Dover Beach Analysis

Dover Beach


Matthew Arnold’s dramatic monologue describes the mesmerising nightscape of “Dover Beach”. The speaker reflects on the natural beauty of the world but recognises its brutal emptiness. He asks for his “love” to be “true” because they need to support each other in this “darkling plain”. Despite the great sadness in the world because of our spiritual uncertainty, the poem suggests we can find contentment and peace in our relationships.

Dover Beach

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!
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.

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.

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.

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.


The poem is set along the English coast on a beautiful, untroubled night and opens with three simple declaratives that establish this tranquillity. Of course, the speaker could be attributing his own emotions to the quiet scene. Since there is no obvious or ominous disturbance in the world, this pathetic fallacy might suggest he is feeling content because his life is “calm”, “full” and “fair”.

The moment is refreshing and delightful. This is clear in his statement “sweet is the night-air” because the pleasant taste suggests the “night-air” is very satisfying.

In the final verse, the speaker compares the world to a “land of dreams”. This simile suggests anything is possible in this fantastical place. He also describes the landscape as “so various, so beautiful, so new”. The tone of this triplet of adjectives is joyful and optimistic. Notice how that tremendous excitement is supported by the intensifier “so”.

Arnold clearly found great serenity in the moment, so it is no wonder some critics describe “Dover Beach” as a “honeymoon” poem.

Alternatively, he is as unmoved and stoical as the night. This ambivalence is conveyed through the choice of location because a beach is where the solidity of land meets the chaos of the sea. Therefore, his “fair” world could quickly erode. The “world” only “seems” to be “so various, so beautiful, so new” because the quiet night will soon turn to the harsh reality of day.

Imagery of Light

Traditionally, light symbolises hope, beauty and human reason. By setting the poem at night, Arnold could be suggesting he feels melancholic. However, the “moon lies fair” and illuminates his world. This is reinforced later in the first verse in the image of the “moon-blanched land”. In the miserable darkness of night, the moon can offer solace and guidance.

Obviously, the world looks very different to the speaker in this soft light compared to the uncompromising light of day he may have seen earlier. He recognises this difference and the fresh perspective it offers.

However, in the last verse, the speaker suggests the “world” has no “light” and they live on a “darkling plain”. The antithesis between the whitened landscape in the first verse and the increasing darkness of the fourth suggests there is inevitable sadness of the world.

Their love is simply a moment of happiness in a bleak world.

This sense of transience is epitomised by the imagery of the brief, subdued light in the first verse when Arnold describes how the “light gleams and is gone” along the French coast. This change is conveyed to the listener through alliteration and the long vowel sound in “gleams” followed by the more abrupt vowel sound in “gone”. Both words have nasal consonants, but “gleams” ends with the more satisfying sibilance which “gone” is missing.

The “glimmering” white cliffs of Dover are also faint and uneasy in the moonlight.


The third verse begins with the line “The Sea of Faith”. Comparing religion to the vast sea is appropriate considering the setting of the poem. It suggests our spiritual identity is immeasurable and beyond our comprehension. Arnold extends the metaphor, suggesting that the comfort and hope of people’s faith was “full” like the high tides, but his faith has been replaced by “melancholy” and doubt just like the water retreated to expose the pebbles.

Matthew Arnold’s father was a clergyman and became headmaster of Rugby School, so the poet was well-versed in religion.


The poem refers to the impact scientific progress has on the society and, in particular, faith. The opening of the poem sets the scene, but it also uses the language of science.

On the Beaufort Scale, the nautical definition of “calm” informs the reader the sea is glassy and there is little wind in the air. We can also infer an almost cloudless sky, gentle winds with a clear view to the horizon from the nautical definition of the word “fair”. A “full” tide is slow and long.

It is important to note there was a deep crisis of faith in the Victorian period. For example, Charles Darwin’s “Origins of the Species”, which was published in 1859 and focused on evolution, directly contradicted the Book of Genesis and God’s role in the creation of the universe. Perhaps, the answers science was providing about the world and our existence led to the speaker’s own spiritual uncertainty.

Dramatic Monologue

Matthew Arnold married Frances Wightman in 1851 and they stayed in Dover on the last night of their honeymoon before travelling home. Although, the poet had been inspired by previous visits to the coast, it is safe to assume that the immediate audience in the poem is his new wife.

Admiring the night scene outside, he invites her to “come to the window” and asks her to “listen”. The exclamative could suggest excitement, romance, frustration or anger at this point. The speaker is eager for his wife to “hear” the “grating roar” of the “waves” washing through the “pebbles”.

He depicts a mesmerising nightscape in the first verse but ends with an image that is full of despair. Suddenly comparing the unstoppable tides to the relentless sadness of the world must be quite shocking for his wife.

Alluding to Sophocles in the second verse is an attempt to justify his pessimism. The speaker admits he can only “hear” the tide’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” in the third verse. He is worried about “human misery” without the comfort of faith. However, the interjection “ah” and the term of endearment “love” mark an obvious shift in tone from the gloomy philosophy of the previous verses to this intimate and hopeful moment.

The speaker acknowledges their future is uncertain, but their love will give them strength if they “be true to one another!”

Comprehension Questions

  1. Where is Dover Beach situated?
  2. What mood is created by the images of the “sea”, “tide” and “moon”?
  3. The “light” from the “French coast” can be seen and then is “gone”. In contrast to the previous question, what might this image signify?
  4. Suggest why a writer would set their story on “cliffs”.
  5. Look at line six and explain how Arnold suggests the poem takes place at a specific moment.
  6. How is this reinforced in the ninth line?
  7. What is the meaning of the word “ebb”?
  8. How does the poet convey the movement of the “waves” in the first verse?
  9. How do you think the speaker feels at the end of the first verse?
  10. Looking at the second verse, suggest how Sophocles felt about the world.
  11. How has the speaker faith changed?
  12. Why does the speaker think he and his “love” should be “true to one another”?
  13. Summarise or paraphrase what is happening in each verse.

Tom Hiddleston reads “Dover Beach”


In the second verse, Arnold refers to Sophocles, an ancient Greek playwright, and the way he connected the tides along the Ægean coast to “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery”. This is probably an allusion his play “Antigone”, when the Chorus react to King Creon’s confirmation that Antigone will be executed:

“Blest are they whose days have not tasted of evil. For when a house hath once been shaken from heaven, there the curse fails nevermore, passing from life to life of the race; even as, when the surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath of Thracian sea-winds, it rolls up the black sand from the depths, and there is sullen roar from wind-vexed headlands that front the blows of the storm.”

Further Study

If you are studying Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” as part of CCEA’s poetry anthology, it might be worth considering the doubt experienced by the speaker in R.S. Thomas’ “Here”.  Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” also offers a connection in terms of how nature can help us understand our identity and our place in the world.

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