Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867) is a moving dynamic of the older poetic philosophy of Romanticism and its evolution into the more cynical Modernism of the Industrial Revolution. As an individual work, analyzed for its own deliberate virtue, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” would hold a great deal of personal meaning to any secular agnostic that may feel that the pious creativity of most poets excludes them from their readerships. Arnold’s work, “Dover Beach”, in a beautiful sort of melancholy, laments the uncertainties and bitter world that we as peoples of a modern civilization find ourselves a part of. This “darkling plain” (35), as Arnold so describes it, is what has come to replace the divine intervention of God’s protection and divine salvation. Matthew Arnold (1822 – 1888) was an English poet and critic who wrote avidly about the social, religious, and educational issues of his day. In an era where Britain was embracing the efficiency of industrial production, and the marvels of technology and science began their first infantile steps into the role the church once held in the lives of many Europeans, poets like Matthew Arnold, ever the mirrors of culture, began to artistically document this shift. It was a movement away from the social Christian norm of a world created by God, towards a colder, crueler reality of soulless steam engines, and evolutionary theory. This first step towards poetic acknowledgement of this new age was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” and his work becoming the poetic forefather of “Modern Sensibility.” The opening stanza of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is a soothing description of what is believed to be Matthew Arnold looking out the window of his honeymoon cottage over a moonlit pebble beach of the Dover area of Southeastern England. All, save for the last line, is poetic romanticism at its finest; describing the “moon-blanch'd land” (8) as it’s rhythmically washed by the sea, and the sound of the rasping pebbles echoing across the shoreline. The opening stanza of “Dover Beach” is meant to lull the reader into a peaceful composure, imagining the scene with the entire divine splendor that Arnold was writing with. The final line, however, Matthew Arnold ominously calls this scenery the medium that brings “the eternal note of sadness in” (14); the emotional music, that carries with it spiritual manna, bares the stinging bitter-sweet realization that none of it is actually real.
Sophocles (495 – 406), the Greek tragedy playwright, is described by Matthew Arnold as hearing the same sound in the Mediterranean when inspired to write his tragedies such as Antigone, King Oedipus, and Electra. Arnold describes it as having “brought into his mind the turbid ebb and flow of human misery” (16). This comparison to Sophocles’ Theban plays, in their pitiless misfortunes, foreshadows the mood of the following stanzas. The touching enchantment of first devout stanza of “Dover Beach” is now enveloped by the ugly and secular truth of the world. Matthew Arnold describes the “sea of faith” (20), the divine protection of religious devotion, as an encompassing “bright girdle furl'd” (22) that is now retreating before human reason, “the breath of the night-wind” (25). In the final stanza of “Dover Beach”, Matthew Arnold writes “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, or light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;” (28-33). In these emotionally charged lines Arnold pleas that they cling to each other against a land that is beautiful as only an exterior to an unfeeling, Godless world. The beautiful world, the world of the Romantic, is a lie; there is only the callous Modern world, devoid of answered hopes or prayers. Matthew Arnold writes in a very similar fashion to William Wordsworth, “we are here as on a darkling plain” (34), to convey how...
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