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Dover Beach

By Matthew Arnold (link will require paswword for off-site access)

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 Agean, 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.


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“Dover Beach”

  • Analyze the series of vivid images of nighttime by the sea in the first stanza.  To which senses do these images appeal?  How do these images relate to the meaning of the poem? Why do you think Arnold highlights the auditory images, such as “Listen!” in l. 9?
  • You might notice that the last stanza of the poem is self-contradictory; it almost argues with itself.  What are some of the competing ideas in the stanza? How does the tone change over the course of the stanza?  How does this shift in tone highlight the stanza’s mixed message?
  • The last four lines of the poem are rhymed couplets, the form traditionally used to conclude and resolve a sonnet.  What is the effect of that form on the meaning of those lines?  How does the stanza resolve, or fail to resolve, the problem introduced by the poem?
  • Evidence suggests that Arnold wrote the poem on his honeymoon in 1851.  How does that possibility change the meaning of the poem for you?
  • The poem was written when England was the most powerful and industrially sophisticated country in the world.  How does the poem comment on this period in English history?