Mathew Arnold

About Mathew Arnold (1822-1888):
Mathew Arnold was born in Laleham-on-Thames, England, and educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he became a close friend of the poet Arthur Clough, whom he later eulogized in “Thysris” (1866). In 1851 Arnold became an inspector of schools, a position he held for 35 years. His writing on education advocated the study of the Bible and the humanities as the remedy for what he saw as the Philistinism and insularity of the times, and he worked hard to improve standards and introduce rigor into the school curriculum. After writing most of his memorable poetry between 1845 and 1867, he turned away from poetry, believing himself unable to convey “Joy.” “It is not enough that the Poet should add to the knowledge of men, it is required of him also that he should add to their happiness,” he wrote in the preface to his 1853 edition of Poems.
Although he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford University in 1858, other than New Poems (1867) he subsequently published only prose.

Mathew Arnold
New Poems (1867)

The sea is calm to-night,
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-blanch’d 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 furl’d.
But now I can 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 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.


Arnold’s “Dover Beach” presents the reader with a virtual journey through time. Lamenting the transition from an age of certainty into an era of erosion of traditions – Modernism – is the backbone of all four stanzas of the poem, brought together in our imagination by the nostalgic image of the sea. “Misery”, “sadness” and “melancholy” reign most of the poem, yet the author chooses to conclude it with an emotional appeal for honesty: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another” – as it is the only true certainty left as the world around collapses under “struggle” and “fight”.

The poet’s attitude towards the subject of the poem is revealed through key words, which are also references to a number of themes in the poem. The most obvious one of these is “the sea” with its nostalgic nature and ability to represent time and timelessness simultaneously. “Sadness”, “misery”, “melancholy”, “pain” accompany this effect and reveal the overall sense of regret and helplessness the author feels before the powers of time and inevitable change.

The tone of the piece is determined by the constant presence of “melancholy” and “misery” in the poem that stretch on into the distance with a “long withdrawing roar…” The calmness of the narrative voice with which the piece is set to work (“the sea is calm to-night”).

The fundamental issues of the poem are not only obvious in its conclusion. The theme of Time is being discussed in the second verse, where Sophocles – an essential historic figure – is referred to. Time here is represented by the image of the sea – with its vastness evoking powerful admiration.

The structure of the poem gives the immediate impression of being inconsistent and built upon no particular rules. There are four verses, none of which are alike, with no particular rhythm or rhyme pattern. Yet its tremendous effect on the reader is based upon the impression of sharing the author’s thoughts as we read.

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