Contemplation on “Dover Beach”

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.

Dover Castle

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.

Matthew Arnold

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.)

Works Cited

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.

The Eagle and the Hawk

Seeing a career peak during the 1970’s, John Denver wrote songs with signature acoustic accompaniment and subjects dealing with nature and relationships. Songs such as ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads‘, ‘Rocky Mountain High‘, and ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders‘ put Denver on the charts during the 70’s and remain classics to the present. Characterized by optimism in his music, even more serious songs contain hopeful timbres, and make for excellent easy listening music.

Take Me Home, Country Roads
Rocky Mountain High
Sunshine on My Shoulders
The Eagle and the Hawk

Diary of a Date-o-Phobic

This story is a work of fiction but inspired by the true experience

Her name was Janet. We were in the same Engage group during my first semester at Northwestern at the campus Wesley Foundation—a semester-long bible study group for freshman. I didn’t know her well, but I did see her at an open mic night hosted by the college radio station towards the end of fall semester. I was playing a couple songs—“Ring Them Bells” by Bob Dylan and the reindeer song from Frozen, which had come out a month or two before. I was explaining what songs I was going to play to her, and she was excited when I said I was doing the Frozen song. Well, I was the second performer of the night—which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because I got my performance out of the way and was then free to enjoy the rest of the night. A curse, because the crowd was just getting warmed up and everybody was paying more attention than they would be later on. I led with “Ring Them Bells,” and I’m not sure how it sounded because my guitar wouldn’t output audio to the PA, so I was playing purely acoustic next to a cardioid microphone, one for me and one for my guitar. I know I mis-played several of the chords, but ultimately wound my way to the end of the first song. People clapped, but they felt like claps of sympathy more than anything else. “My next song,” I said, slowly. “Is about reindeers. And people. From Frozen.” I know I got a few laughs for this, and then I sang it. I remember, as I played the last, intentionally discordant notes of the song, seeing people smiling and laughing and clapping, and Janet on the front row, on her feet, laughing.

Which I didn’t think about much at the time.

2 Years Later

“Hey,” I said as I looked over at the new person who had just walked into the classroom—it was Janet. “It’s been a while,” I said.

Smiling, she agreed, and we talked for a bit. Except for a couple times in passing sophomore year, Janet and I hadn’t seen or talked to each other since freshman year. Now, it was spring semester of junior year—two summers had gone by.

The class was an introductory legal policy class, taught by a local attorney—Professor Stevens—and it met for 3 hours every Wednesday night.


It was late on a Friday night. I had participated in a sound check and setup that morning, competed in a debate competition all afternoon, and had then headed straight to a local church to get ready for a worship night happening at seven. Fighting a headache due to lack of food, I awkwardly mingled with the other musicians until seven o’clock rolled around and some friends arrived for the show. I sat most of the service, enjoying the music, playing when my turn finally came.

All of these details are mostly irrelevant, but I’m just trying to set the stage.

It was 9.30, and the service was finally over. Musicians began to drift out. I mingled with some of the other musicians and friends who had attended.

When I finished, I texted my friend Will that I was on my way over to his place—the Incubator, as I had christened the house he lived at with his three roommates. I needed to borrow a soldering iron to fix an audio cable that had been torn earlier that day while setting up for the sound check. The weather was cool in the darkness of a southern spring, and I kept the radio playing loudly to help maintain my alertness as I drove by the gas station, over the railroad tracks, and through the woods to the Incubator. Will and his roommates were watching TV, but when I walked in, Will took me to his garage, where he kept all his soldering irons. I say “all,” because apparently he had two cheap old irons in addition to a bigger, nicer one he used himself. Unsure which one actually worked, Will plugged both of the cheap ones in to test. While we waited for them to heat (and later cool), we sat in the garage and talked (the garage was well-equipped with a coffee table, two couches, a fridge, and many, many, other odds and ends).

We talked about all sorts of things, from the doctrine of original sin and backslidden Christians to the behavior of electricity at power plants. I mentioned Janet to Will, just noting how she had come by the programming competition I participated in the day before and had seemed really interested in it.

“You have her number, right?” said Will. “You should ask her out.”

“Yeeeaaah,” I said, skeptically. “But it’s so close to the end of the semester. And I’m not sure I really feel like trying anything romantic right now.” I paused. “But. Since summer’s almost here, I’ve really got nothing to lose. I mean, if we go on a date and it’s awful, then I get to leave for the summer and not see her again.” I realized that my thinking, while pragmatic, was not very nice. “I’m an awful person, aren’t I?” I said.

Will shrugged. The topic changed. We talked some more, and I left.

The next morning, I woke, late, if I remember correctly. While drinking coffee, I pulled out my laptop and opened Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed, a picture appeared. It was Janet, next to a man. It was a sorority formal, and the man in the photo was her date—a football star, no less. He had a championship bowl ring and everything.

I laughed, and then I told my roommate, David, what Will had told me, and what I discovered. David listened, then he shook his head. “Nah, having a date to formal, that’s just a…formality—you’ve still got a shot.”

I shook my head, and I didn’t really think about it again.

You’re probably wondering when I’ll get to the important part of the story. Well, hang on.

The following Tuesday, around 11, Dr. McCullin, the computer science professor teacher teaching us the theory of computing, let the students take a five minute break, halfway into his 2 hour long lecture. Stepping out into the hall for a drink, I noticed as I was returning to the classroom a poster on a bulletin board advertising a drive-in movie showing of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Back in the classroom, I mention to the classmates sitting around me, “They’re showing Avengers tonight. That would probably be cool.”

At this, Ron, who I had several classes with—including the one with Janet, leaned forward and said in a quiet, quirky tone, “You should ask Janet to go with you.”

I turned around and stared at him with a quizzical smile.

“What?” he said, giving an impish grin in reply. “Penny for your thoughts?”

I didn’t have time to reply because Dr. McCullin resumed teaching at that moment.

After class, as I hurried to pack up my notes to head to my next class, I turned to Ron. “The reason I gave you that look is because you’re the second person who’s told me I should ask Janet out in the past week.”

Ron shrugged. “I just noticed both of you seemed like really…normal people. Who are both friendly. And I thought—” he motioned with his hands, bringing them together in a figurative gesture. “And I notice people. When I’m sitting in the back of that class, every time I look over at her, she’s looking at you.”

I laugh. “That’s because Professor Stevens stands over where I am,” I said, but I had been convinced. I pulled out my phone, composed a quick message to ask Janet if she’d like to go with me, and sent it off. Normally, I would have re-read the text 10 million times before sending it and said at least one prayer, but this time I was quick to tap the send icon—as I had told Will, I had nothing to lose if she turned me down.

Sitting at the back of the lecture hall at my next class, I checked my phone periodically. No response. It had only been 10 minutes. She’s in class, or busy doing something. I said. Don’t worry. That didn’t help. I felt like I was being torn apart with anxiety for the next 20 or so minutes. But then, a reply!

That sounds like fun. Yeah, I’m down!

So it was settled. Looking over at Ron, I whispered, “It’s happening.”

“What?” he said, confused for a moment.

I gestured at my phone, and he realized what I was saying. He smiled that same impish grin, “I told you so.”

At 7.15 that night, I rolled up to Janet’s apartment in my freshly washed and vacuumed Nissan Sentra. She came out almost immediately, and I drove us to Sonic, where we got drinks for during the movie—her a Cherry Coke and me a Cherry Limeade.

We chatted about class, and sports, and about favorite hobbies. It was not memorable conversation, but it was pleasant.

Pulling up to the parking lot where the movie was scheduled to play, an attendant guided us to a spot at the front of the lot, a great position for viewing the screen. The rest was an agreeable blur. I learned about Snapchat (which I had not used before and have not used since that night), and we both ended up angling our seats back—Janet did first to get more comfortable, and I did too when I realized it enabled me to see the screen better without contorting my neck as much. The movie was good, but I’d seen it 3 or 4 times already, so I’ll admit I was slightly bored throughout.

On the way back to Janet’s apartment, we talked about movies and TV shows. When I pulled up at her apartment again, she thanked me for inviting her and told me how she’d never been to a drive-in movie before and had wanted to try it. I told her I’d enjoyed it, too.

“See you Wednesday!” she said, as she got out.

“Yep!” I said. We were all friendly smiles.

And that was that. The most normal, regret-free date I had ever had. I didn’t ask her out again or do anything in the remaining week and half before school let out for summer—we were both incredibly busy, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I’m not saying it was a ridiculously good, best-date-ever sort of thing. But it was fun, and I regret nothing. Which, for someone who had mostly awkward, cringy memories of interactions with the opposite sex up to that point in life, was something very refreshing.

Manufactured Drama

We all know that scene in the movie or TV show. Some great change has come, or is about to come, to the protagonist’s world. The music, which can be either diegetic or non-diegetic (there’s your two million-dollar words for the day), slowly swells. Before you know it, our protagonist is contemplating their life while wandering around an empty house, or while staring off into the distance as neon lights go by, or while listening to the waves crash on the shore, or while watching the sun and wind flicker through green leaves. If it’s a popular enough movie or show, whatever song is used to convey said desired emotional atmosphere might even enjoy a slight spike in traffic on Spotify.

Then, of course, there are those times when we, the audience, just happen to be sitting in our car and gazing at the raindrops tracing their way down the windows. A sad song will come on, and we will take the opportunity to pretend that we are in one of those introspective film scenes. Or at least, I will freely admit that I have done so.

I will also confess these moments are not always, shall we say, “organically produced.”

The most obvious statement I hope to make today: Music calls forth emotion; music has power. Sometimes, more than once or twice, I’ve sought some sense of catharsis by playing the right song at the right time. It does not always work, as life is not a movie (fine, there’s a second obvious statement). Manufacturing drama doesn’t always go according to plan.

There are times that I’ve done it successfully. After a Year of Very Big Decisions, I sat at the top of a mountain, looked out across the miles, and very intentionally listened to Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” as the real wind whistled around me. I felt all the better for it. And I did some gazing and reflection again the next year, after a Year of Strange Changes, to Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone.” Again, the year after that, after an Eventful Year and It’s Not Even Half Over, I listened to “Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens, and felt, well, something like peace.

But these are the times when the stars align just so. My “headspace” was clear, so to speak. Very few, if any, people were around. The sun wasn’t overly hot. Other times, I’ll try to reenact the pensiveness one sees on television, only to be pulled away by a rogue mosquito – literally, the song had just reached its crescendo, and I was forced to divert my attention to slap at a bug. Or my own thoughts will betray me – eggs, that’s what I forgot to buy, I don’t really need them this week though, I’ll just have to remember to put them on my list when I get back, also peanut butter.

I wonder why I, and anyone else, might do this contrived musing to certain chosen tunes. I said earlier that it was for catharsis, and it is, to a certain extent. But also, if I’m honest, it’s because I want my life to be like a movie. I want to start the song, which is just a few minutes long, and, when it is over, I want my brooding to be done and the next plot point to arrive. I also want to be the director of my own movie. I choose the song, I choose the set, and I control the feeling.

I think this is mostly harmless, if a bit silly of me. And I mustn’t forget that some of the best moments of music-induced emotion, of that catharsis, have come through the power of shuffle. Something quite random, from my perspective, at least, chose to play “The Night We Met,” by Lord Huron, just at that time, and it turned out to be just what I needed to hear.