Time and PlaceMatthew Arnold (1822-1888) wrote "Dover Beach" during or shortly after a visit he and his wife made to the Dover region of southeastern England, the setting of the poem, in 1851. They had married in June of that year. A draft of the first two stanzas of the poem appears on a sheet of paper he used to write notes for another another work, "Empedocles on Etna," published in 1852. The town of Dover is closer to France than any other port city in England. The body of water separating the coastline of the town from the coast of France is the Strait of Dover, north of the English Channel and south of the North Sea.
Point of View
The poet/persona uses first-, second-, and third-person point of view in the poem. Generally, the poem presents the observations of the author/persona in third-person point of view but shifts to second person when he addresses his beloved, as in Line 6 (Come), Line 9 (Listen! you), and Line 29 (let). Then he shifts to first-person point of view when he includes his beloved and the reader as co-observers, as in Line 18 (we), Line 29 (us), Line 31 (us), and Line 35 (we). He also uses first-person point of view to declare that at least one observation is his alone, and not necessarily that of his co-observers. This instance occurs in Line 24: But now I only hear. This line means But now I alone hear.
Who Is the Listener? (Line 29)
The person addressed in the poem—Lines 6, 9, and 29—is Matthew Arnold's wife, Frances Lucy Wightman. However, since the poem expresses a universal message, one may say that she can be any woman listening to the observations of any man. Arnold and his wife visited Dover Beach twice in 1851, the year they were married and the year Arnold was believed to have written "Dover Beach." At that time Arnold was inspector of schools in England, a position he held until 1886.
Arnold’s central message is this: Challenges to the validity of long-standing theological and moral precepts have shaken the faith of people in God and religion. In Arnold’s world of the mid-1800's, the pillar of faith supporting society was perceived as crumbling under the weight of scientific postulates, such as the evolutionary theory of English physician Erasmus Darwin and French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Consequently, the existence of God and the whole Christian scheme of things was cast in doubt. Arnold, who was deeply religious, lamented the dying of the light of faith, as symbolized by the light he sees in “Dover Beach” on the coast of France, which gleams one moment and is gone the next. He remained a believer in God and religion, although he was open to—and advocated—an overhaul of traditional religious thinking. In God and the Bible, he wrote: "At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is."
Type of Work
“Dover Beach” is a poem with the mournful tone of an elegy and the personal intensity of a dramatic monologue. Because the meter and rhyme vary from line to line, the poem is said to be in free verse--that is, it is unencumbered by the strictures of traditional versification. However, there is cadence in the poem, achieved through the following:
Alliteration Examples: to-night, tide; full, fair; gleams, gone; coast, cliff (Stanza 1)
Parallel Structure Example: The tide is full, the moon lies fair (Stanza 1); So various, so beautiful, so new (Stanza 4); Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain (Stanza 4)
Rhyming Words Examples: to-night, light; fair, night-air; stand, land; bay, spray; fling, bring; begin, in (Stanza 1)
Words Suggesting Rhythm Examples: draw back, return; Begin, and cease, then begin again (Stanza 1); turbid ebb and flow (Stanza 2)
Year of Publication
Although Matthew Arnold completed "Dover Beach" in 1851 or 1852, the poem was not published until 1867. It appeared in a collection entitled New Poems, published in London.