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Analysis of “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold

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“Dover beach” is a beautiful poem written by a famous poet, Matthew Arnold; from the romantic era. The poem is melancholic and pessimistic in nature and shows human misery through the ages. The diction changes as the poem progresses, from the beginning till the end, soft and loving to hard and rough, respectively. The images are centered around the ocean, this is to show the analogy that life can be both turbulent as well as placid. The time that the poem occurs is through the night, having mystery and possibly some romance. The poet intricately weaves nature and man together in his poem. The first stanza describes the sea, whereas the second stanza talks about historical philosophers, the penultimate stanza is once again linked with the sea and finally the last stanza is about mankind once again.

This poem has four stanzas, each containing 14,6,8,9 lines respectively. This poem is comprised of free verse, though there is an iambic stress on each line. The first stanza has a rhyme scheme of “abacdbdcefcffg”, the second stanza has a rhyme scheme of “abacbc”. In the third stanza only half of the lines rhyme, the other four do not, the rhyme scheme is “abcdbedf”. The last stanza’s lines have iambic pentameter and a rhyme scheme of ‘abbacddcc”. The reason for a fluctuation in the rhyme scheme is to portray the unpredictability of life, which is similar to the sea; that has a mind of its own.

Dover beach is a large beach on coastal England opposite from France, where there are great white cliffs that give it its name “Dover”, after the white doves. This is a romantic place, and therefore the poet chose it to be the title of the poem. The title is a slight misnomer, as the poem does not deal with romantic ideals, instead evokes the social issues of humanity. The great usage of a literary feature; pathetic fallacy, causes the reader to associate the sound of the waves with the nature of human misery.

The poem starts with “The sea is calm to-night”, this is a direct contrast with the last line “Where ignorant armies clash by night”, the first line shows a vast ‘sea’ that is peaceful. The last line on the other hand shows the result when armies fight in the night; they do not know their enemies from their allies, and there will be great causalities on both sides. The persona continues to comment on the tides and moon in, “The tide is full, the moon lies fair”, shows a scientific fact that the moon’s gravitational pull causes tides in the ocean, this was well understood by the poets from the romantic era. During this time, most people’s belief was waning from religion, and attracted towards the sciences. This was due to the lack of explanation in religious scripts. The closeness of the beach and France is shown in “Upon the straits;-on the French coast the light/ Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand”, the caesura in “upon the straits;” makes the audience pause and observe the beauty of the strait between France and England.

The image of a lighthouse is brought out through “the light/ Gleams and is gone”, and adds to the effect of the ‘ebb and flow’ of the waves; the waves hitting the land and receding. The persona and his maiden are in a house, as he says “come to the window, sweet is the night-air!” this shows that he seems to be optimistic and excited, smelling the air. The vastness of the ocean is brought out in, “Only, from the long line of spray” showing the fury in which the waves come crashing causing the spray. “Listen! You hear the grating roar”, this shows the sudden excitement in the persona. The reason for “Listen!” is also to prepare the reader for the fore-coming auditory imagery “the grating roar”, showing a very negative and pessimistic view of the beautiful ocean. From this line onwards the view of the poet changes from appreciating the nature and the fruits it has to offer, to commenting of all the negatives in this world. The lines, “Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/

At their return, up the high strand”, shows the power that nature has over man and through the words “pebbles”, “draw back” and “fling” the picture of David versus Goliath is brought out, David using his slingshot to bring down the great colossus. The “high strand” could be the white cliffs of Dover, this shows the strength and power of the ocean as it is capable of ‘flinging’ the rocks up the face of the cliff. The movement of the ocean is brought out in “Begin, and cease, and then again begin”. “with tremulous cadence slow, and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in” The “tremulous” gives a description of shaking, this can only happen when the music is at a very low frequency, almost like that of crashing waves. The “eternal” shows the everlasting sadness in the world. The parallel between “cadence slow” and “note of sadness” is because slow notes in music depict sadness. This whole stanza has great images of the ocean and its positives and negatives, but the poet continues to speak of the great human misery.

The persona brings out the fact that there was human misery in the world before. The persona goes into a flashback in “Sophocles long ago/ Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery; we”. Showing a great thinker with experiences on the “Aegean”, bringing him thoughts, of misery like the flow of the ocean. “Find also in the sound a thought,/hearing it by this distant northern sea”, the reader realize that the persona too had thought of something, while next to this northern sea. This stanza has a very coordinated rhyme scheme namely; “abacbc”, this could show that the persona could have thought about these things before, and the smoothness in which it is said, shows the confidence that Arnold has over this subject. Once again, the theme switches from mankind to nature, in the next stanza.

“The Sea of Faith”, this is a great religious metaphor, that shows the vastness and diversity of religion that proliferates through the world. “Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore”, shows that at one point in time, people believed in religion around the world. “Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d”, usually in high tide the shore is enveloped by the ocean, this also is an instance of clothes imagery, like the “folds” in a cloth. The alternate meaning for this could be that during the “high tide” of religious belief, there was a large following. The poet cannot see religion continuing in the same stride, “But now I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”, the end of religion is nearing, as religion itself is like a beast that is given up, with a great rumble of noise. The retreating wave is similar to religion and “down the vast edges drear/ And naked shingles of the world”, the naked shingles are beaches lined with pebbles, and hence the waves or religion are receding away from the habitation of man; land.

The persona now gives his maiden a real loving thought, “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another! For the world, which seems” this shows that the persona wishes that the relationship will be tight knitted and that there will not be any secrets kept away from the other. “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;” this is a listing of what religion has to offer and what it cannot, and hence showing that religious beliefs are useless in the eyes of Arnold. The theory of life is evoked in “And we are here as on a darkling plain”, and questions his very existence on earth, and shows that the future is in haze and is unclear.

The dilemma that the persona goes through is substantiated with “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”, this shows that humanity is in deep confusion with its struggles against its miseries and cannot find a cure for it, but Arnold says that poetry is the cure. The ignorant armies clashing in the night, can only lead to disaster. This can be linked with man, as man is still in the darkness and hence the internal problems that he has can only lead to his doom. This poem ends in a rhyming couplet with an elegiac tone.

Matthew Arnold is a world renowned poet as well as a thinker. Arnold using his powers of communication through great works of literature, created “Dover Beach” that has great depth and insight into the reality of life.

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