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"Dover Beach" is a short lyric poem by Englishmarker poet Matthew Arnold. It was first published in 1867 in the collection New Poems, but surviving notes indicate its composition may have begun as early as 1849. The most likely date is 1851.

The title locale and subject of the poem's descriptive opening lines is the shore of the English ferry port of Dovermarker, facing Francemarker at the narrowest part of the English Channelmarker, where Arnold honeymooned in 1851.


Arnold begins with a naturalistic and detailed nightscape of the beach at Dover in which auditory imagery plays a significant role ("Listen! you hear the grating roar"). The beach, however, is bare, with only a hint of humanity in a light that "gleams and is gone". Reflecting the traditional notion that the poem was written during Arnold's honeymoon (see composition), one critic notes that "the speaker might be talking to his bride."

::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.

Arnold looks at two aspects of this naturalistic scene, its soundscape (in the first and second stanza) and the retreating actions of the tide (in the third stanza). Arnold hears the sound of the sea as "the eternal note of sadness". Sophocles, a 5th century BC Greek playwright who wrote tragedies of fate and the will of the gods, also heard this same sound as he stood upon the shore of the Aegean Seamarker. Critics differ widely on how to interpret this image of the Greek Classical age. One critic sees a difference between Sophocles in the classical age of Greece interpreting the "note of sadness" humanistically, while Arnold in the industrial nineteenth century hears in this sound the retreat of religion and faith. A more recent critic connects the two as artists, Sophocles the tragedian, Arnold the lyric poet, each attempting through words to transform this note of sadness into "a higher order of experience."

::Sophocles long ago
::Heard it on the Ægæan, 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.

Having examined the soundscape, Arnold turns to the action of the tide itself and sees in its retreat a metaphor for the loss of faith in the modern age once again expressed in an auditory image ("But now I only hear/Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar"). This third stanza begins with an image not of sadness, but of "joyous fulness" similar in beauty to the image with which the poem opens.

::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 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.

The final stanza begins with an appeal to love, then moves on to the famous ending metaphor. Critics have varied on their interpretation of the first two lines of this stanza; one calls them a "perfunctory gesture...swallowed up by the poem's powerfully dark picture", while another sees in them "a stand against a world of broken faith". Midway between these is the interpretation of one of Arnold's biographers who describes being "true/To one another" as "a precarious notion" in a world that has become "a maze of confusion"

The simile with which the poem ends is most likely an allusion to a passage in Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides describes an ancient battle which occurred on a similar beach during the invasion of Sicily by the Athenians. The battle took place at night; the attacking army became disoriented while fighting in the darkness and many of their soldiers ignorantly killed each other. This final image has, also, been variously interpreted by the critics. The "darkling plain" of the final line has been described as Arnold's "central statement" of the human condition A more recent critic has seen the final line as "only metaphor" and, thus, susceptible to the "uncertainty" of poetic language.

::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.

"The poem's discourse," Honan tells us, "shifts literally and symbolically from the present, to Sophocles on the Aegean, from Medieval Europe back to the present—and the auditory and visual images are dramatic and mimetic and didactic. Exploring the dark terror that lies beneath his happiness in love, the speaker resolves to love—and exigencies of history and the nexus between lovers are the poem's real issues. That lovers may be 'true/To one another' is a precarious notion: love in the modern city momentarily gives peace, but nothing else in a post-medieval society reflects or confirms the faithfulness of lovers. Devoid of love and light the world is a maze of confusion left by 'retreating' faith."

Critics have questioned the unity of the poem, noting that the sea of the opening stanza does not appear in the final stanza, while the "darkling plain" of the final line is not apparent in the opening. Various solutions to this problem have been proffered. One critic saw the "darkling plain" with which the poem ends as comparable to the "naked shingles of the world." ("Shingles" here means beach gravel.) While another found the poem "emotionally convincing" even if its logic may be questionable. The same critic notes that "the poem upends our expectations of metaphor" and sees in this the central power of the poem. The poem's historicism creates another complicating dynamic. Beginning in the present it shifts to the classical age of Greece, then (with its concerns for the sea of faith) it turns to Medieval Europe, before finally returning to the present. The form of the poem itself has drawn considerable comment. Critics have noted the careful diction in the opening description, the overall, spell-binding rhythm and cadence of the poem and the dramatic character of the poem. One commentator sees the strophe-antistrophe of the ode at work in the poem, with an ending that contains something of the "cata-strophe" of tragedy. Finally, one critic sees the complexity of the poem's structure resulting in "the first major 'free-verse' poem in the language".


According to Tinker and Lowry, "a draft of the first twenty-eight lines of the poem" were written in pencil "on the back of a folded sheet of paper containing notes on the career of Empedocles." Allott concludes that the notes are probably from around 1849-50. "Empedocles on Etna," again according to Allott, was probably written 1849-52, the notes on Empedocles are likely to be contemporary with the writing of that poem.

The final line of this draft is:
::And naked shingles of the world. Ah love &c
Tinker and Lowry conclude that this "seem[s] to indicate that the last nine lines of the poem as we know it were already in existence when the portion regarding the ebb and flow of the sea at Dover was composed." This would make the manuscript "a prelude to the concluding paragraph" of the poem in which "there is no reference to the sea or tides."

::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 from 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 visits to Dover may also provide some clue to the date of composition. Allott has Arnold in Dover in June 1851 and again in October of that year "on his return from his delayed continental honeymoon." To critics who conclude that ll. 1-28 were written at Dover and ll. 29-37 "were rescued from some discarded poem," Allott suggests the contrary, i.e. that the final lines "were written at Dover in late June," while " ll. 29-37 were written in London shortly afterwards."


William Butler Yeats responds directly to Arnold's pessimism in his four-line poem, "The Nineteenth Century and After" (1929):

::Though the great song return no more
::There's keen delight in what we have:
::The rattle of pebbles on the shore
::Under the receding wave.

Anthony Hecht, US Poet Laureate, replied to "Dover Beach" in his poem "The Dover Bitch".

::So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
::With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
::And he said to her, "Try to be true to me,
::And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
::All over, etc. etc."

The anonymous figure to whom Arnold addresses his poem becomes the subject of Hecht's poem. In Hecht's poem she "caught the bitter allusion to the sea", imagined "what his whiskers would feel like / On the back of her neck", and felt sad as she looked out across the channel. "And then she got really angry" at the thought that she had become "a sort of mournful cosmic last resort." After which she says "one or two unprintable things."

::But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
::She's really all right. I still see her once in a while
::And she always treats me right.

Kenneth and Miriam Allott, referring to "Dover Bitch" as "an irreverent jeu d'esprit," nonetheless see, particularly in the line "a sort of mournful cosmic last resort," an extension of the original's poem main theme.

"Dover Beach" has been mentioned in a number of novels, plays, poems, and films. Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 alludes to the poem in the chapter "Havermyer": "the open-air movie theater in which—for the daily amusement of the dying—ignorant armies clashed by night on a collapsible screen." In Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury has his protagonist Guy Montag read part of "Dover Beach" to his wife Mildred and her friends. Samuel Barber composed a setting of "Dover Beach" for string quartet and baritone. In Dodie Smith's novel, I Capture the Castle, the book's protagonist remarks that Debussy's Clair de Lune reminds her of "Dover Beach" (in the film adaptation of the novel, the character quotes (or, rather, misquotes) a line from the poem).

It is also mentioned in Saturday by Ian McEwan, "Jakarta" by Alice Munro, The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy, A Song For Lya by George R.R. Martin, Rush song "Armour and Sword", from the album Snakes and Arrows (lyrics by Neil Peart), Nora's Lost, a short drama by Alan Haehnel, Daljit Nagra's prize-winning poem "Look We Have Coming to Dover!" which quotes the line, "So various, so beautiful, so new" as its epigraph, and the poem "Moon" by Billy Collins. Kevin Kline's character, Cal Gold, in the film The Anniversary Party recites part of "Dover Beach" as a toast. The poem has also provided a ready source for titles: On a Darkling Plain by Clifford Irving, A Darkling Plain by Philip Reeve, As On a Darkling Plain by Ben Bova (the title refers to a lunar plain covered with strange unexplained artifacts), Clash by Night, a play by Clifford Odets (later made into a film noir by Fritz Lang), and Norman Mailer's National Book Award winner The Armies of the Night about the 1967 March on the Pentagon.

Even in the U.marker S.marker Supreme Courtmarker the poem has had its influence: Justice William Rehnquist, in his concurring opinion in Northern Pipeline Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50 (1982), compared judicial decisions regarding the power of Congress to create legislative courts to "landmarks on a judicial 'darkling plain' where ignorant armies have clashed by night."


  1. Allott, 1965, p.240
  2. Culler, 1966, p. 39; Honan, 1981, pg. 234; Pratt, 2000, pg. 80-81
  3. Collini, 1988, p. 39.
  4. Honan, 1981, pg. 234.
  5. Tinker and Lowry, 1965, pg. 176-178. Tinker and Lowery attempt to discover a specific reference to Sophocles. They suggest passages from the plays Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Oedipus at Colonus, and Philoctetes. But they add that "the Greek author has reference only to the successive blows of Fate which fall upon a particular family which has been devoted to destruction by the gods. The plight described metaphorically by the English poet is conceived to have fallen upon the whole human race."
  6. Allott, 1965, pg. 241. Allott concludes that "no passage in the plays [of Sophocles] is strictly applicable" to the passage in "Dover Beach". He feels that the passage from the Trachiniae (The Women of Trachis) is closest.
  7. Culler, 1966, p. 40
  8. Pratt, 2000, pg. 81. Pratt goes on to equate this passage to Wallace Stevens' "The Idea of Order at Key West" – "Blessed rage for order.../The maker's rage to order words of the sea."
  9. Allott, 1965, pg. 241. compare to ll. 80-82 of his "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" which appears to have been written at about the same time. For probable date of composition of "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse", see Allott, 1965, pg 285.
  10. The "distant northern sea" is the English Channel which separates England from continental Europe and is the body of water that forms Dover beach.
  11. Collini, 1988, p. 39. Collini calls the "Sea of Faith" "a favoured Arnoldian metaphor."
  12. Culler, 1966, pg. 40. Culler describes this as a "lovely, feminine, protective image of the Sea," while another critic, Pratt, sees not the beauty of the metaphor, but its awkwardness and obscurity. (Pratt, 2000, pg. 82)
  13. Honan, 1981, pg. 234. Honan sees the "vast edges drear" as a possible memory of Wastwater in the Lake District, which Honan describes as "mountainous grey 'scree' running into translucent depths of water."
  14. Collini, 1988, pg. 40.
  15. Pratt, 2000, pg. 82.
  16. Honan, 1981, pg. 235. "That lovers may be 'true/To one another' is a precarious notion: love in the modern city momentarily gives peace, but nothing else in a post-medieval society reflects or confirms the faithfulness of lovers. Devoid of love and light the world is a maze of confusion left by 'retreating' faith."
  17. Tinker and Lowry, 1965, pg. 175. "Here are to be found the details used by Arnold: a night-attack, fought upon a plain at the top of a cliff, in the moonlight, so that the soldiers could not distinguish clearly between friend and foe, with the resulting flight of certain Athenian troops, and various 'alarms,' watchwords, and battle-cries shouted aloud to the increasing confusion of all."
  18. Culler, 1966, pg. 41.
  19. Pratt, 2000, pg. 82 (emphasis in the original) Pratt points to the phrase "as on" in the final line; she points out that this is the language of simile.
  20. Honan, 1981, pg. 235. Honan notes that John Henry Newman had used the image once to define controversy as a sort of 'night battle'. He also notes that the image occurs in Arthur Hugh Clough's The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich.
  21. Tinker and Lowry, 1965, pg. 175. Tinker and Lowry point out that "there is evidence that the passage about the 'night-battle' was familiar coin among Rugbeians" at the time Arnold attended Rugby and studied there under his father Dr. Thomas Arnold whose keen interest in Thucydides had a distinct impact on his students.
  22. Honan, 1981, pg. 235.
  23. Culler, 1966, pg. 40; Pratt, 2000, pg. 79-80.
  24. Culler, 1966, pg. 40.
  25. Pratt, 2000, pg. 79-80
  26. Pratt, 2000, pg. 80.
  27. Allott, 1965, pg. 240.
  28. Collini, 1988, p. 40.
  29. Honan, 1981, pg. 235. Also see "Dover Bitch" discussed in the Influence section of this article.
  30. Pratt, 2000, pg. 81.
  31. Collini, 1988, p. 41.
  32. Tinker and Lowry, 1940, pg. 173.
  33. Allott, 1965, pg. 239.
  34. Allott, 1965, pg. 147.
  35. Tinker and Lowry, 1940, pg. 174-5.
  36. "Dover Bitch," by Anthony Hecht, in Matthew Arnold, A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by David J. DeLaura, 1973, Prentice Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
  37. "Arnold the Poet: (ii) Narrative and Dramatic Poems" by Kenneth and Miriam Allott, in Matthew Arnold edited by Kenneth Allott from the Writers and Their Background series, 1976, Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio, pg. 88.


For a more thorough bibliography see Matthew Arnold.
  • Professors Chauncey Brewster Tinker and Howard Foster Lowry, The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940) Alibris ID 8235403151
  • Kenneth Allott (editor), The Poems of Matthew Arnold (London and New York: Longman Norton, 1965) ISBN 0393043770
  • Park Honan, Matthew Arnold, a life (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1981) ISBN 0070296979
  • A. Dwight Culler, Imaginative Reason: The Poetry of Matthew Arnold (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966).
  • Stefan Collini, Arnold (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) ISBN 0192876600
  • Linda Ray Pratt, Matthew Arnold Revisited, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000) ISBN 080571698

  • The text of the poem is as in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, edited by Dwight Culler, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961; ISBN 0395051525 and Matthew Arnold's Poems ed. Kenneth Allott (pub. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1965). The editors of this page have opted for the elided spellings on several words ("blanch'd," "furl'd") consistent with these texts.

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