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why “dover beach”?

Dover Beach – by Matthew Arnold

“The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

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, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”


Matthew Arnold once said that, “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” Arnold was by no means an orthodox Christian. Most of his poetry shows little serious concern with the Christian revelation. Perhaps the nostalgic and thoughtfully sad undertones of Dover Beach are as close as he comes anywhere to an admission of, at least, the consolations offered by religion– religion that he witnesses retreating down the “naked shingles of the world.”

But with the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith sounding in his ears, he paints the picture of an increasingly secular world bereft of any spiritual motive, a world which offers: “Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”  As a view into the seeming failure of religion as an informing principle in modern life, there is nothing to match the melancholy landscape of his poem “Dover Beach.”  His portrait of the world’s receding tide of faith is authentic and poignant:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

47 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 November 2010 4:46 am

    Very interesting; both the poem and your analysis. So, what is the upshot? Is “Dover Beach” in this context a place where religious faith recedes and secularization rises? I have only just discovered your blog (from a post tagged “C.S. Lewis”), but it seems that you are more concerned with turning back that tide. Neither do I know anything about Matthew Arnold, but from his Wikipedia article (not always the best source, perhaps) it doesn’t sound as if he really believed in Christianity or Christ, or even God Himself. How do you read him?

    • 15 November 2010 4:23 pm

      Thank you for commenting. I chose the title “Dover Beach” because in it Arnold has described poignantly the post-Christendom context that those of us who want to speak about the Christian Faith have to speak into. It would be quite arrogant of me to think that I myself could do anything to turn back that tide. I would be happy to find that there were one or two people who read what I have written and found in it some reason to pause and reconsider the popular belief that Christian faith is untenable in the modern world.

      I think you are correct about Matthew Arnold not being a Christian. He seldom directly spoke of it, and the little he did say strongly suggests that he was not. It seems to me however that some statements, along with this poem, indicate a person who was conflicted on the subject.

      • 16 November 2010 2:35 am

        Well said. My own blog is new, and focused on reviewing fantasy literature and movies, but I also maintain a Christ-centered view of life. I’ll keep an eye on your blog here, for it seems that we agree about much. I’d also like to make a few friends here, and a brother in Christ would be most welcome. God bless your ministry here — for all that the saints do for the glory of God is our ministry.

  2. Abre permalink
    14 April 2011 9:54 pm

    Hello Θεόφιλος
    Out of curiosity, do you know any poem(s) you would consider to be a counterpoint to Arnold’s?


    • 14 April 2011 11:36 pm

      I’m not certain what you mean by counterpoint. Do you mean a poet who doesn’t think that the “Tide of Faith” is receding? Or maybe, one who sees the “Tide of Faith” is receding, but doesn’t feel melancholy about it?

      • Abre permalink
        15 April 2011 10:17 am

        I suppose what I’m driving at is a poet who sees the beauty of/behind nature as something real or at least points us to something real as opposed to Arnold’s reading of his experience of the world as having “neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”

        I wasn’t so much concerned about the “Tide of Faith” term. Although I do find it interesting he uses a metaphor with an obvious cyclical nature of it.

  3. 21 June 2011 10:29 am

    There was a time for a few years when I knew the poem by heart and would recite it aloud to myself now and then. Beautiful, poignant choice!

  4. vernonpsilverman permalink
    1 August 2011 2:11 pm

    Some truly choice blog posts on this website , bookmarked .

  5. seglea permalink
    2 August 2011 9:02 pm

    In reply to Abre, above, I suppose that a more optimistic use of tidal imagery would come from Arnold’s near contemporary Arthur Hugh Clough, in his uncharacteristically popular “Say not the struggle naught availeth”:
    For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
    Seem here no painful inch to gain,
    Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
    Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
    … not that Clough was an orthodox Christian either; if Wikipedia is to be believed, he even found the Unitarians too constraining. Graham Greene has one of his characters describe him as, “An adult poet in the nineteenth century”.

    Theophilus, thank you for this gracious and thought-provoking blog.

  6. Franklin Parker-Waites permalink
    9 August 2011 1:30 am

    Thank you for this blog. I know that there are many pastors, like me, who are asking these same questions. My desire is to grow as a spiritual leader and to love the church more and more like Jesus did.

  7. 28 October 2011 10:54 am

    Thank you for your comment.

  8. 23 November 2011 8:44 pm

    I have just found Dover Beach (not the poem). I once passed through it on my way to something else and now regret not having stayed on to learn and gain in perspective and outlook. I appreciate your efforts and offerings. You have connected me with ideas and views that are provoking and valuable and I owe you some gratitude. So I’ll say thank you for this publication and get back to enjoying your archives.

  9. Ellen Wells permalink
    4 December 2011 11:49 pm

    Two happenings this evening: news of a friend dying in a fall as he was putting up Christmas decorations, leaving a sick, confused wife and horrified friends. On the other, the lovely voices of an English choir singing an Advent hymn (“Lo, he comes in clouds descending..”. followed by the words to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”.. the most poignant poem I know. Devastation in beauty…where to go from here?

  10. Tim Bloxham permalink
    11 December 2011 4:59 am

    i just loved poem, its description of the beach of where i spent my childhood casts the exact
    emotion i feel when i reflect back upon that time in my life .I do miss the sounds of that sea.

  11. Tim Bloxham permalink
    30 December 2011 6:07 pm

    …”the eternal note of sadness” ,is not quite the experience i had with the cadence of the pebbles on the beach, it was the most relaxing sound and then topped with the sounds of the foghorns it was to a child’s mind perfect,and then sometimes one could hear in the distance the chug of the old fishing boats as they made their way through the fog to the beaches at Deal.It saddened upon my return to this area after twenty years me to see that way of life of the fishermen eradicated in such a short period of time and replaced with big boats and large nets .

    • 31 December 2011 1:31 pm

      Thank you for commenting.

      I don’t think that Matthew Arnold is saying that his “eternal note of sadness” is caused by the sights and sounds of Dover Beach though. It seems to me that the poem is about the receding tide of faith. And because he is in this sober, gloomy state of mind about that, he hears his own melancholy reflected in the sounds of the beach.

    • 15 September 2012 2:14 pm

      Yes, the poem is definitely about the sea, which those who love the sea can relate to–and it’s about faithfulness or lack thereof between two people, lovers, man and woman. I always loved the poem too, and knew it by heart. And, funny thing, way back in college a million years ago I did think that MAtthew Arnold was essentially a Christian poet–though I never thought this one was about religion. Don’t know what I’d think now–haven’t looked at poetry for years.

  12. Tim Bloxham permalink
    31 December 2011 4:34 pm

    If one see’s something, especially when it comes to the interpretation of a poem or any work it is really up to the one interpreting unless one has the actual writer of the piece of prose in this case standing beside them to tell them exactly what he or she was thinking ..I was making reference to a specific image described through a series of words in a particular segment of a poem whose words for me I interpret how i do .Your choice of words stating
    “I don’t think ” for starters, say’s something perhaps about you and or your interpretation or the fact that you need it to be as you have been told ,and that the box has to look a certain way to be a box .

    • 31 December 2011 8:45 pm

      . . . sigh.

      Of course the use of language is intended to convey something of the authors thoughts and feelings isn’t it? My interpretation is based on what the author actually says in the poem, while your comment is based on your own feelings while enjoying a day at the beach. But have it your way.

  13. 13 January 2012 9:55 pm

    Really enjoying reading your thoughtful posts. And Dover Beach is one of my favourite poems. Thank you.

    • Tim Bloxham permalink
      14 January 2012 3:27 pm

      There is a quote from a poem “with outstretched hand he longed for the other shore” i cannot remember where this comes from, it was written in a letter to me by my father who always longed for the England of his childhood as i do now somewhat, and yet when i do allow myself the time to travel there, it is not quite the same as i remember, with the exception of the beaches at Dover and it majestical sounds of the sea embodied in Arnold’s
      poem and the distant church bells, lets not forget those .I live in Canada now where the land scape is vastly different and for me it was not the experience of my childhood and so thus it does not hold me as the English seaside does .

  14. 20 February 2012 8:04 pm

    Dover Beach is lovely, especially the last section….I first became familiar with it through Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451” — have you read it?

    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

  15. FlippoAsbury13 permalink
    13 June 2012 9:19 pm

    Thanks for this blog! Always follow your heart!

  16. Howey permalink
    14 June 2012 1:20 am

    I’ve read some just good stuff here. Definitely bookmarking for revisiting.

  17. Aneita permalink
    9 July 2012 11:32 am

    please keep on posting such quality material.

  18. 15 September 2012 2:09 pm

    It’s not about religion–he’s talking to his woman!

  19. 19 March 2013 6:52 pm

    Saw you re-blogged our article and noticed you’re a fan of our muse, Matthew Arnold. Cheers!

  20. Seymour permalink
    20 June 2013 10:49 pm

    Greetings! I’ve been following your site for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Atascocita Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!

  21. 21 June 2013 3:04 pm

    Wonderful Poem! In reflection I have always asked; where were the faithful when the tide of the faith was going down? Were they oblivious or were they unaware of the effects of s receding tidal wave? Lord! send us help!

  22. Tim Bloxham permalink
    21 June 2013 3:49 pm

    The faithful have always been there,but the leaders of the faithful have had other plans .Remember the biblical quote” beware of the wolves in the sheep’s clothing” .Cicero realized this as well as he conveyed in his quote :”A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague.”
    There will be of course those that say this is not the forum for this type of exchange ,but you did pose a question, and i am always compelled to answer to best of my knowing .Until we realize that we as humanity have been duped by a select group that hides behind Governments we will never be totally free,certain people in the past hundred years have realized this and attempted to thwart to strangle hold on humanity and have paid dearly for the attempt and have been stigmatized to no end .The wave of change for humanity is rearing its head as i write here ,some see it ,some feel it ,others are indifferent and go on their way ,what do you do ?

  23. 31 July 2013 12:11 am

    Very good article. I certainly appreciate this site. Keep writing!

  24. 元; 元朝 permalink
    25 August 2013 1:58 pm


  25. 9 April 2014 9:46 pm

    I think the saying by Blaise Pascal might help here. “If you really would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at leads once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.

  26. Robin permalink
    4 July 2014 2:31 am

    Great poem. I am not sure if you know that the poem was set to music by Samuel Barber. He did a masterful job. Amazing work of joining words and music. RR

  27. 4 July 2014 5:01 pm

    Great poem ,not sure about the music ,after hearing his adagio which was superb this piece leave me cold ,perhaps i will give it another go

  28. 4 July 2014 5:03 pm

    Great poem ,not sure about the music ,after hearing his adagio which was superb this piece leaves me cold ,perhaps i will give it another go

  29. 24 October 2014 12:01 am

    Personally, I have found myself that the Wisdom literature of Holy Scripture, like Job, the Psalms and the Psalter, Proverbs, etc., to be the best existential and also ontological reality for human life! And of course pressed themselves thru the heart and mind of the pen of the Apostle Paul himself! Paul so loved the OT Holy Scripture! (But, it is simply foreign to the non-regenerate heart & mind). Indeed the Salvation History of the Bible itself is more than just literary features. I love true Hymnology, and the Gospel in Hymns, but one must simply and profoundly be regenerate to even begin to understand the mystery of biblical “metanoia” (change & repentance), and the miracle of the transformation of the human mind, by the Grace of God!

    Yes, I am one of those so-called Reformed and Neo-Calvinist Christians! 🙂

    • 24 October 2014 12:08 am

      Btw let me share one of my favorite metaphysical poets: Henry Vaughan…’Into the World of Light’.

      They are all Gone into the World of Light
      By Henry Vaughan
      They are all gone into the world of light!
      And I alone sit ling’ring here;
      Their very memory is fair and bright,
      And my sad thoughts doth clear.

      It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
      Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
      Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
      After the sun’s remove.

      I see them walking in an air of glory,
      Whose light doth trample on my days:
      My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
      Mere glimmering and decays.

      O holy Hope! and high Humility,
      High as the heavens above!
      These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
      To kindle my cold love.

      Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
      Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
      What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
      Could man outlook that mark!

      He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
      At first sight, if the bird be flown;
      But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
      That is to him unknown.

      And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
      Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
      So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
      And into glory peep.

      If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
      Her captive flames must needs burn there;
      But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
      She’ll shine through all the sphere.

      O Father of eternal life, and all
      Created glories under thee!
      Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
      Into true liberty.

      Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
      My perspective still as they pass,
      Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
      Where I shall need no glass.

      • 24 October 2014 11:44 am

        Thank you for sharing that.

      • 24 October 2014 3:35 pm

        🙂 “O holy Hope! and high Humility,
        High as the heavens above!
        These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
        To kindle my cold love.

        Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
        Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
        What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
        Could man outlook that mark!”

        Today, I am 65! Thanks be to God! (Born this day in Ireland 1949!)

      • 12 June 2016 2:31 pm

        tank you so much for reminding me of th incomparable Vaughan!

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