhopeful, ‘retreating’ and ‘tremulous’.

Human beings are inferior over nature and the spiritual beliefs as to an extent that people cannot control anything. The abandonment of the doctrine of religion with the help of the Industrial Revolution is only a vain act against the power-overwhelming nature. Religion and faith should remain in humanity and ignoring it should result in the uncertainty and vulnerability of modern man.


17 thoughts on “Analysis on ‘Dover Beach’

  1. A very good analyses.
    Whats so great about Literature is that one can derive so many meanings out of it, Here in Pakistan, We basically had it as a Universal thing, the themes we derived were of relationships, marriage, time, Darwin’s theory of Evolution and some of yours aswell.

    I always wondered if there was a way to learn about other peoples perceptions, especially students of our age who are doing this curriculum. Your Blog does it!

    Yours Sincerely,
    Maaz H

  2. Dover beach is a poem with a mournful tone of an elegy, which vividly conveys Arnolds discontent towards the industrial revolution. The central message of the poem is how the modernization of the world has shaken the faith of people towards God and Religion. Arnold subtly combines different tones and imagery throughout the poem to emphasise his bitterness towards the situation.
    The structure of the poem plays a significant role in emphasising his dramatic monologue, and his state of mind. The poem can be identified as ‘free verse.’ The idea the poem is written in free verse can mirror how this is a poem written from the heart of Arnold. One can assume there are simply no tricks, and this is Arnolds personal and deep thoughts. This emphasises his sourness and bitterness towards the situation.
    Throughout reading this poem, the reader can identify the transition of tones. The first Stanza has a mournful and sad tone, and this gradually progresses and transforms into a more scornful and resigned tone. The iambic trimeter in the first line ‘ The Sea is calm to-night’ can emphasise the peaceful and slow tone at the beginning. However this tone changes. The alliteration in ‘Gleams and Glimmering’ echoes shakiness. This could be interpreted as imitating the uncertain modern man who lacks faith in God, who Arnold disregards. This change in tone within one stanza can vividly convey the negativity in Arnolds mind.
    The choice of vocabulary play a significant role in emphasising the seriousness Arnold has towards this situation. In the first stanza the words ‘Light Gleams and is gone’ foreshadows the message of the poem right from the beginning. We can interpret the poet is insinuating that the light of faith in God is once strong and then flickering, reflecting his annoyance towards people losing faith in God so suddenly. The word glimmering can emphasise the weakening of light of faith. He uses the words cliffs to symbolise the humanity of England. The cliffs on the shore of South England are white and made out of chalk, which are easily eroded. Personally I feel that Arnold has used the sea to represent the faith of humanity as it is later described as the ‘Sea of Faith.’ As the poem is about how the faith of humanity is decreasing due to the industrial revolution, I can imply that as the sea is lacking strength of faith, it is no longer soft as it was in the first line , where the softness was emphasised by the iambic trimeter, however has turned hard enough to destruct the soft cliffs of England. The cliffs of England can symbolize humanity who are weak and changing due to the new ideas. Personally I feel Arnold is insinuating that humanity is feeble, and this build of of pity towards humanity can emphasise the bitterness in his state of mind.
    The hyperbole used in the second stanza can portray how Arnold really feels about the situation. Here his state of mind is more in a resigned tone. The hyberbole ‘ grating roar of pebbles’ is an exaggeration that pebbles make a grating roar, and the fact Arnold is exaggerating, is vivid as it makes the reader feel the passion Arnold has towards faith, and how he is hurt how humanity is losing faith. When one exaggerates it is often for when they want to persuade someone, and this could be interpreted as a subtle call of persuasion for humanity to awake from this delusional state. The word ‘fling’ is a use of onomatopoeia which strengthens the visual imagery used in the second stanza. This sound imagery gives the reader an insight into how the poet is felt. The ‘moon blanched land’ can symbolise how the land of humanity has the light of faith, but is destructed by the waves of the sea of destruction. The visual imagery allows the reader to see how Arnold is sensitive to the matter, as he combines the topic with nature. The destruction of nature which we see in the second stanza evokes sadness from the reader, which could possibly reflect the sadness the poet is feeling, about the situation of mankind losing faith, conveying his sense of mind vividly.
    The sight and sound imagery used in the second stanza plays a significant role in portraying how Arnold is unhappy with the people losing faith. The pebbles flinging can create a dark image for people without faith. He uses the word ‘darkling’ in the final stanza, which also gives the image of darkness for people without faith.This can allow the reader to imply Arnold has negativity towards people who have lost faith, and feel they are bad.
    We can interpret the fourth stanza as Arnold feeling there was a time when God was strong and comforting. The world was protected from doubt and despair as the faithed wrapped itself around us in order to protect us. However as the sea has become a sea of doubt lacking faith, the world is vulnerable. The human misery is making people feel lonely and people only have faith in materialistic things. The interpretation of this stanza itself can show how Arnold is worried for humanity, conveying his state of mind. There is a hint of personification and pathetic fallacy as the wind is described as to having breath.
    Arnolds sarcasm which is built up from the fourth stanza can vividly state how he is feeling pity towards humanity. He previously uses the oxymoron ‘melancholy roar’ which is effective as it emphasises his sarcasm that he has towards the ‘Land of dreams.’ The sarcasm of describing the world as ‘Land of dreams’ after criticising it throughout the poem can show in his mind he truly believes the people i n the world are selfish and materialistic.
    The bathos in the final stanza is effective as it emphasises how Arnold in his mind feels humanity is not stable and reliable. He uses anaphora with the repition of the word ‘So’ in describing the ‘Land of Dreams’. In the beginning he builds up a sense of the world being beautiful and calm, however immediately destructs this by saying it posseses completely opposite traits.
    Matthew Arnold’s modern sensibility shines through like a poetic eulogy, a poignant lamentation for the future of mankind in a world without spirituality.

    1. This is a very good analysis I must say @amir.a . I have my GCSE exam tomorrow and this was indeed very helpful 🙂

  3. i needed and answer for the question “dover beach as a modern poem” and here i got exactly what i needed.

  4. Thanks for the analysis. Usually I go to Shmoop, but they haven’t created an analysis of it yet. Strange, since it is such an important poem especially in light of preparing AP students for the literature exam.

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