The Internet Poetry Archive

Dover Beach

By Matthew 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 ebb meets the moon-blanch'd sand,
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 again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, 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 this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd;
But now I only hear
Its 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.

Poem Analysis & Reflection

As I'm sure you'll agree, "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold is a marvel of Victorian poetry, both for its rich, sensory language and its profound exploration of the human condition. The poem opens with a tranquil scene of the English Channel viewed from Dover Beach, where the calm sea meets the moonlit land, creating an initial atmosphere of peace and natural beauty. Yet, as Arnold continues, this serene landscape becomes a metaphor for the human experience, marked by fleeting moments of tranquility amidst the tumultuous sea of life.

One of the most striking aspects of "Dover Beach" is its use of sound. Arnold masterfully employs the auditory imagery of the "grating roar" of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling, a sound that conveys both the eternal action of the sea and the transient nature of human happiness. This auditory imagery serves as a powerful vehicle for the poem's central theme: the ebb and flow of faith and the consequent isolation and despair felt in its absence.

Arnold's poem also delves into the concept of the loss of religious faith during the 19th century, a time when scientific discoveries began to challenge traditional beliefs. The reference to the "Sea of Faith" metaphorically represents this decline, portraying a world where the once-full tide of religious certainty has receded, leaving behind a barren landscape of doubt and existential loneliness.

What makes "Dover Beach" particularly compelling is its emotional depth. Arnold does not merely describe a physical landscape; he uses it as a canvas to project the inner turmoil caused by the erosion of certainty and the search for meaning in an increasingly skeptical world. The poem closes with an appeal to love, suggesting that in the absence of faith, human connection offers solace and stability. This turn towards love as a beacon of hope amidst despair captures the quintessential Victorian struggle between the longing for certainty and the reality of doubt.

In sum, "Dover Beach" is a profound reflection on the human condition, exploring themes of faith, doubt, and love through the lens of the natural world. Arnold's use of vivid imagery, auditory effects, and metaphorical depth not only illustrates the Victorian era's existential concerns but also resonates with the universal human experience of searching for meaning in an impermanent world.

<   Back   |    Poetry Archive Home   |    More from this Author   >

This site and all contents (except individual poetic works) are copyright 2000-2024 Curiosity Cave Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. Read our privacy policy here.