In "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold creates a dramatic monologue of the Victorian Era that shows how perceptions can be misleading. Arnold conveys the theme of "Dover Beach" through three essential developments: the technical qualities of the poem itself, symbolism, and imagery. The theme of illusion versus reality in "Dover Beach" reflects the speaker's awareness of the incompatibility between what is perceived and what truly is real.
The technical qualities of the poem include rhythm and meter, rhyme, figures of speech, sound, and irony of the words. The mechanics alone do not explain why illusion and reality differ, but they do help to explain how Arnold sets up the poem to support the theme.
The most prominent mechanisms include the rhythm and the meter of the lines and the stanzas of the poem. Line 1 is an iambic trimeter: The sea/is calm/to-night. The gentle pulsating rhythm of the iamb mirrors the ebb and flow of the sea. The actual words of the first line manifest this idea to picture a calm sea gently lapping at the beach. The second line, an iambic tetramater, also reveals a calm sea. However, line 3 breaks the pattern and forces the reader to break his or her own rhythm. Line 3 includes: Upon/the straits,//on the French/Coast/the light. The line begins and ends with an iamb, but the middle is broken up with an anapest. The anapest is a foreshadow of the tumult to come. The fourth line breaks up even farther with an anapest at the beginning, but the fifth line recovers the rhythm. Glimmering/and vast//out in/the tran/quil bay.
The rhythm recovers by the end of the first stanza, but the original trimeter has not. The number of feet per lin...
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...he speaker is supported by the rhythm and the meter, the lack of a consistent rhyme scheme, the figures of speech, the sound of the words, and the irony of the entire poem. The symbolism of the sea and the imagery of light and dark bring out the alternating visual and auditory qualities, which elaborate on illusion and reality, respectively, Arnold's portrayal of one person's battle with illusion and reality shows a complex view of humanity in a simple poem.
Arnold, Matthew. "Dover Beach."  Literature. 5th ed. Eds.
James H. Pickering and Jeffery D. Hoeper. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1997. 952-53.
Ciardi, John. How Does A Poem Mean? Boston: Houghton, 1975. 196.
Untermeyer, Louis. The Pursuit of Poetry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1969. 57-59.
Walcutt, Charles Child. The Explicator. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968. 16-9.
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