Study Guide

Dover Beach Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    "Dover Beach" is practically overflowing with deep philosophical thoughts, but they are all launched by and rooted in the natural world that the speaker sees all around him. As the speaker pays attention to the sights and sounds of a moonlight night by the ocean, he can't help but ponder Big Ideas about our world's history and its future.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What's the most striking natural image in this poem? What made it particularly stick out for you?
    2. Is this poem "about" the natural world? Or are the beach and the moon and the waves and the pebbles just excuses to talk about human feelings?
    3. Have you ever seen a beach in the moonlight? Do you think this poem captures that experience well? What is it about this experience that might inspire deep thoughts? 
    4. Why do you think water plays such a major part in this poem? Does it have special meaning, or could something else have taken its place?

    Chew on This

    Bummer alert. The speaker of "Dover Beach" argues that all of the beauty of the natural world is an illusion, distracting us from the essential misery of being alive.

    While the speaker's conclusions about life are increasingly grim, the beauty of the scenery he describes balances out the darkness of his thoughts. So, you know, life could be worse.

  • Sadness

    Okay. "Dover Beach" isn't a total bummer. There are definitely moments of love and beauty and pleasure mixed in there, too. But Sadness with a capital S is threaded through everything, and it really builds at the end. We won't sugarcoat it for you: this poem has a pretty grim view of the world. On the other hand, Arnold does an amazing job of making that sadness memorable and moving, too.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Is there sadness everywhere in this poem, or does it ebb and flow like water?
    2. Do you think sadness is the most important feeling in the poem? Are there other feelings that compete with it? If so, where do you see them?
    3. Do you personally feel sad after reading this poem? Why or why not?
    4. Is there a difference between the "eternal note of sadness" (14) and the "turbid ebb and flow / of human misery" (17-18) or are those basically the same thing? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    Sadness, as the speaker suggests in line 14, is just one note in this poem, part of a symphony of connecting and conflicting feelings about the world and human life.

    "Dover Beach" attempts to force its readers to acknowledge that sadness is the only eternal and immovable aspect of human experience.

  • Suffering

    "Dover Beach" doesn't give you a pretty Disney-fied view of life (although maybe that's not fair to Disney—we're still a little freaked out by the beginning of Bambi). The speaker confronts the pain and suffering in the world head-on, no holds barred. While the world might seem nice to look at sometimes (like on a moonlit night), it's really just an endless and confusing wilderness of pain.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Do we learn anything from suffering in this poem? Can acknowledging the fact of suffering by reading about it make us better able to handle it?
    2. Does the speaker of this poem seem concerned about the fact of human suffering? How can you tell?
    3. Is the suffering that is woven into this poem more of the physical or the mental kind? How can you tell?
    4. Is this poem suggesting that the force of love can make suffering better? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The only real antidote to suffering that the poem offers is love, and more specifically, the faithfulness of one person to another. That's all we got in this mad, mad world, Shmoopers.

    Suffering is a powerful and inevitable force in "Dover Beach," and it lurks under everything that seems beautiful and lasting, slowly eating it away. Hey, no one said this poem is uplifting.

  • Spirituality

    Maybe "Dover Beach" isn't so much about spirituality as it is about the feeling of losing it. The speaker looks back longingly to a time when people were more spiritual, when they had more faith in divine guidance. Now that's mostly gone, and the absence of faith has left the world "naked," vulnerable, and miserable. Maybe life has always been hard, but according to our speaker we're now more unprotected from that hardship than we've ever been.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. Do you feel like the speaker of this poem has a "spiritual" understanding of the world? How would you define his belief system?
    2. If the Sea of Faith has pulled back from the world in "Dover Beach," is there any spiritual life left in humanity, or is it all darkness?
    3. Do you think love and spirituality are related in this poem? Can love bring back the speaker's faith in the world?
    4. Why does this poem spend so much time talking about the Sea of Faith? What purpose does it serve?

    Chew on This

    While the ocean might rise and fall in an endless cycle, the poem gives us no hope that human spirituality might return to its previous high tide. Faith is gone forever, and that's all there is to it.

    While faith may be gone, the speaker hints that love, and the ability of one person to be "true" to another, could take its place. So hey, maybe there's a silver lining yet.

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    Matthew Arnold's strategy for "Dover Beach" is something like "go big or go home." He doesn't restrict himself to little issues, or a moment in time, or fleeting feelings. No, he deals with the Big Stuff, like History and Faith and the True Nature of the World. In just 37 lines he zooms out so far that he's looking out over all of human existence. Sure, the view he sees is pretty dark, but we think there's something exciting about how grand and philosophical this poem manages to be in such a small space.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. Why does Sophocles show up in "Dover Beach"? How does the whole second stanza fit in the with the larger poem?
    2. Does life seem like a dark battlefield to you? Does that metaphor resonate with you at all? I mean, we know "Love is a Battlefield," but life?
    3. Is there any hope for humanity in "Dover Beach"? If so, where do you see it?
    4. Do the conclusions that the speaker draws about the world apply to him as well, or is he somehow exempt?

    Chew on This

    The beauty of the language in "Dover Beach" works against its main premise, that life is fundamentally lightless and joyless. Even if the subject is grim, the poem itself emphasizes the fundamental hopefulness of existence. Take that, despair.

    While the speaker condemns the world for its misery and absence of faith, he does not extend those conclusions to himself. In essence, he manages to separate himself from the rest of humanity.