Despair and disillusionment towards the notion of religion is what “Dover Beach” ultimately comes down to. The narrator, which we do not know if it’s a man or a woman (although we will assume is a man), comes to the disheartening realization that not everything is what it seems to be, and that his religious beliefs, for one, are something that cannot be counted on anymore. From now on, his loved one’s faithfulness is all that he has left to cling onto, or at least that is what he counts on, hopes and implores for.
We are first transported to Dover Beach, as if we were there, with him, looking through that window, observing the sea, calm at first. The speaker then calls on his companion (of which we can’t, again, be certain of its sex, although we will assume it is woman) to look out through the window and listen, as the sea becomes agitated. He then proceeds to recall how Sophocles, the Greek dramatist, had also witnessed, long ago, the same scenery, “on the Aegean”, and thus heard the same sounds of a troubled sea, the waves crashing onto the shore, slowly, back and forth: “It brought into his mind the turbid ebb and flow of human misery.
The narrator then theorizes about the “Sea of Faith” and its retreating tide, to finally conclude with a plea for love and peace. The prosaic, lyrical style through which Matthew Arnold composes this poem enables him to make judicious use of language to set the tone. He continuously uses phrases such as “tremulous cadence” and “note of sadness” to establish a certain gloominess, for example. He also makes a very artistic use of asymmetry, it seems, to recreate somewhat of a movement of the tide.
Metaphors occupy a large part of this well-known poem, and it is through those metaphors, and imageries, that we come to grasp the link Matthew Arnold is trying to make between religion, nature, and love. The first half of “Dover Beach’s” first stanza depicts an appeasing and soothing landscape, that of a calm sea, over which “the moon lies fair… The cliffs of England stand, glimmering and vast. In the second half, turmoil starts setting in, the atmosphere shifting moods abruptly, as the water begins to stir up, sending its waves colliding against the shore, contrasting with the stability and dependability of the calm sea and “tranquil bay”: “Listen! You hear the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back… ” After soliciting our visual thoughts, our aural sense is now titillated. This appeal to our intellect is the first pathway leading to the Matthew Arnold’s concept of reality, the notion of right and wrong, what we perceive and what is real, which comes back throughout the poem as a founding idea.
The mood of the first stanza is also set in the first stanza’s last lines, through the “tremulous cadence slow” of the waves. It seems to prolong the nostalgic feeling that is starting to seep in, “and bring the eternal note of sadness in. ” A first allusion to the despondency brought by war is made here, in which continuity will reside, turning into an inescapable routine, which will “cease, and then again begin,” relentlessly. The second stanza stands as a pivotal one, dutifully preceded by the previous stanza’s last line of eternal sadness.
The idea of “human misery” is brought into the scheme and we now start understanding the speaker’s murk and anguish. In this stanza’s last lines, hearing and sight senses are once again sought out: “We find also in the sound a thought, hearing it by his distant northern sea. ” The next stanza brings into play the metaphorical “Sea of Faith,” which represents religion. Religious principles and doctrines are being swept away by the sea’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. ” He melancholically yearns for the times when religion was widespread, “round earth’s shore. He seems to have seen religion as a sort of protective shield, enveloping the world, which “lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. ”
However, the fact that he uses the term “roar” to describe the retreating action of the waves and the decline of religion, hints us to the possibility that the narrator is starting to demonize religion. Yet, he could also very well be decrying the brutal overwhelming and annihilation of religion. Nonetheless, when the tide recedes, it exposes “the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world. The Sea of Faith is a sea or illusion, which had concealed the realities of human misery. The washing action of the tidal waves seems to have done its job, by the fifth and final stanza. It has uncovered the truths, lying underneath the religious waters, and the speaker is now completely disenchanted: ” To lie before us like a land of dreams… ” There is a complete transition from the previous stanza’s imagery of the Sea of Faith “laying” around the earth’s land to this strophe’s “land of dreams. ” Religious is no longer, to the narrator, the truth, but rather a mirage, a delusion.
The use of the word “lie” should also be noted, as it indicates the deceitfulness the world has dealt to the speaker; it is only but a land of dreams, where nothing is real or reliable. Therefore, he pleads his “love” to stand by him, “let us be true to one another. ” He sees love as his lone consolation. He believes that the only place to find joy, love, peace, light, or certitude, is between two human beings. This repetition of negation terms- “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain… – which are all basic human values, illustrates the austerity and nihilism of Matthew Arnold and the narrator’s hopes and views of the times ahead. He finally seems to deplore religion’s fadeaway: “And we are here as on a darkling plain… ” Enlightenment has crept into oblivion and now all is bleak and dark. The last two are a supplication for peace: “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night. ” Religious values and principles no longer guide the people, and war is now prevailing.
On a more concrete level, Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach,” is a vivid voice praying for faithful love in what has become an almost evil and faithless world. On an abstract level, though, the poem is a metaphor for never-ending cycle of war and the darkness it brings to the world. The waves, representing the battles, the pebbles the innocent people flung around and about by their force, and that note of dejection and hopelessness present throughout the entire poem hints at no possible end; much less for romantics, which the narrator seems to be.
Dover Beach is a cry for both the endurance of love and an end to war. We are lead to believe that the loss of faith is to humanity what the ebbing tide is to nature: inescapable. Furthermore, it is not certain whether Arnold would welcome the Sea of Faith being at its full tide again, for the ebbing uncovered the truths which a full sea covered; and ignorance does not seem to be the speaker’s forte.