Finding in the sound a thought: Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

Considering the poem "Dover Beach", by Matthew Arnold, Seiden discusses how a reader finds thought in an encounter with the poetic treatment of experience, and particularly non-cognitive experience

By Henry M. Seiden, PhD, ABPP
Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (written in 1876) is one of the most beautiful poems in the English language. Beautiful for its music and its imagery. For its historical scope and philosophical clarity. For its honest ambivalence: optimism against pessimism. For the way it sets the beauty of the natural world against the melancholy of loss— and against uncertainty and existential anxiety. For its meditation on what love can mean.

To appreciate the poetry of another age is to overcome some difficulties. The unstated assumptions and the intellectual struggles of that age, the ground against which the figure of the poem is set, may well be opaque to us. Readers may remember that Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) was a Victorian poet, essayist, and literary critic. The great thinkers of his time wanted to make the world right with new science and technology, with new social, psychological, and economic theory, with cultural development generally. This was the age of Darwin, Marx, and soon Freud. But the dark side of belief in progress is doubt—of optimism, pessimism.

The poets of Arnold’s age sought spiritual truth, and the beauty that signaled it, in a world undergoing deeply unsettling technological, social, economic, and religious change. And lurking within the celebration of the Beautiful was the anxiety that beauty could be glimpsed only briefly and thus couldn’t be relied upon. The great Romantic, William Wordsworth, as early as 1798 (in “Tintern Abbey”), celebrated the memory of his youthful communion with the natural world. But even as he celebrated, he felt himself (only five years later!) already past the possibility of such communion. Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1877 (in “God’s Grandeur”) would insist eloquently on the spiritual beauty of the world even as he bemoaned its despoliation. The world he saw was “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge.” At the risk of simplifying a large and complex history: this was an age that wanted to believe but was oppressed by doubt. “The sea of faith,” as Arnold says, was retreating like the tide.

Historically, Arnold wasn’t quite modern: the last wholesale destruction of the belief in the essential goodness of the world is understood as coming with World War I. But surely he prefigures Modernism. He hears faith’s “melancholy withdrawing roar.” In that, and in his ability to evoke the sound in his reader’s ear—even in the ear of a (postmodern) 21st-century reader—he is one of us.

“Dover Beach” starts with an image of great tranquility but within the first stanza it becomes clear that this will be no picture postcard.

The poem opens with such lovely music! The waves roll up the beach and down again in the rhythm of the reader’s breathing. The sea is calm; the tide is full. There is the tranquil bay, the night air, a splendid view, a geographical and historical perspective. But then in the sound of the sea, of the pebbles grating on the shore, there is a “tremulous cadence” in which we find “an eternal note of sadness.”

The melancholy feeling is carefully registered and philosophically clear-headed: the sound in itself isn’t sad. We find the sadness in it. There is no pathetic fallacy here. The imputation of emotion and intention to a nonhuman universe is understood as a human reading, a human projection with a long history going back at least to the ancient Greeks, to Sophocles’ awareness of the “turbid ebb and flow of human misery.”

To find and make such meaning (again) gives us a moment (again) of sweet, sad beauty. The sadness makes what’s beautiful more beautiful. But the finding is inherently anxious—it gives us our terrifying loneliness too. We want “a land of dreams, various and beautiful.” But we know the natural world “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.”

Well, this is modern. This is the psychoanalytic vision, a vision that had its birth in the Victorian age, is it not? We live in our unreliable and anxious inventions. We want meaning and make meaning out of our longings. But all we really have is the existential possibility of being “true to one another.” And even then we can’t escape our anxiety: we live our lives conflicted and ignorant “as on a darkling plain.”

Dover Beach

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,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay. Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! Only,
from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land, Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring The eternal note of
sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought, Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. 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 clash by night.

Then again (and maybe this is Matthew Arnold and maybe it’s my reading of him), we do find our thoughts! That is, we transform the inhuman sounds of our universe—inner as well as outer—into human experience. And we find the consolation of being able to share that experience. On the beach—or in the consulting room.