Dover Beach

Dover Beach

Original Text

Matthew Arnold, New Poems (London: Macmillan, 1867). B-10 2583 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).

2The tide is full, the moon lies fair
3Upon the straits;--on the French coast the light
4Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
5Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
6Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
7Only, from the long line of spray
9Listen! you hear the grating roar
10Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
12Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
13With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
14The eternal note of sadness in.
16Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
17Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
18Of human misery; we
19Find also in the sound a thought,
20Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
21The Sea of Faith
22Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
24But now I only hear
25Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
26Retreating, to the breath
27Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
29Ah, love, let us be true
30To one another! for the world, which seems
31To lie before us like a land of dreams,
32So various, so beautiful, so new,
33Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
34Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
35And we are here as on a darkling plain
36Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,


1] Arnold left behind a holograph copy of the first 28 lines of Dover Beach in manuscript notes on Empedocles on two loose sheets inserted into Thomas J. Wise's copy of Arnold's Empedocles on Etna, now British Library Ashley A17, fol. 2r. (Words in a smaller size are Arnold's additions; and struck words and letters are his deletions.)
            The sea is calm tonight.
            The tide is full; the moon lies fair
                                       on the French coast
            Upon the Straits: the cliffs of the light
            Shines & is gone: the cliffs of England
Glimmering & vast: out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, hush'd is the night air.
            Only from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon blanch'd sand
Listen, you hear the grating roar,
Of pebbles which the waves suck back & fling
At their return, up the steep strand
Cease and begin and then begin
With regular cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
In to 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 abright garment furl'd:
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 I &c
S. O. A. Ullmann, in "Dating Through Calligraphy: The Example of `Dover Beach,'" Studies in Bibliography, uses handwriting evidence to date this draft between June 1851 and April 1852. Arnold visited Dover with his new bride, Frances Lucy Wightman, in late June 1851 (they had married on June 10) and again on October 8 in that year, facts that have led others independently to date the poem's composition at that time. Arnold's closing words, "Ah love I &c", show that the rest of the poem had already been written by the time he wrote this draft. Arnold thus held on to the complete poem without publishing it until 1867, for fifteen years. Back to Line
8] moon-blanch'd: whitened by the moon. Back to Line
11] the high strand: upper part of a coastline, perhaps what lies just above the tide-marks. Back to Line
15] Cf. Sophocles' Antigone, 583 ff.:
[583] Blest are those whose days have not tasted of evil. For when a house has once been shaken by the gods,
[585] no form of ruin is lacking, but it spreads over the bulk of the race, just as, when the surge is driven over the darkness of the deep by the fierce breath of Thracian sea-winds,
[590] it rolls up the black sand from the depths, and the wind-beaten headlands that front the blows of the storm give out a mournful roar.
(The Antigone of Sophocles, ed. Sir Richard Jebb [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891]; see Perseus edition at; his Trachiniae, 112 ff.:
For just as one may see billow after billow
[115] advancing and passing over the wide deep before the tireless south-wind, or the north, so the great toil of his life, stormy as the Cretan sea, now whirls back the heir of Cadmus, now exalts him.
(The Trachiniae of Sophocles, ed. Sir Richard Jebb [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1892]); and his Oedipus at Colonus, 1239 ff.:
In such years is this poor man here, not I alone. [1240] Like some cape that fronts the north which is lashed on every side by the waves of winter, so he also is fiercely lashed evermore by the dread disasters that break on him like the surf, some from the region of the setting sun,
[1245] some from that of its rising, some in the realm of its noon-time rays, some from the gloom-wrapped hills of the North.
Back to Line
23] girdle: belt. Back to Line
28] shingles: round, loose, waterworn pebbles on the seashore. Back to Line

Commentary by Ian Lancashire


"Dover Beach," like Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," contrasts the present and the deep past. For Keats, the nightingale uttered a wordless, melancholic beauty that Biblical Ruth also heard. A glimpse of time past proves consoling. When Arnold looks out a window onto Dover beach, he instead hears the "grating roar" caused by the waves of the English Channel as they strike the shoreline at the base of the great chalk cliffs; and he thinks of the "mournful roar" of which Sophocles wrote in Antigone. At poem's end, Arnold also remembers the chaotic night-battle at Epipolae when Athenian warriors, unable to see, killed friend and enemy alike. Time past for Arnold forewarns humanity of its sad destiny. Keats escaped the miseries of his present by entering the afterdeath ecstasy of the nightingale's world. Arnold escaped ancient reminders of "human misery," "alarm and flight," by dwelling on present tenderness: a calm sea, sweet night-air, and his beloved by his side. Time past, yoked to time present, reveals how fragile is the basis of human happiness. Keats closes his ode, asking if he dreams or wakes. Arnold ends his lyric, leaving no doubt that our "land of dreams" is a sham.

Both men say that the imagination acts as the gateway between present and past. At first, the mind fixes on haunting music from nature: the nightingale's song, and the waves' "tremulous cadence slow." Next, the mind finds "in the sound a thought" from past literature. For Arnold, it is a passage in Sophocles; Keats refers only to the "viewless wings" of poetry, but he is soon to think consciously of the Bible, and possibly of Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper." Lyric poetry, more intensely than prose, fuses present experience and memory of the past and then forges something new from their union. For that reason, such poetry is "occasional": its unique insight rises from an instant of immediate experience and binds that moment permanently to something in long-term memory. "Dover Beach" did not become among the most well-known poems in English by accident. Arnold makes explicit the formula by which everyone finds meaningfulness in an experience. You see a landscape by seashore, moonlight and sunset off the French coast, and then, "Listen! you hear the grating roar." These sights and sounds recall what you knew, say, at school. Here it is something from Sophocles. Then, inexplicably, your experience-memory mixture utters a new thought, that the ebbing tide is to nature what the loss of faith is to humanity, inescapably natural and sad. This your revelation, finally, ends in a resolution. The faithful love of friends can replace that between man and God. You say to your partner, "Ah, love, let us to be true / To one another!"

Before "Dover Beach," no one had purified this thought and this conviction so effectively. In "In Memoriam," grieving for the loss of his best (male) friend, Arthur Hallam, Tennyson came close, but finally he retreated from committing so much to so frail a creature. Arnold, however, was holidaying with his new bride in Dover when he evidently had this experience and this resolution. He kept it secret for fifteen years, only publishing the poem in 1867, by which time Charles Darwin's Origin of Species had sheared away the myths of Genesis with scientific dispatch. To say openly, in an age before medicine had the knowledge and the techniques to combat illness, that there was no "help for pain" gave away hope for hope in a bleak world. Of course, Arnold would ably defend the civilizing liberal arts from an enterprising economy energized by the new sciences in his Culture and Anarchy (1869). Two years before, in "Dover Beach," Arnold showed why he dared do so. He must have concluded that loving someone truly remained the only alternative to a world that gives us "neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain," and that only imagination, working on the likes of Sophocles in long-term memory, could prepare us to love truly.

Arnold uses his words carefully. When he says that the world does not give us "love," he means, in part, that the world lacks imagination and so can know very little about time past, which is crystallized in ancient literature like a leaf in amber, knowledge of which is an essential precondition for love. Both the world and the armies that "clash by night" are ignorant. Arnold does not mean that love does not exist, but that it comes only from a partner who, unlike the world, can share the exquisite perception and resolution such as Arnold describes in "Dover Beach." Knowledge, shaped by the well-educated imagination, leads to understanding, understanding to empathy, and empathy to "true love." Note that he says "we / Find also in the sound a thought." Of course, Arnold may also have implied, by true loving, sexual intercourse only between partners, not fornication or adultery. Victorian England engaged in sex far more than the "other Victorians" talked about it; and Matthew and his wife Flu had children.

Only analogy and metaphor can translate sounds into thoughts. "Dover Beach" advances by three such extended comparisons. Arnold first associates the "grating roar" that accompanies the waves, retreating and returning, casting pebbles on the beach shingles, with what Sophocles thinks of: "the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery." If humanity is the sea, the waves collapsing ashore resemble the wretched whose cries "bring / The eternal note of sadness in."

Next, Arnold and his companion, the "we" overlooking a "northern sea" far from Sophocles' southern "Ægean," devise a different metaphor, one more attune with their lives. If the sea is humanity's religious faith, then the "earth's shore" is the irreligious world, ever expanding as the sea's tide, having turned, retreats. Arnold embeds yet another metaphor within this comparison. The sea resembles the world's bright belt, once in folds (spread out in waves) and furled (that is, coiled up and bound).

Last, Arnold manages a deft transition to a quite different analogy. The Sea of Faith, which "Lay" like a belt around the earth's land, becomes "the world which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams." Religious faith becomes a dream. Arnold brings together the two opposites, sea and land joined at their touching edges, in the phrase "naked shingles of the world." So fused, they become a single "darkling plain." The "roar," which in the first two metaphors stands for the sound of the crashing waves, or of the withdrawing tide, becomes "confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night."

Arnold's three analogies, step by step, transport his beloved from a window overlooking a calm moonlit sea to a dark, war-torn battlefield, from security to immediate danger of death. The transition takes the friend through an argument like the seduction case of Andrew Marvell's "To his Coy Mistress." "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!" at first appears positive and affirming. By taking vows of faithfulness, the lovers can to some extent offset the loss of religious faith in the world. However, in the lines that follow, "for the world, which seems ...", Arnold uses an argument based on mutual fear. Worse, the allusion to Thucydides allows a reader to infer that the lovers are potentially like warriors on the same side who, because they could not see, have fought against rather than for one another. Having stripped his beloved of the comforts of religious faith, he drops her onto a battlefield of males, warring unintentionally against their own comrades.

The poem's speaker need not be its author, just as the circumstances of its composition do not supply its meaning. As honeymoon love-talk, "Dover Beach" leaves much to be desired. It sounds like arguments both for not walking out ("it's cold out there!") and for starting divorce proceedings ("he kills his friends?"). Readers have increasingly, over time, learned -- mainly in classrooms -- to accept the poem as autobiographical in origin. Arnold said nothing about when or for whom the poem was written at its publication in 1867. Its speaker, the "I" at line 24, could be either male or female. The beloved could be of either sex too. Its content addresses broad religious, social, and political events of its own age as much as personal relationships. Perhaps on the model of Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, "Dover Beach" might express what typical well-educated newlywed couples, the sacrament of marriage still echoing in their memories, might feel in the privacy of their room, far from priests and relatives with unexceptional dogmas. On the other hand, the escalating negativism and subtly veiled threat in the last verse paragraph cannot as easily be explained away as a partly-flawed transition resulting from its composition earlier than the first three paragraphs. Either Arnold did not see it -- not a good sign -- or he meant us to recognize the speaker's nervous drift towards suspecting that best loves might become, accidentally, very bad for one another.

"Dover Beach" focuses, not just on a thought detected in a sound, but on a mind, an imagination, at work. This invites an autobiographical approach as well as psychological criticism such as Norman Holland's in The Dynamics of Literary Response. He analyzes the typical subconscious drives and the "heavy, massive set of defences" that the poem elicits in the reader. On the one hand, Holland cites "primitive feelings" like the child's love of a mother in the calm, full, fair, moonlit sea as well as "a well-nigh universal sexual symbolism in this heard-but-not-seen, naked fighting by night" (121). The "darkling plain" suggests a bed, the "struggle" an act of rape by a man, and "flight" a woman's reluctance. He asks what happenes in the reader's mind when Arnold shifts from pebbles grating on a beach to armies fighting on a plain. One mind might claim that the poem was patched together from two parts written at different times, but another would ask, why did Arnold choose to patch them together? Why combine Sophocles and Thucydides? Holland suggests that a reader, desiring, in a woman, a mother's "protective love," would fear the closing "primal scene," and would seek for refuge in a love that was a-physical.

Put crudely, the fantasy involves a wish to take in from a nurturing "world" (ultimately, the mother). Countering that wish is a sound, associated initially with her withdrawal, then with father, finally with a naked clash by night -- a primal scene fantasy. The poem counters the despair involved in these sounds by conjuring up the image of lovers asexual and therefore "true to one another." (127)

Because Holland speaks here about a reader's typical response -- in the context of psychological theories about how the unconscious mind engineers wish-fulfilment fantasies under many guises, while both dreaming and waking -- the only defence his analysis needs is a plausible psychological theory. Insofar as Holland implies that Arnold, as his own first reader, shaped the poem's intellectual content (the loss of religious faith, etc.) by means of a mind of whose workings he could not be fully conscious, however, Holland implies that something historically true can be said about Arnold's mind. Holland might also observe that this poem became successful for a reason. Arguably, it is powered by common fantasies.

However, Holland maps imagery against things, persons, and ideas with which it has few literal shared points of comparison. Infants do not drown in mother's (sea) milk or rely on their (Dover cliff) breasts as a defence against enemy invasion. People may think penises are weapons, but swords do not "weep," as Aphra Behn's disappointment did. Any mapping is only as strong as both the theoretical system into which it is embedded, and the immediate plausibility of the comparison. For a metaphor to work, it must be consistent in context. For instance, Timothy D. O'Brien's interpretation of Arnold's "naked shingles" as Herpes zoster, the eruptive disease circling the waist like a belt, makes Arnold's world out, not unreasonably, to be diseased (cf. "human misery"), but then how does one interpret the "long, withdrawing roar" that retreats down these shingles? Is this the patient's moaning out in pain at the progress of the disease, or (as O'Brien implies) is it, quite differently, post-coital depression? It is not easy to maintain both meanings simultaneously. Are we supposed to think of sex between consenting sufferers from shingles? The conscious mind giggles at the mixed metaphors, at the comic inconsistency between them in context.


  • Allott, Kenneth, Thorpe, Michael, and Maxwell, J. C. "The Dating of 'Dover Beach.'" Notes and Queries 14 (1967): 374-76.
  • August, Eugene R. "The Dover Switch: Or, The New Sexism at 'Dover Beach.'" Victorian Newsletter 77 (Spring 1990): 35-37.
  • Bidney, Martin. "Of the Devil's Party: Undetected Words of Milton's Satan in Arnold's 'Dover Beach.'" Victorian Poetry 20.1 (Spring 1982): 85-89.
  • Clark, Clarence C., "A Possible Source of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach," MLN 17 (1902): 484-85.
  • Holland, Norman N. The Dynamics of Literary Response. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • Joseph, Gerhard. "The Dover Bitch: Victorian Duck or Modernist Duck/Rabbit?" Victorian Newsletter 73 (Spring 1988): 8-10.
  • Morrison, Theodore, "Dover Beach Revisited: A New Fable for Critics," Harper's Magazine 1980 (1940): 235-44.
  • O'Brien, Timothy D. "Hecht's 'The Dover Bitch.'" Explicator 44.2 (Winter 1986): 51-54.
  • The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Kenneth Allott, 2nd edn., ed. Miriam Allott. London: Longman, 1979.
  • Robertson, D. A., "`Dover Beach' and `Say not the struggle naught availeth,'" PMLA 66 (1951): 919-20.
  • Schneider, Mary W. "The Lucretian Background of 'Dover Beach.'" Victorian Poetry 19.2 (Summer 1981): 190-95.
  • --. "Plutarch's Night-Battle in Arnold, Clough, and Tennyson." The Arnoldian: A Review of Mid-Victorian Culture 9.2 (Spring 1982): 32-38.
  • Super, R. H. "The Dating of 'Dover Beach.'" Notes and Queries 14 (1967): 61-62.
  • Svensson, Lars Hakan. "A Note on 'Dover Beach,' Lines 21-23." English Language Notes 25.4 (June 1988): 46-53.
  • Tinker, C. B., and H. F. Lowry, "Arnold's `Dover Beach,'" TLS (October 10, 1935): 631.
  • --. The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary. Oxford University Press, 1940.
  • Trawick, Buckner B., "The Sea of Faith and the Battle by Night in Dover Beach," PMLA 65 (1950): 1282-83.
  • Turner, P., "Dover Beach and The Bothie of Tober-na-vuolich, English Studies 28 (1947): 173-78.
  • Ullmann, S.O.A. "Dating Through Calligraphy: The Example of 'Dover Beach.'" Studies in Bibliography 26 (1973): 19-36.
  • Weinstock, Donald J. " 'Say not we are on a darkling plain': Clough's Rejoinder to 'Dover Beach.'" Victorian Poetry 19.1 (Spring 1981): 73-80.
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Publication Start Year
RPO poem Editors
H. Kerpneck
RPO Edition
3RP 3.255.