Dover Beach is a complex poem about the challenges to theosophical, existential and moral issues. Important questions are raised after reading this poem. What is life without faith? How do we gauge happiness and loneliness? What gives life meaning?
The first stanza starts with a straightforward description of the sea and the effects of light, but note the change in pace as the syllabic content forces then relaxes with long and short vowels, mimicking the sea as wavelets shift the pebbles.
the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;
Gleams and is gone.....
Glimmering and vast.....
Then in lines 6 and 9 there is an invitation - to come and fill your senses - for the reader or for the speaker's companion? The speaker, despite momentary excitement, concludes that the moonstruck sea evokes sadness, perhaps because of the timeless monotony of the waves.
A certain melancholy flows into the second stanza. Note the allusion to Sophocles, a Greek dramatist (496-406BC), which brings a historical perspective to the poem. His play Antigone has an interesting few lines:
"Happy are they whose life has not tasted evils. But for those whose house has been shaken by God, no mass of ruin fails to creep upon their families. It is like the sea-swell...when an undersea darkness drives upon it with gusts of Thracian wind; it rolls the dark sand from the depths, and the beaches, beaten by the waves and wind, groan and roar."
So the tide becomes a metaphor for human misery; it comes in, it goes out, bringing with it all the detritus, all the beauty and power, contained in human life. Time and tide wait for no man so the saying goes, but the waves are indifferent, hypnotically following the cycle of the moon.
Stanza three introduces the idea of religion into the equation. Faith is at low tide, on its way out, where once it had been full. Christianity can no longer wash away the sins of humanity; it is on the retreat.
Matthew Arnold was well aware of the profound changes at work in western society. He knew that the old establishments were beginning to crumble - people were losing their faith in God as the advancements in technology and science and evolution encroached.
This vacuum needed to be filled and the speaker in stanza four suggests that only strong personal love between individuals can withstand the negative forces in the world. Staying true to each other can bring meaning to an otherwise confused and confusing world.
It's as if the speaker is looking into the future, with regard for the past, declaring love for a special companion (or love for all humanity?) to be the way forward if the world is to be survived.
Wars may rage on, the evolutionary struggle continue, only the foundation of truth within love can guarantee solace.
Matthew Arnold was a school inspector by profession. He was a British poet and a cultural critic, who has been characterized as a sage writer.
Since he was appointed as a school inspector, he was a man of those days who had traveled the most across the Europe, and knew the society of provincial England better than nay other politician or author and this did help in his vision of writing.
In the year 1852, Arnold published his second volume of poems and by the year 1857, Arnold was elected as Professor of poetry at the Oxford.
According to G W E Russell, Arnold was a man of the world, entirely free from worldliness and man without the faintest traits of pedantry.
Arnold knew very well where his poems had a place and how the recognition would follow. He is sometimes also called as the third great Victorian poet. When compared to other poets of his time, his work was judged by it simplicity, straight-forwardness, use of far-fetched words, and the ease to read because of the usage of simple words.
The poem Dover Beach depicts a nightmarish world from where the old religious verities have receded. He expresses his thoughts and strong feelings here that life has to be lived full on earth and not spent dreaming to inherit the eternal bliss one day.
In this poem, Arnold says that, he stands at the shore of the sea, watching the sandy shores. There is a gentle breeze, that blows gently and the sea looks calm for the night. The moon shines bright and tides are calm even though they have the full potential. The moonlight spreads across the French coast to the English Channel and diminishes to the bay of England.
At this point, the poet invites his friend, companion to come and share with him this beautiful moment of the sea. These silent visuals could be seen only from the deck at the evenings and the roar of the sea when the pebbles cross over to the high sandy beaches and back could be heard at times. This would continue and slowly would bring the sad memories across the minds of the viewer.
The sound that reflects from a distant north sea brings back memories of the human misery and the sufferings that people had to undergo. The tides as they wash and go, led him to old memories that also comes and goes like the waves.
Towards the end of the poem, the poet says that the world was once a beholder of faith and it outstretched to all the shores that the water reached and was like a bright girdle chord worn around the waist that was firm.
However, the sounds of the waves at the sea now only represent melancholy and retreating when the night wind blows over the beaches that are covered with coarse sand and large stones.
And at the end, the poet asks his friend to be honest to each other, for the world that they live in looks very beautiful and new and lay before them like a land full of dreams. However, there is no certainty for help in times of trouble and he concludes saying that al the mortals live in this world with a dark state of mind and the struggle for survival is in no way different from the armies at the boarders that are ignorant and fight throughout the night for their nation.
A wonderfully maid poem with lots of thoughts and expression put together that brings this poem different from all others.