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“Poems of Lonely Terror.” (W. H. Auden) A Critical Discussion of Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, and their Victorian Context

The topics that Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ raise are the distinctive and typical Victorian fears which were apparent in the era. Arnold’s renowned ‘Dover Beach’ seethes in relation to the ignorance of the population, and how it tends to gets in the way of the traditional and complete faithfulness and spiritual enlightenment of Britain.

The poet-persona expresses his hatred for progressive materialism and the death of society that naturally combines with it. In ‘Mariana’ also, the poet expresses typically Victorian subjects: nostalgia, gothic qualities but, (differing from ‘Dover Beach’) a yearning for a God.

There are many similar and opposing qualities to these two poems, and one of which is within their writing styles. The authors present their work in quite varying manners – Arnold uses the dramatic monologue, but Tennyson employs a lyrical ballad.

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These genres are used because of their compatibility with the poems. For example, ‘Mariana’ is told in a 3rd person, lyrical ballad because it runs extremely well with the poem. The immense descriptions given by Tennyson wouldn’t work nearly as well in a dramatic monologue, where a character would have to describe it all through narration, instead of the imagery simply being inserted into the text. The way the author can force the reader to look in to Mariana’s life rather than assume her being creates a great amount of sympathy and sorrow for her, as Tennyson preys upon the naturally occurring sympathy for other humans.

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‘Dover Beach’ alternatively, succeeds as a dramatic monologue as it is stripped of too much description by Arnold, and consists of the ideology behind the poem, without needless depiction – it contains only what it needs. For example, where Tennyson would fill a sentence with adjectives or adverbs for the nouns or verbs, Arnold merely states the scene, rather than focusing on enthralling the reader with fantastical images. “Sophocles long ago, Heard it on the Aegean” (Dover Beach, lines 15/16) is a prime example of this comparative lack of portrayal – the author could have described the vast and beautiful Aegean sea, or inserted an adverb to depict how Sophocles heard ‘it’.

Both poems offer a depressive and despondent look at the modernising world. ‘Mariana’ looks at it from a more personal perspective; the rejecting of a woman and her seemingly eternal misery subsequent to the event (“My life is dreary, He cometh not”), while ‘Dover Beach’ offers a wider view of the human condition and exploring the nature and decay of society: “Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring, he eternal note of sadness in.” They both offer a gloomy foresight to what the poets either believe to be the future or are trying to offer a prophecy as what we should avoid. Arnold’s opinion of the world is that it doesn’t possess any kind of real hope – “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.” (Dover Beach, line 33). Tennyson seems to believe it is one of betrayal and abandonment, from the topic of his poem.

Equally, the two poems offer entirely predictable Victorian material. The topic of death, which was a much-debated subject in the period, (with Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’, being based on the necessary death of inferior creatures, being a major discussion point in the era) is covered in both poems; the refrain at the end of every verse in ‘Mariana’, which ends in “I would that I were dead!” is a constant reminder that Mariana lives in an entrapped world of mortality. The ending stanza in ‘Dover Beach’ brings the powerful image of two armies clashing with each other, na�ve of who their enemy is and are aimlessly slaughtering each other – the representation of Arnold’s outlook on society.

The issues of transience and disillusionment are rampant in ‘Dover Beach’, as are their links with faith and time. One of Arnold’s ‘Sins of Humanity’ is the ignorance of civilization, and so one of the main effects he hopes to raise from the poem in one of disillusionment – his readers waking up from their ignorant sleep. He includes many subtle hints at how the downfall of society is imminent – stanza three is a prime example of this:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now I only hear

It’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

Arnold starts by using a fitting topographical example of how England’s faith and unwavering trust in religion in previous years was at it’s strongest, but is now slowly and surely withdrawing back into emptiness. Arnold is ranting in his own way regarding the retraction from belief in Christianity and is linking it with the transient demise of the population. His use of words such as ‘melancholy’ and ‘withdrawing’ are vital in his delineation of the scene. They give the stanza a moody, depressed feel, and convey Arnold’s message that a world without faith is a despondent and naked one.

Moreover, ‘Mariana’ also has numerous themes of disillusionment (her un-changing lifestyle), faith (her eternal wait for Angelo) and time (various references to the time of day or night). The entire poem is set around a woman who is just waking up from her abandonment by the man she loves. Although a slow process, throughout the poem, she realises that he will never arrive. This differs with ‘Dover Beach’, as within that, Arnold describes the world as ignorant to its problems, whereas Mariana is quite aware of them subconsciously at least, even if she refuses to believe them.

The references to the day or night are abundant in the poem, as both writers are attempting to convey their meanings. Tennyson is trying to express the perpetual torment Mariana lives in, whilst Arnold endeavours to show the romantic, mysterious and nocturnal setting for the poet-persona’s speech.

The sea is calm to-night (‘Dover Beach’, line 1),

Sweet is the night air!” (‘Dover Beach’, line 6),

Her tears fell with the dews at even; Her tears fell ere the dews were dried; (‘Mariana’, lines 13/14),

Upon the middle of the night (‘Mariana’, line 25),

The slow clock ticking (‘Mariana’, line 74).

By these, I think the authors are attempting to get across the point that time is continuously moving, and as both poems are almost prophetical, that action must be taken now rather than leaving it. I also believe that the time has a separate meaning in each of the poems. In ‘Mariana’, I think it is there, acting as her enemy, and as what she hates most – the time she is alive and not with Angelo. In ‘Dover Beach’, I believe Arnold intended the notion of time for a remotely similar, but different purpose; as Arnold’s enemy, as every moment that time went on, so did the relentless drive of the new and modernising age.

The way Arnold uses introspection and extroversion to focus his arguments is an interesting literary technique.

For the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light.

With expressions like this, Arnold’s quasi-manipulative writing style pushes the reader into extroversion, whilst


Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

causes the reader to ask himself questions. He forces the reader to examine the human condition, to look beneath the skin and question their morality. However, he guides the reader to do this on a grand scale, to his or her own thoughts and beliefs about the changing political and social world, rather than just to ask questions about themselves. This juxtaposition of the inner and outer worlds is extensive within ‘Mariana’ as well. Tennyson creates an immense array of depiction around Mariana’s surroundings – “The rusted nails fell from the knots”, “Weeded and worn the ancient thatch”, “Till cold wins woke the grey-eyed morn”, “A sluice with blackn’d waters slept” and immerses the reader into the poem. However, he also spends time narrating how Mariana’s life follows its depressingly monotonous course with dismal adjectives, intertwining Mariana’s ‘plot’ with a summary of her environment.

By using a dramatic monologue, Arnold can inject his ideas and theories concerning the modernising world into the poem, without making blunt statements. He can seamlessly instil his fears, his hopes and his predictions into the monologue, and subconsciously guide the reader into sympathy for his point of view.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.

But now, I only hear

It’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

The third stanza is a good example of this, as it gives the reader the sense that only when faith was extensive, gloom and misery were almost non-existent.

This type of literary technique can also help mask the fact that Arnold is simply using the character to project his own opinions, as they are narrating for the most part of the poem.

Tennyson, on the other hand, uses the opposite of that technique – a lyrical ballad. By utilizing this method, he can weave Mariana’s world for the reader without having to break up any narrative, and contact the reader via the poem using a story-like structure. Ironically, Arnold, who wants to express his opinions via his poem, uses a character to narrate through his poem, and Tennyson who is much less bothered about spreading his beliefs, narrates through the poem himself.

“And we are here on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of

struggle and flights. Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

This line is one of the supreme messages in the poem, and is spoken by Arnold’s poet-persona, prophesising Arnold’s views about the world’s endless decay in a land of rampant death and unawareness.

“But when the moon was very low, And wild winds bound within their

cell, The shadow of the poplar fell, Upon her bed, Across her brow.”

This important citation is narrated by Tennyson himself, describing in detail how the phallic symbol of the poplar tree taunts Mariana, being just out of her desperate grasp. It is symbolising the world she lives in – quite simply, everlasting agony.

The zeitgeist is made reference to occasionally in both the poems. It is noticeable when such topics as social class and hierarchy, nostalgia, escapism and the home are raised in the poems, and in these areas, the authors stick to stereotypical Victorian views. A conforming feel is given from the poems, and so they do not spark any major controversial disputes.

The immense emotional ranges which both authors cover give the reader an idea of, equally, how learned the poets are, and how powerful the poems are. Arnold manages to take the reader from the beautiful and serene shore of Dover (“The sea is calm to-night. The tide is full, the moon lies fair”) and a very relaxed sentiment, to the great clash of armies in the frenzy of battle, in the deepest black of nights (“And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle”). This considerable change in the feeling of the poem is contrasted by the monotony of ‘Mariana’, in which Tennyson tries to emphasise the dreary and lifeless qualities, which comprise Mariana’s sad existence – “Her tears fell with the dews at even; Her tears fell ere the dews were dried”. These great differences between the poems can demonstrate to us that they possess large differences as well as similarities.

The use of these emotions within the poems can also give parallels to ideas outside and separate of the poems. A main example of one of these links is the Classical reference of Sophocle’s play ‘Antigone’. Telling the story of the daughter of Oedipus, who performed illegal funeral rites for her fallen brother Polyneices, who was slain in combat. From this bond, we can draw many conclusions. Arnold may have wanted to portray the helplessness of Antigone, and that suicide was her only option, much like the poet-persona (and Arnold himself) feels on the issue of progressive materialism. If they cannot stop it consuming society, they can at least avoid it personally.

Also in the play, Sophocles described the ‘mournful roar’ of the Aegean Sea, just as the poet-persona describes the sea in ‘Dover Beach’:

With tremulous cadence slow and bring

The eternal note of sadness in. (lines 13/14),

Hearing it by this distant northern sea (line 20),

But now I only hear

It’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar (lines 24/25)

These links are definitely not co-incidental. Arnold wished to create a parallel between the poet-persona and Sophocles. Sophocles wrote tragedies, and the poet-persona is trapped within one – both have a particularly negative view upon the world, and both look on human existence as an endless loop, with no real point for living except for enduring dejection.

Epipolae also contains a tremendous battle, which is crucial to the intense imagery contained in ‘Dover Beach’. During the poem, but mainly the last stanza, the impression of two confused armies conflicting is major one, and is exceptionally important to give across the moving message Arnold is trying to deliver in the poem – the thought of separate bands of humans ignorantly killing each other off with no cause, aim or real reason to fight. This is Arnold’s message – to act now or continue with this terrible, death embracing society. To leave behind progressive materialism, to give our faith back to it’s rightful owner God, and to relieve the ignorance of the nation.

The authors of the poems have particularly contrasting intents for their work however. Arnold wishes for his to be didactic and polemic, to teach a lesson and warn others, and this is his primary aim. Secondary to that would be the artistic hope for a poem – to entertain, or please it’s audience. Tennyson sees this situation from the opposite perspective however – he hopes to absorb his readers with the beauty and passion of the poem rather than it’s sub-textual meaning.

Both poems make judgements upon the human condition, and highlight ‘universal dilemmas’, which we must try to act against. ‘Dover Beach’ shows the danger of progressiveness, and how society is deteriorating into a shallow, callous culture. Arnold urges us to re-embrace faith and religion, or to suffer the consequences with a horror-filled society. His view of human life is one of utter misery; one of enduring depression and gloom, with punctures of hope, which would only serve to further sadden once any hope falls through and fails. Tennyson wishes us to realise how even a single selfish action could utterly ruin a life, and that love can be the most depressing of all things; at least in ‘Dover Beach’ the two lovers were together in the hell-on-earth. He proves that it is partly human nature to wallow in sadness, and to act thoughtlessly or immaturely, as Angelo did. Perhaps Tennyson is trying to point out that if a desperately distressing tale such as Mariana’s could occur in a world, then there is something horrendously wrong with that society.

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Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent; for beauty is a witc. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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