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"Dover Beach": Understanding Meaning Through Symbols and Ideas

The modern existence of man is one of great complexity. Things seem as if they are one thing, but in reality are something quite different. The modern world is always changing and constantly moving. The world’s constant advancement of knowledge is attended by the loss of human feeling; the loss of love (Rosenblatt 80). In the summer of 1851 when Arnold wrote “Dover Beach” he saw and felt all of these things (Holland 6). Arnold put all of his thoughts and ideas about the emerging modern world into his poem “Dover Beach”. A careful study of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” produces a better understanding of the true meaning of the poem, and thus Arnold’s views and predictions about the modern world, through its symbols of the sea and land, idea of love, and its idea of biblical similitude.

Beginning with the first line of the poem, “The sea is calm tonight,”, Arnold introduces the most powerful contrast and major poetic images of the poem, the symbols of the sea and the land (Holland 6, Allott 64-65). The sea, “Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay,” according to Holland, represents a “[…] sense of time and constant change,” a “vitality,” the “waters of baptism and birth”, and a “sense of blankness, formlessness, and mystery.” The sea is steady and constant, just as faith is, however; flows and sprays and is turbulent like human misery. The “moon-blanched land,” however, represents quite different ideals. The land is solid and coherent, a representation of the harsh realistic minds of modern men. When these two symbols collide “Where the sea meets the […] land,” they form the point of misery and conflict “[…] and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in.” “One could think of the land-sea conflict as one […]between the dry, critical mind and a natural […] existence” (Holland 6-7).

Arnold feels that as modern man progresses, he is becoming lost in the empty darkness of wealth and overconfidence. Possessions are becoming more valuable than human feelings. Hope, joy, and happiness are being thrown to the wayside for new clothing and expensive jewellery. In Arnold’s eyes, no hope lightens the conflict between the natural, formless, mysterious world of the natural man (represented by the sea) and the empty darkness of man in the modern world (represented by the land).

Love is an other major poetic theme in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. This is especially true in the last stanza when, “the speaker appeals to his beloved”, “Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!”, “for loving fidelity is the one stay of humanity in a world which seems beautiful, but in reality has ‘neither love, nor joy, nor light, /Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.'” The speaker in “Dover Beach” is speaking about existential love. Existential love is, “the love of those who have shed romantic illusions in favour of a more realistic, more resigned companionship of mutually pledged fidelity[…] (Allott 64). Arnold sees love as a desperate refuge. In “Dover Beach” the speaker, “turns away from a dark world emptied of religious meaning to cling to human love.” These last lines are a distillation of Arnold’s “grimmest and gloomiest thoughts and feelings.” Arnold sees love as an anchorage in the new modern world where everything is always in a constant state of change and turmoil. In this new world that Arnold sees, “salvation […] comes through feeling, not reason” (Bush 40-41). Thus, from these last lines in “Dover Beach” one can derive the idea that according to the poem, “the only way to survive what Arnold in another poem called ‘this strange disease of modern life’ [is] for people to ‘be true to one another’” (Rosenblatt 80). The speaker in the poem is holding on to love as his only means of salvation. In his mind love can conquer all.

Another element to “Dover Beach” that gives the reader greater understanding into the meaning of the poem, is the religious similitude in the last stanza. Matthew Arnold is a man very familiar with the King James Bible, having been raised in a very religious English home. In the last stanza of “Dover Beach” Arnold attempts to intensify “the pathos of the modern condition” by deliberately echoing the grammatical style after two verses in Romans 8:38-39, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In “Dover Beach” Arnold writes in similitude to the passages in the Bible, “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another! for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (lines 29-37). In these lines Arnold “itemizes the emptiness that imply the Divine absence and the impossibility of faith.”

This conclusion, with its “pessimistic lamentation relative to the possibility of human happiness in a time bereft of faith,” returns to Arnold’s belief about the modern world. He sees the modern world as being full of men who have no faith in anything. Modern men, in his eyes, are always trying to prove everything and cannot take fact for fact; they have no faith (Schow 26-27). Arnold also contrasts the passages from the Bible and “Dover Beach” because they revolve around love and fidelity, which as stated earlier in this work, are the only way to salvation (Bush 77). This similitude might also suggest, that the speaker’s love for Christ also adds to his ability to survive the modern existence. Arnold’s biblical similitude in the last stanza of his work, “Dover Beach,” helps to bring out the full meaning of the poem in a very subtle and poetic way.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” contains many ideas and symbols which, when one carefully studies, can bring about a better understanding of, and meaning to, the poem. By studying the symbols of the land and sea and the ideas of love and biblical similitude one can clearly see what Arnold’s message is in “Dover Beach.” Allott says, “the shift in focus from sea to land, together with the flawless language and varying verse rhythm, express and vindicate [Arnold’s] determination to recognize the terror of the truth, and at the same time, to assert the power of human love to transcend blind fate” (Allott 65). To me, “Dover Beach” is all about love transcending all the horrible things in the world. Whether it is love towards another human being, or love towards a Heavenly Father, or both, Arnold deeply believes that love is the only way to salvation from the confusing and often painful modern world of man.

Works Cited

Allot, Kenneth. Writers and Their Background: Matthew Arnold. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1975.

Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” Prentice Hall Literature: The English Tradition. Ed. Roger Babrisci. Englewood Cliffs, New jersey: Prentice Hall, 1989. 842-843.

Bush, Douglas, Ed. Matthew Arnold: A Survey of his Poetry and Prose. Masters of World Literature Series. New Your: The Macmillan Company, 1971.

Holland, Norman N. “Psychological Depths and ‘Dover Beach.'” Victorian Studies IX (1965): 5-28

Holy Bible. King James Version. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1989.

Rosenblatt, Roger. “Where is our Dover Beach?” Time 14 Jan. 1985: 80.

Schow, H. Wayne. “Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.'” Explicator 57.1 (1998): 26-27.