Dover Beach Summary by Matthew Arnold

Here we are looking at a detailed stanza-wise summary of Matthew Arnold‘s Dover Beach. Matthew Arnold, being one of the most eminent Victorian poets, minutely captures the cultural, moral and ethical decomposition existing in the Victorian era of doubts and disbelief. He was an English poet and cultural critic who considered poetry as the “Criticism of life”. From a literary critic, he transformed into a general critic of his age, capturing and revealing the world for what it was.

Line by Line Summary of Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

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. 



Stanza 1- The poem begins with a serene description of the sea by the speaker who stood on the coast to enjoy the captivating beauty of the sea. A mood of sensory awareness is created as the landscape composed of the tranquil sea, moonlight and the strait gives a picture that is constituted of balance, stability, and harmony. The strait refers to the Strait of Dover between the English Channel and the North sea. The light that ‘gleams and is gone’ in the literal sense, brings into picture a light that’s flickering on the French coast. Metaphorically, however, the light is regarded as the fluctuating faith in God and religion. The Weighty Rallentando with which a series of affirmations occur in the first sentence, however, signifies that God’s dignity cannot be destroyed by the loss of faith. Moonlight creates a sense of melancholy, meditation, and despair. The natural scene is amalgamated with a sense of spiritual security established by the words calm, full, fair and tranquil. The cliffs of England, composed of an eroding limestone, chalk, makes it look bright and huge. The concept of eroding furthers the theme of the weakening of faith of human beings.

The speaker calls his companion to join him in experiencing the delight that nature is. It is a tender appeal to pause and participate as Arnold seeks companionship. The poet could anticipate the shift in human ideology from the Christian tradition to the impersonal world of Darwin and other scientists.  


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A beautiful image is evoked as the beach drenched with water drops and blanched with the bright moonlight makes the sand look white.  The jarring roar of the pebbles caused by the ebb and flow of the sea creates a striking contrast to the pleasant atmosphere described in the first few lines. It produces a depressing, tragic and undulating appeal. The continuous and endless movements of the waves bring in a deep sense of melancholy- an “eternal note of sadness” in human life.


Sophocles long ago 
Heard it on the Ægean, 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.

 

Stanza 2- It is an allusion to the famous tragic poet Sophocles. The despondent and monotonous sound of the waves reminds him of the despair with which Sophocles observed the misery and suffering of human beings in life as he heard the melancholic sound of the waves of the Aegean Sea. The poet too finds himself deeply affected by the tragic aspect of the sea and of human fate. Nobody is free from the eternal sufferings that human beings find themselves in. The disordered rise and fall of human misery is symbolic to the ebb and flow of the sea waves. The sea is an archetypal image invested with the sentiment of divine dignity.
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. 


Stanza 3- The faith in the religion that, owing to advancement in science and materialism, was rapidly losing its significance, is compared to a sea. A sense of doubt and despair pervaded the Victorian era, leaving man vulnerable and dejected. The spiritual and religious faith that was once unbreakable was shivering now. The sea of faith that enveloped the world just like a girdle is fastened around the waist of an individual has now receded. The sea no longer conducts the act of ablution round earth’s human shores. Science questioned and challenged the religious and spiritual ideas, inducing doubts in people’s minds. The dominating and loud roar of religious faith was now retreating. The loud and intense roar of the sea of faith was now replaced by a gloomy and withdrawing roar. The night wind here symbolizes disbelief and doubts. Faith has been darkened by science.
‘Naked shingles’, in the literal sense, refers to the pebbles that are naked because the water has receded. However, it hints to the idea that when faith is lost, there is no divine delight to clothe us. Swinburne’s remark rightly fits into this context as he says- “The clothes are well enough, but where has the body gone?”

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.



Stanza 4– The final paragraph opens with an expression of intense despair and sorrow pent up in the mind of the speaker. Love is invoked as the ultimate solace with a sense of a certain consolation. According to the poet, in a world that has been tormented by deception, lies, and gloom, love is the ultimate truth. The world seems to be like a deceptive land of dreams which culminates in hopelessness and pain. The reality is contrasted to the appearance and illusion we trust life to be. Life is a cacophony of turmoil in which human beings are swallowed by the ‘darkling plain’ where there is no joy, no love, no faith, no certainty, no harmony and no help. Lovers in their common suffering require the comfort of constancy as we, as human beings, are more often brought together more by sorrow than by happiness. A kind of darkness surrounds human destiny as they clash with each other on vague alarms with a sense of primitivism and savagery. And the clash is as endless as time and tide. Humanity has lost its substance and spirit as they indulge in meaningless acts of battles and wars, spreading only despair and hopelessness.

No mere words can express the sheer brilliance with which the Victorian poet writes. In capturing the essence of Arnold’s poetry, we need to delve a lot deeper. However, coming to an end, if you guys liked this article or if you have something to add then do not hesitate to post your views in the comments section. Stay tuned for more. We wish all the best to all our ICSE and ISC students and expect them to perform well on their board exams.

Abhishek is a marketing research and social media consultant who developed a keen interest in blogging. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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