This is a poem about a sea and a beach that is truly beautiful, but holds much deeper meaning than what meets the eye. The poem is written in free verse with no particular meter or rhyme scheme, although some of the words do rhyme. Arnold is the speaker speaking to someone he loves. As the poem a progress, the reader sees why Arnold poses the question stated above, and why life seems to be the way it is.

During the first part of the poem Arnold states, “The Sea is calm tonight” and in line 7, “Only, from the long line of spray”. In this way, Arnold is setting the mood or scene so the reader can understand the point he is trying to portray. In lines 1-6 he is talking about a very peaceful night on the ever so calm sea, with the moonlight shining so intensely on the land.

Then he states how the moonlight “gleams and is gone” because the “cliffs of England” are standing at their highest peaks, which are blocking the light of the moon. Next, the waves come roaring into the picture, as they “drawback and fling the pebbles” onto the shore and back out to sea again. Arnold also mentions that the shore brings “the eternal note of sadness in”, maybe representing the cycles of life and repetition. Arnold then starts describing the history of Sophocle’s idea of the “Aegean’s turbid ebb and flow”.

The sea is starting to become rougher and all agitated. Also the mention of “human misery” implies that life begins and ends, but it can still be full of happiness, and unfortunately, at the same time, sadness. “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore.” The key word in that stanza is once, because it implies that he (Arnold) used to look at the sea in a different way than he does now.

Throughout the whole poem, Arnold uses a metaphor to describe his views and opinions. Now he only hears its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” It seems as though Arnold is questioning his own faith. The whole poem is based on a metaphor – Sea to Faith. When the sea retreats, so does faith, and leaves us with nothing. In the last nine lines, Arnold wants his love and himself to be true to one another. The land, which he thought was so beautiful and new, is actually nothing – “neither joy, nor love, nor light”.

In reality, Arnold is expressing that nothing is certain, because where there is light there is dark and where there is happiness there is sadness. “We are here though as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash at night”. Arnold uses much alliteration in the poem. For example, in line 31, “To lie before us like a land of dreams”, repeating the letter L at the beginning of three words.

Also, in line 4, “Gleams and is gone…”, repeating the letter G. The usage of assonance and consonance is not widespread in “Dover Beach”. In line 3 – “…on the French coast the light” – the repetition of the letter T is shown, as an example of consonance. Other literary techniques, such as onomatopoeia and hyperbole, are not used in the poem, besides the metaphor for “Faith” being the Sea.

The diction Arnold uses creates a sense of peacefulness and calmness. It is fairly easily understood vocabulary, with the exception of a few words, such as cadence and darkling. From reading Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”, one realizes that there is no certainty in life. When everything is going perfectly, something unfortunate may happen at any given time, with no forewarning.


  1. The full force of this perceptive poem does not strike one until one leaves England and experiences other cultures. Upon return, one is struck by the moral decay and stifling effect of instant gratification at the expense of a lifestyle formed from a deeper understanding of the human condition. I think Arnold alludes to this in the last stanza where he sees such ‘ignorant armies’ clashing by night. Those who study military warfare, particularly WWI, will also understand the ignorance of both High Commands unable to conceive of any other plan than throwing more troops into the trenches. Ignorant Armies? You bet.

  2. This analysis of what Arnold was saying in this magnificent poem is, sadly, completely wrong. Clearly the poet is observing that the age of faith which had sustained England had receded, leaving his people on a drear and darkling beach with no certainty and little to hold onto except one another. It reflects Matthew Arnold’s deep concern that the great Western fortresses of faith and our ancient culture had been, or soon would be, completely eroded by the uncertainties and cynicism of “modern” science and “scientific’ socialism. Arnold writes in 1851. He was after all a great conservative, alarmed to the point of horror by the Communist Manifesto and the continental revolutions of 1848, which proposed to bring the blood-wet affairs of the commune even to England. Think: The poet is on the beach, his back to the cliffs of Dover, and staring across the channel at revolutionary France.

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