Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888) was a highly influential English writer and thinker of the Victorian era. ‘Dover Beach’ (1867) remains one of his most famous and anthologized poems. According to Mazzeno (40) it is a poem “full of doubt and despair.” This paper will prove Mazzeno’s assertion, explain the reasons for it and also demonstrate how it affects Arnold’s choice of imagery and structure. ‘Dover Beach’ is a classic expression of the mid-Victorian crisis of faith.
Firstly, the context should be noted. Dover is the English sea port closest to France and, if the weather is good enough, the lights of France can be seen. The stretch of water between Dover and France is known as the Straits of Dover. The poem is addressed to Arnold’s wife who is referred to in lines 6, 9 and 29. The cliffs at Dover are famously white, because they are chalk cliffs, and the beach is not sandy, but covered in pebbles.
The structure of the poem reflects Arnold’s doubt and uncertainty. He does use rhyme, but the lines vary in length and there is no set rhyme scheme. The poem is divided into four verse paragraphs of unequal length (we cannot call them stanzas because they are not regular). By rejecting the conventional and traditional patterns of regular rhyme, equal line lengths and uniform stanzas, Arnold is embodying in the structure of his poem the doubt and uncertainty he feels.
In the opening verse paragraph Arnold describes the view from the window: it is a beautiful night: the sea is “calm” (1), the moon “lies fair” (2), the bay is “tranquil” (5) and the night-air is “sweet”(6). However, despite the beauty of the night, Arnold hears the “grating roar/Of pebbles” (9-10) which he says “Brings the eternal note of sadness in.” (line 14) The roar, of course, is the sound of the waves sucking the pebbles back and then flinging them back up the beach again. Lines 10 to 12 are an astonishing example of the poet’s craft: he is describing the pebbles
...which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin.
The short phrases and the caesuras created by the commas are an attempt by Arnold to make his words, the rhythm of his lines, echo the backwards and forwards motion of the waves.
He has been prompted to think of “the eternal note of sadness” by some lines by Sophocles, an ancient Greek dramatist, who describes human suffering, in his play Antigone, as remorseless and never-ending as the waves crashing on the beach. Arnold mentions “the turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery (lines 17-18), but at this stage of the poem the reader has no idea why he is so upset.
The third verse paragraph begins with the capitalized “the Sea of Faith” (22) and goes on to use an extended metaphor based on the sea, on tides and on the movement of waves. By the Sea of Faith Arnold seems to mean that once upon a time humanity was certain of what it believed in and “The Sea of Faith/Was once too, at the full.” (22-23) “at the full” is a term to do with tides and describes the moment when the tide is at its highest. But all that has changed and now Arnold can only hear “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” (25) which is “retreating” (line 26) like the waves on the beach.
Before we consider the last lines of the poem, let us stop to consider the origin of this melancholy: why was there a crisis of faith in mid-Victorian England? It was largely prompted by the work of the English scientist Darwin and the French naturalist Lamarck – whose theories threw the whole belief system of Christianity into doubt. This was also exacerbated by the speed of industrial and technological change. Great Britain was the world’s superpower, the most advanced country in the world, but technological progress had brought with it terrible social problems.
So in a world of lost faith and eternal human suffering, how can we find redemption? In love, Arnold asserts. The final verse paragraph is addressed to his wife and begins: “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!” (29-30). We can only hope for redemption through our private lives because Arnold writes “the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams” (30-31) is actually full of despair, which
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. (33-34)
It would be hard to imagine a more melancholy expression of the crisis of faith amongst the intellectual classes of Great Britain than Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’ Raleigh puts it well when he writes (8) that Arnold
... diagnosed the nineteenth century... as a time of criticism, introspection, solitude, and the torment of unbelief – in short, the world of ‘Dover Beach.
Mazzeno, Lawrence W. Matthew Arnold and the Critical Legacy. 1990. London: Camden House. Print.
Raleigh, John Henry. Matthew Arnold and American Culture. 1957. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Print.