Matthew Arnold was a pretty serious dude. He believed in the Power and Beauty of Art with a capital P, and was all about the value of really understanding the past and the great tradition of literature. He was a poet, a scholar, a critic, and one of the big-name literary figures of the Victorian era. Sounds like the recipe for a great career, right?
But he was also living in an uncertain time. The winds of change were blowing, and he lets us hear them whipping by in his poetry. See, in the decades before he wrote this poem, England had gone through rapid industrialization, which in many ways upended a way of life that had been stable for centuries. The British empire was beginning to expand its reach across the globe, and the conflicts that would come with that expansion were picking up steam as well. In other words, Arnold was a man on the brink between the old world and the new, right on the edge of the modern era, and he has a really cool, visionary sense of what that means.
"Dover Beach" is one of his most famous poems, although he wrote many more. It's still included in anthologies and memorized by school kids today, almost 150 years after it was published in 1867. Why that staying power? Well, we think this poem does a brilliant job of capturing just how lonely it can be to live in the modern world.
You know what we're talking about. As family ties rupture, as old systems of faith diminish, it's easy to feel as if we've been abandoned on "a darkling plain" (35) without friends or hope. What's cool about this poem is that it both describes this suffering and helps to make it better. It tackles the pain and the uncertainty of living in the modern world, but does it in a way that leaves us feeling like poetry can still matter, even in our times. In that way, Arnold fuses the literary tradition he loved with the new world that he could see coming—the one we're living in right now.
We're all for poems that talk about the happy stuff like love and birds and trees and taking a nap (okay, maybe we don't know of any nap poems, but you get the idea). At the same time, that's not all poetry can do.
It can also tackle the rough stuff in life, like pain and fear and suffering and loss. "Dover Beach" is a great example of a poem that's honest about how dark and scary life can be sometimes. The speaker of this poem just flat out tells us that we shouldn't expect life to be full of "joy" or "love" (33). He wants to shake us awake, to tell us that, in the world we live in now there is no certainty, no "help for pain" (34). It's not like there isn't any love and happiness in it (the first stanza is full of it) but he doesn't sugarcoat the bad stuff either.
So why would you want to read a poem about how life can be hard? Well, we think most people figure out that life isn't all good stuff about the time they find out Santa Claus isn't real (yeah, we're still kind of bummed about that one, too).
So why should we save the beauty and power of a great poem for just the bright side of life? We feel like being able to talk about lurking darkness and fear makes it all a little less scary. Sure, "Dover Beach" is about loneliness, but when we read it, we somehow feel less alone—and we bet you will, too.