Matthew Arnold Study Guide
(emphasis on “Dover Beach”)
In a famous preface to a selection of poems by William Wordsworth, Arnold identified himself, a little ironically, as a “Wordsworthian.” The influence of Wordsworth, both in ideas and in
diction, is unmistakable in Arnold’s best poetry. One could easily list out similarities, for
example, to the compositional techniques and attitudes expressed in “Tintern Abbey.”
Yet Arnold differs from Wordsworth in many respects. First, most scholars will suggest that Arnold doesn’t have more than a dozen really fine poems (whereas Wordsworth is considered one of the greatest poets in the British tradition). The twentieth-century poet Edith Sitwell once remarked that those who like Arnold “dislike poetry.” By that, she meant that Arnold was not a
“pure” poet, but more of a rhetorician (he often began with discursive ideas, rather than words, sounds, and images). When he did produce strong poetry (like “Dover Beach”), Arnold had a
passionate sense of a theme and an image or myth in which to embody that theme. Without an image or myth, he resorted to poetry of statement—or rhetoric.
Second, Arnold is much closer to modernity than Wordsworth. While the Romantic poet believed in the possibility (however hard it might be) of a “wedding of mind and nature” that
could provide access to and participation in a “spirit that rolls through all things,” Arnold is
decidedly more skeptical. He’s not as pessimistic as Thomas Hardy, to be sure, but like Hardy Arnold is convinced that no transcendental reality, no guaranteed source of value or meaning, can be verified. Arnold recognizes the ephemeral nature of the world. He is a poet of isolation, of homelessness and disequilibrium. He gives voice to the modern condition of alienation.
In “Dover Beach,” Arnold sums up his vision of the world, which is one of internal hemorrhage. He constantly underscores the insufficiency of ourselves. For Arnold, we are left alone—
confronting ourselves. We struggle, and we recognize the need to know who we are. Yet we lose ourselves and are not aware of it. His poetry works to define the relation between the world and the self, suggesting that the two are inevitably separate. We are connected to each other and to nature, according to Arnold, but that connection is something indefinable, unknowable. So we’re
adrift in our isolation. He believes that there is an invariable distance between one’s public self
and one’s “real” self. Living in a world of public selves, according to Arnold, we become numbed to our inner selves. Consequently, Arnold anticipates the major direction of twentieth-century philosophic and poetic concerns:
- Who are we?
- What gives our lives value and meaning?
Wordsworth saw a potential harmony between the mind and the natural world. Arnold denies that. We inhabit a world not our own. For Arnold, the world does not exist to give us bliss. We have no dominion, as the Bible claims, over the world. Our most noble response to these conditions is stoicism. Arnold is an extremely stoical figure.
Arnold rejected religion, science, and faith, whereas Tennyson and Browning still have faith, shards of it at least. Arnold sees human beings as prisoners of consciousness, with minds totally
caught within themselves and their own inescapable limits. For Arnold, there is always a gap between the world and ourselves. Arnold sees the world as depending on psychic harmony, but
unfortunately thought destroys this harmony.
In “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” Arnold speaks of
“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
the other powerless to be born.”
This is an excellent passage to memorize, because it sums up a great deal about the Victorian period. Arnold’s poetry is about the death of one world and the emergence of another (as is a lot of Victorian literature). Arnold had a name for the former world, which has died and can’t be
recovered. He called it “Joy.” This is
- the bright, clear world of ancient Greece
- the buoyant world of the English Renaissance
- Wordsworth’s world
- the world of childhood
The second world, which would be Arnold’s ideal, but which is “powerless to be born,” is hardly
seen in Arnold’s poetry. It is a world of “Recovered Joy.” It differs from “Joy” because,
according to Arnold, “its elements are true”—i.e., it has no “divine illusion” like the former
world of Joy. Also, Recovered Joy is a world of “Joy in widest commonalty spread,” whereas the
former Joy involved a kind of aristocratic exclusiveness.
In between these worlds is what Arnold called Calm. Calm is a world of unity and order. It differs from Joy in being the painfully acquired product of culture, not the spontaneous, freely received gift of nature. Arnold never shows the realization of this world, either.
Arnold’s verse exemplifies the pessimism of the mid- to late nineteenth century, an age torn between science and religion. His feelings of spiritual isolation are reflected in such poems as “Dover Beach” and “Isolation: To Marguerite.”
Nature seems not to have taught Arnold to center his attention on human life as in the case of Wordsworth. Perhaps the best blending of the natural with the human is to be found in the famous “Dover Beach,” which signals Arnold’s disillusionment with the seeming promise of the
world, whose “Sea of Faith” was once adequate to the needs of people but had since lapsed. While human misery had existed since ancient times, there was now a special need for truthful, loving human relations where joy, light, certainty, care, and peace were in eclipse.
Like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold saw the religious traditions as so much outworn clothing. He saw the Bible as a work of literature, like those of Homer, and the churches of his day as quite unsatisfactory. In his critical works, he becomes an investigator of social malaise.
On “Dover Beach”
Arnold visited Dover with his new bride, Frances Lucy Wightman, in late June 1851 (they had married on June 10) and again on October 8 in that year—facts that have led scholars to date the
poem’s composition at that time. Arnold held on to the complete poem without publishing it until 1867, fifteen years after its composition.
One of the most important allusions in the poem is to Sophocles, the Greek dramatist, and his representation, as Arnold puts it, of the “turbid ebb and flow / of human misery.” Scholars have pointed to the following passages written by Sophocles:
Blest are those whose days have not tasted of evil. For when a house has once been shaken by the gods, no form of ruin is lacking, but it spreads over the bulk of the race, just as, when the surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath of Thracian sea-winds, it rolls up the black sand from the depths, and the wind-beaten headlands that front the blows of the storm give out a mournful roar.
For just as one may see billow after billow advancing and passing over the wide deep before the tireless south-wind, or the north, so the great toil of his life, stormy as the Cretan sea, now whirls back the heir of Cadmus, now exalts him.
from Oedipus at Colonus
In such years is this poor man here, not I alone. Like some cape that fronts the north which is lashed on every side by the waves of winter, so he also is fiercely lashed evermore by the dread disasters that break on him like the surf, some from the region of the setting sun, some from that of its rising, some in the realm of its noon-time rays, some from the gloom-wrapped hills of the North.
More on the poem . . .
“Dover Beach” reflects the changes Arnold sees in his world due to industrialism, science, and a rationalism that opposes traditional religious belief. While Arnold uses Dover Beach to represent
this modern world of change, he creates a speaker to represent the tension that the poet and his fellow Victorians feel: while living in a modern world, they long for the great ages of the past.
Like Arnold, the speaker feels isolated from the world around him: he looks out the window and “sighs for lost palaces beneath the sea” (Dahl 36). Initially, the beach that Arnold’s speaker describes seems serene, calm, and peaceful. This is the Romantic world that the speaker (and Arnold) wants to live in. However, for Arnold the modern world can be peaceful only if natural order and the authority of social institutions can be maintained. Arnold’s recognition of the futile illusion of such stability soon overcomes the sense of tranquility with which the poem opens.
As the speaker begins to contemplate the scene and listens to the pebbles grating with the waves, an “eternal note of sadness” emerges (14). Like the pebbles that are continuously flung about by
the waves, the world is constantly changing. Such external change is disorienting and distressing, for it undermines any appearance of natural, social, or moral order. Material change follows
change but “human misery” endures (18). In this paradox, Arnold expresses a deep and abiding
sense of despair over the human predicament. It seems as if everything great in the past is gone, and the great ages “of the future have not yet come” (Dahl 37).
The distress of Arnold’s persona is only intensified by his recognition that others have felt the same sadness that he feels: “Sophocles long ago / Heard it” (15-16). The insight and sympathy of
poets and artists like Sophocles has no progressive impact upon history: human misery continues. If anything, such artistic insight as Sophocles’ seems to undermine the redeeming ideals of spiritual faith.
As the focus of the narrator shifts from Sophocles to the traditions of religion, Arnold ironically suggests that those who recognize the persistent suffering of humanity must also acknowledge the decline of traditional religious faith. Among Victorians there was a growing awareness that while a “City of God was certainly known and accepted,” it was “ignored by most men” (Dahl
36). As he contemplates Dover Beach, Arnold’s narrator hears only the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith (25). Throughout his career, Arnold responded to this
sense of spiritual decline by seeking a kind of salvation and rebirth “in social action in obedience to great human leaders” (Dahl 36). Thus, it is not surprising that the narrator of “Dover Beach” seeks a kind of social redemption as well.
The narrator’s response, however, seems more futile than Arnold’s. His desperate sadness continues to the end of the poem. Religion provides no relief, nor does social or political action. He mourns to his companion that “we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused
alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night” (35-37). The only hope left
seems to be in personal love. Thus, his speaker begs his lover to “let us be true / To one
another!” (29-30). There is a desperation in this pleading that may seem untypical of Arnold or the Victorians. Yet the narrator’s imagery of the violence and darkness besieging the human idealism of love perhaps provides an expression of the Victorians’ half-suppressed anxieties.
Perhaps “Dover Beach” should be read as a kind of Victorian nightmare. This may be one way to understand the tensions and contradictions within the poem.
The desperation of the speaker as the poem closes contradicts the apparent pleasure offered by Dover Beach in the beginning. However, both the calmness and the violence of the beach, both the pleasure and the despair of the speaker, are true to the Victorian consciousness. Arnold and his speaker want the world to be one of peace and tranquility, but they cannot help but see its reality. This duality dramatizes the conflicted temperament of the Victorians. What Dover Beach
as a place symbolizes to the narrator of the poem, “Dover Beach” as a poem expresses for Arnold and his Victorian audience.
Commentary on “Dover Beach” by critic Ian Lancashire
“Dover Beach,” like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” contrasts the present and the deep
past. For Keats, the nightingale uttered a wordless, melancholic beauty that Biblical Ruth also heard. A glimpse of time past proves consoling. When Arnold looks out a window onto Dover Beach, he instead hears the “grating roar” caused by the waves of the English Channel as they
strike the shoreline at the base of the great chalk cliffs; and he thinks of the “mournful roar” of
which Sophocles wrote in Antigone. At poem’s end, Arnold also remembers the chaotic night-
battle at Epipolae when Athenian warriors—unable to see—killed friend and enemy alike. Time
past for Arnold forewarns humanity of its sad destiny. Keats escaped the miseries of his present
by entering the after-death ecstasy of the nightingale’s world. Arnold escaped ancient reminders
of “human misery,” “alarm and flight,” by dwelling on present tenderness: a calm sea, sweet
night-air, and his beloved by his side. Time past, yoked to time present, reveals how fragile is the basis of human happiness. Keats closes his ode, asking if he dreams or wakes. Arnold ends his lyric, leaving no doubt that our “land of dreams” is a sham.
Both poets suggest that the imagination acts as the gateway between present and past. At first, the mind fixes on haunting music from nature: the nightingale’s song, and the waves’
“tremulous cadence slow.” Next, the mind finds “in the sound a thought” from past literature.
For Arnold, it is a passage in Sophocles; Keats refers only to the “viewless wings” of poetry, but
he is soon to think consciously of the Bible, and possibly of Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper.”
Lyric poetry, more intensely than prose, fuses present experience and memory of the past and then forges something new from their union. For that reason, such poetry is “occasional”: its
unique insight rises from an instant of immediate experience and binds that moment permanently to something in long-term memory. “Dover Beach” did not become among the most well-known
poems in English by accident. Arnold makes explicit the formula by which everyone finds meaningfulness in an experience. You see a landscape by seashore, moonlight and sunset off the French coast, and then, “Listen! you hear the grating roar.” These sights and sounds recall what
you knew, say, at school. Here it is something from Sophocles. Then, inexplicably, your experience-memory mixture utters a new thought, that the ebbing tide is to nature what the loss of faith is to humanity, inescapably natural and sad. This your revelation, finally, ends in a resolution. The faithful love of friends can replace that between man and God. You say to your
partner, “Ah, love, let us to be true / To one another!”
Before “Dover Beach,” no one had purified this thought and this conviction so effectively.
In “In Memoriam,” grieving for the loss of his best friend, Arthur Hallem, Tennyson came close, but finally he retreated from committing so much to so frail a creature. Arnold, however, was holidaying with his new bride in Dover when he evidently had this experience and this resolution. He kept it secret for fifteen years, only publishing the poem in 1867, by which time Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species had sheared away the myths of Genesis with scientific dispatch. To
say openly, in an age before medicine had the knowledge and the techniques to combat illness, that there was no “help for pain” gave away hope for hope in a bleak world. Of course, Arnold
would ably defend the civilizing liberal arts from an enterprising economy energized by the new sciences in his Culture and Anarchy (1869). Two years before, in “Dover Beach,” Arnold
showed why he dared do so. He must have concluded that loving someone truly remained the only alternative to a world that gives us “neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor
peace, nor help for pain,” and that only imagination, working on the likes of Sophocles in long-term memory, could prepare us to love truly.
Arnold uses his words carefully. When he says that the world does not give us “love,” he
means, in part, that the world lacks imagination and so can know very little about time past, which is crystallized in ancient literature like a leaf in amber, knowledge of which is an essential precondition for love. Both the world and the armies that “clash by night” are ignorant. Arnold
does not mean that love does not exist, but that it comes only from a partner who, unlike the world, can share the exquisite perception and resolution such as Arnold describes in “Dover
Beach.” Knowledge, shaped by the well-educated imagination, leads to understanding, understanding to empathy, and empathy to “true love.”
Only analogy and metaphor can translate sounds into thoughts. “Dover Beach” advances
by three such extended comparisons. Arnold first associates the “grating roar” that accompanies
the waves, retreating and returning, casting pebbles on the beach shingles, with what Sophocles thinks of: “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” If humanity is the sea, the waves
collapsing ashore resemble the wretched whose cries “bring / The eternal note of sadness in.”
Next, Arnold and his companion, the “we” overlooking a “northern sea” far from Sophocles’
southern “Ægean,” devise a different metaphor, one more attune with their lives. If the sea is humanity’s religious faith, then the “earth’s shore” is the irreligious world, ever expanding as the
sea’s tide, having turned, retreats. Arnold embeds yet another metaphor within this comparison.
The sea resembles the world’s bright belt, once in folds (spread out in waves) and furled (that is, coiled up and bound).
Last, Arnold manages a deft transition to a quite different analogy. The Sea of Faith, which “Lay” like a belt around the earth’s land, becomes “the world which seems / To lie before
us like a land of dreams.” Religious faith becomes a dream. Arnold brings together the two
opposites, sea and land joined at their touching edges, in the phrase “naked shingles of the
world.” So fused, they become a single “darkling plain.” The “roar,” which in the first two
metaphors stands for the sound of the crashing waves, or of the withdrawing tide, becomes “confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Arnold’s three analogies, step by step, transport his beloved from a window overlooking a calm moonlit sea to a dark, war-torn battlefield, from security to immediate danger of death. By taking vows of faithfulness, the lovers can to some extent offset the loss of religious faith in the world. However, in the lines that follow, “for the world, which seems . . .”, Arnold uses an
argument based on mutual fear. Worse, the allusion to Thucydides allows a reader to infer that the lovers are potentially like warriors on the same side who, because they could not see, have fought against rather than for one another. Having stripped his beloved of the comforts of religious faith, he drops her onto a battlefield of males, warring unintentionally against their own comrades.
The poem’s content addresses broad religious, social, and political events of its own age as much as personal relationships. Perhaps on the model of Robert Browning’s dramatic
monologues, “Dover Beach” might express what typical well-educated newlywed couples, the
sacrament of marriage still echoing in their memories, might feel in the privacy of their room, far from priests and relatives with unexceptional dogmas. On the other hand, the escalating negativism and subtly veiled threat in the last verse paragraph cannot as easily be explained away as a partly-flawed transition resulting from its composition earlier than the first three paragraphs. Either Arnold did not see it -- not a good sign -- or he meant us to recognize the speaker’s nervous drift towards suspecting that best loves might become, accidentally, very bad for one another.