Matthew Arnold’s 'Dover Beach': Specimen of Modernity, Meditation and Elegiac Tone

Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (1867) is a finest specimen of modernity,  meditation and elegiac tone. Arnold’s Dover Beach presents the ephemeral human feeling of sadness through the image of the sea. Though a dramatic monologue, Dover Beach presents Arnold’s philosophy of life. In his essay The Study of Poetry Arnold uses the two words ‘poetry’ and ‘criticism’. He boldly affirms that poetry should be a criticism of life. By the words ‘criticism of life’ Arnold means “the affairs of life”. And by the word ‘poetry’ he means ‘poetic beauty.’ So the expression ‘criticism of life’ means poetic beauty and poetic truth. In other words, every good poem, according to Arnold, must be a reflection of life diffusing the poetic beauty and poetic truth. In no way, poetry should be divorced form life. Arnold’s Dover Beach stands out as a glaring manifestation of this criticism of life in the form of poetry.

The poem begins with a beautiful description of nocturnal beauty:
 “The sea is calm to-night
The tide is full, the moon lies fair 
 Upon the straits;......”.
 Presumably, the poet is overwhelmed by the fascinating beauty of the landscape, the seascape and skyscape. He asks the lady love to come to the window and enjoy the sweetness of the surrounding:
“Sweet is the night-air!”

But at the next moment, Arnold returns to his own self and feels the inherent meaning of the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling. Though the landscape is externally beautiful, Arnold can penetrate the outward and sees the meaning of life within. He can hear the eternal note of Sadness in:
“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.”

In the next stanza, this note of pensive melancholy gets the upper hand, unfolding Arnold’s essentially classical bent of mind. He immediately plunges into the world of the great Greek poet Sophocles who in his great tragedies articulates the harrowing spectacles of human suffering. The poet thinks that as he now stands on the sea shore of Dover and listens to the “Sad music of humanity”, Sophocles too might have stood on the profound tragic thought to shape his great tragedies like Antigone, Oedipus the king etc. Here the suggestion uppermost is that suffering and human life is, as if wedded to each other from long antiquity. Here Arnold echoes the message of Goethe who declares that the other name of life is suffering. So also is the case with Sophocles for whom misery and human situation in this sordid earth are synonymous. Physically the poet stands on the Dover Beach and upon which the moon shines fairly. But the moment he hearts the ‘tremulous cadence’ created by the constant proceeding and reseeding of the pebbles, he can realize the underlying tragic import of every human situation. The‘turbid ebb and flows’ of human-miseries was first felt by Sophocles whom Arnold adores and admires as champion of the classical poets in portraying human misery in his poetry. This is how, Arnold finds a close affinity between himself and this great Greek scholar in realizing the meaning of life and articulating the same in poetry.

Sea of Sadness
The third stanza of the poem provides a scatting criticism of society Arnold lives in. Arnold is a brilliant exponent of the late Victorian society. But he is not a Browning or Tennyson who finds faith in life. Contrary to faith and optimism, it is pessimism- deep and dark that shapes and colours Arnold’s philosophy of life. The later of Victorian society is marked by a vehement crisis of confidence. Symbolically, it presents a state of chaos and disorder in the state of affairs. The old social order based on religion, conviction and dogma passes away and a new social order yet to be born. Unlike Wordsworth who considers nature as mother and guide, Arnold being awfully disturbed by the acute spiritual crisis of the people of the age hears only melancholy strain of nature:
“But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”

This earth, however beautiful, ceases to appear to the poet. On the other hand it brings in a message of hopelessness and blank despair. Even the night wind seems to be a dirge to Arnold. In such an atmosphere of complete negation and ennui the poet seeks to find a shape, anchorage in love:
“Ah, love let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems.”

Addressing the beloved the poet-speaker stresses the trueness and constancy in love which may afford him sort of solace and comfort, for he finds hope nowhere. The world lies before him looks like a land of dream, ready to deceive its dwellers:
“So various, so beautiful, so new
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
Nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain.”

With the faith withered away, men during Arnold’s time have become devoid of any love or ‘joy’ or intellectual  ‘en-light’. What dominate the mental ethos of a Victorian man is incertitude, ignorance and restlessness. This human situation of late Victorian society is best articulated in the last lines.  

In the concluding remark, we can remember what Stefan Collani says about  Dover Beach that the whole poem popularly bears some stock explanations which are difficult to supersede. However, the overall tone is elegiac meditation and the treatment is purely modern surpassing Victorian time.