Matthew Arnold, a Victorian intellectual, though known more as a critical celebrity has to his credit some well-reputed poems, including The Scholar Gipsy, Thyrsis and Dover Beach. All those poems bear out his attitude to Victorian life, to its shabbiness and materialistic glosses. They also constitute what is better known as Arnold’s critical thesis that “poetry is at bottom a criticism of life under conditions fixed for poetic truth and poetic beauty”.
Of Arnold’s serious and thought-provoking poems, Dover Beach is definitely much shorter. But compared with The Scholar Gipsy or Thyrsis, its poetical depth and philosophic outlook are not the least.
The subject matter of Dover Beach is the poet’s reaction to a scenic setting of the sea-shore near Dover. The poet, as he stands, finds before him the sea waves coming up and receding on the sea beach of Dover. He is led to reflect on the state of life as it was in the past and as it is in the present. The continuous flow and ebb seem to him to symbolise the life-story of man in which there are ups and downs. The poet, as a lover of the classical masters of Greece, is reminded of the tragic vision of the Great Greek dramatist, Sophocles. He visualises how such a similar scene might have prompted the great master to frame the theme of his great tragedies out of the vicissitudes of human fortune.
Arnold’s theme, however, is not merely the adoration of the great Greek master. On the other hand, the sight near Dover Beach impels his poetic thought to find out wherein lies the vacuum of modern life (i.e. Victorian life) in comparison with the simple, full and earnest life of ancient days. The very sight of the sea flowing over the beach and then leaving out this as barren with naked shingles scattered all over has a symbolic overtone for the poet. Like the beach, full of the sea-flood, life was once full of faith and conviction, rich with impulses and feelings. But life today is as dreary and empty as the sea beach looks after the retreat of the seawater.
What Arnold wants to indicate is the degeneration that has set modern life in all forms. Life was once full of faith, conviction, sincerity and warmth and was earnestly enjoyed. But life, lost in materialism and mechanism, is now utterly deprived of what may be taken as the very sauce of living-faith, hope, devotion and conviction.
This is rather a melancholy attitude on the part of the poet and carries what is called an elegiac note. Arnold is usually acclaimed as a master of elegies, as so expressly denoted in the great poem The Scholar Gipsy. Dover Beach is no official elegy, like The Scholar Gipsy or Thyrsis. But an elegiac note, characteristic of Arnold, is herein profoundly found. An elegy may be occasioned by the poet’s sense of sorrow or regret for the loss of some past glory, ideal, or faith. Arnold seems to mourn here for the loss of the inspiration of life in the past, the life of faith and feeling and hope. He deeply regrets the mechanisation of modern life under the lure of materialistic gains and comforts. This is what frames the content of his elegy in Dover Beach. This elegy is a typical expression of Arnold’s melancholy outlook on life as in Thyrsis. Arnold’s poetic creed is found here based on his doctrine that poetry is a criticism of life.
The implication here is that poetry has the function that tends to show life as it is and to compare this life to something ideal and great and to point out what is lacking in this. This, according to Arnold is the interpretative significance of poetry. Dover Beach remains also a classic example of the poetical presentation of Arnold’s critical precept ‘poetry is a criticism of life.’ The poet brings out here, clearly and categorically, within a brief range, the decline in the ideal of modern life as compared with life in the past. This requires an uplift and that is why Arnold’s criticism of life sounds a positive warning and a positive remedy at the conclusion of the poem. “Ah, Love, let us be true… clash by night.”
This high thought, along with a critical philosophy of life, is expressed in this little poem rich with a clear artistic taste in imagery, diction and versification. The poem reveals distinctly Arnold’s poetic strength and depth and excellence. The scene of the sea beach of Dover is well drawn with a fine hint at the light and darkness on the opposite shore of France. Arnold’s diction is well-chosen, particularly revealing his love for nature, the quiet aspects of natural beauty. In this context, such expressions as “tranquil bay”, “moon-blanched land; “turbid ebb and flow”, “bright girdle furl’d, “edges drear” are specifically worth-quoting. Arnold’s versification has a slow march here and tuned with the grave theme that it couches. The lines are not fashioned in any even rhyme scheme. They rather seem to rhyme irregularly which is perceived in blank verse.
In short, Dover Beach, a short poem, with great thought, marks well Arnold’s poetic faith and vision as also celebrates his perfection as a poetical artist.