Dover Beach

Zora Neale Hurston wrote, "Once you wake up thought in a man, you can never put it to sleep again."1 While men certainly don't corner the market on overthinking, English author Matthew Arnold quickly puts a damper on what starts as a lovely honeymoon in the poem "Dover Beach" (1867). The scenery that initially invited love has become an analysis of the theme of science versus religion—while the rapturous tone of the opening lines spirals into hopelessness.

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Table of contents

    Dover Beach, Dover Beach seafront, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Arnold's choice to use Dover Beach as the setting contrasts the land where people and their conflicts dwell with their faith as the sea.

    "Dover Beach" Summary

    The last word of each line of "Dover Beach" is colored to highlight the rhyme scheme within each stanza.

    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. 5

    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, 10

    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 15

    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. 20

    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, 25

    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 30

    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 35

    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    In the first stanza of “Dover Beach,” the narrator looks over the English Channel. They describe a peaceful scene primarily devoid of human existence. Excited by the natural beauty, the narrator calls to their companion to share the view and melancholy sounds of the perpetual collision between land and shore.

    The narrator reflects on the gloomy din and connects their experience to imagining Sophocles listening on the shores of Greece. In the second stanza, the narrator contemplates that Sophocles must have compared the noise to rising and falling levels of tragedy in the human experience. Transitioning into the third stanza, the thought of human tragedy triggers a comparison to the loss of religious faith that the narrator sees happening in society.

    Sophocles (496 BCE-406 BCE) was a Greek playwright. He was one of the three famous Athenian playwrights whose works survived. He wrote tragedies and is best known for his Theban plays, including Oedipus Rex (430-420 BCE) and Antigone (441 BCE). Disaster strikes in Sophocles’s plays because of delusion, ignorance, or a lack of wisdom.

    In the final stanza of “Dover Beach,” the narrator exclaims that they must show each other the love and support they need because happiness and certainty are illusions in the outside world. The unfortunate reality is that the human experience is marked by turmoil. People have begun to fight against themselves and become morally disoriented because of their lack of faith.

    "Dover Beach" Analysis

    “Dover Beach” contains elements of both a dramatic monologue and lyric poem.

    Dramatic monologue poetry is characterized by a speaker who addresses a silent audience. It allows insight into the speaker’s thoughts.

    For example, the narrator in “Dover Beach” speaks to their lover and muses on the state of the world.

    Lyric poetry expresses personal feelings and uses various literary devices to infuse a song-like quality into the piece.

    “Dover Beach” is noteworthy because of Arnold’s experiments with the meter. Most of the poem is written in a traditional iambic rhythm, meaning that in groups of two syllables, there is an emphasis on the second syllable. Note how the words are spoken when reading line one aloud: “[the SEA is CALM toNIGHT].”

    At that time period, poets typically chose a meter and used it throughout the poem. Arnold deviates from this norm by occasionally switching from iambic to a trochaic meter that emphasizes the first syllable. For example, in line fifteen, he writes, “[SOPHoCLES long Ago].” As such, Arnold mimics the world's chaos by including confusion within the meter of his poem.

    Meter refers to how the beats of syllables in a poem come together to create a pattern.

    Arnold uses enjambment throughout “Dover Beach” to simulate the movement of waves on the shore. Lines 2-5 are a powerful example:

    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." (lines 2-5)

    The reader feels the tide’s pull as one line of the poem blends into the next.

    Enjambment refers to sentences in a poem that are split and continue into the following line.

    Matthew Arnold plays with the rhyme scheme in “Dover Beach” similarly to how he plays with the meter. Although no consistent pattern encompasses the entire poem, there are rhyme patterns that mingle within the stanzas. Therefore, the near rhyme between “Faith” in line twenty-one and “breath” in line twenty-six stands out to the reader. The not-quite match is a conscious choice by Arnold to signify the lack of place for faith in the world. Because it doesn't have a cohesive rhyme scheme, critics have labeled the poem “Dover Beach” as one of the earliest explorations into free verse territory.

    Free verse poetry is poems that have no rigid structural rules.

    Dover Beach, Moonrise on beach, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The moon shines a light on the speaker's thoughts in "Dover Beach."

    "Dover Beach" Themes

    The Victorian era saw a rapid increase in scientific knowledge. A central theme of "Dover Beach" is the conflict between religious faith and scientific knowledge. In line twenty-three of the poem, the narrator compares faith to a “bright girdle furled,” meaning its unifying existence kept the world neatly organized.

    The “naked shingles of the world” in line twenty-eight refer to humanity’s loss of meaning in the face of its loss of faith. The “shingles” are another word for the loose rocks on the beach. The repeated imagery of rocks in “Dover Beach” point to the discoveries of nineteenth-century geologist Charles Lyell whose fossils made it difficult to continue believing in the Bible's timeline. In the first stanza, the narrator pivots from the beauty of the naturalistic scene to the “eternal note of sadness” in line fourteen as the sound of the tumbling rocks reaches their ears. The sound of the surf is the sound of faith dying due to the empirical evidence housed in the stones.

    Love and Isolation

    Arnold suggests intimacy as a solution to the chaos of a faith-barren world. As the “Sea of Faith” recedes in line twenty one, it leaves a desolate landscape. However, whether the narrator and their companion will find their love sufficient is unclear. In lines 35-37, “Dover Beach” ends with a “darkling plain” caught in the throes of conflict.

    Illusion and Reality

    In the opening lines of the first stanza, Arnold describes a typical Romantic nature scene: the water is described as “full” and “calm” amid the “fair” light and the “sweet” air (Lines 1-6). However, he soon turns the scene on its ear. Arnold’s reference to Sophocles sharing the narrator’s experience over a thousand years before in lines 15-18 is an argument that suffering has always been present. In the final stanza, he calls out the world's illusions, arguing that the beauty surrounding them is a mask.

    "Dover Beach" Tone

    The tone of “Dover Beach” begins on a euphoric note as the narrator describes the beautiful scenery outside the window. They call their companion to come and enjoy it with them. But in line nine, as the sound of the rocks in the surf with their “grating roar” creeps into the scene, an increasingly pessimistic tone also weaves its way into the poem.

    In the poem's second stanza, the narrator compares the sound of the rocks to human suffering—the undertone to the lack of wisdom Sophocles heard so long ago. Finally, receding waters that remind the narrator of waning faith leads the narrator to suggest to their companion that they cling to each other to find meaning in a lost world. The overall tone of "Dover Beach" is sad because it argues that human suffering is a constant state.

    "Dover Beach" Quotes

    Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" has influenced culture and many writers because of its use of imagery and its wordplay.

    The sea is calm tonight.

    The tide is full, the moon lies fair

    Upon the straits; on the French coast the lights

    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!" ( Lines 1-6)

    Critics consider the opening lines of "Dover Beach" to be a definitive example of lyric poetry. Note how the lines work together to create the rhythm of waves on the beach when read aloud.

    Listen! You hear the grating roar" (9)

    Line nine is where the tone of the poem begins to change. Not only is the imagery harsher, but Arnold also uses this line to disrupt the rhyme and meter of the stanza.

    And we are here as on a darkling plain

    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

    Where ignorant armies clash by night." (Lines 35-37)

    The bleak tone of "Dover Beach" influenced future generations of poets such as William Butler Yeats and Anthony Hecht to write poems in response. In addition, "Dover Beach" appears in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to illustrate society's complete breakdown due to technology.

    Dover Beach - Key takeaways

    • "Dover Beach" is a poem written by Matthew Arnold and published in 1867. It contains elements of both a dramatic monologue and lyric poetry.
    • "Dover Beach" is about a narrator who, while spending time with their companion, becomes engrossed in thoughts about the declining state of the world.
    • "Dover Beach" experiments with meter and rhyme and is an early precursor to free verse poetry.
    • "Dover Beach" discusses themes of science versus religion, love and isolation, and illusion versus reality.
    • The tone of "Dover Beach" begins on a joyful note but quickly descends into despair.


    1. Hurston, Zora Neale. Moses: Man of the Mountain. 1939
    Frequently Asked Questions about Dover Beach

    What is "Dover Beach" about?

    "Dover Beach" is about a narrator who, while spending time with their companion, becomes engrossed in thoughts about the declining state of the world.

    What is the main idea of the poem "Dover Beach"?

    The main idea of "Dover Beach" is that loss of faith creates conflict in the world. A possible solution to this problem is intimacy.

    What is the conflict in the poem "Dover Beach"?

    The conflict in "Dover Beach" is between science and religious faith.

    Why is "Dover Beach" sad?

    "Dover Beach" is sad because it argues that human suffering is a constant state.

    Is "Dover Beach" a dramatic monologue?

    "Dover Beach" is a dramatic monologue because it is written from the point of view of a speaker who is sharing their thoughts with a silent audience.

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