Ideal and Reality in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”
The poet and critic Matthew Arnold is an influential author in Victorian England. Born in the Victorian age, Arnold adjusts himself to the transition of England from an age of faith to an age of science and technology. Known as “Physician of the Victorian age”, he concerns himself about the contemporary era and expresses his ideal in “Dover Beach,” one of his best-known poems. William D. Anderson says, “For a great many modern readers Matthew Arnold’s reputation rests chiefly on this poem.” “Dover Beach” was written in June 1851 after Arnold visited Dover Beach with his wife during their honeymoon. In this poem, disillusionment plays an important role in Arnold’s sense of loss, and also reflects hardships of the Victorian society.
Arnold blends appearance and sentiment in his poems, and he wishes to write for conveying truth. “The dominant note of Arnold’s best poetry is reflection on loss, frustration, and sadness. It is important from the start to draw attention to ‘reflection,’ because his poems nearly are, even if not explicitly, second-order reflections on the nature or meaning of certain kinds of experience, rather than expressions or records of that experience itself” (Collini 27). Besides simply describing the picturesque landscapes, Arnold draws his own bond with those associated with his experiences. Moreover, not only does Arnold tell his own experiences, but also he provides ideals which he manages to help his contemporaries achieve a richer existence in both sense and sensibility in response to rapidly and potentially dislocating social changes (Greenblatt 1369).
The meditative poem, “Dover Beach,” begins with a tranquil scene. The first stanza can be divided into two parts on the basis of Arnold’s different frames of mind. First, Arnold describes the superficial appearance.
The sea is calm to-night.
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 tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air! (1-6)
“Calm,” “full,” and “fair,” are images of simplicity and peace. At night, when the tide is full, the moonlight shines upon Dover Straits. The “vast” cliffs of Dover are glimmering, and the scenery shows sublimity. Arnold approaches the window and feels the sweetness of the night air. Until now, Arnold first depicts a peaceful world; however, he leads the reader back to reality in the following lines:
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the see meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up and high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in. (7-14)
Moonlight is first portrayed as “fair” in line 2; yet, in line 8, it becomes ghastly in the “moon-blanched” land. In the place of the “tranquil” bay and the “calm” sea, “the grating roar of pebbles” appears, and the waves draw back and fling the pebbles. The first stanza ends with “tremulous cadence” and “the eternal note of sadness.” Tremulous cadence refers to the regular rise and fall of a voice that is trembling. Arnold emphasizes eternal note of the sadness to tell the reader that the sadness is not just a temporary phenomenon, and it may go on and on. The joyful and peaceful atmosphere he creates in the beginning is somehow insecure. Enchantments and illusions of Dover Beach collapse. “Strand” in line 10 suggests that symbolizes the challenges and difficulties that Arnold faces are continuous. As Anderson indicates, “abandoning his usual concern with rivers or the open sea, the poet walks by the wave’s edge where Homer first hear ‘the eternal note of sadness’” (Anderson 71). In “Dover Beach,” disillusions begin with “the eternal note of sadness.” The phrase opens up the poet’s sadness after the description of appearance.
Arnold strengthens his idea of time and change through opening up the second stanza with Greek playwright Sophocles. Known as one of the three ancient Greek tragedians, Sophocles is associated with sorrow, misery, and tragic thoughts. With the illusion to Sophocles, Arnold laments the transhistorical “eternal note of sadness.” Arnold ties himself with Sophocles to remind his contemporaries of “the ebb and flow of human misery” (Gilead 277-278). Even though time keeps on moving, the sadness and misery of mankind are still existing in the\world. As Schneider points out, Arnold invented Sophocles’ poetic character to accord with his own preconceived ideas of poet. Arnold works on the relations between history and poetry and applies Sophocles to his poem because Sophocles spoke to the Athens about democracy (Schneider 77-78). Similarly, Arnold also intends to talk to people in the Victorian age about the darkness of their era which involves the loss of religious faith.
People used to have strong faith in religion. “The Sea of Faith” represents religious faith. People’s religious faith “was once, too, at the full.” In contrast with the faithful image before,
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. (24-28)
The change of belief in the era brings Arnold back to reality and makes him feel “melancholy.” “The feeling of isolation and loneliness, so characteristic of modern man, first appeared in the nineteenth century. With the breakup of a long-established order and the resulting fragmentation of both society and thought, the old ties were snapped, and men became acutely conscious of separation” (Housghton 77). As the Victorian period is a highly competitive age, people seek for Utilitarianism in order to fit themselves into an age of science and technology. They regard religion as an outmoded superstition, and ignore people’s spiritual needs (Greenblatt 1026).
In the last stanza, Arnold’s desolate feeling is uplifted by his ideal of love. In “Dover Beach,” the love mentioned is not individual love, but universal love. He sees love as a redeeming power in the society.
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, (29-32)
What lies before Arnold is “a land of dreams,” which is filled with illusions. Similarly, “various” and “new” imply the world is so changeable and unfamiliar to him. His use of such words gives the reader a notion that the ideal of love might collapse. Disillusionment thus shows in the following lines: “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (33-34). It is an isolated world of indifference: “The moonlit scene is a deceptive enchantment if it leads us to suppose that the universe is anything but indifferent to man” (Allott 256). The more we expect, the more desperate we feel when we cannot achieve our goal. Arnold proposes ideal universal love as a cure for his age; however, does universal love really exist? Is it always reliable? Can people really love each other? We cannot neglect the fact that there is distance between ideal and reality, and we may not be too optimistic that love can be a real cure for the society.
In “Dover Beach,” Arnold conveys his high expectation to the Victorian society; however, it brings him sorrow eventually: “And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night” (29-37). “Keats listened ‘darkling’ in “Ode to a Nightingale” (I. 51), Arnold uses the word to depict a cultural and personal landscape of struggle and confusion” (O’Neill 120). Unlike Keats’s falling half in love with easeful death when he listens to the nightingale’s singing in darkness, the darkling plain here is swept with struggle and fight. The last two lines in “Dover Beach” reveal the internal worries and external troubles in the Victorian period. Arnold alludes to Greek historian Thucydides’ description of the battle of Epipolae in History of the Peloponnesian War. “Ignorant armies” refer to the Athenians who slaughter each other because they were confused by the darkness (Allot 257). Arnold strongly suggests the Victorians also live in a darkling world; they do not even know for what they are fighting.
In “Dover Beach,” the reason why Arnold’s ideal of love cannot be fulfilled is maybe due to the hardships in the Victorian age. It was a time that the British Empire created money and technology. On the one hand, industry and technology made people’s life more convenient and comfortable. Cities were highly urbanized, and people lived their lives on an economic and manufacturing basis. On the other hand, it is also an extremely tough time. People faced severe social and economic problems. The poor and unskilled workers were confined to terrible living conditions. Faith cannot solve the problems of poverty. As a result, Utilitarianism rather than religious faith become prevalent in the era. In a sense, “although many Victorians shared a sense of satisfaction in the industrial and political preeminence of England during the time, they also suffered from anxious sense of something lost, a sense too of being displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes that had been exploited too quickly for the adaptive powers of human psyche” (Greenblatt 1018). The invention of time-saving machines increased efficiency; however, it cut off people’s affection towards each other. Hearing “the eternal not of sadness,” the Victorians suffered from sharp and lasting pain; yet it is not all their responsibility. Partly it is because of the hardships of society in that age.
Adaptability is essential in the Victorian age. Matthew Arnold not only expresses his feeling toward the age, he actually takes action to help the society “Arnold, of course, looked to education and the positive role it could play in the pursuit of excellence as an antidote to these social stresses” (Schiralli 53). Different from Romantic poets, Arnold writes for both emotional expressions and educating people through his works. In “Dover Beach,” disillusionment helps the Victorians see their problems and challenges. “Far beyond textual or metrical factors, however, the essential wonder of the poem is that it moves us with a sense of meeting our trouble image” (Anderson 204). People often get stuck in their ideals and illusions; Arnold meets his and his contemporaries’ underneath the sublime scenery.
Perhaps it is infeasibility of Arnold’s lofty ideal of universal love that leads him to a great sense of loss in “Dover Beach.” Although Arnold has high expectations for his era and does try to do something to change the society, it somehow turns out to be impractical. The poem is pervaded with sadness, melancholy, loneliness, and isolation, which suggest that besides the bright part of life, we should look into the dark side of it. The discrepancy between ideal and reality in “Dover Beach” reflects a doubt: Is it possible to reach the universal love?
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