Essay

The Prey of Pessimism

            The expanse of land stops abruptly, as though an omnipotent hand tore the...

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            The expanse of land stops abruptly, as though an omnipotent hand tore the rest away, exposing a steep, white cliff surrounded by an expanse of pebbles.  The pebbles give way to water, which sends them crashing into the cliffside insistently, relentlessly.  One may find himself standing millimeters from the edge, as the grass does, hair and clothes swirling violently in the powerful winds.  As emotions follow suit, turbulence fills every crevice of thought and feeling.  Described in the previous sentences is Dover Beach (and the impact it may have on an individual), located in southeast England, facing toward France.  Choosing this sort of location for his poem of the same name, Matthew Arnold gives voice to the emotions and poetic tone evoked by the sublimity of this setting, following their formation and evolution over the course of his thirty-seven-line poem.  Fraught with turbulence, the speaker’s tone changes quickly and fluidly—tranquil and romantic at the start, melancholy and entrapped by the middle, and desperate and faithless by the end.

            The aforementioned peaceful and romantic tones are the most predictable components of this poem as the themes of retreat, love, and marriage are suggested in the first stanza.  “The sea is calm tonight” (l. 1), the poem begins, symbolizing the speaker’s internal calmness as well.   As he continues to speak, his tranquility gives birth to adoration, praising “the moon [lying] fair” (l. 2), the “Glimmering and vast” (l. 5) cliffs, and “the tranquil bay” (l. 5).  Overcome by the urge to share these sensations, he calls to his (presumed) wife, “Come to the window, sweet is the night air” (l. 6).  The word “sweet” not only alludes to the beauty around him but to the feelings of warmth and romance he holds for his partner.  If one were to pause here and speculate as to what tone might encapsulate the remainder of the poem, he or she would quickly dub it “loving” or “serene.”  However, as quickly as these pleasant tones arise, far darker entities take hold.

            As such, the moment the speaker engages his romantic partner in his monologue, his tone shifts from calmness to entrapment and melancholy.  Beginning line six with the word “only,” used in the same way that “but” or “however” might be, the speaker breaks away from his positive thoughts and wanders toward the “grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling” (l. 10-11), a similar roar rising up inside him as he considers his own thoughts and emotions tumbling about on the waves of circumstance.  Transfixed by the cycle in which he feels trapped, he bemoans that of the pebbles, which “begin[s], and cease[s], and then again begin[s]” (l. 12).  Here, the tone shifts to one of nihilism.  The speaker is wallowing—drowning—in his own melancholy, yet he shows no desire to escape it.  Such sadness is an addictive, cyclic thing, it would seem.  Moving on, readers are again shown the unending nature of the speaker’s sorrow (and what he believes to be the sorrow of the world), which he calls “the eternal note of sadness” (l. 14).  While readers are never shown if this sadness truly does last into eternity, the sorrowful tone holds fast to the remainder of the poem as the speaker builds upon his reasons for feeling so.  Within the lines of the third stanza, readers discover that his emotions are due to his lack of faith and security, a void that a higher being might have filled in an earlier time.  “The Sea of Faith… retreating” (l. 21, 26), symbolizes his own faith in God retreating (and overarchingly society’s faith as it embraces advancement and belief in evolution), leaving him helpless and distraught at the state of the world.  As his perceptions remain unchanging, likewise does the tone in this poem, save for one small flicker of hope in the fourth stanza.

            Here, unable to find faith in God or hope for eternity, the speaker breaks away from his pessimism momentarily to entreat his partner for relief.  “Ah, love, let us be true / To one another” (l. 29-30), he implores her, briefly returning to his sweet, romantic tone, though this time it is tainted by desperation.  By presenting the faithfulness of his wife as the only pinpoint of light in the dark landscape of his perception, the speaker puts immense pressure on her to provide him faith and joy.  However, even this is proven to be insufficient, for the world (and thus humanity, in which his wife is included), “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (l. 33-34).  Not even his wife could provide such things for him, and as he realizes this, his tone recedes back into pessimism and faithlessness.  “We are here as on a darkling plain” (l. 35), he reminds her, “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night” (l. 36-37).  Internalizing the turmoil he has observed in the world around him and perhaps projecting his own internal turmoil onto it, the speaker places the blame for his troubles on surrounding individuals, mindsets, and circumstances, further entrenching himself in despair as he refuses to accept responsibility for his fate.  Thus, in spite of momentary hope in the fidelity of his wife, the speaker never truly shifts his tone away from utter pessimism.

            Looking out over the cliffs of Dover Beach, one might easily imagine himself falling prey to such pessimism.  However, the surrounding majesty might conversely provoke awe and appreciation—even hope—should one’s heart be willing to embrace it.  Through the diverse range of tones included in his poem, Matthew Arnold encapsulates the breadth of emotions that can be born from drinking in the surroundings of the speaker in “Dover Beach.”  Although the tone never shifts to one of happiness and resolution as one might expect from most literary endings, the discouraging conclusion which Arnold chooses accurately portrays the fate of a person devoid of faith or hope for the future.  A remedy to such internal conflict never reveals itself unless one truly desires to find it.

Written by Emily Aldrich
A sophomore at Ventura College, I am a passionate writer and devoted scholar of the English language. Profile

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