Matthew Arnold and ‘On Dover Beach’

The Place of the Poem by Alan Franks and Ruth Gledhill

In the room of his honeymoon hotel in Dover, Matthew Arnold beckons his young wife to come to the window and share the view. In doing so, he is also summoning the reader to look out across the Straits and share a prospect that is both alluring and daunting. Though we may see, flickeringly, the French coast for which they will soon be heading, the thought is compromised by the sound of the sea’s broken waves pulling down on the shingle.

To his keen but apprehensive ear, this is not just the routine noise of an outgoing tide but also the ebbing of a sea of faith. He says as much. The year was 1851, and Arnold was twenty-eight. Although Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species would not be published until the end of the decade, and although the term “agnosticism” had yet to be coined by Thomas Huxley, the foundations of conventional belief were coming under fierce scrutiny.

Strauss argued that the reported miracles of Christ were no more than myths.

The young German philosopher David Strauss had already published an incendiary book, Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Christ), putting forward the then heretical notion that the Jesus of The Bible was not a true and historical presentation, but rather a person transformed by the religious consciousness of Christians. His reported miracles, Strauss argued, were no more than myths; this at a time of scholarly controversy over how the miraculous, even supernatural, events of the New Testament were to be reconciled with the rationalism of Enlightenment thought.

In 1846, when Strauss’s book was translated into English by Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, the Earl of Shaftesbury damned it as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”. For its adherents, such publicity was heaven-sent.

Young men of Arnold’s generation and background now found themselves with the dilemma of rejecting what they saw as creationist dogma, or paying lip service to it in order to safeguard their own professional prospects. This was a moral and intellectual challenge which would influence the composition of his best-known prose work, Culture and Anarchy nearly twenty years later.

The world was turning, aspirations were changing.

 The world was turning modern at an alarming rate, and alongside it were evolving the aspirations and anxieties of the still-young. Some critics have chosen to call On Dover Beach the first modern poem on account of its strikingly post-Romantic voice and its early articulation of what came to be known as Victorian Pessimism. 

Seven years before the Arnolds came here, the train lines had already reached Dover when the South Eastern Railway Company built a track from London via Folkestone. By the time the poem was published, seven years after the couple’s visit, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company was running direct trains from the capital to link with their own steamers. With more than ten thousand inhabitants, the town was already a quarter of its present size.  

The Roman lighthouse still stands atop the cliff in Dover.

It happens that in the very year of the honeymoon, the engineers of the Submarine Telegraph Company, based a few hundred yards away, were laying their pioneering Dover-to-Calais cable, three centimetres wide and plated in armour. As the author of a poem which dwells upon security and the fear of its loss, Arnold and his contemporaries were pondering hard, two centuries before the Brexit Epoch, on the pros and cons of ever closer union with Europe.

The appearance of the place in the intervening 170 years has of course changed dramatically, never mind the continued presence of the castle on its high promontory to the east of the town this past millennium, and the lighthouse built by the occupying Romans in AD43. As to the harbour itself when the newly-wed Arnolds were here, there was no Eastern Arm or Southern Breakwater, and the Admiralty Pier was a fraction of its later length. 

The daily coming and going of ferries.

It is hard to imagine what he and his contemporaries would make of the endless stream of lorries converging on the harbour in the twenty-first century– ten thousand of them each day; two million cars a year, ten million passengers; seventy-five thousand coaches, never mind the trains that shoot through the tunnels two hundred and fifty feet below. With the daily coming and going of sixty huge ferries, the view is in a permanent state of shift, like a ground-level sky full of countermarching clouds.

Back in the eighteenth century there had aleady been talk of building a tunnel, until the idea was abandoned for fear of invasion. Proximity, whether marital or geographical, carried a caution.

In Arnold’s day, the pier was a fraction of the length it is today.

The final lines of Arnold’s poem, with their ignorant armies clashing by night, bear a grim ring of prescience as it was just two years later that Britain would become embroiled in the Crimean war. This is widely acknowledged as the first modern military conflict on account of the industrial scale of its weapons manufacture. It was also notorious for the eventual obscurity of its causes.

Three years earlier, in a passage of prose whose imagery prefigures the poem, he had written of “a wave of more than American vulgarity, moral, intellectual and social, preparing to break over us.”

Seen in such a light, this bottom right-hand corner of an island kingdom becomes a vivid location of two-way traffic, while remaining as much a redoubt for those who want to stay as a jumping-off point for those who want to leave.

The tunnels in the chalk beneath the castle were at the heart of the Allied evacuation in 1940.

Not for nothing is that formidably placed castle known as the Key to England. The tunnels in the chalk beneath it, hand-hewn during the Napoleonic wars, were at the heart of Operation Dynamo for the daring evacuation of some 350,000 Allied servicemen from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. The remarkable labyrinth was even extended to become a hospital and triage point for the war’s returning wounded. I believe my own father, a paratrooper, was one such, in transit to the military hospital at Chartham, where one of the nurses was later to become my mother. 

It’s no wonder that such an island nation should often attract fortress imagery. This can be heard today in the often bitter debates over how to respond to the increasing numbers – some say “invasions” – of  would-be migrants making the perilous channel crossing in ill-suited craft. In 2020 this  reached a total of 8,000, the highest yet, some of them paying as much as 4,000 pounds for the passage. Rather than trying to land in Dover itself, many are diverted to the less populated flatlands of the Dungeness headland, thirty miles down the coast. 

Arnold had a vision of ‘ignorant armies’ that clash by night.

It has been, to say the least, a hot potato for years, and shows no sign of cooling, with police struggling to avert clashes between radical demonstrators from both ends of the political spectrum. Too closely for comfort, these scenes can come to resemble Arnold’s bleak vision of ignorant armies clashing by night. 

The place has been embattled for millennia. Long before the arrival of the Normans in 1066, German tribes were crossing the North Sea to settle in Dofras, as it was then called, one of the main settlements in the new Kingdom of Kent. Just the other day (in 1992), a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age boat was unearthed by construction workers on the A20 road link between Dover and Folkestone.  

Dover: still a place today to spend time with and remember friends.

Arnold’s verse was invariably crafted with formal skill and heartfelt persuasiveness, but when it came to comparisons between himself and his older contemporaries Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, he tended to be ranked third among equals. A regular criticism was that, though more than adept, he lacked the vigorous humanity of which the other two were capable. Yet if you read his Thyrsis, admittedly published several years after On Dover Beach, you find a voice equal to theirs in the articulation of grief and loss. 

It is a long elegy on the death of his close friend and contemporary, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, and it has an intensity and desolation comparable to parts of Tennyson’s colossal In Memoriam, which was also written to mourn and celebrate a dear companion and poet, Arthur Henry Hallam. This was published in 1850, the year before the Arnolds’ wedding.    

Matthew’s courtship of Frances Lucy had been passionate, but also anxious. Although he had just embarked on what would be a long career as a schools inspector, he was fretting over whether he would be able to meet the financial demands of married life. In particular he feared he would not live up to the expectations of his baronet father-in-law Sir William Wightman, Justice of the Queen’s Bench.

Matthew Arnold feared he would not live up to the baronial expectations of his father-in-law.

The poem’s expressions of  anxiety at what he hears and sees, the appearance of “the naked shingles of the world,” have outlasted the moment of their utterance with dramatic immediacy, just as Sophocles’s had done. Arnold’s response  is gloriously plain against a backdrop of such turbulence: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.”  

Being Matthew Arnold carried its burdens. He was after all the eldest son of a great Rugby headmaster whose ideals of moral ardour,  Christian faith and classical scholarship were influencing  public schools and hence reforming the production of young English gentlemen in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Moreover, Matthew had been a pupil at the school; as was Thomas Hughes, who went on to write the technically fictitious but highly documentary Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1867, in which Dr. Thomas Arnold appears, by name, the omnipotent ruler in a world of his own creation. As Lytton Strachey later wrote in Eminent Victorians, the head had founded a theocracy and treated the Rugby boys as Jehovah had treated the Chosen People.

An alternative view from the beach at dusk at Dover. Did Arnold have wilder landscapes in mind?

When he died suddenly on the eve of his forty-seventh birthday, Matthew was twenty, his brother Tom a year younger, and William fourteen. Family expectations were undiminished, and eventually fulfilled, with Tom and William becoming respectively a professor of literature and a colonial administrator. Matthew taught for a short while at Rugby, already aware that his true calling was poetry. 

One of his biographers, Parc Hoonan, suggests that when the poet hears “the eternal note of sadness” from the beach, he might have had the wilder landscapes of the north in his eye and ear. Matthew had recently been in the Lake District, where the family had a house, Fox How, near Ambleside. They knew the Wordsworths, and Matthew was a great admirer of William’s work. 

He had been struck by the grandeur of the hills, and the lakes which they cradled. “Vast edges drear,” says Hoonan, might well have been a form of words conjured in him by the dramatic screes running almost sheer into Wastwater, and then applied to the sloping shingle here at the country’s bottom edge.

Houses, many of them hotels, at the foot of the iconic white cliffs. Vast edges drear?

Those undertones, indeed undertows, of emptying-out and recession become as active within the poet as they are in the observable world. The sea may have been calm on the evening when Matthew called his wife to the window, but it could turn rough in an instant. Worse, it could assume the role of a highway bearing would-be conquerors, just as it had done so many times before. You had no choice but to look out.

Azure-calm, the sea at Dover can turn rough in an instant.

Much later in his career Arnold was, as he still is, praised for  Culture and Anarchy, in which he argued that the first of these two words denoted knowledge of “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. An irony of its success was that it made its author more eminent for his social and political analysis than for his verse. 

Metrical consistency: the scriptorium at Dover Castle.

 This particular poem is made all the more striking by his apparent willingness to flout certain conventions of the time. English conventions, that is. Here is an opening verse of fourteen lines, a second of six, a third of eight, a fourth of nine. Here too appears to be a bracing disregard for metrical consistency, and a rhyme scheme which is quite possibly making itself up as it goes along. Classicists have countered that it is doing no such things, but rather following patterns of Greek verse, and doing so with care. 

Certainly he is taking liberties with stress and meter. This is no criticism. In fact it is the opposite since he is doing so with the knowledge of the rules he is bending. It hardly matters. The words manage to spill as they will, with the random consistency of breaking waves. In this respect it is a perfect fit with the long drama of the southern English shoreline.

Gibbous moon on Dover Beach
‘The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits.’


On Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold

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 Ægean, 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.

(Essay by Alan Franks.  Photos by Ruth Gledhill)

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