The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
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, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies crash by night.
The first time I read the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, I got the impression of somberness, uncertainty, and melancholy. To me, it conveys the ideas of self-deceit, change, consequence, humanity, and a struggle for truth. I had to look up the word “shingles,” because it’s not used as a reference to roofs, but piles of small stones on a beach. In order to understand it better, I interpreted and paraphrased the poem as follows: ‘Our faith in ourselves and the world was once strong, and earth was full of texture, quality, and diversity. But now I only hear those things ebbing away, leaving us to destroy nature and become dull and emotionless. Let us love one another! For the world seems to have everything we want, so diverse, so beautiful, so new, but it really doesn’t have joy, love, goodness, certainty, peace, or solace; we are mentally and emotionally blind, fighting in secret, confused, not knowing what we’re fighting about.’
“Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold- the name of the poem may be a reference to an actual place, a beach that has rocks instead of sand, suggesting that it’s rather bare and dull. This is a lyric poem, because there aren’t events that happen sequentially like in a narrative poem. It doesn’t exactly change topics between the two stanzas; however, the focus does shift a bit, because in the first stanza, it’s talking about a beach, giving an example to represent the world in general, which is what the second stanza is about.
There are several sensory images in the poem. For example, when it says “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” it appeals to the sense of hearing and gives the reader a feeling of desperation and emotional pain. When you read that line, you can just hear in your mind the long, desperate cry of a person struggling with some unknown, internal force. Engaging the reader’s sight, the “round earth’s shore” and “the folds of a bright girdle furled” come into play, giving off a positive, beautiful feeling. This may be because the poet wanted to give the reader an intimation of what the world was like when it had the “Sea of Faith,” when we still appreciated nature and had faith in it and ourselves. The phrase “a darkling plain” brings to mind darkness of course, showing that people don’t know what they’re doing; we’re just swaggering around with blindfolds on. The last few words of the poem, “…ignorant armies clash by night” gives a sense of confusion and stupidity, but at the same time secrecy.
As far as I’m concerned, this entire poem is a series of metaphors all merging together. The first line, “The Sea of Faith,” is probably referring to the faith and appreciation that people put in nature and in themselves. So when it says that the sea of faith was once, too, at the full, it’s saying that people had a lot of faith in themselves and in nature but we don’t anymore. “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” means that people are losing their faith, so the world is becoming much more dreary, bare, and without beauty or texture, probably because of humans placing less importance on nature and emotions, and emphasizing technology, dehumanizing society in general. The last two lines of the poem, “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight where ignorant armies clash by night,” most likely refers to opposing people fighting and going to war, but they don’t even know what they’re fighting about. Drawing on “clash by night,” the fighting is done in secret so that the majority of people don’t know that there’s even a problem. There are three similes in the poem- “and round earth’s shore lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled” shows that before we lost ourselves, the earth was predominantly natural and full of life and diversity. The second simile is “For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams...” A land of dreams would contain everything you could ever want, everything beautiful and painless, so the poet is saying that that’s how most people perceive the world. Lastly, “and we are here as on a darkling plain” compares being in a dark place to the fact that our society doesn’t really know what it’s doing even though it thinks it does, and if we just shoot blindly, there might be negative consequences.
There is a repetition of the words “so” three times, and “nor” five times, in the second stanza of Dover Beach, probably to emphasize the contrast between the perceived world and how it actually is. It especially draws attention to the lines about the world not really having all these great things like love, joy, certainty, or peace, which is significant because humans have made it this way. The word “roar” is an onomatopoeia, drawing attention to the feelings of anger and desperation. “Clash” can also be an onomatopoeia, showing the forceful struggles of the “armies.” There are a few couplets in the second stanza, but only two really draw the reader’s attention because of the rhythm of the lines, the places where you pause. For example, the rhyming lines in ‘for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams’ isn’t nearly as noticeable as ‘nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; and we are here as on a darkling plain’ or ‘swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight where ignorant armies clash by night.’ The author may want to draw attention to those four lines because they contain one of the most imperative messages- we should think about the consequences of what we do before we just stab wildly in the dark.
This poem uses first person point of view. The mood is dreary and very reflective. The theme is that people should place their faith in the world, because if you change things too much without thinking of the consequences, negative things will probably happen. The poet calls attention to the phrase Sea of Faith by capitalizing it, because that’s what the whole poem is about and that’s essentially the most important thing according to the poet, having faith in ourselves and our world.
The first time I read “Dover Beach,” I really didn’t have a clue what it meant, but as I read it carefully and thought about it deeply, the more I came to understand it. Just like Mrs. Phelps in the novel Fahrenheit 451, I feel like I can make a connection with the poem, making it more meaningful. As for Mrs. Phelps, her husband was going to war and therefore she could relate to the poem; it speaks of fighting for no reason and although Mrs. Phelps may not realize it, deep down she knows there’s no reason for the war and there really shouldn’t be one. She still retains that human element under the surface and she does care a lot about her husband and doesn’t want to see him get hurt.
The effect this poem has on the reader has a lot to do with the techniques Matthew Arnold used. For example, if the mood was extremely cheery and upbeat instead of somber and dreary, it wouldn’t convey the message nearly as well; it wouldn’t make the reader reflect on society and him or herself nearly as much, so the whole point of the poem wouldn’t come across. The message also wouldn’t come across as well if the poet hadn’t used all the metaphors that he did, especially when it comes to being on a dark plain and armies clashing by night, because that really illustrates the point that we don’t know what we’re doing when we do half the things we do. I’m still uncertain about several aspects of the poem, because there are so many ways you can interpret everything. Who exactly are the “armies?” Do shingles symbolize the empty quality of the people in society, or the bareness of the world because people are ignoring nature and advancing technology so much?