Analysis of Matthew Arnold’s Poems


This is an analysis of Matthew Arnold’s
poems “Memorial Verses” and “Dover Beach.” Analysis of “Memorial Verses”
“Memorial Verses” is an elegy praising William Wordsworth and lamenting his death that occurred
the year and month this poem was written. It praises Wordsworth’s ability to sympathize
with nature and to evoke feeling through his poetry. Arnold compares Wordsworth to two other great
Romantic poets, who were Arnold’s favorites, Byron and Goethe, who also had already died
with Byron being buried in Greece and Goethe in Weimar. This poem is a celebration Romantic poetry
including its fiery individuality, prophetic confidence and intimacy. At the same time it is a statement about how
the Romantic Age has passed and a profound expression of anxiety about what the future
holds both for poetry and for the Victorians in general. Matthew Arnold was also a literary critic
in addition to being a poet; thus, he was widely read in Romantic poetry. He knew the merits and demerits of every major
poet of the Romantic age, and this is exactly what he expresses “Memorial Verses.” He explains that Byron’s passion came from
his emotional involvement with the ideals of the French Revolution. Though he was born and brought up in a Catholic
family, his interests were more towards the political life of Europe and the emerging
trend of democracy. More than any other Romantic poet, the content
of his best poetry was political in nature. Byron’s revolutionary thoughts went against
the grain of Christian faith, and this created the dilemma of which Arnold speaks in the
second stanza of “Memorial Verses.” Goethe could see into the deepest human emotions
and figure out, like a physician, how to deal with problems of his age. This is what he does in his most famous works,
Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther. Arnold praises Goethe’s ability to diagnose
the contemporary human condition. According to Arnold, the poetic contributions
of Wordsworth are greater than those of Byron and Goethe. He says that Wordsworth does not merely diagnose,
like Goethe, and does not agitate like Byron either. Instead, he gives a calm and soothing message
to the mass of humanity about the importance of nature. Arnold asks in the poem, Time may restore us in his course
Goethe’s sage mind and Byron’s force; But where will Europe’s latter hour
Again find Wordsworth’s healing power? Others will teach us how to dare,
And against fear our breast to steel; Others will strengthen us to bear—
But who, ah! who, will make us feel? Thus, Arnold is lamenting the loss of William
Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet, and the death of the Romantic age which is known to
emphasize the importance of emotion and nature’s restorative power, which is especially important
in the industrialized Victorian era. Since Arnold especially admires Wordsworth,
it is also perhaps why he gives the least space in “Memorial Verses” to Byron, Goethe
a little more, and Wordsworth the most space of all. Analysis of “Dover Beach”
“Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold’s best known poem, written in 1851, was inspired by two
visits he and his new wife, Frances, made to the south coast of England, where the white
cliffs of Dover stand, just twenty two miles from the coast of France. Being written at a time when religion was
under tremendous pressure from the sciences and evolutionary theory with the work of Charles
Darwin and his Origin of Species and during a time when technology was advancing exponentially
during the Industrial Revolution, Matthew Arnold feared the death of Christianity and
faith leaving the Victorians without a means to cope with human misery. The poem is broken into four stanzas of varying
length and with no standard form. In the first stanza, the speaker describes
to his lover the beautiful cliffs of Dover, the calm and tranquil bay shining in the moonlight
and the lights seen in France which go out as they watch, symbolizing hope going out. Then he describes the sea, which represents
faith in the poem, as receding from the shore with a “grating roar/ Of pebbles which the
waves draw back” and “With tremulous cadence slow and bring/ The eternal note of sadness
in.” Thus, the first stanza describes the beautiful
seascape as receding from them and bringing a mood of sadness, brought in with the uncomfortable
“grating roar” of the sea, which shifts the tone of the poem. If the sea represents faith, then faith is
falling away from the speaker and his lover, as well as from all Victorians of his day. In the second stanza, which is very short,
Arnold compares the sad feeling that the receding tide makes the speaker feel to the same feeling
Sophocles, the famous Greek poet of tragedy, felt when he wrote his great tragedies and
says that “it brought/ Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery.” In the third stanza, he explains how the “Sea
of Faith” was once “at the full,” meaning faith was once strong, but today faith is
dying. The speaker then says that during the present
day, “I only hear/ Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” The speaker is left feeling “naked” in
the dark, unhappy world as his faith dies. In the last stanza, also a long stanza, the
speaker addresses his love directly, encouraging her to let them be “true” to one another
because he says to her that the world seems “like a land of dreams,/ So various, so
beautiful, so new” but actually “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” He ends the poem with the lines: “And we
are here as on a darkling plain,/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where
ignorant armies clash by night.” In other words, even though the couple’s
seascape view is beautiful, it reminds the speaker how alone they are in a world without
faith in which struggle exists and people have no clear way to comfort themselves. Arnold sees Victorian humanity as faithless
and alone facing their struggles like “ignorant armies” which “clash by night” or people
who face the challenges of human suffering with no clear idea of how to cope with their
misery.

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