Dover Beach is a lyric poem published in 1867 by Matthew Arnold. The poem describes the shore of the English port of Dover, which the poet visited during his honeymoon in 1851 (Stange 37).
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It is commonly acknowledged that Dover Beach, although being quite a typical romantic poem, raises important social problems and provides a holistic picture of the Victorian Period. Specifically, it dwells upon the way the general public perceived rapid industrialization happening to England, which could not help affecting people’s attitudes. Arnold was among those whose poems took a melancholy tone: Dover Beach shows the poet lost and lonely, pondering over the new, discomforting reality. He realized that the world became alien to Victorians so quickly that they did not have time to adapt (Najarian 351).
One of the major problems of the epoch the poem addresses is the issue of faith, which was controversial indeed when industrialization began. Technological advances made a lot of people lose their faith, which led to their overall frustration. Arnold does not express his position in relation to the topic; neither does he name the causes of the decay–this approach is also highly demonstrative of the period when people were not able to explain their attitudes exhaustively and often were unable to understand them. Therefore, the poet manages to demonstrate how the nation lost trust in its traditional values because of the rapidly changing world moved forward by technological progress, which undermined the existing worldview but did not provide any substitute. Just like Victorians, the reader is left to wonder what to think and how to estimate certain elements of the new era.
The author emphasizes the idea that the world is not always what it may seem to be–that is the reason people were helpless when their system of values suddenly collapsed. However, despite the fact Arnold appears perplexed and melancholic as a person whose life was taken away from him in exchange for nothing, the monologue still shows the man seeking his ideal. This intention is also much typical of the Victorian Age that stepped away from a unified Christian norm and tried to find the truth in each of the three new divisions: Evangelical (or Low Church), Broad Church, and High Church (Stange 41). The poem shows the uncertainty of the poet’s choice.
Despite being heavily loaded in terms of social metaphors and underlying allegories, the poem also reveals an emotional aspect of the epoch, which came to be associated with romantic melancholy (Gottfried 54). The picture described by Ronald is aimed to lull the reader, who imagines the sad beauty of the scenery and is supposed to be comforted in his/her sorrows. The poet resorts to metaphorical expressions to compare life to a sea in order to show that various modes of it actually make mankind adverse to its environment, whereas people actually have a profound desire to be understood and accepted by the world around them. The image of water shows the analogy to the life in England that could be both turbulent and peaceful if people managed to regain their ideals (the action occurs at night that proves that these ideals are lost in the dark at present).
Finally, the image of Dover Beach with its white cliffs resembling doves creates a sharp contrast with social issues of the period: The poet realizes that the white color can stand both for purity and excellence as well as for human misery and death. The choice of the direction the nation was about to make had to determine which path it would follow.
Gottfried, Leon. Matthew Arnold and the Romantics. Routledge, 2016.
Najarian, James. “Overcoming Matthew Arnold: Ethics in Culture and Criticism by James Walter Caufield (Review).” Victorian Studies, vol. 56, no. 2, 2014, pp. 350-352.
Stange, George Robert. Matthew Arnold: the Poet as Humanist. Princeton University Press, 2015.