Dover BeachChris JonesENG 125: Introduction to LiteratureInstructor: Terri HennessyOctober 10, 2011It was written of Arnold, ?His poetry endures because of its directness, and the literal fidelity of his beautifully circumstantial description of nature, of scenes, and places, imbued with a kind of majestic sadness which takes the place of music? (Kunitz). After reading this description of Arnold?s style it is clear that ?Dover Beach? is a very typical example of his work. I selected ?Dover Beach? as the poem I wished to study for several reasons. First, its setting is a place I can identify with, having taken the ferry between Calais and Dover and having viewed the scenery from the same spot as Arnold does in his poem. The opening lines spoke to me in that respect and the poem jumped out of the anthology at me.
In addition, I have always been drawn to and fascinated by the sea; its sounds, regularity, and strength. Finally, the poem has directness and accessibility that drew me in once it had attracted my attention; I found that I could concentrate more on the themes, style, and form and less on simply trying to understand whom the speaker was and what he was doing. Arnold first published ?Dover Beach? in 1867, and it has been repeatedly described as an example of introspective, romantic, and modern poetry. Arnold?s own description of his poetry as ?wandering between two worlds’seems to fit perfectly with the style of this poem, as it also moves between two worlds: the relentless nature of the sea (the old tradition and order) and the coming of the modern world (with the resulting threats to faith) spoken of in the last two stanzas. From a biographical perspective, it seems that this melancholy poem was written at a time in his life when Arnold was the happiest.
His diary records that in September 1851 Arnold stayed in Dover, having just been married and on his way to the honeymoon. This was about the time ?Dover Beach? is believed to have been written, and the woman Arnold calls to the window in the first stanza must certainly be his bride. Interestingly, the romantic scenery and mood of the beginning of the poem (honeymoon?) are in contrast with what comes later, which are deeper thoughts, reflections, and uncertainties about fundamental changes in the world. The speaker is observing present events (the sights and sounds of a scene of nature) and reflecting on them and expanding them into a larger context. This woman is his intended audience, although the world at large is implied as the recipient of his sad message. The themes of ?Dover Beach? are several.
Above all, the poem laments the collapse of spirituality, religion, and long-standing traditions in the face of an uncertain and threatening modernity. Change of an unstoppable and uncontrollable form is approaching, and Arnold is longingly looking back at the faith-based world that is disappearing. This central theme reaches its full force in the third and fourth stanzas with the introduction of a proper noun: The Sea of Faith. This faith was once like the sea, touching every shore, and the simile in line 23 enhances that vision further. The poet?s mood sours and a negativity, which started with a historical reference to Sophocles in the second stanza, takes over.
The brief plea from the poet to his lover at the start of the fourth stanza to be honest and truthful is a wish to hold on to what little is left in the world: humanity and trust. We continue the deterioration in stanza four to reach the haunting images that close the poem: ?darkling plain,? ?alarms of struggle and flight,? and ?ignorant armies clash. ? Thus, we see that this first and most important theme is expressed through a well-developed transition from line to line and stanza to stanza and how it builds strength in the work; we begin with a calm sea and end with clashing armies. A second theme is in the poem is time; it appears throughout the work.
We have references to the passing of time in an inevitable and unchangeable manner, as in lines 10 through 12 when Arnold shows the movement of pebbles on the beach. The movements of the sea are like the motions of a clock: the word ?cadence? in line 13 supports this thematic idea. In other lines we see words like ?the light Gleams and is gone,? ?eternal,? ?ebb and flow,? ?Sophocles long ago,? and ?was once,? all expanding beyond the present with glimpses into the past and projections of the future. Time is an essential theme to the poem because we must to understand the changes in the world from a historical, even evolutionary perspective.
In the final three stanzas we pass through two thousand years of human history. A final theme worthy of mention is the ?majestic sadness? or misery of the poem. This sadness is not trivial or limited to some small aspect of the poet?s personal life; it literally washes over the entire work and extends to encompass all of mankind, supported by words like ?melancholy,? ?pain,? and line 33 with its description of the new world which: ?Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light. ? The tone of the poem is fairly consistent.
After spending time setting the scene and characters in the first stanza, the poet closes in line 14 with a ?note of sadness? leading into the misery of the second stanza. The poet?s tone is gloomy throughout the final three stanzas, yet with no sense of bitterness or irony. The fact that it is evening, quiet in the bay and dark across the Channel, and the presence of words reflecting sorrow and helplessness create a feeling that this poem is to be read in a quiet, formal, and controlled manner. The speaker may be sad but he is not in a panic; the only exclamation marks used in the poem are when speaking to his lover/partner, not in his view of the world. The form of the poem is also interesting, appearing at first glance to lack structure.
Form in poetry is most effective when it is not obvious; Arnold, a student, poet, and critic of poetry his entire life, knew what he was doing with ?Dover Beach. ? It seems to lack rhyme or rhythmic patterns, but on closer inspection these do exist. The use of iambic rhythm (as in line 13: ?With tremulous cadence slow?), a common metrical foot in verse, complements and develops the themes, and the irregular pattern of either 6, 8, or 10 syllables in each line matches the rhythm and flow of the sea, time, and history. The lines are rhyming: in the first three stanzas the rhymes are separated by between two and five lines, not intrusive and easily missed.
In the final stanza, to create a sense of urgency and draw attention to the close, the rhyming lines move closer together and become very noticeable. There is no pattern to the length of stanzas, and punctuation appears where necessary, not always related to the ending of lines. The use of capitalization in the initial words of each line adds to the perception of unity and focus. The overall impression is that what the poet is expressing is important and serious enough not to be shaped to fit any strict structure or form; the form should adapt to the poet. A common figure of speech used in this work is personification, especially in the first stanza to describe the moon, cliffs, sea, and pebbles.
Finally, the language of the poem is excellent in the creation of mental and sensory images, most related to the sea and scattered throughout the stanzas. We see the cliffs of England, taste and smell the sweetness of the night air, hear the grating roar of the pebbles, touch the partner standing by our side at the window. More thought must be put into the final three lines, they may be visualized in a variety of ways: I see civilians and refugees caught between two nations engaged in a modern and highly destructive war. In summary, through the use of style, form, and thematic vision, Matthew Arnold?s ?Dover Beach? has the characteristics of all good art: it synergistically is much more than the sum of its parts, and despite its melancholy, its poetic elements evoke beauty in the eyes of the audience. Its attempt to address the struggles between the old order and the modern spirit in nineteenth century life make it a historical classic as well. There are many different interpretations of the poem, but what they share is recognition of the critical thought, structural effort, and challenging themes, which are evident in ?Dover Beach.
? ReferenceClugston, R. W. 2010. Journey Into Literature.
Dover Beach. San Diego, California:Bridgepoint Education, Inc. https://content. ashford.
edu/booksKunitz, Stanley. 1936. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. New York: H.
W. Wilson,Touche, Julia. 2000. Arnold?s ?Dover Beach?: A Commentary Retrieved October 10, 2011from http://www. victorianweb. org/authors/arnold/touche4.
htmlVlaeva, Denitza. 2000. ??Dover Beach? by Matthew Arnold ? Critical Appreciation.? Retrieved October 10, 2011 from http://liternet.bg/publish/denny/dov_bea.html