The Victorian Period describes the events in the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. Victorian Period connects the Romantic era and the modernist period, and was a very important period in the history of poetry. In the Victorian Period, some poets tried a variety of reforms such as the use of the Sonnet, and others like Matthew Arnold were working on innovation of poetry as well. “Dover Beach” is a short poem by the English poet Matthew Arnold, which was published in 1867 and is one of the best works of this period. He was born at Laleham on the Thames on Dec. 24, 1822 and was well educated. When he was 22, Arnold took a second-class honors degree at Oxford, and the then he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College. However, from 1849 to 1852, Arnold, under the pseudonym “A,” published two collections of short lyric poems, but the sale was poor and the books were withdrawn. In 1853 his third collection “Poems” was published and made a great coup. Four years later, Arnold was elected Oxford’s professor of poetry, and he focused on this work for the next decade. Arnold wrote both epic and dramatic poetry, but his best poems are probably his lyrics, such poem as “Dover Beach.” This poem is one of the masterpieces in the Victorian age, and following is my analysis of “Dover Beach” in the aspects of the image of the sea, the harmonic tone, and the messages of the age.
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In the poem “Dover Beach,” Arnold uses a variety of words to describe the image of the sea. The opening stanza reads “The sea is calm to-night/ The tide is full, the moon lies fair/ â€¦/ Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!” Some critics said: “With this passage he is describing in great detail the look and feel of the beach that night using imagery.” By using such words as “calm,” “fair,” and “sweet,” it illustrates an intoxicating moonlit night seaside scene, which is peaceful and calmly. However, this quiet seascape did not last long, and then the waves come: “Listen! you hear the grating roar/ â€¦/With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in.” The words “grating roar” and “tremulous cadence” are neither beautiful music nor melodious sound, which makes people uncomfortable. As critic Julia Touche said: “It is beautiful to look at in the moonlight, then it begins to make hostile sounds that evoke a general feeling of sadness.” This part also may represents the relationship between joy and pain, which things sometimes lead to unhappiness, but can also lead to pure bliss. In the third stanza, the sea is turned into the “Sea of Faith”: “Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar/ Retreating, to the breath/ Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear/ And naked shingles of the world.” With these somber words, the image of the sea, or the faith here is dark and lack of hope. With this image, in Julia’s word, this stanza can be interpreted as “When religion was still intact, the world was dressed. Now that this faith is gone, the world lies there stripped naked and bleak.” To conclude, with using of a lot of adjectives, Arnold associates the sea with tough life to enrich the language of poetry which helps to increase the melancholic feeling in the poem.
Neither standing on a lofty platform as an owner to look down on nature, nor put nature on his opposite side, the “Dover Beach” by Arnold is in a tone of harmony between man and nature. In the beginning, the poem reads: “The sea is calm to-night/ The tide is full, the moon lies fair/ Upon the straits; on the French coast the light/ Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand.” Great eco-poet William Wordsworth considers “man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting qualities of nature.” It can be seen that the poet’s virtuous soul is like the fair moon, and the cliffs share the loneliness with the poet. The poet’s feelings are shown in everywhere – the sea, the moonlight and the pebbles. In the end of the first stanza, it reads “Begin, and cease, and then again begin/ With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in.” Here, Arnold breaks through the narrow self-imposed limitations, putting “ego” in the whole nature. He thinks about of human greed, the decline of humanities in spirit and traditional civilization. Therefore he thinks of Sophocles and expressed his anxiety of the drastic social changes by merging himself and nature. In the end, it reads “The Sea of Faith/ Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore/ â€¦/ 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.” Here the poet feels that people’s spiritual world is still wasted with the rapid development of science and technology. People are selfish and greedy, and there is no harmony with the nature. He was as on a darkling plain, just like the scene in Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” As a conclusion, this poem shows Arnold’s his attitude on ecological harmony and his worries about ecological unbalance.
As is mentioned, Arnold’s focus on anxieties of the society and some messages can be discovered in Dover Beach. Arnold described the ocean in this way: “Begin, and cease, and then again begin/ With tremulous cadence slow, and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in.” Critic Damrosch David said: “Arnold places the ocean to stand in for the lifestyle many workers in those times experienced.” The movement of water’s back to rest on shore can be seen as mirroring the lives of workers resting and working again and again. This reflects the life of misery in that age, which is mentioned as well when he retrospect Sophocles. Another message is shown in the third stanza that he considers the religious condition was “the Sea of Faith” which implying how did the religious fervor be prevalent long time ago. Damrosch David said: “As the Victorian and Industrial age itself expands, the religious harmony and control lessen its grip on the people and give them up to the misery of progress.” It is easy to find that with the development of science and technology, the Darwin’s theory of evolution proved the Bible wrong, and people started losing faith. As one part of literature, poetry is also a way to record historical facts, and these two messages in Dover Beach are great examples.
To sum up, Dover Beach by Arnold is really a masterpiece in aspects of image, tone and messages. Furthermore, it is a masterpiece which can stand for the poetry in Victorian. The image and messages are all in typical Victorian style, and the harmonic tone is so advanced and far-sighted during the Industrial Revolution.
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