Dover Beach is Matthew Arnold’s most famous poem, as well as one of the standard poems in all Victorian canons. It was written sometime between 1848 and 1851 but not published till 1867, when Arnold had essentially ceased writing poetry. In the preface to the 1853 edition of his Poems, Arnold had said (following the German poet Friedrich von Schiller) that poetry is only justified if it gives its readers joy. (Arnold was also following his great master William Wordsworth, who had notoriously asserted that poetry flows out of “the grand universal principle of pleasure, in which we live and move and have our being” [preface to Lyrical Ballads]). Arnold observed that such enjoyment does not require that poetry depicts joy, and indeed, tragedy seems to offer its spectator the deepest joy when the calamity it depicts is most terrible. This is a standard thing to note about tragedy, but it is perhaps more a critical than a poetic observation. The tragic writer may not mean to give joy but intensity. That such intensity has a component of joy for the spectator is a feature of human psychology (probably derived from the interest in each other’s fate that is the human evolutionary inheritance) and not of a writer’s explicit intention.
Arnold nevertheless understood the joy that even the most tragic writers can offer—for example, the Greek dramatist Sophocles, who has heard the same “eternal note of sadness” (l. 14) that he himself hears in the lapping of the waves on the night when the poem is set. He knows that Sophocles has heard it because Sophocles has captured the sadness in his own tragedies; and those tragedies give Arnold pleasure to contemplate. Therefore, he can hear in the sound of the sea the literature he loves. This is part of Arnold’s point: The world is a difficult and lonely place, and it does not keep the promises we in our youth think it makes. But in its depiction of the world as a lonely place, literature can console us and even give us joy in the representation of that loneliness.
Arnold’s poem is less about Sophocles than about the English romantic poets (see Romanticism) about whom he was so ambivalent, in particular John Keats and Wordsworth. Wordsworth was an obsession of Arnold’s, and in his best poems he is more or less consciously trying to rewrite him. The scholar Harold Bloom has rightly identified “Tintern Abbey” as a source of “Dover Beach,” which repeats the strains of that poem’s “still, sad music of humanity.” One can also hear Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” here, despite Arnold’s stated disapproval of Keats. Where Arnold hears the same sea sounds that Sophocles did, he is really remembering Keats hearing “this passing night” the same nightingale voice that was heard in ancient days by emperor and clown, and that found a path through the “sad heart of Ruth” (“Ode to a Nightingale,” ll. 64–66).
Such a thought is consoling, and what it consoles for is the loneliness of the world depicted in the last stanza. There Arnold is echoing William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and the consolation the disguised Duke offers the condemned Claudio (a passage from which T. S. Eliot will derive his epigraph to “Gerontion.”) Life, the Duke says, is not worth it, and the poetic representation of life’s sorrowful emptiness is the only consolation that we may have. Arnold goes further, however, and also finds consolation in the possibilities of love.
How does the poem arrive at those possibilities? It is in the mode of a crisis lyric—that is to say, the kind of poem that Wordsworth wrote in the Intimations Ode as well as “Tintern Abbey.” Through the poem the poet thinks himself out of despair and into consolation. The form that consolation takes in the romantics is one whereby a perceived loss of intensity in oneself over time is transfigured into a feeling of the intensity of loss. Arnold, however, has a more objective or general perspective than that of the high subjectivity that the romantic poets explore. If the poem was written in 1848, what Arnold is perceiving across the English Channel is a sense of the revolutions occurring on the continent, perhaps most notably for him in France. The world is a grim place not because we lose freshness but because it is a grim place. Its grimness consists in the fact that there is no possibility for human community or cooperation: no joy or love or light or certitude or peace or help from pain, to reproduce Arnold’s list (no doubt influenced by the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes as well as by Shakespeare).
Put more briefly, there is no human community. Ignorant armies clash by night (l. 37), and that night refers explicitly to the Greek historian Thucydides’ account of the night battle of Epipolae between Athens and Syracuse, where no one could tell friend from foe (Arnold’s father translated Thucydides), but more generally to the long night of human experience, the night in which we can hear the ebb and flow of human misery (l. 19). We hear it here in the north (on the English Channel) just as clearly as Sophocles heard it on the Aegean Sea.
This connection between Sophocles and our modern selves is essential to Arnold’s hopes, both as poet and as the critic who promotes culture against the anarchy of the world (see also his account of the nightingale in “Philomela”). The world is one of anarchy and misery, but that very fact joins or should join together all who understand this fact. The ignorant armies may not understand it—they represent anarchy, and the crucial word is ignorant. If they were not so, they might realize the community of sadness that we all share and the fidelity and love we should show one another in confronting this sadness.
The joy we take in great literature is the joy we take in love: not the joy of triumph or transcendence, but that of recognition. The world is a place (as Arnold repeats in all his great poems) where there is no love or real connection between us. We are all “enisl’d,” as he says elsewhere. But literature shows that there is real love and connection in the discovery that others are alone just as we are, and this discovery is the way Arnold seeks to turn loss or despair into the poetic and literary gain offered by the common, even universal, recognition of this experience of loss and despair. In “Dover Beach” the woman he addresses will come to see the delusory world, but in doing so they will stand together and show their truth to one another.
Arnold, Matthew. Essays, Letters, and Reviews. Collected and edited by Fraser Neiman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Matthew Arnold. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Dawson, Carl, and John Pfordresher, eds. Matthew Arnold: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Trilling, Lionel. The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays. Edited by Leon Weiseltier. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.