Dover Beach

by Matthew Arnold (1851)

The sea is calm tonight,
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-blanched 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 furled.
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.




  1. Literarians have long differed on how to interpret Matthew Arnold’s epic 1851 poem Dover Beach. Some point out the poet’s identification of the dark terror that lies beneath the happiness found in love. Others see in the lyrics a strong assertion that, when rendered devoid of love and light, the world becomes a maze of confusion left by retreating faith. Arnold was very likely influenced to some degree by the events taking place during his lifetime. England was in the throes of rapid industrialization which was upending ways of life that had been stable for centuries. Whatever Arnold’s motivations, the poem seems starkly prescient of our own future as we move on into an uncertain world shrinking under the influence of technology, environmental changes and burgeoning populations.

  2. Reading this brought back memories of high school – when this was (and still is) one of my most deeply loved poems. The evocative first stanza still moves me to that place.- that beach, that night. On one trip to the UK, I insisted we (hubby and daughter) take the train out to Dover Beach just so I could lie on the shingle beach, close my eyes, and think of the lines. And, I completely agree with your analysis Stan. thank-you for posting this.

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