Analysis of a poem by Matthew Arnold


A Reaction to “Dover Beach”, by Matthew Arnold

Metaphor: Land/Religion versus Sea/Science

              There is a sense of opposition throughout Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, caused by the continued contrast between the land and the sea. Land is the mainstay of humans; we cannot (or do not) live on the water. If one considers each to symbolize a worldview, it is possible to assume that the poet meant to give the impression that the one symbolized by land is more subscribed to and more believed in than the other.

              Within this poem, Arnold laments the growing influence of science and its effect on humanity. If that is the case, then in the first stanza the “sea” must be science, since it “bring[s] the . . . note of sadness in” as it encroaches upon the shore. By deduction, the land – the mainstay of humans – must be religion; and each description includes a reference to “light,” suggesting that humanity is enlightened by religion. However, the light in France “gleams and is gone,” the “cliffs of England” only glimmer. It appears that the invasion by science will extinguish the illumination brought about by belief.

              In the third stanza, Arnold describes the “Sea of Faith” as encircling the earth; this brings to mind the quaint idea which Columbus is supposed to have disproved, that the world, surrounded by ocean, is flat, and also that it is possible to fall off the edge of it. By association, the impression of religion – certainly represented by the “Sea of Faith” – is old-fashioned, outdated, even ridiculous. Also, seemingly in continuation of the image in the first stanza, once religion has been replaced by science as the mainstay of humans, the world becomes dark (“we are here . . . on a darkling plain”), and ignorance and dissent are rampant. The  imagery of light, and therefore of a sense of enlightenment, of the first half of the poem is in direct contrast to the darkness and ignorance described in the latter half.

Idea: The ‘Reality’ of the World

             In the last stanza, there is a beautiful image of love being real – the only “true” thing left in a cold, soulless, hollow world. Although previous Romantic writers were not particularly pious, they did draw on religious themes as inspiration for their works, The new, modern, ‘scientific’ way of thinking, where one has to be objective and dissect things and design equations for them, sucks all the magic and color and life out of the world.

Message: Religion versus Science

              The poet begins with a beautiful, calm, soothing image, but ends with the declaration that there is nothing positive left in the world (“neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”), save what he can create himself,

              Whenever the poet describes the sea crashing onto the shore, he uses the word “roar” (“grating roar,” “withdrawing roar”). The reader receives an impression of struggle and violence, and even a sense of anger, despite the fact that the things in question are non-human and abstract. Perhaps this foreshadows the conflict the poet believes will come when the illumination of religion has receded completely. Perhaps it reflects the poet’s feeling about human nature: that it is innately troubled and never remains in a peaceful state.


TEACHER COMMENT: This is very good. You make a good case for the opposition of science and religion, but I think perhaps you should acknowledge that this opposition is only implicit in this particular poem; if Arnold had written nothing else (or if you had read nothing else by or about him) you could hardly have inferred it! Perhaps, too, you should say something about the research sources that led you to approach the poem in this way.


I especially like the way you note the contrasts between sea and land, light and darkness and noise and silence. You could perhaps have said more on this to good effect, especially on the changing value of the sea, which is by turns calming and positive and threatening and negative.

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