By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Dover Beach’ is one of the best-known and best-loved of Victorian poems, and the most widely anthologised poem by a Victorian figure whose poetic output was considerably slimmer than that of many of his contemporaries, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson or Robert Browning.
Time has not been overly kind to Matthew Arnold either: the poems for which he is remembered in the popular imagination tend to be confined to ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’, ‘To Marguerite: Continued’, ‘Shakespeare’, and – most of all – ‘Dover Beach’, which has been subjected to much critical analysis already.
Here is Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, the poem which sums up an era, along with a few words about its language and meaning.
Background and context
Although ‘Dover Beach’ was only first published in 1867, it was actually written considerably earlier: the precise date is not known, but the most likely composition date is in the early 1850s. The event described in the poem is therefore probably Arnold’s honeymoon – which was indeed taken at Dover in Kent.
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!
In summary, ‘Dover Beach’ sees the (male) speaker addressing his lover (‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!’), in what amounts almost to a dramatic monologue (see the speaker’s gestures and phrases which remind us of where he is and what he’s doing: ‘Come to the window’, ‘Listen!’).
Matthew Arnold’s speaker looks out at the sea from his vantage point at Dover on the south coast of England, the nearest point to mainland Europe (‘on the French coast the light / Gleams and is gone’), and reflects on the calmness of the sea and the serenity of everything. He is so close to France (from Dover to Calais it’s only about 20 miles), so he can even see the lights on the French coast in the clear night air.
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
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.
He reflects that underneath this veneer of calm, there is something more volatile and unsettling: ‘the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand’.
This sounds like a simple description of the waves tossing the pebbles about the place on the shingly beach, but behind it there lurks the Victorians’ geological fascination with pebbles, shells, and other remnants of the Earth’s distant past. Geology had been a hot talking point for the Victorians ever since Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology appeared in 1830-33 (indeed, this was several years before Victoria came to the throne in 1837).
These pebbles may be more than window-dressing (as it were) for Arnold’s poem, then: they may be an oblique reference to the science of geology that had done so much to undermine many Victorians’ faith in the Biblical account of Creation (see, for instance, John Ruskin’s comment about ‘those dreadful hammers’).
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.
Anyway, back to Arnold at that window, gazing out with his beloved at Dover beach and analysing the scene. The movement of the waves here in the English Channel put Arnold in mind of the ‘ebb and flow’ of the tides in a different sea, the Aegean (near Greece), and a different time in human history.
Sophocles was one of the great tragedians of ancient Greece (famous for writing Oedipus Rex), and lived over two millennia before Arnold, yet Sophocles, too, heard the ‘cadence’ of the sea’s movement and was put in mind of the human condition.
Why Sophocles? Arnold probably mentions him not just because he wrote tragedies but because he was pre-Christian, living in the fifth century BCE, over 400 years before Christ. Arnold is reflecting on the retreat of the ‘Sea of Faith’, and for him (as for all Victorians) this means a receding sea of Christian faith.
As already mentioned, geological discoveries in the nineteenth century cast doubt over the veracity of the Bible’s claims, but the broader philosophical discussions going on also contributed to this growing sense of religious doubt among Victorian Christians: some fifty years earlier, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason had critiqued the Bible, exposing its internal inconsistencies, with Paine concluding that there was no basis for believing the Bible to be literally the word of God.
In short, by the 1850s when Arnold is thought to have written ‘Dover Beach’, there were many reasons why a Christian might be having doubts over his or her own faith.
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.
So, the ‘Sea of Faith’ is retreating. What hope is there for humanity? Arnold calls upon his newlywed wife to show solidarity and fidelity: if we cannot have faith in religion, we can have faith in each other, in human companionship and love.
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.
It’s possible that Arnold’s bleak vision of a (potentially) godless world was influenced by Tennyson’s famous depiction of a bleak world – of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ – in his popular 1850 poem In Memoriam.
Interestingly, Tennyson’s ‘dinosaur cantos’ also seem to end by entreating human beings to find comfort in each other, with his ‘behind the veil’ implying that marriage and love will console us against our loss of faith in a divine plan for our future and well-being.
There are several problems with Arnold’s analogy of the ‘Sea of Faith’ if we analyse it more closely or take it too literally. For one, Arnold implies that the Aegean is tidal (see the ‘ebb and flow’), yet the Mediterranean has only very limited tides.
Similarly, in likening man’s receding faith in God to the ebb of the sea, Arnold (probably unintentionally) suggests that this loss of faith will be but temporary: after all, the tide flows back in, and then out again, and then back in, in an endless movement of ebb and flow. Why should we despair, if the retreating Sea of Faith will, like the tides, come back again in time?
Perhaps this is to over-analyse the poem; perhaps it is to mistake Matthew Arnold himself for his speaker, standing at the window, gazing out at Dover beach. But the fact remains that ‘Dover Beach’ is a great Victorian poem, one of Arnold’s finest, and an important one to grapple with, read, discuss, analyse, and consider when dealing with Victorian responses to faith and doubt.
You can read Anthony Hecht’s ‘response’ to Arnold’s poem, ‘The Dover Bitch’, here. The poem considers how all this may have appeared to Arnold’s companion. Click here for more information about Matthew Arnold’s life.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.