Arnold Dover Beach and Self-Dependence

Matthew Arnold was born at Laleham on the Thames, the eldest son of Thomas Arnold, in 1822.  He had to live in the shadow of his famous father who ran the Rugby school beginning in 1828.   He went to the Rugby school since age 6, but his achievement were inconsistent.  He got a scholarship to Oxford anyway in 1841.  School came easy to him there.  His father died in 1842 of a heart attack. In 1844 he was awarded second honors in Oriel College Oxford, to the disbelief of his friends.  That year he also taught at Rugby for one year. He later came back to Oxford in 1846.  He married and had children. He worked as an inspector of schools, to support his family.  He wrote many books of poetry and essays.  He went on two tours of America to do Lectures.  He later died of a heart attack, in Liverpool, in 1888.

Matthew Arnold lived during the Victorian period. For much of this century the term Victorian, which literally describes things and events in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), conveyed connotations of “prudish,” “repressed,” and “old fashioned.” Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that was a second English Renaissance. In science and technology, the Victorians invented the modern idea of invention — the notion that one can create solutions to problems, that man can create new means of bettering himself and his environment. In religion, the Victorians experienced a great age of doubt, the first that called into question institutional Christianity on such a large scale. In literature and the other arts, the Victorians attempted to combine Romantic emphases upon self, emotion, and imagination with Neoclassical ones upon the public role of art and a corollary responsibility of the artist.

New types of poetry were surfacing, scholars at Oxford and Cambridge began writing in lyrics, narratives, verse, dramas, epics, and prose. In 1857 Matthew Arnold was offered a position, which he accepted and held until 1867, as Professor of Poetry at Oxford. Arnold became the first professor to lecture in English rather than Latin. During this time Arnold wrote the bulk of his most famous critical works. Meditative and rhetorical, Arnold’s poetry often wrestles with problems of psychological isolation.  Poems such as “Dover Beach,” link the problem of isolation with what Arnold saw as the dwindling faith of his time. Despite his own religious doubts, a source of great anxiety for him, in several essays Arnold sought to establish the essential truth of Christianity. His most influential essays, however, were those on literary topics.  Arnold called for a new epic poetry: a poetry that would address the moral needs of his readers, “to animate and ennoble them.” Arnold’s arguments, for a renewed religious faith and an adoption of classical aesthetics and morals, are particularly representative of mainstream Victorian intellectual concerns. His approach–his gentlemanly and subtle style–to these issues, however, established criticism as an art form, and has influenced almost every major English critic since, including T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, and Harold Bloom. Though perhaps less obvious, the tremendous influence of his poetry, which addresses the poet’s most innermost feelings with complete clearness, can easily be seen in writers as different from each other as W. B. Yeats, James Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Sharon Olds.

Dover Beach, written in 1867, is Matthew Arnold’s complaint on the loss of Christianity and a fear of being alone.  Arnold shows this through literary techniques. The poem is written in free verse with no particular meter or rhyme scheme, although some of the words do rhyme. He uses imagery in the poem to describe the setting and mood.  The poem begins two-part stanzas, the first that is promising and hopeful; the second replaces optimism with a reality that is grim.   Arnold uses contrast when he appeals to the sense of sight in the first section and to hearing in the second. He uses alliteration of “f” in line 2, and the “g” in line 4 to make the opening of the poem happier, and give it more of a flow. He uses diction to change the mood. At first he uses words like “calm”, “fair”, “tranquil”, and “sweet”, but then he uses words like “grating roar”, “fling”, changing the mood from happy and calm to desperate and depressing.  Arnold uses repetition in lines 32 and 33, of “so” and “nor” to emphasize how great the land was but now how bad it has become.  He uses a simile  in line 23; “Lay like the folds of a bright girdle…”, meaning the sea of faith encompassed everything like a  circle, but now its far off in the center, seen only from afar.  He uses archetypes, such as the circle, which shows wholeness, unity, and union.  Other archetypes are the sea, which represents faith, death, rebirth, and timelessness. The wind shows inspiration and soul.

Arnold starts with the descriptions of the “calm sea”, “fair tide” and the “vast” cliffs that create a calming, innocent appearance. This sets the mood of peace and contentment that the speaker feels when he gazes out upon the sea. “Come to the window, sweet is the night-air”, gives the reader the impression of a cool, summer night. The mood begins as soothing and calming to the reader. Arnold then however, begins to change the tone. Arnold describes, “The grating roar of pebbles, of the pebbles which the waves draw back”, with “a tremulous cadence”. This portrays the image of an imaginary battle on the land of Dover. Arnold writes of the horrible sound of the pebbles beating away at the land. The pebbles are eroding the land away, which the speaker thrives off of. Arnold illustrates the man’s internal battle with the land destroying his home and him being helpless to its destruction. These descriptions add “the eternal note of sadness” to the poem.

In the second part of the poem, Arnold uses the same method of writing, however he speaks of human history to further support the mood of the “Sea of Faith” and its “eternal sadness”. Arnold writes of Sophocles, a Greek dramatist, hearing the “eternal sadness” on “the Aegean” with its “turbid ebb and flow”. This appeals to the sense of hearing and causes the reader to almost hear powerful waves crashing to the land below. Sophocles saw the waves as sounds of “human misery”, which implies that life begins and ends, but it can still be full of happiness, and unfortunately, at the same time, sadness. “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore.” The key word in that stanza is once, because it implies that he (the speaker) used to look at the sea in a different way than he does now.  Arnold is portraying the parallel thought between the speaker’s feelings and Sophocles same sadness over the changing of the land. The metaphor of the tides and the sea is suggested by the sounds and view of the speaker’s window, but Arnold uses Sophocles as another example of nature’s strength over the entire world. Arnold uses this to illustrate the speaker’s despair and helplessness over his situation.

In the third and fourth stanza, Arnold uses imagery and metaphors to depict the setting, which further set the mood of the poem. Throughout the whole poem, Arnold uses a metaphor to describe his views and opinions. Now he only hears its “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” This is the constant retreat of religious faith in a world now, and being alone in the world.  It seems as though Arnold is questioning his own faith.   The whole poem is based on a metaphor – Sea to Faith. When the sea retreats, so does faith, and leaves us with nothing. As though love can only prosper on the “land of dreams”, not in the timeless sea. In the last nine lines, Arnold wants his love and himself to be true to one another. The land, which he thought was so beautiful and new, is actually nothing – “neither joy, nor love, nor light”. In reality, Arnold is expressing that nothing is certain, because where there is light there is dark and where there is happiness there is sadness. He says “let us be true to one another”, line 29 – 30, meaning you shouldn’t cheat on another but always be honest, unlike the “deceiving” sea and life.   In the end,  “… ignorant armies clash by night”, which is the sea and the land, showing the land cannot win in the end, which is the reason for Arnold’s dismay about the loss of Christianity.

Arnolds Self-Dependence is about the speaker’s quest to find his inner self.  He again uses many literary techniques to show this message.  There is a unique rhyme scheme to this poem.  The second and fourth lines rhyme, but the first and third lines don’t.  Then past line 16, the stanzas go into an ABAB rhyme scheme, and for the last stanza, it has an AABB rhyme scheme.  This could be to show how over the poem he finds himself.  In the beginning he is unorganized, but throughout the poem he slowly finds himself and it becomes clear, like the rhyme scheme. The tone changes through the poem also, it goes from desperate and longing of what he should be using “weary” and “sick” to epiphany when it becomes “clear” to “resolve” to be himself, and he will lose his misery.  He uses imagery to tell of the “starlit sea” and “star-sown vault of heaven” to show the sea that is giving him his answers.  He also personifies the stars and sea; “over the lit sea’s unquiet way”, “In the rustling night – air came the answer”, “and with joy the start perform their shining”, “For self-poised they live, nor pine with noting”, “O air-born voice!” He does this to make nature seem more like a conscious person that could respond to people.  There is repetition in line 2, he repeats “What I” twice.  This shows that the story will mainly focus on him and his questions.  He uses assonance throughout the entire poem to put the reader in a relaxed dream-like state. He does this by repeating the “s” sound through the poem.  He does this even thought the mood at the beginning of the poem is slightly frantic.  He says in line 7-8  “Ye who from my childhood have calmed me, Calm, ah, compose me to the end!” This means that before he loved the sea and it was everything to him, but now it not enough for him, hats why he’s begging for the sea to tell him what he must do to have a purpose in life, like that of the seas.

Archetypes in the poem are water/sea, which represent mother of all life, spiritual mystery, infinity, death, life, timelessness, and consciousness.  The ship represents mankind’s voyage through time.  The stars show inspiration.

All these build the poem. They show that the speaker is asking the sea and nature who he is and where he stands in life. He doesn’t understand what the world wants him to be.  He feels directionless, but is still leading a life that goes “forwards”. He is on a ship and as the ship represents mans voyage, this shows his voyage to maturity and self-acceptance. His answer comes over the sea and the stars.  They answer him that he needs to find himself to be himself.  He must realize who he really is if he wants to be satisfied with himself.  He must look deeper into life and not just the shallow waters of life and the world he sees around him.  He shouldn’t be uniform or “what I ought to be”, he should “be thyself”, and then he will lose his misery.



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