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The use of diction brings the reader toward two separate tones, yet they uniquely contribute to general feeling of pessimism that Matthew Arnold portrays. In the first stanza, the “calm” sea brings a feeling of peacefulness. Since it is not turbulent, but rather serene and still, the calmness of the sea evokes feelings of harmony. This tone is set to show the value and possibilities of a peaceful life, portrayed through a silent sea.
In addition, the reader also experiences a sense of stability in the “cliffs.” Since they are solid and unchanging, they create a reassuring sense of permanence as they stand against the calming sea. Therefore, as the author experiences such feelings looking through the window, they create a sense of understanding at what Matthew Arnold sees when he is able to see the earth as a calming, stable place.
Yet this image rapidly changes as the reader is left with a somber tone through descriptions of a “tremulous” rhythm that brings “eternal…sadness” to once peaceful sea. It is clear that the author has a sense of fear that is brought on by such unpleasant sounds. They remind him of a change that will not cease, and cannot be ignored. Additionally, descriptions of the human state as “turbid” bring thoughts of darkness and confusion. Unlike the state of peace he used to experience, he now sees life as being so clouded and dense that it appears dark and unsure.
The darkness and fogginess of his own life are seen through the density of the sea. He views life pessimistically, for he can no longer see his way through the fog. Yet there is a hope in the prevailing image of peacefulness, and a longing for the calmness that was lost.
Imagery is used in many ways to express the pessimistic tone that the poem holds. In the beginning, his life is like the “tranquil bay.” He experiences the same peace and tranquility in his life that he sees looking onto Dover Beach. The peaceful tone is set by the image of a calming sea lit by the moonlight. Yet the tone changes to one of confusion with the image of the “grating roar of pebbles which the waves draw back and fling.” The grating roar is an unpleasant image, with the slingshot-like sea giving a negative and forced feeling of unsteadiness. Things are no longer stable and still, but rather wildly flung about and insecure at the whims of the violent waves. The cause of such feelings soon become clear with the image of the “Sea of Faith” in which his own steadiness “retreat[s], to the breath of the night wind.”
It becomes evident that life has carried his faith away, as if on the wind. It brings on a lamenting tone in which he feels a longing for the past of constancy he once experienced. Yet now, although the world seems like “a land of dreams,” it is nothing but a “darkling plain.” There is an obvious glimmer of hope that is seen through the perception of such a world, full of hope and dreams. Yet it is quickly covered by the perception of a darkness in which dreams cannot be seen. The poem ends with the image of “ignorant armies [that] clash by night.” The armies are confused in the darkness and cannot distinguish which way to go, or who to trust in the dimness of night. Matthew Arnold depicts through such an image that the world has also become like that battlefield because of its loss of faith and relationships. Yet, despite his pessimistic views of darkness, confusion, lamenting, and fear, there lives the hope of escaping such darkness, to return to the tranquility that he once knew existed as on the shores of Dover Beach
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