Fleeting Emotion and Uncertainty in “Dover Beach”

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” describes the fleeting nature of the human condition. By the fleeting nature of the human condition, I am referring to the sensation of the world and human state being temporal. Arnold invokes the sound of crashing waves, the loss of Christianity and the feeling of romantic love as a background for understanding this aspect of life.

Arnold begins with a description of Dover Beach and the auditory sensation of the waves crashing over the rocks. Arnold writes that the waves “begin, and cease, and then begin again” (line 12) creating cyclical imagery. Arnold then associates the continuous ebb and flow of the waves with human emotion, specifically, “the eternal note of sadness” (line 14). At first, Arnold’s description of the unceasing ocean may seem to be in contrast to the idea that there is an inconsistency in human nature. However, through Arnold’s appeal to the Ancient Greeks, it becomes clear that for centuries, we have been contemplating the “turbid ebb and flow / of human misery” (lines 17-18). The only thing constant in life, besides the crashing of the waves, is the prospect of turbulent human emotion. We know that when we are sad, we will be happy again, and we know that when we are happy it will not last forever. Emotions, like the ocean, are a cyclical motion.

Straying away from the idea of emotion and human sentimentality, Arnold arrives at an examination of Christianity in the third stanza. Arnold writes, “The Seat of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore” (lines 21-22). Using our knowledge of Victorian-era history, we can infer that Christianity’s presence is beginning to fade due to science and the mission of progress. Arnold suggests that Christianity’s once powerful roar is transforming into a quiet breath (lines 25-26). Thus, abstract concepts such as religion are just as temporal as the emotional state of a human. Again, “Dover Beach” serves to suggest that nothing is constant in our world except the prospect of change, be it a change in human emotion or a larger abstract change in societal thought.

In the final stanza of the poem, the poetic voice speaks directly to the object of its affection writing, “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” (lines 29-30). Matthew Arnold, who is also the poetic voice, is aware of the changing state of the world and asks his lover to be the one thing that remains constant. Moreover, Arnold embarks on a bleak description of the world, citing that is “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light” (line 33) among many other pains. Arnold writes that he and his lover are “swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight” (line 36) creating an image of the couple attempting to remain grounded as the world around them changes.

Ultimately, at the center of “Dover Beach” lives a couple, imploring that the other remain constant in a time of uncertainty surrounding large societal change and the familiar human condition of fleeting emotion.  Arnold’s poem perfectly details the various changes occurring in Victorian history, along with Victorian poetry, and allows us as readers to sympathize with the turbulence of the time period.