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Analysis of Setting in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

One of the key aspects of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” is the way which Arnold develops the setting of the poem. The imagery of the poem which is associated with the setting is an important device by which Arnold is able to transmit the theme of his poem. The presence of the setting in the poem also functions as a method by which dramatic tension is created. The poem’s setting also enables a formal division of the poem’s “action’ or plot, by shifting in the last nine lines from an obvious nautical setting, to an “interior” scene which offers the image of a “darkling plain” (Arnold, 36).

This image is intended to contrast with the preceding sea imagery; however, the plain is evoked only as a simile in the closing lines and not as an actual setting of the poem. Rather, the setting shifts from contemplation of the exterior world, the natural world, to an inwardly imagined scene, as stark and as profound a change in poetic setting as one could accomplish while maintaining the overall sense of cohesion and harmony which is generated by the poem.

This overall sense of harmony is also connected to the poem’s mood, which is clearly associated with the setting of the poem; however, in order to begin to understand the significance of the setting of the poem and the influence of setting on the poem’s mood, it is important to remember that in terms of what might be called “poetic perception,” the attributes of the natural world are considered quite differently than in the world of everyday logic and perception.

In this regard, “Poetry is not the only source of truth: it is one of the approaches to reality open to the man whose hearing is tuned to art” (Duffin 145) and, as such, Arnold’s task in “Dover Beach” is to relate by use of the poem’s setting and imagery, not merely the objective description of a literal beach, but a dramatic representation of mood and sensation which is enabled and facilitated by his use of setting.

In other words, by developing the setting of the poem closely with the articulation of his theme, Arnold “presents the appearance and temporalities of the world, human and natural, with power and sympathy,” (Duffin 145) and, by doing so, he is able to evoke something which is more complex and more resonant than a merely evocative description of a literal place and time. With this in mind, the reader is able to understand that Arnold’s intention in the poem, his “deep” theme is to both establish the need for, and demonstrate the existence of “an affinity between poetry and the mystic experience.

” (Duffin 145) This affinity, obviously, stops short of being presented by Arnold as a complete convergence of poetry and mysticism. The poem, in fact, carefully avoids the pitfall of setting the reader “dreaming of another world to which as yet we have no entry save in dreams” (Duffin 145). Rather, Arnold seeks to capture the moments of what might be called mystical inspiration which result from the contemplation of nature. He articulates this sense of inspiration without sacrificing the “nuts and bolts’ of the three-dimensional world and one of the ways in which Arnold is able to keep his poem (seemingly) grounded is by his use of setting.

Most obviously, even top the casual reader of “Dover Beach,” there is clear sense that the presence of the sea in the poem’s setting is of a very high level of significance. The poem’s opening lines: “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” (Arnold, 1-5) are almost monotonously evocative of the sea and sea-imagery.

The repetition of sea-imagery: “the sea” “The tide” “the moon” the straits” “the coast” “the cliffs” “the tranquil bay” functions not only as a device by which the poem’s setting is hammered home, so to speak, to the reader, but a device by which the apparent diversity and multiplicity of the natural world is insinuated to be “contained” within a larger, omnipotent form: namely the sea itself.

Even if such intricate nuances of imagery and diction are unaccessible to the average reader, there is still no doubt that there is “something more than salt water about that marvelously realized sea whose waves sucked back the pebbles and then flung them with a grating roar up the beach at Dover” (Duffin 41). The connection between the poem’s mood and the diction which enables the “marvelously realized sea” (Duffin 41) is the way in which the poem’s mystic aspects are admitted.

The mood of the poem and the poem’s setting achieve a sense, independent of logical connotation, that “Man as in strange spiritual isolation amid his ‘natural’ environment” (Tinker, and Lowry 30) and it is the nature of the isolation that forms the deep theme of “Arnold’s “Dover Beach. ” Again, while it is diction and mood that evoke a sense of the mystical in Arnold’s “Dover Beach” it is the poem’s setting which draws the otherwise disparate elements of the poem, including: plot, imagery, diction, figurative language, and theme all into a convincing and memorable lyric.

That said, the poem is actually composed of two lyrics: “the last nine lines of Dover Beach-lines which, as Tinker and Lowry have shown, are a separate poem, a lyric for which the preceding stanzas were written as a prelude” (Eells 200). While this seamless division is undetectable in the poem’s technical form, the division is quite obvious in the poem’s setting. No doubt it has become obvious to many readers that in the last nine lines of Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” “there is no reference to the sea or the tides” (Tinker, and Lowry 175).

This dramatic shift in setting, as mentioned earlier, is the most obvious movement in the poem, the most notable and radical contrast. The image of the calm, all-encompassing sea is “replaced” in the last nine lines by the image (and implied setting) of a “darkling plain” (Arnold, 36) while simultaneously the poem also shifts from the speaker’s isolation in nature to the speaker addressing his lover.

The shift of setting and narrative disposition in the poem is a correlative of the preceding sea-imagery in the poem which foreshadows the darkling plain by the sea’s low-tide retreat. In this way, the “withdrawing roar’ of the sucking waves is a marvellous way of figuring the retreat of the ‘sea of faith’, and that the appearance of a world where conflict (though in truth pleasantly varied with friendship and co-operation) is undoubtedly wide-spread,” (Duffin 86).

No doubt, this connection is a very difficult one for the average reader to grasp; nonetheless, the connection between the two, drastically contrasting settings presented in the poem is, in fact, the most direct expression of Arnold’s theme. Of course, this sense of all-encompassing connection, of mystical union and even mystical crises is restricted in the poem to a large degree, by intention. Again, to facilitate the intentional “blunting” of the poem’s mystical themes, the intentional restraint regarding mystical insight through contemplation of nature, Arnold uses th poem’s setting.

The attention to detail in the poem’s descriptive diction is the method by which a tone or objective realism is balanced as a kind of facade over the poem’s more subtlety expressed subjective and mystically exalted impulses. An example is the following lines: 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, At their return, up the high strand, (Arnold, 7-11) The intricate descriptive detail of the outward, objective belies the otherwise inward searching of the poem’s speaker.

Just as it is obvious that “The terms ‘improbable, intangible, mystery, wonder,’ have little relevance for the content of Arnold’s poetry,” (Duffin 148), it is obvious that the objective description in a poem such as “Dover Beach” “the mood is tinged with personal renouncement. There is no joy, but rather an insistence on the need for peace; a sense of wistful withdrawal” (Eells 116). This sense of inward withdrawal is completed by the shift in setting that marks the closing nine lines of “Dover Beach.

” The irony and the most dynamic thematic resonance of this shift in setting is that it replaces an inward contemplation of objective nature with and outwardly projected setting of deep, personal consequence: a love-affair. Despite the radical dynamic of this obvious shift in setting, the closing stanza of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” actually extends two additional shifts in setting. The first is to the interior space of consciousness of the poem’s speaker who imagines ” a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.

” (Arnold). Within the setting of the speaker’s imagination a second setting flowers, that of “armies engaged in dubious conflict by night” (Tinker, and Lowry 175). This setting in turn reflects another literary setting: “the well-known passage in Thucydides’ account of the battle of Epipolae” (Tinker, and Lowry 175) which, itself, in turn, evokes an historical setting: “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” (Tinker, and Lowry 175).

This surprising, if incredibly subtle, proliferation of settings brings the poem full circle, so to speak, by again introducing the idea that the myriad are, in fact, subsumed by one. In the poem’s opening, the suggestion is that the sea contains all forms and realities; in the poem’s closing lines, human imagination is revealed to be a counterpart to the sea in that it contains myriad (if not infinite) settings and realities.

Arnold’s masterful use of setting as a technique in “Dover Beach” facilitates this expression of subtle but indelible mysticism, suggesting a link between the natural world and human imagination that is inspired by a contemplation of nature and the nature of human love. Works Cited Duffin, Henry Charles. Arnold the Poet. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1962. Eells, John Shepard. The Touchstones of Matthew Arnold. New York: Bookman Associates, 1955. Tinker, C. B. , and H. F. Lowry. The Poetry of Matthew Arnold: A Commentary. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.

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