The Battle of Epipolae Revisited

“Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold)

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.                     5
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,              10
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                                                               15
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.                                20

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,                              25
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                      30
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                                35
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night


A deserted beach, in the stillness of the night. A young poet shares his vision with his lover as they view the evening scene. In Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the poem opens with the narrator describing to us a peaceful evening as he is viewing it. We are given the image of the pale moonlight’s glow being cast upon what seems to be the coastline. Shortly thereafter, he requests another person – likely his lover – to come and see the stunning view. However, as he continues his descriptions, his mood appears to grow somewhat dismal; his words now give the landscape he sees a rather gloomy and deserted aura. He appears to be listening to the waves lobbing small pebbles into the sand, and then their being pulled back in again by another wave: "the grating roar / Of pebbles, which the waves draw back, and fling/ At their return, up the high strand” (ll.9-11). He tells us that the unbalanced, disruptive rhythm of these noises make him feel despondent and depressed.

The narrator continues by commenting that Sophocles, when he heard similar sounds by the Aegean Sea, also had similar feelings, prompting him to comment on the "turbid ebb and flow of human misery" (ll.17-18). Again, the narrator provides a stark contrast to his initially cheerful attitude. In the next stanza Arnold sets sail for the “Sea of Faith” (l.21), not an actual sea but a metaphorical one for religion. However, he quickly decides to abandon ship after hitting the proverbial iceberg (which he just so happens to have created himself). Inasmuch as the “Sea of Faith” is symbolic for time, it is likely that the period he refers to is the Middle Ages. His notion seems to be that back then, religion reigned high; now, he says, the modern age has brought about a lot of ideas and notions which now question beliefs. Matthew Arnold himself, in fact, was agnostic. He continues: "the vast edges drear/ And naked shingles of the world" (ll. 27-28). Maybe Arnold wishes he could have that faith.

In the last stanza, he changes his tone somewhat and speaks to his lover, asking that she be true to him. Suddenly the scenery and imagery is transfigured into a dreamlike, fantastic place where everything is renewed. This place is magnificent, he says, but alas, it is not truly real. A string of denials on his part quickly throw out the notion that he has any sort of hope, and he  feels that humanity has more or less been left in solitude and darkness. When he uses the word “we,” he may be addressing humanity as a whole and not just himself and his lover. He now says that only nightmarish, lurid sounds are to be heard; apparently, it is like a great battle fought in darkness, where neither side can tell who the allies are and who the foes are. People are fighting, he says, ignorantly; they cannot even see who or what they are fighting against. “Ignorant armies clash by night,” indeed, says he … but he feels that this is an eternal night where there is no tomorrow, no sunrise, only the undying shadows of the night, looming large. The poem is written in four stanzas, but each has a different number of verses to it. The poem barely contains what one would call a rhyme scheme until the last stanza, where the pattern [of the metrical scheme] is Iambic pentameter – that is to say, a line of five iambs – squeaks its way into lines thirty-one through thirty-seven, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-b-a-c-d-d-c-c. The poem itself doesn’t really fit any true poetic forms, but it achieves a sort of “pseudo-sonnet” aura in its general style. Dover Beach does make use of what is known as “pathetic fallacy,” in which an inanimate or nonliving object – in this case, the sea – is described in such a way that it is given a human quality or emotion. This all takes a backseat to the true nature of the poem, however, lest we forget what it is about – the gloomy thoughts of Matthew Arnold …

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night (ll.35-37).