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Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” can often deceive readers into thinking that the speaker is actually calm and content. However, if we dissect and examine the poem carefully, we notice that the Arnold worries about life and its meaning. The mood of the poem changes from one of tranquility to one of sadness. Arnold creates the mood by utilizing different types of imagery, descriptive adjectives, similes, and metaphors. Using these literary elements, he portrays a man standing in front of a window meditating about the sound of the pebbles tossing on the shore as the tide goes out. Throughout the poem, the poet seems to be afraid of what the world is becoming. From the literary devices that Arnold employs, the audience may discover what exactly he is afraid of. In “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold expresses his fear of failing to find meaning in man, nature, and religion.
Arnold’s description of the sea and the naturalistic scene around him conveys his uncertainty about nature. Although the poem begins with seemingly positive diction in the first stanza, the mood quickly changes as the speaker uses manys more negative words. After first describing the surroundings as “glimmering” and “tranquil,” (line 5) Arnold starts to utilize adjectives such as “grating” and “tremulous” (line 12). Throughout the rest of the poem, he describes the landscape and nature in a disheartening way. Arnold does point out some of nature’s attractive qualities; however, he indicates that nature’s beauty hardly conceals its darkness and gloom. For example, when he writes, “for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams,” he makes use of the word “seems” to imply that the world is not always what it appears to be (lines 30-31). He proceeds to explain that the world “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;” (lines 33-34). He calls attention to everything that wrong with the nature and the world. The last three lines of the poem give the reader the idea that Arnold is afraid of what will happen to this world; he writes, “And we are here as on a darkling plain” (line 35). He seems to be afraid that we are on this world in the dark; not even nature can guide us.
Arnold’s description of the sea and his use of similes illustrate his apprehension concerning the human condition. The poem ends with a three-line simile that most likely refers to a battle that occurred more than two thousand years ago. The battle occurred on a “darkling plain” in Sicily where the invaders became so confused by the darkness that they slaughtered many of their own men (line 35). Matthew Arnold alludes to a horrible event where men killed their brethren; he expresses his belief that the human condition is failing. It seems that he fears humans are becoming “ignorant armies,” failing to realize who is a friend and who is a foe (line 37). In other portions of the poem, Arnold describes the sea and the shoreline. He uses descriptive adjectives and imagery to illustrate what the sea looks and sounds like; however, the beach seems to be completely bare and without human existence. The only hint of humanity is “on the French coast the light / Gleams and is gone” (lines 3-4). The speaker’s failure to mention any existence of humankind on the beach seems to indicate that he is withdrawn from humanity. Arnold’s allusions and similes express his fear of failing to find any meaning in humankind.
Throughout his poem “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold conveys his fear of failing to find any meaning in the major aspects of life. In the poem, the speaker first looks to nature for comfort and reassurance, but is left with and void. He seems to think that nature has a few beautiful aspects that fail to cover its gloominess. The speaker then turns to religion and realizes that the faith the world has is diminishing altogether. Without faith, joy and love may cease to exist. Finally, the speaker examines humankind and the current human condition. It seems that he thinks we are all “ignorant armies” lost in a “darkling plain.” At first glance, this poem may seem alluring and delightful; however, with further speculation it seems to have a much more depressing mood. Essentially, Matthew Arnold searches for some important meaning in his life, but is fearful that he may come up short.
Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. Ed. Stephen
Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006.
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