Matthew Arnold


Dover Beach

The sea is calm tonight.
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 Ægean, 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.


I’m on holiday at the moment so my thoughts are drawn to the sea: the seas we are familiar with, the seas we cross to reach our destinations, the seas we gaze upon from our new vantage points, the seas that enable transport, freight, migration and communication, and the seas that are barriers to such exchanges. Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold has been widely anthologised and almost analysed to death on other websites but that doesn’t stop me from putting in my own tuppenceworth again. The header photo is probably the image that many of us have of Dover – a barrier of tall white cliffs at the point of a departure or offering a welcoming return.

Matthew Arnold was the son of Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School who established it as one of Britain’s first “public schools;” it was the setting of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes. Matthew’s godfather was Thomas Keble – a clergyman, poet and academic who ended up having Keble College at Oxford University named after him. Matthew attended Rugby School, progressed to Oxford University in 1840, retuned to Rugby as a classics teacher, and in 1851 became a school inspector; he considered this job to be an uninspiring chore but it provided an income sufficient for him to marry and spend time writing poetry and other literary works. His work required extensive travel across the country by rail so he was one of the first well-travelled Victorians, and aware of the diverse standards of living across the country. Before 1870 only about half of British children received some form of schooling so the process of school inspection wasn’t a very effective way to raise standards. He later returned to Oxford as an academic and was twice elected Professor of Poetry while there. It is thought that Dover Beach was written around 1851 although it wasn’t published until 1867.

Each of the four stanzas in Dover Beach represent the progression of a rather gloomy train of thought, but I imagine that today’s readers might well bring a different set of sensibilities to the verse. At the beginning the writer is observing the tranquility and stolidity of a scene and calls his lover (probably his new wife) to witness the sweet night air, the moonlight on the land and sea, the massive cliffs and the rolling roar of the pebbles in the surf. There’s little sand to be found along this stretch of Kent’s coastline near Dover and if he had anticipated a spread of golden sands maybe it explain’s why the shingle’s roar is a sound of sadness. (I find it rather soothing myself.) A more typical image of Dover’s shingle beach is here at Shakespeare’s beach just outside Dover, looking west.

Shakespeare Beach, Dover by Michael Dyer Aug 2020 Googlemaps

It’s the second stanza’s shift to Sophocles and the Aegean Sea that brought the poem to my mind this week: each time I visit this minor branch of the Mediterranean/Aegean Sea I can’t help but imagine the bronze age adventurers who would have explored these inlets and islands as part of their epic journeys and pursuits during the era of the Trojan wars. We’ve already established that Arnold was a bit of a pessimist, and Sophocles wasn’t a particular bundle of laughs either as his major surviving works are the dramatic tragedies Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Maybe that’s why Arnold invokes the spirit of Sophocles rather than that of Homer or Virgil, as it’s in Antigone that Sophocles writes

It is like the sea-swell…when an undersea darkness drives upon it with gusts of Thracian wind; it rolls the dark sand from the depths, and the beaches, beaten by the waves and wind, groan and roar.

As a classics scholar it seems evident where Arnold discovered this image and it reminds us that the crash of waves against the shore is an evocative and universal phenomenon. Arnold is content to share Sophocles’ view that the sound is always a source of sadness and misery whereas I take a different view.

In the third section he extends the image of roaring retreat to the mid-Victorian crisis in religious faith that he would also have encountered at Oxford when the Church of England experienced a series of symbolic defections by key clergymen from the Anglican tradition to the Roman Catholic faith. The Oxford Movement, as it was known, sought to reintroduce more ritual and tradition into Anglican services and I’ve mentioned this on previous occasions with regard to Gerard Manley Hopkins, GK Chesterton and the author of the carol Good King Wenceslas, John Mason Neale. As it happens, John Keble (Arnold’s godfather) was also engaged by this collision of theological views but he remained an Anglican.

In the fourth stanza he seeks to retreat with his lover into a safe world (“a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new“) to escape the harsh realities of the real world and escape the demons and misery that besiege their happiness. There is a final powerful image (“we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.”) This final image is thought to be a reference to the Battle of Karánsebes in what is now Romania where, on the night of 21-22 September 1788, when two elements of the Austrian army attacked each other during the Austro-Turkish war of 1787-91.

A cavalry patrol were intercepted by an infantry patrol and in the darkness (and a certain degree of alcohol induced confusion) both patrols thought they had encountered Turks and mayhem ensued – with the artillery joining in for good measure. There were considerable casualties and Emperor Joseph II ordered all the troops to withdraw. The Turks arrived a few days later to take the town quite easily and bemused by the military dead, wreckage and munitions they found abandoned.

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how the location of the poem reinforces so many presumptions of Britain’s place in the world. Post Brexit the world does seem a dark and dangerous place and the “White Cilffs of Dover” (rather than Dover beach itself) are seen as a bulwark against such perils. This is Shakespeare’s beach again looking east with children playing in the shingle. In the early 1940’s it would have been a tangle of barbed wire, personnel mines and concrete dragons’ teeth to deter enemy landing craft. There are some populist souls today who no doubt wish these defences could be reinstated to deter the asylum seekers in small craft that arrive regularly these days.

And yet those same cliffs, visible from the other side of the English Channel on clear days, are seen as the land of unbridled opportunities and liberty for asylum seekers and refugees from more troubled parts of the world. Despite the current government’s pathetic and immoral attempts to keep out foreigners by making immigration very difficult, political or humanitarian asylum-seeking practically impossible, and creating queues of frieght and people at every border crossing – people still want to come here, and most of us want them to come. I think I’ll have a dedicate a future edition of this page to consider Daljit Nagra’s Look We Have Coming to Dover (2007) to consider the joyous celebration of a Punjabi Sikh poet in the very same place under very different circumstances than those of Matthew Arnold.

Anyway, I stumble away on my laptop in the summer heat, I hear the breeze in the leaves of the trees and shrubs, and think of the surf and the rolling waves at the beach, hear the birdsong and think just how tranquil it all is, with no sense of fear or threat. I don’t really want to bring contemporary politics and culture wars to my readers because other people can do that better elsewhere and you can find them anyway if you’re interested.

But on this occasion there’s a 21st century reading to be made of a 19th century poem. I know that not far up the coast from here in Turkey there will be refugees who will have an image of Dover beach in their aspirations and dreams, and back home we have a deputy prime minister who admitted as Brexit Minister that he didn’t realise how important a place Dover was with regard to trade with Europe. (Funny also that he has a “foreign name” and a Brazilian wife but doesn’t seem to understand why anyone else might want to come to the UK too.)

As for poor old Matthew Arnold, he died in Liverpool in 1888 aged 66, dashing for a train to meet his daughter who was arriving on a visit from America where she lived with her American husband. Another sea port. Another sea beating a tattoo on another shore. Another migration story. It was heart failure – and that still happens today too.

Stay strong people.

Header Photo of The White Cliffs of Dover by Daniel Andrews on Unsplash

Photo of Wrecked Yacht washed ashore on Shakespeare’s Beach, Dover by Michael Dyer on Googlemaps

Photos of Children Playing on Shakespeare’s Beach, Dover by Heike L on Googlemaps