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Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ As A Criticism Of Life

‘Thought and Feeling’ are two important sources of poetic inspiration. The poets of the Victorian age divided themselves into two groups. Matthew Arnold belonged to the first group; the intellectual group of poets. W.J.Dawson aptly comments: ” he is a poet of the intellect and his force as a poet is purely intellectual.

He has no passion, no kindling flame of forever, no heart ones; his poetry is mainly the result of intellectual art”.

Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’

Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ is a thought-provoking show of intellect and warning. His ‘Dover Beach’ stands as one of the fine pieces of verse-criticism of contemporary life and society. It is an example of Arnold’s concept of criticism of life.

The glooms, joylessness, despair, the loss of faith, and excessive reliance on the scientific and materialistic formulas have been exposed to the poet’s critical attack.

Arnold used the natural landscape symbolically for conveying the moral instructions. That’s why J.D.Jump commented, “as far as it is possible for the single short lyrics to do, it represents the main movement of the mind about the last quarter of the century”.

Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach Analysis

In Dover, Beach Arnold describes the tranquil English channel at Dover. I was full and the moonlight reflected on the water. The poet asked his beloved to listen to the harsh sound of waves alternatively advancing and retreating and carrying away the pebbles from the sea and beach and fling them again back to the beach.

The poet wanted his beloved to notice how the pebbles move along with the waves of the sea. The process of advancing and retreating continues ceaselessly. In spite of a harsh sound, there is a rhythm in it and the poet found a note of sadness in such a ceaseless rhythmic movement.

He recalls that the famous tragic playwright Sophocles also a hard note of sadness in the waves of the Aegean sea, which symbolized for him the rise and fall in human life. It is a noble and profound application of ideas of life, where the philosophy merges pragmatism

“Sophocles long ago, Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow of human misery;”

Then, Arnold returns to the present and remarks that the melancholy sound of the sea produces in his thought about the suffering in human life and the miserable lot of man on this Earth.

Thus, both Sophocles and Arnold experience the same lot of human misery on this earth. In his essay on ‘Wordsworth’, Arnold says, “The great poet receives his distinctive character of superiority from his application, under the conditions immutably fixed by laws of poetic beauty and poetic truth; from his application, I say to his subject whatever it may be of the ideas on the man, on nature and on human life. (Essay of Wordsworth).

Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach As A Criticism Of Life

It is Arnold’s application of the ideas of life, that contributes to his criticism of life. Arnold goes on to compare the sea with religion. He considers the sea as a symbol of religious faith. Once the sea of faith was full, people in the past had a deep religious faith. But in the Victorian age, the sea of faith has run dry.

People are sceptical. It is now leaving the world barren and dry. With the decline of religion (religion means belief in the Eternal), Mena re getting more and more materialistic.

When the waves of the sea recede, pebbles on the dry shore are exposed. The religious faith declined and the loss of higher values entailed miseries, doubts, despair, and dull materialistic life. Doubts and despair disturbed the tranquil and harmonious life, which was fortified against such evils by higher religious values.

It is nothing but the situation of Arnold’s own age. Thus, it is a criticism of life in the Victorian age, what Arnold observed war true.

He compares and contrasts the religious situation of the Victorian age with the previous age when people believed in religion fully, and finds that it is declining. Arnold offers a solution to the problem by decreasing the chaotic situation in the whole world.

He warns against such a situation and is to be loyal and faithful in love because what around them is a dreamy and illusionary world. Love is the only source of solace in life. In such an uncongenial atmosphere of disbelief and incertitude, Arnold says that the only thing that endures is love.

Arnold suggests that with the help of true love, man can live well. He finds to his horror that the traditional values and religion are fast crumbling down. There is no joy of comfort anywhere in the world. In such a state of chaos and disintegration, Arnold hugs the core beliefs that love and belief in eternal truth can sustain mankind. For love experienced through faith is unchanging.

The world has lost its joy, love, security, peace, and had become a darkling plain. In this world, men are fighting the dark, completely ignorant of whom they are fighting against, and what exactly they are fighting for. It is nothing but a cross-section of Victorian life.

It is a criticism of life in the sense that what Arnold described in his essay on Byron. He says, “Truth and seriousness of substance and matter, felicity, and perfection of diction and manner, as these are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitutes a criticism of life made in conformity with the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. (Essay on Byron).

Taking into account the criteria mentioned above ‘Dover Beach’ has a truth of substance. It is marked by reality, aim, melancholy, intensity, vastness.

The reality in the sense that what Arnold describes is true to the Victorian age. The aim in the sense that Arnold has a specific intention to expose the deficiencies of the Victorian age. The intensity in the sense that the tragic vision of the world gets darkened for example

“Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”.

Vastness in a sense that personal becomes universal in the poem. The truth of substance is a superb artistic skill and deft craftsmanship. The abstract thinking is closely linked with an actual personal situation and is conveyed through concrete description and imagery.

As a classist, Arnold reacted and was repelled by the conditions of contemporary life. His critical attitude towards life and society is responsible for the critical rather than constructive nature of his works. Due to his ability to combine the qualities of poet and critics, he is considered as one of the great poets of the Victorian age.

In addition to his other poems, ‘Dover Beach’ is the best example of his concept of criticism of life as it contains as an expression of his favourite theme of loss of faith in the material world and the resultant feeling of melancholy and despair.

It reveals his habit of using natural scenes symbolically and embodies his critical attitude towards the world around him and human destiny in general.

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