As the narrator of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" looks out his window, he sees a beautiful world of nature: the sea and the cliffs under the glow of the moon. Describing this scene to his lover, he invites her to "[c]ome to the window" so that she might see it too (6). However, it is not just a beautiful beach that the speaker wishes his lover to see. Rather, he wants her to see Dover Beach as an ironic image that is a representation of his whole world. Likewise Matthew Arnold wants his reader to recognize the speaker and scene as a portrait of Arnold's own world and feelings.
What Arnold is writing about is not a poetic fiction: it is a reflection of the changes he sees in his world due to industrialism, science, and a rationalism that opposes traditional religious belief. While Arnold uses Dover Beach to represent this modern world of change, he creates a speaker to represent the tension that the poet and his fellow Victorians feel: while living in a modern world, they long for the great ages of the past. Like Arnold, the speaker feels isolated from the world around him: he looks out the window and "sighs for lost palaces beneath the sea" (Dahl 36).
Initially, the beach that Arnold's speaker describes seems serene, calm, and peaceful. This is the Romantic world that the speaker (and Arnold) wants to live in. However, for Arnold the modern world can be peaceful only if natural order and the authority of social institutions can be maintained. Arnold's recognition of the futile illusion of such stability soon overcomes the sense of tranquility with which the poem opens.
As the speaker begins to contemplate the scene and listens to the pebbles grating with the waves, an "...
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...s the apparent pleasure offered by Dover Beach in the beginning. However, both the calmness and the violence of the beach, both the pleasure and the despair of the speaker, are true to the Victorian consciousness. Arnold and his speaker want the world to be one of peace and tranquility, but they cannot help but see its reality. This duality dramatizes the conflicted temperament of the Victorians. What Dover Beach as a place symbolizes to the narrator of the poem, "Dover Beach" as a poem expresses for Arnold and his Victorian audience.
Arnold, Matthew. "Dover Beach." 1867. A Pocketful of Poems. Ed. David Madden. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1996. x.
Dahl, Curtis. "The Victorian Wasteland." College English 16 (1955): 341-47. Rpt. in Victorian Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism. Ed. Austin Wright. New York: Oxford UP, 1961. 32-40.
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