Dover Beach

From Academic Kids

Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, is one of the finest short poems of the 19th century, even one of most famous poems written in the English language. First published in 1867, in the collection, New Poems, its condensed 39 lines with a subtly interwoven and shifting rhyme have a memorable theme: the crisis of faith in the mid-Victorian world, which was generated by German biblical scholarship of the Higher Criticism and the unsettling revolution of Darwinism (although the poem was apparently written in 1851, 8 years before the publication of the Origin of Species).

First in six lines the poet evokes the moonlit seascape of the English Channel, tranquil and sweet, and the reassuring "cliffs of England" of the Strait of Dover. "Only," opening the seventh line, begins the transition, unfolding through the "tremulous cadence" of the waves to the "eternal note of sadness." The Anglo-Grecian connections of Sophocles and the Aegean are only momentarily relevant "by this distant northern sea," for this is the Sea of Faith — or was, and that image withdraws in its turn and the vision turns windy, vast, naked and drear. "Ah love..." here the accumulated poetry conveys the momentary view that love is the bulwark against the uncertainties of the modern (Victorian) world — the solution the Victorian reader expected — "only" Arnold then undercuts this declaration with a powerful despairing litany of the failure of culture, to end with the chilling prophetic imagery of the last three lines.

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 sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
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 Aegean, 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.

Arnold's economy is extraordinary, in this most un-Victorian Victorian poem: not a single purely decorative image, not an adjective that distracts from the cumulative thought and effect. Arnold in the 20th century has been mocked as the "Apostle of High Seriousness."

Anthony Hecht, US Poet Laureate from 1982 to 1984, offered a glib ironic reply in "Dover Bitch", where the subject of Arnold's adoration resists the notion of being used as a "cosmic last resort".

Samuel Barber composed a setting of "Dover Beach" for string quartet and baritone.

In the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury has his protagonist Guy Montag read "Dover Beach" to his wife and her friends. Through it, they see the banality their pleasure-seeking society has created in each of them.


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