Analysis of a poem by Matthew Arnold


A Reaction to “Dover Beach”, by Matthew Arnold

‘Dover Beach’ (Matthew Arnold) has a structure in which most of the stanzas divide into two parts: positive then negative. They make a sharp contrast with each other, which makes it easy for readers to see changes in the state of the poet's mind, or the environment that surrounds him.

The first stanza is clearly divided in the style above. In the first six lines, the poet uses words such as ‘calm’, ‘tranquil’, and ‘sweet’ to describe the night with his lover. These words enable the readers to imagine that he is in a quiet and comfortable situation, which is the positive part of the poem. Then in the latter eight lines the atmosphere of the scene changes dramatically. There the poet uses words such as ‘roar’, ‘tremulous’, and ‘sadness’ to depict the state of the sea. These words create a harsh atmosphere. The roaring sound of waves reaches the window that the couple is near, and it reminds him of the feeling of sadness. In the second stanza, the poet tries to universalise his feeling of sadness mentioning a Greek tragedian, Sophocles. Though it has some words that may sound negative, such as ‘misery’, this stanza seems neither positive nor negative because it only generalises what the poet felt in the first one.

Some people may say this is a negative poem as it ends with a list of negative words such as ‘darkling’, ‘struggle’, ‘ignorant’ and frequent use of ‘neither’ and ‘nor’. There are certainly these negative words in the final lines of the last stanza, which make the tone of the poem dark and hopeless. It seems, however, that ‘Dover Beach’ is a positive poem overall because it talks about love and tries to balance the positive and negative sides of life. The poet states his hope that the couple will remain true to each other even though the world has ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light’. He tries to regain the balance between positive and negative by this declaration, which is a positive action.

TEACHER COMMENT: This is quite good, but you don’t discuss the third stanza at all. Some comment on the concept of faith, and why the poet brings it into the poem, would make your reaction more complete.

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