Dover Beach: Critical Appreciation

Arnold's "Dover Beach" laments the transition from an age of certainty into an era of the erosion of traditions and loss of faith - Modernism. "Misery", "sadness" and "melancholy" reign most of the poem, yet the author chooses to conclude it with an emotional appeal for honesty: "Ah, love, let us be true/ to one another" - as it is the only true certainty left as the world around collapses under "struggle" and "fight". 

 In Dover Beach Matthew Arnold is describing the slow and solemn rumbling sound made by the sea waves as they swing backward and forward on the pebbly shore. The poet notes that this sound suggests the eternal note of sadness in human life. Here he points out that in ancient times Sophocles heard the same sound of the pebbles on the shore, and it reminded him of the ebb and flow of human misery.

The poet explains the gradual loss of man’s faith in a grand and suggestive metaphor. He compares faith in religion to a sea that surrounds the world. The sea had its full tide, and then it ebbs away with the mournful music over the pebbles. The poet reminds the world in which there was full of faith and men believed in religion. But now that faith is gradually passing away and men’s minds are like pebbles on the shore. The passing of faith causes the minds to be isolated in the border between belief and disbelief. It is a sad melancholy state. When the poet hears the grating roar of pebbles of the sea, he is reminded of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith as it retreats from men’s minds. It is a chilly prospect, like the breath of the night wind, and it brings into the mind a dreary feeling of helplessness, as though the mind is left stripped and bare on the vast and dreary edges of an unknown land.

The lines from 'Dover Beach' give bitter expression of Arnold’s loss of faith, his growing pessimism. Victorian world was changing very rapidly with the growth of science and technology. The world seemed to be strangely unreal, without anything real to cling to or grasp. It has variety, beauty and freshness. But it is all blind negation: there is in it neither love nor joy nor light nor peace, certitude or any help for pain. There is nothing certain in it. Therefore he compares men struggling in the world with armies struggling on a plain at night. There is a sound of confused alarms and struggles, but the soldiers are ignorant as to what they are fighting for and why.

"Dover Beach" presents the reader with a virtual journey through time. Time here is represented by the image of the sea - with its vastness evoking powerful admiration. The theme of mutability follows closely because of the sea's unreliable nature. It is presented as something inevitable and insecure and, in its turn, leads onto the theme of humans staying true and honest to one another - this involving love for each other - as the only way to remain together, "for the world, which seems/ to lie before us like a land of dreams/ Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light."

The structure of the poem is unique. There are four verses, none of which are alike, with no particular rhythm or rhyme pattern. Yet the verses lead onto one another by the unity of theme although they appear to be quite unconventionally structured. Thus the end of the first stanza - occupied with sadness - brings on the "misery" of stanza two; then the image of sea and insecurity of the end of the second verse invites the beginning of the following and ending verse. The unity of the poem is in this way complete and its impact on the reader stretches far beyond the lines.

Last modified: Monday, 18 June 2018, 2:38 AM