Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Dover Beach

Mathew Arnold

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. familiarise with some features of Victorian poetry
  2. get acquainted with thematic concerns of Matthew Arnold
  3. become aware of Matthew Arnold’s poetic styles
  4. acquire an idea on the nature of dilemma encountered by the Victorian people


When Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, England underwent numerous social and historical changes which shaped the country in a new direction. The Victorian period witnessed numerous innovations and revolutions in the society but it had also brought some crises. On the one hand, there was an economic expansion due to the boom in industry and business; on the other hand, there was an intense dilemma for people who were confused between faith and reason. The emergence of new scientific developments diverted people away from their traditional, religious understanding of the universe. The rift between men of science and religion became more visible during the period. The publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 also made the gap more palpable.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) is a renowned poet and critic of the Victorian period. Arnold’s ambiguous relationship with religion and his fascination for new ideals are representative of Victorian society and their dilemma. A quarter of his life was mainly dedicated to poetry. Some of these feelings, values, and attitudes are elaborately presented and theorised in his critical essays. Arnold’s lecture at Oxford in 1857 titled ‘On the Modern Element in Literature’ marked his transition from a poet to a critic. Critical essays of Arnold were noted for their in-depth analysis of culture and he was even termed as an apostle of culture for his noted works like Culture and Anarchy. This may be the reason for considering Arnold in academic circles more as a critic than a poet. His views on various subjects like religion, education and society were instilled into the public consciousness of the Victorian period and later. Arnold’s poems capture some of the important themes of his time such as emotional imbalances, uncertainties, and disunity in one’s own psyche. “The Scholar-Gipsy” and “Dover Beach” are some of the most anthologised and studied poems of Arnold.

Key Themes

Victorian dilemma, Value of love


“Dover Beach” is one of the most celebrated lyrical poems of Matthew Arnold. Released in 1867 as a part of the collection New Poems, the poem laments on the loss of faith and values in Victorian society and as a resolve to this, the poet longs for an unconditional love and trust from his beloved which may provide them a sense of belonging in a world where things are illusory and imaginary.

5.4.1 Summary of the Poem

Stanza 1

An enchanting night is the temporal setting of the first stanza. Looking outside, in this darkness, the speaker says that the sea is calm that night, the tide is in its fullness and the moon seems attractive. Though the poet is in England, he watches the flickering and fading light of the French coast. Meanwhile, the cliffs of England could be seen spreading around the area with its glimmering light and the bay remains calm. Then, the speaker dramatically invites his beloved to the window in order to draw her attention to this charming night.

Word Meanings:

Gleams – shine brightly
Cliff – a high area of rock with a very
steep side
Glimmering – shine faintly
Tranquil – calm
Blanched – turn pale or whitened. The poem refers to the land which is whitened by the moonlight.
Grating – sounding harsh and unpleasant
Tremulous – shaking or quivering
Cadence – regular rise and fall of sound

Literary Devices

Imagery: The poem employs many images. In the first stanza many striking visual and auditory images are used. Eg:- “Listen! You hear the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling.” In these lines the poet provides the visual image of flinging pebbles in the waves and the auditory image of its grating roar.

Stanza 2

The speaker says that Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright, also heard the same sound from the shore of the Aegean Sea. This sound of waves evokes in his mind the misery and sorrow of humanity at large. From the sound of the distant sea, the poet is also reminded of another thought.

Word Meanings

Aegean – The Aegean Sea is an arm of the Mediterranean Sea, located between the Greek peninsula on the west and Asia Minor on the east
Turbid – obscure or confused
Ebb and flow – Recurrence of rise and decline

Literary Devices

Allusion: It is the reference to the historical event, person, place, etc. In the poem there is an allusion to Sophocles, the Greek playwright.

Stanza 3

Elaborating on this thought, the speaker says that just like the sea which lies circling around the sea, once faith was also full. As the sea of faith has become smaller, now the poet cannot see the sea of faith in its fullness. Only its melancholic, withdrawing sound could be heard now. As the sea of faith disappears, the edges of the earth become naked.

Word meaning

Girdle – Belt
Melancholy – A feeling of sadness
Shingles – Mass of pebbles on seashore
“Lay like…furled” -When the sea of faith was full, it was like “bright girdle” which rolled around the earth.

Literary Devices

Symbolism: Sea of faith in the poem is symbolic of faith in God and religion.

Stanza 4

In a world order where no faith and value prevail, the speaker addresses his beloved to be true to each other. As the speaker informs his beloved that though the world in front of them appears dreamy, beautiful, new and diverse, it has actually no joy, love, light, certainty and peace. The speaker then says that their situation is like that of someone who has landed in a dark place where anonymous armies fight each other for unknown reasons.

Word Meanings

Darkling – Characterised by darkness
Land of dreams – Signifies the illusory nature of people’s lives Ignorant armies
clash by night – It is a battle fought in the darkness where men fight unaware of what they were fighting for and who their enemies were.

Literary Devices

Enjambment: It is a poetic feature where po-ems will have running lines. It could be seen in the last stanza of the poem.
Eg:- Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Critical Analysis

“Dover Beach”, written in 1851, is often referred to as a dramatic monologue where the voice of the speaker alone is provided and the presence of the silent listener may be clued in. Reminiscent of romantic poetry, some critics consider it as a ‘honeymoon’ poem, ‘Dover Beach’ begins with a natural setting. Structurally, in a similar fashion to the sonnet, the poem consists of three stanzas of fourteen, six and eight lines respectively.

As Arnold presents his thesis of poetry as it “is at bottom a criticism of life under conditions fixed for poetic truth and poetic beauty”, “Dover Beach” brings forth the most important critique of Victorian society in well-composed poetic lines. Compared to his influential poems like “The Scholar Gipsy”and “Thyrsis,” “Dover Beach” is a shorter poem but it is noted for its poetic and intellectual depths.

In the beginning, the poem features Dover Beach with a soothing description. The romantic streak of the poem is what makes the poem more endearing. In order to ensure this warmth, the poet employs words like ‘calm’, ‘full’, ‘moon’, ‘fair’, ‘tranquil’, and ‘sweet’. In contrast to the initial mood and tone of the poem, the poet provides a sad and bleak description towards the end of the first stanza with words like ‘tremulous’, ‘cease’, ‘sadness’ and ‘grating roar’. Addressing his beloved, Arnold says ‘Listen, you hear the grating roar’. In this line, the speaker adopts a more emotional approach, which naturally conveys the anxieties and the inner turbulences of the poet.

Dover Beach is located between England and France. The poet, being at the side of England, watches the coastal area of France. The night is the temporal setting of the poem. There is a gradual progression in the poem, beginning from a calm and serene ambience and developing into a complex, disturbing state of the world. The poet’s description of landscape and address to the bridegroom are juxtaposed in a balanced way. There is a complete synergy between the background and foreground in the poem.

In this poem, Matthew Arnold, projecting an instance in the life of a couple, introduces a profound truth. The poem is structured in four stanzas of variable lengths. There is no strict and apparent rhyme scheme followed in the poem. The thematic and structural development of the stanza is closely connected with the image of tide and its movement. The mood of the poem is mainly melancholic. Arnold maintains a bleak mood and atmosphere in the major portions of the poem.

Even from the very first statement “the sea is calm tonight,” the vital importance of the sea in the poem could be understood. Throughout the poem, the image of the sea plays a centralrole. In the last stanza, the poet revives the idea stating that, though the seems calm and serene, the situation is not as it appears, as the ignorant armies fight each other anonymously.

When the light from France is extinguished, the poet changes his attention to the English side. Doing so, he concentrates more on the movement of the sea which leads him to realise the sad note of the sea. Alluding to Sophocles, the poet compares his experience with that of Sophocles on the shore of the Aegean Sea. Through this vivid capturing of the image, the poet states that just like the sea was full of waters, faith was once full in the society, but now just like the tide withdrew from the shore, religious values and faith faded from the society. The metaphor of the sea of faith introduced in the third stanza of the poem is the central image of the poem.

In the third stanza, where the metaphor of ‘sea of faith’ is extended, the poet provides bleak and dark images to convey the great dilemma of the poet in particular and that of the Victorian society in general. Visualising the withdrawing sea, the poet brings the image of the shore in the absence of water which appears bereft of its former beauty. Through visual and auditory images like the retreating sea of faith and its melancholic withdrawing roar, the poet showcases the desolation and perplexity of his generation who lose their faith in any belief system.

As Arnold captures the Victorian dilemma in “Dover Beach,” the poet sets the tone of Victorian compromise towards the end of the poem. Providing a reconciliatory end to the poem, the poet requests his beloved to be truthful in their relationship. It is in this fourth and final stanza of the poem, disillusioned with the present condition, the poet demands his lady love to be truthful in their relationship as he believes that it can only give meaning to their life, in a world order where no human values are maintained properly. The poet suggests that though the world seems so charming, and dream-like in its appearance, it is really deceptive as it cannot offer any help, certitude, and love. In this confused situation where ignorant armies fight each other, the poet suggests his beloved to make their life meaningful by strengthening their love and truthfulness.


  • Night -temporal setting of the poem
  • The speaker of the poem – to his beloved – sea is calm this night
  • Fading light of the French Coast
  • Speaker invites – beloved -window – charming night
  • Sophocles – Greek playwright-sound – the Aegean Sea
  • Sound of waves-misery and sorrow of humanity
  • Like the sea – circling around the sea – once faith was also full
  • Now -it’s melancholic, withdrawing sound
  • Sea of faith disappears- earth becomes naked
  • When no faith and value prevail – the speaker – beloved to be true
  • World appears dreamy, illusionary – actually no joy and peace
  • Their condition-someone landed in confused place – fighting each other

Objective Questions

  1. How does the sea appear when the poet meets his beloved?
  2. From where is the light gleaming and disappearing?
  3. Whom does the poet invite to the window?
  4. What mood is evoked in the poet when he listens to the movement of the sea?
  5. Who had listened to such a sound from the Aegean?
  6. What was the sound of waves brought to Sophocles?
  7. How was the sea of faith in the past?
  8. What has happened to the sea of faith now?
  9. What does the poet expect from his beloved?
  10. How does the world appear to the poet?


  1. Calm
  2. French Coast
  3. Beloved
  4. Sad
  5. Sophocles
  6. Human misery
  7. It was full
  8. Now it is withdrawing and only melancholic sound is heard
  9. To be true to one another
  10. Dreamy and beautiful


  1. Write a note on the features of Victorian Poetry.
  2. Trace the context of Victorian Dilemma and Victorian Compromise.
  3. Write a short note on love as an alternative value.
  4. How is the theme of the Victorian dilemma expressed in “Dover Beach?”
  5. Comment on the setting of the poem.
  6. Discuss “Dover Beach” as a love poem.
  7. Comment on the structure of “Dover Beach.”
  8. What are the major literary devices employed in the poem?
  9. Elaborate on sea as a central image in the poem.
  10. Discuss the nature of allusions in “Dover Beach.”

Suggested Readings

  • Arnold, Mathew. “Dover Beach” Poems. Macmillan, 1985.
  • Culler, Dwight. Imaginative Reason: the Poetry of Mathew Arnold. Yale U.P, 1966
  • Pratt, Linda Ray. Mathew Arnold Revisited. Twayne, 2000.