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Written by Mathew Arnold (1822-1888), the poem “Dover Beach” attempts to explain the changing nature of faith in Europe, especially after the publishing of evolution theories by Charles Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in the 19th century. In addition, the impact of industrial revolution changed the people’s Christian faith. A religious person, Arnold was worried of the deteriorating faith among the people in Europe, which threatened the existence of Christianity. In this poem, it is quite difficult to understand the actual meaning that Arnold wanted to express.
However, it requires an in-depth analysis of imagery to understand the poet’s themes. According to Culler (17), imagery is a literary technique that involves the use of vivid language to create or evoke mental images or generate ideas of sensation, emotion and visual sense.
According to Honan (23), images of sight and sound have a great contribution to the effectiveness of poems since they give the poet the freedom to express ideas and thoughts clearly, evoke some form of emotions in the reader and thus connect with the reader/audience. An in-depth analysis of the poem “Dover Beach” by Mathew Arnold reveals that sight and sound are two major imageries used to explain the poet’s ideas and feelings due to the threatened existence of Christianity in the 19th century Europe.
Imagery of sight and sound as it applies in “Dover Beach”
Almost every line of the poem “Dover Beach” has some evidence of imagery, which makes the piece not only interesting, but also one that challenges the reader. At the beginning of the poem, Arnold has used the sight of sea scenery, where the reader is introduced to a ‘calm and relaxing sea’. Here, the poet says that in that particular night, the sea was calm, the tide full and the moon was fair.
It shows that the poet’s scene is on a bay near the cliffs of England overlooking the French Coast. This is actually a sound imagery that invokes that at the beginning, everything seems to be Okay. The reader is able to see from this imagery that there is a possibility that the poet is talking about the situation in England and France since they share the Straight. However, the use of the word “today” in developing this imagery of sight suggests that things might change sometime in the future of that the situation might be changing.
This imagery gives an insight into a possibility of change, just like the changes in conditions at sea scenery. The poet seems to suggest that the “gleaming light” he sees when looking towards the coast of France is a sign of hope. The reader can understand that hope in the region is fast disappearing. Arnold seems to suggest that the disappearance of hope will create hopelessness among the Europeans. In fact, this was the situation in Europe’s religion at the time, especially due to an increasing appreciation of scientific postulates by Darwin, Larmarck and Wallace.
As the poem continues, he seems to be changing the tone, as shown in the last few lines of the first stanza. Here, Arnold says “…from the long line of spray… there is a grating roar… of pebbles as the waves are drawing back… and brings down sadness forever” (Arnold 1)
In these lines, the poet has used both sight and sound imagery, which displays his feelings. Clearly, it appears that Arnold has begun showing his anger due to the changing atmosphere. In fact, the reader is able to see that the atmosphere is quickly changing, as the calmness and fairness of the sea and the moon are actually fading. The sight and sound of pebbles being flung and the drawing waves indicate that the situation (in this case the existence and role of Christian morals) is becoming worse.
In addition, the “waves” are used to show the impact of scientific revolution on the society, as people and institutions increasingly accept and tend to rely on scientific theories more than the church and religion. Thus, “eternal sadness” indicates the hopelessness that would fall on Europe after the death of Christian faith (Arnold 1).
In the second stanza, Arnold uses an imagery of sound by recalling what Sophocles, during the classical Greek era, heard as he predicted the fall of humanistic morals. Arnold says that while standing at the beach, he hears the same “sound” that Sophocles heard near the Aegean Sea. This imagery represents the predicted fall of human faith in God because scientific theories and industrial revolution changed the people’s perceptions and beliefs. Arnold says that in the distant north, towards the North Sea, he can hear that sound, meaning that soon, there will be sadness after the “death” of faith in Europe. He predicts a similar event to the one in ancient Greece after the decline of humanistic morals.
In the third stanza, Arnold introduces the reader to his actual message- that faith is actually fading from the midst of the people in Europe. Here, he uses the sound imagery “…melancholy, long and withdrawing roar” (Arnold 1). In this case, the poet uses a metaphor to explain the loss of faith in the society. This auditory image is used to explain how the poet can clearly see the changes brought by science and industrial revolution, but which other people in the society are unable to perceive. In fact, Arnold seems to be quite frustrated by the loss of Christian faith and predicts that the future of Europeans will be sad.
In the last stanza, the poet does not apply imagery, but uses it to explain his feelings and appeals to love (Collini 31). Here, Arnold describes an ancient battle that took place on the same beach he is describing during the invasion of Sicily by Athenians. He informs the reader that the battle, which took place at night, was a unique one because the night confused the two armies to an extent that the soldiers turned against their colleagues. This is an image developed by Arnold to describe the recurrence of a similar battle, where industrial revolution and science have brought confusion, loss of faith and eventually, he predicts that sadness will prevail in Europe.
In this poem, it is clear that almost every stanza is full of imagery. Alongside metaphor, the use of imagery is used to explain the ideas and themes Arnold wants to communicate. Imagery has contributed to the development of the themes of loss of faith, the changing nature of Christianity and a possible recurrence of moral decline, which seems to be similar to the same problems that affected the people in the ancient Greece. It appears that Arnold is not happy with the impact industrial revolution on his society, especially due to the people’s acceptance of scientific view of creation and revolution.
Arnold, Mathew. Dover Beach. Oxford, UK: Oxford university press, 1851.Print
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Collini, Stefan. Arnold. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Culler, Dwight. Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.
Honan, Park. Matthew Arnold, a life. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001. Print.