by Matthew Arnold
Summary & Analysis
This is a poem about a sea and a beach that is truly beautiful, but holds much deeper meaning than what meets the eye. The poem is written in free verse with no particular meter or rhyme scheme, although some of the words do rhyme. Arnold is the speaker speaking to someone he loves. As the poem progress, the reader sees why Arnold poses the question stated above, and why life seems to be the way it is. During the first part of the poem Arnold states, “The Sea is calm tonight” and in line 7, “Only, from the long line of spray”. In this way, Arnold is setting the mood or scene so the reader can understand the point he is trying to portray. In lines 1-6 he is talking about a very peaceful night on the ever so calm sea, with the moonlight shining so intensely on the land. Then he states how the moonlight “gleams and is gone” because the “cliffs of England” are standing at their highest peaks, which are blocking the light of the moon. Next, the waves come roaring into the picture, as they “draw back and fling the pebbles” onto the shore and back out to sea again. Arnold also mentions that the shore brings “the eternal note of sadness in”, maybe representing the cycles of life and repetition. Arnold then starts describing the history of Sophocle’s idea of the “Aegean’s turbid ebb and flow”.
The sea is starting to become rougher and all agitated. Also the mention of “human misery” implies that life begins and ends, but it can still be full of happiness, and unfortunately, at the same time, sadness. “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore.” The key word in that stanza is once, because it implies that he (Arnold) used to look at the sea in a different way than he does now. Throughout the whole poem, Arnold uses a metaphor to describe his views and opinions. Now he only hears its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” It seems as though Arnold is questioning his own faith. The whole poem is based on a metaphor – Sea to Faith. When the sea retreats, so does faith, and leaves us with nothing. In the last nine lines, Arnold wants his love and himself to be true to one another. The land, which he thought was so beautiful and new, is actually nothing – “neither joy, nor love, nor light”. In reality, Arnold is expressing that nothing is certain, because where there is light there is dark and where there is happiness there is sadness. “We are here though as on a darling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash at night”. Arnold uses much alliteration in the poem. For example, in line 31, “To lie before us like a land of dreams”, repeating the letter L at the beginning of three words. Also, in line 4, “Gleams and is gone…”, repeating the letter G. The usage of assonance and consonance is not widespread in “Dover Beach”. In line 3 – “…on the French coast the light” – the repetition of the letter T is shown, as an example of consonance. Other literary techniques, such as onomatopoeia and hyperbole, are not used in the poem, besides the metaphor for “Faith” being the Sea.
The diction Arnold uses creates a sense of peacefulness and calmness. It is fairly easily understood vocabulary, with the exception of a few words, such as cadence and darkling. From reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, one realizes that there is no certainty in life. When everything is going perfectly, something unfortunate may happen at any given time, with no forewarning.