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Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold is a dramatic monologue that also has a Sonnet form. The poem was written when Arnold was on honeymoon with his newly wedded bride. The poem begins with the calm, pleasant and soothing description of Dover beach.
Dover is a city in England that is famous for White Cliffs. The beach lies between England and France. The poet is on the England side and is watching the coast of France. The time is that of night.
The poem begins with the romantic tradition style i.e. using simple language. The poet says “the sea is calm tonight”. The line is complete in itself and simply means that everything is fine and calm.
In the next line, he vividly describes the vista around him. According to the poet, as usual, the tide is full and the moon is lightening the straits i.e. the shores.
On the other side, i.e. the France coast, the light glimmers and then vanishes (like the twinkling of stars). When the light vanishes, the poet sees the White Cliffs which are shining in the moonlight on the Shore of England. Probably the light on the French side vanishes because White Cliffs block the rays of moonlight.
Now for the first time (in the poem), the poet interacts with his wife. He requests her to come to the window side and enjoy the pleasant air of the night. He then asks her (using the word ‘Only’) to focus on the edge where the sea meets the land (long line of spray). The land is Moon blanched i.e. looking white and shiny due to the moonlight.
In the next line, the mood suddenly changes. There is a shift from ecstasy to sorrow. The poet says ‘listen!’ to the unpleasant and harsh sound of pebbles that are pulled out by the strong tides and turned back on the shore when the tide return. The process is continuous and the poet focuses on their rhythmic movement.
The movement of pebbles is ‘tremulous cadence slow‘ i.e. they are trembling in a slow rhythmic movement. The rhythmic sound of pebbles mingles with that of the poem. This movement of the pebbles with terrible sound is of course not pleasant and brings out the note or music that is sad and never-ending.
The stanza 2 begins with reference to Sophocles. It was the tradition of Victorians to refer to the classical poets and writers in their works. The poet says that Sophocles had already heard this eternal note of sadness while sitting on the shores of Aegean.
‘The turbid ebb and flow” means the movement of water in and out. It also refers to the loss of Faith. Sophocles compared eternal movement with the miseries of humans which like them are also never-ending. This is how he succeeded in composing painful tragedies.
According to the poet, he can hear the same sound of sea sand and retreating tide by sitting, like Sophocles, on the Shore of the Northern Sea (English Channel). Distant means far from Sophocles.
The term ‘We’ in a context refers to the poet and his bride but in a broader sense, it refers to every human. In this sense, the poet draws out attention to the universality and eternity of sadness.
The term Sea of Faith as usually understood doesn’t simply mean religion. According to the poet, the Sea of Faith once had united the whole of mankind but now it has declined.
He hears its sadness, longings and roars of pulling away of faith as night wind is hovering over the sky. What remains there are the naked stones which have been pulled out of the earth by the tides.
The poet is mixing the natural happening with the human faith. As we know the poem was written during the Victorian age. At that time there was a development of industrialisation that led to capitalism which further led to individualism and greed.
The Sea of Faith that once existed among mankind gradually vanished. The Faith can refer to trust humanity religion, kindness, sympathy spiritualism and so on. Thus the greed gave a death blow to this faith.
In this sense, the whole scene which was calm and pleasant (from stanza one) can be considered as the Sea of Faith. But suddenly the night wind or industrialisation or Science and Technology came that murdered that peace and spirituality.
Instead, it made the greed (that was hidden because of spirituality) Naked shingles or bare. The whole poem including the scene, symbols, loves etc become a metaphor and make the poem quite symbolic.
Stanza 4 is characterized by a feeling of escapism. The poet asks his beloved to be true to him. Note that these lines relate to the Sea of Faith (He wants to bring that faith back).
The poet believes that the world which was like the Land of Dreams or how he described it, in the beginning, is, in reality, hollow from inside. There is no joy, love, light, certainty, peace, sympathy in it.
Both the poet and his beloved are on a ‘darkling plain’ i.e. a dark and ugly world. They hear the sound of struggle and fights of the people who are fighting without seeing each other.
This fight can be regarded as the fight of opposing ideologies in the mind of man or that of forces of materialism or trivial battles of age and youth or also selfish and political forces. The poem thus ends with the terrible picture of society during the Victorian age.