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The event described in the poem is therefore probably Arnold’s honeymoon – which was indeed taken at Dover in Kent.
He reflects that underneath this veneer of calm, there is something more volatile and unsettling: ‘the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand’.
This sounds like a simple description of the waves tossing the pebbles about the place on the shingly beach, but behind it there lurks the Victorians’ geological fascination with pebbles, shells, and other remnants of the Earth’s distant past.
The poem considers how all this may have appeared to Arnold’s companion.
Click here for more information about Matthew Arnold’s life.
Arnold knew very well where his poems had a place and how the recognition would follow.
He is sometimes also called as the third great Victorian poet.
But the fact remains that ‘Dover Beach’ is a great Victorian poem, one of Arnold’s finest, and an important one to grapple with, read, discuss, analyse, and consider when dealing with Victorian responses to faith and doubt.
You can read Anthony Hecht’s ‘response’ to Arnold’s poem, ‘The Dover Bitch’, here.
Why should we despair, if the retreating Sea of Faith will, like the tides, come back again in time?
Perhaps this is to over-analyse the poem; perhaps it is to mistake Matthew Arnold himself for his speaker, standing at the window, gazing out at Dover beach.