In the context of the Victorian Age, an age of transition between Romanticism and Modernism, Dover Beach reflects the poet’s uncertainty as he gropes for meaning in an ever-changing world.
As many critics have noted, Arnold’s Dover Beach is, in many ways, an obvious revision of romantic poems, with pessimistic overtones. The poem makes references and allusions to the past, present and future, as well as to history, religion and humanity. It is therefore incoherent and equivocal to a certain extent. This, however, is not inadvertent: it is Arnold’s way of expressing his confusion in front of a world that is changing before his eyes. The text is divided in sections, which are seemingly unified by the seascape imagery and visuals. Interestingly, the poem opens with soothing images of a calm sea and its surroundings by night. The sea is “calm”, the moon “lies fair”, the light “gleams”, the cliffs are “glimmering” and the bay is “tranquil” (Arnold 86). The scenery described here seems to be oozing peace and calm. Everything is contoured softly, with no sharp lines. Moreover, the air is “sweet” and the seascape so inviting that the poet calls an unknown addressee to the window to partake of the beauty of nature. Yet, for some reason, the author instantly discards all this and isolates a single sensory experience, the “grating roar/ Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling/ At their return, up the high strand…”(Arnold 86). It becomes thus obvious that Arnold does not find refuge in nature and does not look for inspiration in its beauties, as a Romantic poet would have. Instead, he focuses on the sound of waves which, to him, obviously bears portentous meaning.