Dover Beach Poem Summary and Line by Line Analysis by Mathew Arnold in English


In his dramatic monologue “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold laments the collapse of pure Christianity in England in the middle of the 19th century as the public’s attention turned to science. The significance and uniqueness of humanity in the universe are currently being questioned by scientific discovery and intellectual investigation. The poem’s speaker notices and feels this shift almost subconsciously in the sea that he is observing.

About The Poet

English poet, cultural critic, and school inspector Matthew Arnold also served as a teacher. He was the brother of both Tom Arnold, a professor of literature, and William Delafield Arnold, a playwright and colonial administrator. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the renowned headmaster of Rugby School.

Theme Of The Poem

The topics discussed in “Dover Beach”  encompass mankind, nature, love, the future, and religion. The speaker expresses his sadness over the state of faith in the modern society in a composed manner.

Stanza 1

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.

The poem starts off in a conventional way. “The sea is calm tonight,” the poet wrote. Then he describes his surroundings in great detail. The poet claims that the tide is full and that the moon is illuminating the shoreline as usual. The light glimmers and then disappears like stars flashing on the other side, which is the French coast. The poet notices the White Cliffs, which are lit by the moonlight on the English coast, as the light fades. In their conversation, the poet invites his wife to join him by the window so they can both enjoy the cool night air. Then he instructs her to concentrate on the boundary between the sea and the land. The moonlight has rendered the land “Moon blanched,” making it appear white and gleaming.

The poem’s tone then abruptly shifts. Joy is followed by a transition into sadness. The poet advises readers to pay attention to the harsh and loud sound of the pebbles that the strong tides draw out and then turn back onto the shore. The poet concentrates on their rhythmic flow throughout.  Pebbles provide a rhythmic sound that blends with the poem’s cadence.

Stanza 2

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.

In the second stanza, the characters are described using history as context. The speaker claims that Sophocles once heard a sound resembling this as the tides came in on the Greek Sea. That reminded him of “human misery” and the “ebb and flow” of these thoughts. Arnold wants to highlight  the universal feeling of sorrow that people have endured throughout history. 

Stanza 3

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.

It becomes evident in the third verse that Arnold is talking about the dwindling faith of his fellow citizens. He talks about how “The Sea of Faith” once encompassed the entire “round earth’s shore” and was a band that kept everyone together. But eventually, it had vanished.  The speaker states that there is no longer any chance for return and the sea is only draining now. As the night wind hovers over the sky, he hears its melancholy, longings, and roars of withdrawing hope. The only things left are the exposed stones that the tides have dug out of the ground. Science, technology, and industrialization killed the peace and spirituality.

Stanza 4

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 companion, who is standing next to the speaker and gazing out over the sea, seems to be  a romantic partner. Now he addresses his spouse personally, as well as potentially all the remaining sincere followers of God. In this “land of dreams,” he requests that they remain loyal to one another. The world has changed, and instead of being the reality he is accustomed to, it now resembles a dream. It’s a place that seems to be brimming with a variety of wonderful, fresh, and joyful things, but that’s not the truth.