Dover Beach has served many purposes. According to a BBC News Magazine article, this natural fortification once repulsed Julius Caesar, once welcomed returning royalty, once received foreign dignitaries, and now stands as a symbol of England (Winterman). In “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, two people view the famous strand at night, and the speaker of the poem contemplates the beauty of the view and the thoughts about the world, faith, and love which the scene brings to his mind. “Dover Beach” suggests that love for another is all that people can possess because the world is futile and faith is inconstant. The poem’s figurative language, diction, and speaker combine to support this theme.
To begin with, Arnold demonstrates the futility of the world when he utilizes figurative language to contrast the first and final stanzas. The first stanza is full of assonance, consonance, and alliteration which paint a mysterious, dark, calm, and beautiful scene. This scene represents the “land of dreams” which seems to lie before the speaker and the audience (30-31). The short i sounds of words like “glimmering” (5) and “window” (6) create a quiet mood which the repeated s sounds of “is” (2), “cliffs” (4), and “cease” (12) heighten. In contrast to this lovely scene, the speaker thrusts upon the audience the reality of the world in the final stanza. Like the first stanza, the last one contains assonance, consonance, and alliteration, but the repeated vowels and consonants in this stanza create ugly sounds. For example, the recurring p and t sounds of “help for pain” (34), “plain” (35), “swept” (36), “let” (29), and “certitude” (34) produce a contemptuous tone, for the speaker seems to be spitting out the words. The repetition of “nor” in the middle of the last stanza pounds into the reader the truth about everything the world cannot provide (33-34). Arnold further emphasizes this point by using alliteration to connect “neither” (33) and “nor” (33-34). Finally, the onomatopoeia of “clash” (37) and harsh words such as “darkling plain” (35), “confused alarms” (36), and “ignorant armies” (37) evoke a picture of chaotic danger which starkly contrasts the calm beauty of the first stanza. This contrast reveals how futile the world is by showing how the world’s promises compare to reality.
Within the central section of the poem, the speaker continues to demonstrate the futility of the world while also discussing the inconstancy of faith. One powerful way in which the speaker covers these themes is by his use of diction. “Faith” in this poem denotes the general concept of belief, not just religion, for Arnold wrote the poem during the 19th century, which was a time of growing skepticism. The word “sea” needs careful analysis because it is rather ambiguous, and looking into its denotation and connotation gives insight into the poem. One common denotation of “sea” is a body of saltwater. Because of this denotation, the comparison of the ebb and flow of the Aegean to the ebb and flow of human misery becomes even more powerful, for the salty seawater can symbolize human tears (15-20). The sea thus becomes a symbol of human misery and reminds the audience that the world cannot provide joy or happiness. While “sea” has multiple denotations and connotations, its most important connotation comes from the poem itself. After the speaker metaphorically compares the sea to faith, the sea becomes intertwined with the concept of faith, and the natural ebb and flow of the tide represents how the speaker perceives faith to be inconstant.
While the speaker’s views of the pointlessness of the world and the unreliability of faith come from his own observations, the speaker’s motivation for rejecting these and calling the audience to “be true” derives from the nature of the speaker (29). The speaker of the poem is a person who is looking from a window at Dover Beach with his or her love. Although the poem does not explicitly state whether the speaker is a man or a woman, the tone seems to be that of a man. The speaker is well-educated, for he mentions Sophocles’ thoughts on the ebb and flow of the Aegean Sea. Additionally, the speaker appears to be older or more experienced than his love, for he speaks in an authoritative and instructive manner, saying “Come to the window” (6) and “Listen!” (9). In the first stanzas, the speaker seems to be a very thoughtful person who contemplates the meaning of life and the world and appreciates the beauty of the sea. In the final stanza, the speaker suddenly becomes passionate and exhorts his love that they “be true / To one another” (29-30). As the speaker lists what the world cannot give him, he seems enraged, for his words become a tirade against the world and its deceptive promises of happiness.
Throughout “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold uses figurative language, diction, and the character of the speaker to discuss the world’s futility, faith’s inconstancy, and love’s importance. The poem indicates that only love is reliable. However, though the world cannot satisfy human desire and often disappoints dreams, this should not lead people to reject the world as a lie. Neither should people judge the reliability of faith on the number of people who have it; just because the number of humans who have belief changes does not mean that faith itself is inconstant. Most importantly, if the speaker and his love base their world on each other, then they will have to trust each other to be true. If faith is inconstant as the poem suggests, then how can love—which relies on faith—be reliable? Only when the speaker regains his faith will he be able to enjoy love and “be true” to the woman he loves (29). Only when the speaker realizes there is more to the world than his love will he be able to answer his own call “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” (29-30).
(Note: This is an essay I wrote for a freshman composition class several years ago, with a few minor modifications. Also, here is a link to “Dover Beach” in case you want to read the poem yourself.)
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach.
Winterman, Denise. “White Cliffs of Dover: Why Are They So Important to the British?” BBC News Magazine, 29 Aug. 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19343382.