Dover Beach -Explanation stanza-wise
By Mathew Arnold
Introduction .. Mathew Arnold had written this poem possibly some time towards the middle of the nineteenth century. It was published in 1867.
The Dover Strait in the English Channel separates the United Kingdom from France. Dover is the English port, and its counterpart in the French shore is Calais. These two ports are the closest points between the two countries. The beach in the Dover Strait is a quiet retreat for lovers, thinkers, and those with a contemplative mind. Unlike other beaches, small pebbles make up the bed. The sea water gushes past these rough stone pieces making a roaring sound. On moonlit nights, the beach looks particularly lovely.
Mathew Arnold had come to this beach with his young wife for honeymoon. The place, the moon light, and his young wife beside him, all combined to make the speaker thoughtful and somewhat pensive. This is why the poem suffuses with deep reflective thoughts.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Meaning … The speaker describes the setting in rather plain words. The sea is quiet, tides are full, and the light from the French port city Calais is just gone off after shining for long. In the Dover side, cliffs make the backdrop. The poet asks his young wife to come to the window to breathe the fresh night air. Possibly, the couple live in a seaside cottage.
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
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.
Meaning … He draws the attention of his wife to the churning waters of the sea that rub against the pebbles casting them away in all directions. He feels the spray-laden air, and looks towards the horizon where the sea meets the land. The sea emits a groan as it rubs against the pebbles. The water comes ashore, recedes, and repeats the back and forth motion incessantly. It seems it is ordained to do it over and over again with no respite. The darkness, the solitude, the towering cliffs, and the ceaseless groan of the sea water make the poet sad.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
Meaning .. The speaker’s mood is gloomy. He recalls Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright who wrote his plays with a clear undertone of tragedy. Sophocles, while roaming in the beaches of the Aegean Sea, was underwhelmed on observing the relentless surge and retreat of the sea water. For the philosopher-writer, the humans have to endure constant hardship, punctuated by short spells of happiness, as they live their lives in the world. The roar of the Northern sea appears to be a groan of pain that the sea never gets respite from.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Meaning …. It needs to be understood that the speaker conjures The Sea of Faith as one all-encompassing swathe of water that once existed on earth in pre-historic times. It is only an imagination, and a metaphor to describe the principle of ‘faith; that once guided the humans on earth. Like the receding of water in the ocean during the ‘ebb’ phase, ‘faith’ has suffered gradual erosion, and no more guides humans in their lives. This has brought misery and gloom to the mankind. The speaker is saddened by this thought.
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;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Meaning ……The speaker now tries to cast off those depressing thoughts, and returns to his young wife at his side. He tells her that they should live like loyal, loving, and happy couples in the world that appears to hold so much opportunities for them. However, he cautions his wife that all these mean little when ‘faith’ is in the retreat and the environment is changing so fast. Perhaps, he was alluding to Britain’s fast-changing socio-economic climate. He thinks, the world has become a love-less, immoral, selfish, and materialistic place with no true and lasting love between a man and a woman.
He is perhaps alluding to an ancient battle where the invaders came charging at night. The darkness proved to be a disaster for them when soldiers killed fellow soldiers, and confusion proved catastrophic. Without ‘faith’ and love, human existence has degenerated to the level where disharmony and discord blight human lives.
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