Dover Beach is one of the representative poems of Matthew Arnold. The poem portrays the beautiful picture of the Dover Beach. On deeper level, it becomes an elegy for the loss of religious belief in a materialistic world. Arnold’s period saw the advancement of science which resulted in religious skepticism. The poet seems to say that the loss of religious faith leads his society into the cave of despair.
In the first stanza of the poem, the poet creates a peaceful view of the straits of Dover. The sea is calm, the tide is full and moon is fair. From his window the poet can listen to the grating noise of the pebbles. These pebbles are withdrawn when the waves retreat. The grating roar of the withdrawing pebbles, however, brings “the eternal note of sadness” in the poet’s mind. The waves of the sea bring in his mind the violent and threatening process. This causes a sense of insecurity, which Arnold relates to the insecurity of human beings in an unsettled world.
In the second stanza, the poet mentions how Sophocles heard the same sound, which made him think of “the turbid ebb and flow human misery”. Sophocles was a tragic dramatist who showed in his plays the helplessness of man. Arnold hears the same sound, although from the shore of the English channel. The poet mentions the name of Sophocles, as if, as a touchstone which provides him a sense of security in an insecure world.
In the third stanza, Arnold clearly reveals the cause of his sadness. He laments the waning of the religious faith in the world of scientific discovery and commercial progress. Arnold uses sea as a metaphor for religious faith. Once the sea of faith offered men security. People led a calm and quiet life by holding firm religious belief. But now the waves of the sea of faith are withdrawing and only the naked pebbles are seen on the shore. Security of the religion is a thing of the past and we live in a harsh exposed world. Thus Arnold, like Tennyson, laments man’s spiritual crisis.
In the final stanza the poet wants to cling to love as a source of hope in a hopeless world. The personal relationship of love provides some sense of connection in this individualistic society. This is why the poet implores: “Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another”. The sincerity of the lovers can provide a meaning of existence in a cheerless, loveless and uncertain world. Yet, the poet’s earnest urge to his beloved to be true hints that even there is a scope of falseness in love. Thus, Arnold portrays a very sad and bleak picture of the contemporary society. This dismal picture is further enhanced by the military image of the last lines. Arnold shows that people are now as confused as the two opposing armies who are fighting at night. He ‘hints at the confused state of the Victorian society.
Thus, the poem Dover Beach presents a criticism of the Victorian life and society in a very symbolic way. The poem is rich in imagery. Although the lines are written in irregular stanza, they produce musical effect. The poem is one of the masterpieces of Victorian literature.