A Journal of the Arts
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A Picturesque Cataclysm
By: Aaron Tigert
Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" is the epitome of his poetic career, a masterpiece. In the poem, we are granted sight, through the eyes of a narrator in a moment of realization. Beginning with solitude in the confines of a dwelling, and concluding in a monologue posed to the significant other of the narrator. The development of each stanza is composed of a depiction of human condition swaying towards acceptance of fate, the fate of human despair. The poem itself displays the utmost relationship between landscape and consciousness, meeting in a connection where picturesque emotions combine with a message of love and existential contemplation.
Over the course of the text, the firm paintings of landscape lie in the wake of words posed to arouse emotion, however, emotion must first be aroused, in order to arouse that of another. We find our narrator deeply enthralled by the landscape, as he gazes about the beach of Dover somewhere along the English Channel, as both the French coast and the cliffs of England are referenced in the first stanza. Amid watching the waves, our narrator is moved. Calling out for one to "Listen!", before ultimately simmering to the realization that he may not bring this moment with him; he decides to live and thrive for the time being. The visual flow of the waves is grounding for him as he recalls
"With a tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in." (Arnold, lines 14 and 15)
The bewildered notion adds to the narrator’s consciousness in relation to the waves and the world.
In the most subtle of transitions we return to an ancient scene of Sophocles having the same realization, prompted by the sound of the waves. Sophocles was one of the few Greek tragedians whose plays have survived to modern day. Where he was hearing the waves of The Aegean, our narrator hears the same sound on the English Channel. The disasters that beset the house of Oedipus were once likened to that of a "mounting tide" by Sophocles, generating inspiration for his writings, and alluding to those writings, and thoughts stirring in the mind of Arnold. Given the comparisons Arnold draws between his own moment, and Sophocle's pondering on human misery, it would stand to reason that Arnold finds Sophocles to be what he describes as "a real classic". In Arnold's criticisms of poetry, he frequents this idea of "classic poetry" both in distaste, and perfection. The assumption of a "real classic," as is posed here, develops the notion of a more so timeless creator, rather than the classical poetry which he exclaims that the French poetic scholars have become "dissatisfied with." This state of mind which Arnold has entered is, as he puts it in align with his understandings reflected in his critical essay, wherein he states "that the substances and matter of the best poetry acquire their special character from possessing, in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness."
The air of seriousness becomes gripping once departing this stanza; plunging into inevitable deconstruction of "The Sea of Faith." Within the third stanza, Arnold delves further into his painful epiphany steadying his mental gaze over the span of the body of water beneath him. The recognition of indiscriminate change of the ocean's empty breath, guides his stream of consciousness to the temporary nature of all that he perceives in this moment. This is a rendering of his definite mortality, as he ponders the grand scheme of existence in general, the senses become more prominent within the poem. Arnold describes the wind and waves as breath blowing along the “naked shingles of the world,” referencing the beaches composed of pebbles (Arnold, line 28). The retreat of this wind leaves reminds our narrator of his current moment accompanied by his significant other, thus presenting love as an emotion and idea within the poem. Within Arnold’s critical essay on poetry, he has this to say of emotion: “Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fat.” To take this natural tone, and add love is to present an idea. The idea of love within this poem is planted as a seed and subsequently germinated into what Matthew Arnold refers to as fact in the above quote.
The latter portion of the poem leading up to the final stanza serves as the context for the narrator's state of mind, only to reveal that, contrary to the implications of the three prior stanzas, he is not alone. Although the thought process through which our protagonist is capable at arriving to his conclusion is, for the most part a solitary journey, for the physical duration of his epiphany or contemplation he is accompanied by his love interest. "Dover Beach" does not begin as a poem centered around love, however, perhaps the entirety of the poem is being confessed to the narrator's love interest. With this in mind, it can be considered factual; this poem is a portrayal of monologue towards one's lover. Therefore, when the narrator turns his words to another, as opposed to the outside world stating
"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!" (Arnold, lines 29-30)
thereby coaxing the reader into the preceding conversation. The induction of another person further develops the imagery of the poem, making love a key theme. The narrator concludes by placing their existence in accordance to the large, apathetic world which the poem depicts. Thus the reader poses themselves in a similar placement, returning to the insignificance of such a pitiful existence. In the midst of the portrayed existence within the poem, there is a nugget of
truth, an appreciation for the moment. This moment provides clarity, and appreciation for all that
surrounds, an all that resides within our immediate surroundings; and thus Arnold concludes:
"And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night." (Arnold, lines 35-37)
The poem rounds back, tying the themes of landscape and existence to love and consciousness.
Arnold, Matthew. "The Study of Poetry by Matthew Arnold." Poetry Foundation, Poetry
Foundation, OAD, www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69374/the-study-of-poetry.
Arnold, Matthew. "Dover Beach." Literature to Go. Michael Meyer. Third Edition. Pages 383-384