#24 “Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold)

Matthew Arnold is one of the main inspirations for the Poetry Countdown: well, Matthew Arnold and Casey Kasem. Arnold insisted that we should study “the best that has been thought and said,” partly on the theory that life is too short to do anything else. Arnold’s idea is a profoundly humanist thought, one that might scandalize a religious dogmatist or provoke the scorn of a postmodernist.

As one of the great humanists, Arnold often pictured himself alone in the world. Religious certainty eluded him, though he often wished that religion could be accepted unquestioningly. “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head,” wrote Arnold. “One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” Because he couldn’t accept religion or do without it, he found himself, as he says in another poem, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born,” and in yet another poem, he pictured each human individual as alone on an island in the middle of the “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.”

Aside from establishing Matthew Arnold as one of the most quotable guys of the 19th century, these snippets from his writings establish a context for his greatest poem, “Dover Beach.” Here, too, he uses imagery of oceans and isolation, though somewhat in reverse: the “Sea of Faith” that was once so comforting has no withdrawn, leaving us high and dry.

The solution? There is no good solution, but the speaker of “Dover Beach” suggests that we “be true / To one another,” in a deeply humanist answer to a universe that may well make no sense at all.

This is another poem in the grand Victorian mode, like “Ulysses”, and just as noble in sentiment. Unlike “Ulysses,” though, “Dover Beach” employs a “free-rhyming” form that is looser than stanza form or blank verse. It is as if the speaker were trying out an idea that wouldn’t fit in the formulas of verse established for English by Shakespeare and Milton. In that respect, “Dover Beach” is a very “modern” poem, one that confronts uncertainties (“negative capability” again) with its own kind of plain-spoken grandeur.

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11 responses to “#24 “Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold)

  1. This week non of the poems spoke to me not did I really enjoy them either, it was hard for me to read they just did not seem to make sense. This one poem I did get that he was talking about the water and the feel of the water it had. The only part I really did enjoy was the last 9 lines of the poem, “for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams”, that part spoke to me. The other parts did not flow for me.

  2. The fact that Arnold pictured himself alone in the world is reflected in this poem because it has a tone of loneliness and sadness. I get the feeling that maybe the beach is the place where Arnold went to when he wanted to think and also where he felt the the most lonely. The speaker in this poem is describing what it feels like to listen to the waves of the beach–sometimes it can be relaxing and comfortable; but other times it could “bring the eternal note of sadness in.” In other words, listening to the waves can release a feeling of sadness. I can understand this because sometimes when one is sad and they go to the beach, it only intesifies that feeling. I guess the speaker’s trying to infer that the beach is the place to go when one wants to think, cry, relax, and so on; basically the beach is a place to go when one wants to think about life and the world. I do agree with gonzam10 when he or she says that the poems we did this past week were interesting. I felt that they were hard to understand; and they didn’t quite get my attention.

  3. This poem reminds me of a trip I took with my family on a cruise to Cozumel Mexico and standing on the back of the ship at night with no one insight staring out into the ocean with a full moon right over me. To me it was beautiful but a sense of loneliness. I noticed the moon alone in the sky not a star insight so It wasn’t a bright night. The light of the moon cast on the dark ocean waters waves slowly hit the ship funny enough I started getting depressed in lonely lol. I started thinking about the guy I just broke up with before the trip how I felt as lonely as the moon in the sky and as dark as the ocean waters and my heart were was beating like the waves slow in depressing. But the little light that the moon cast on the water was a symbol of hope to me. It’s funny how love and hurt can make the heart hide and lose hope for love etc and I think thats what the poem is speaking about. I know usually people when they are angry, upset or whatever they sometimes isolate themselves from people/world. I think he’s saying don’t lose hope of love God and let go of insecurity’s.

  4. I thought this poem was a very interesting one. The point of view changes a few times which makes it a little out of the ordinary. Sometimes it seems like the speaker is talking personally and then it seems as if he’s talking about all of mankind in general. The scene painted by the speaker at the beginning of the poem is a quiet, peaceful and beautiful seaside view. Then, the poem transitions to a scene that contrasts the first one with lots of tension and energy as he describes the movement of the waves. I believe the poem is relaying the message that faith in a higher power used to give people comfort in the past. Then, somehow that comfort goes away along with the faith people have in God, and life becomes a big mess. At the end of the poem we see that faith has been restored. However, the faith is a different kind of faith. It is no longer faith in a higher power, but rather a faith in another person or faith in the relationships between people. Overall the poem has a lonely, sad, miserable feel to it, but strangely enough it also has a beautiful feel to it!

  5. I like this poem because it is calm and soothing just like the ocean. I think the author is describing how it feels to lay out at night on the beach. When you do this you are relaxed and calm. It feels like all of your problems have faded away and you dont have a care in the world. I think this is a place the author went to get away and ease his mind when he needed time to himself. We all have these places we go just to think and reflect on life. I like this poem because i think it is one we can all relate to.

  6. I found this poem very interesting in theme. I also found the rhythm of the poem interesting because it fluctuates, kind of like the waves of the sea that night. I love how he tied the sea into his thoughts, to represent his thoughts. The interesting part about the theme, I thought, was that midst the beauty in this world like nature and the sea, in reality its filled with uncertainty and pain and if lovers can stay faithful in this world then that’s one thing of value and beauty that will remain. Another reason why I liked this poem was because I found it quite visual.

  7. I like to paint an image in my mind when I am reading. Reading and hearing Dover Beach I imagined a peaceful night on the beach listening to the waves, the moon shining and a nice breeze of fresh air. It is something about the beach and water that brings calmness to your soul when it has been disturbed. As mentioned in the poem “of human misery; we” when life has taken you on a roller coaster or just a hectic week you need something that will calm your mind and bring peace back to your life. Once you read the rest of the poem you experience a moment of tension. The one thing that comes to mind is the sea or beach was once a place you could trust to bring you joy, peace and remove your sorrow. The sea we once trusted no longer posse that tranquility. Even the sea has been disturbed by the war of land and water. This reminds me of a song called “Who can I run to” when waves are high, the air is whistling of trouble and the night is full of darkness who can we run to if the sea is no longer filled with peace?

  8. Other than Dover Beach the other poems that we had read this week were very hard for me to understand and they were not the most enjoyable. I found Dover Beach to be very interesting and the undertones were easier for me to pick up on. I had read Dover Beach years ago and I had forgotten about it. It had a really sad tone to it or at least that is what I picked up on. The poem shows us the importance of recognizing the significance of the uncertain world we are living in today and gives instances of how the world once was. One could argue there is an undertone of the author trying to get us to change our ways. The last four lines of the poem in my opinion are the most powerful lines we have read all semester.
    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.

  9. I find “Dover Beach” to be a sad but insightful poem. Sad in the sense that it is written in a sad tone and uses words and phrases with sad connotations. Like “The eternal note of sadness”, and “melancholy”. Also the setting takes place at night. Insightful because the poem is essentially about the sound of pebbles being swept with the tide and waves against the shore. How man finds this to be a torturous sound. I interpret this to mean how we are all subjective to our surroundings. We are always put involuntarily in situations with no control over what happens to us. Just as the force of the waves and currents force the pebbles to stay on the shore. I have been trapped in an undertow when floating a river and it was a horrifying experience. You literally cannot swim hard enough to overcome the current. The feeling of being powerless is very unpleasant. Sometimes in life you cannot control your circumstances but it is interesting when realized and appreciated any way.

  10. This poem seems very sad to me. The author talks as if he is lonely with not another care. The poem actually caught my eye though becuause it was talking about the beach. I love the beach and everything about it. The poem speaks of the sea and the waves crashing. It just seems as if it is very melancholy, but beautiful in my eyes. I love hearing the different sounds of the ocean. It is so peaceful, calm, and relaxing.

  11. I found it interesting that during the beginning of the poem this view of Dover beach reminded the speaker of the philosopher Sophocles and this setting is accredited as the inspiration for some of the philosopher’s ideas, yet at the end of the poem a shift occurs and all this knowledge which was derived in this place is now the setting of “ignorant war”. Why is it that this setting seems to invoke sadness to the speaker? This setting is a metaphor for the world and existence. and there is no real hope in our existence just “shattered dreams and loss of hope and ignorance. His only salvation lies in his “love”, his companion, because in the interaction with this significant other the speaker finds truth.

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