Q&A: In the poem “Dover Beach”?

by National Library of Scotland

Question by Gail: In the poem “Dover Beach”?
Where is the speaker while he “thinks” this poem? 
To whom is he speaking/whom does he address? 
What does he see? 
More importantly, what does he hear?  What do these sensory experiences represent?

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Best answer:

Answer by Hypocorism

0) These questions are logically inconsistent; either the speaker of the poem `thinks’ this poem (question 1), or else he is `speaking’ to someone (question 2): but not both.

1) The speaker is crossing the English channel when he is speaking this poem, between France and England. You can tell he is on the sea, because in line 1 he says `the sea is calm;’ in lines 3-4 he describes France: `on the French coast the light/ Gleams and is gone.’ Then he describes England: `The cliffs of England stand,/ Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.’ From the title, Arnold expected an English reader of the 19th century to know that Dover was the traditional port for taking the ferry to France. Now, of course, we take the Chunnel from London or fly.

2) This is not evident till the last stanza because most of the poem is filled with what Smollett sneeringly calls `lucubrations,’ or idle speculations. You see, of course, that the last stanza begins, `Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!…’

3) England and France: France is covered with moonlight because it is night-time (lines 3-4), but in England the moon casts off the `cliffs of England…/Glimmering and vast.’ These are the famed white cliffs of Dover, which will again be even more familiar to Victorian readers than the contemporary English. The vision is apparently obscured by `the long line of spray/ Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land…’ It is at this point the poet invokes the lady to `Listen!’ (lines 7-9).

4) The poet hears the ebb and flow of the waves, which reminds him of nature’s indifference. He writes, `you hear the grating roar/ Of pebbles…/ Begin, and cease, and then again begin,/…and bring/ The eternal note of sadness in’ (lines 9-14). He compares the back and forth of the waves to the plots of some plays from Greek drama about `the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’ (stz. 2, lines 3-4). This idea, which repels him, is really similar to the idea of `Fortune’s Wheel.’

The image of waves and pebbles is probably from Shakespeare’s sonnet 60, which begins: `Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore,/ So do our minutes hasten to their end,/ Each changing place with that which goes before,/ In sequent toil all forwards do contend.’ Shakespeare was obsessed with destructive and indifferent time, and the reader becomes fascinated with this half of the idea of ebb and flow: he is now only interested in the ebb: `I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,/
Retreating…’ (stz. 4-6). This has something to do with ageing, and with the idea of becoming wiser, and losing faith in the goodness of the world. This is why he writes `The Sea of Faith/Was once, too…;’ but now faith seems to be lost. This continues, `…at the full, and round earth’s shore/ Lay like the folds of a bright girlde furled…’ It is an insistent denial of a idyllic image from the poet Keats: `the moving waters at their priestlike task/ Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…’ There is apparently a hint of the religious in both of these lines as well, suggesting a very deep malaise.

5) There is no question 5, but if there were, you would ask, what does Arnold propose to do about what he concluded from what he heard? His answer is: `let us be true/ To one another!’

6) There is no question 6 either, but isn’t it odd the poem doesn’t end with the conclusion of question 5? Very oddly, it ends with the direst vision of all: two armies clashing in the night, like waves on the plain, `swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,’ from another Greek battle in which it was so dark that the combatants could not tell each other apart, but slew one another indifferently.

Do read the poem again– I hope you like it.

Add your own answer in the comments!

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