Dover Beach

Mathew Arnold

3 min read by Betty and Dmitri. Published in Essays, Stories.

The sea is calm tonight.

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-blanched 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.

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 and 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 furled.

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.

The naked truth, unmitigated by faith loses much of its charm and beauty… The poem exhibits a troubled present and an equally complicated past.

The Victorian era brought about remarkable transformations in England. Within one century the country experienced rapid industrialization, population growth, expansion of wealth, and social upheaval. It was also a time of scientific and technological advancement. The Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 promulgated the nation’s culture and inventions. Charles Darwin’s writings, made popular by Thomas Henry Huxley, entered the public consciousness. Physicist, John Tyndall, challenged the widely accepted timeline in the old testament. 

Poet, reformer, and literary critic, Mathew Arnold, was perturbed by the effect of unconstrained progress on society. Arnold believed that religion was vital to civilization. He argued that the Victorian middle class was “not so much wicked as ignorant, narrow-minded, and suffering from the dullness of their private lives” and sought to enlighten them with educational reforms. Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” is a declaration of the erosion of religious faith and disillusionment with the modern world.

For Arnold, progress in the industrial age meant a myriad of novelties and opportunities. But instead of leading to happiness, the abundance of choice led to confusion and ambivalence.

In his poem, the ocean acts as a metaphor for faith. The tumultuous “sea of faith” was formerly “full, and round earth’s shores”. Once receded, it reveals “vast edges drear/ And naked shingles of the world.” Arnold contends that the barren wasteland revealed by modern discovery is a poor exchange for the “glimmering and vast” waters of religious conviction. The naked truth, unmitigated by faith loses much of its charm and beauty.

The poem presents complex attitudes towards the church. The sea’s “withdrawing roar” reveals a dreary landscape yet the “grating roar” is likened to the sound of human misery. The devotion might produce hope, but it does not eliminate suffering nor diminish sorrow. The tide of religion also “brings/ The eternal note of sadness in”.

The poem exhibits a troubled present and an equally complicated past.