How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

How Not to Be at Sea about the Author, Era, and Situation of a Poem: Understanding Poetry Step 2

Photo of Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach by John Mavin* shows the rocky strand in the foreground and the tall white chalk cliff in the background.

Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach by John Mavin*

When I was new at teaching college literature, I assigned Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” for the first lesson in Literature and Composition because, naively, I thought it would be simple and transparent for students to understand. Ha! I was soon to learn that most people who come to this poem with no sense of cultural, historical, or geographical context are pretty thoroughly baffled by it.

That’s why I recommend finding out just a little bit about a poem’s author and era before you wade in. By looking up some minimal information about Matthew Arnold and his era, as well as investigating the meaning of the title, as we did in Step 1, we will see how a little bit of knowledge goes a long way toward helping us “find our feet” in the world of a new poem.

(To Begin with Step 1, Click Here.)

Demystifying Arnold’s “Dover Beach”

Take a moment now to go read the poem here, and we’ll talk about it!

The day after I first assigned “Dover Beach,” I bravely launched discussion by asking what was happening in the poem. I certainly got a lot of unexpected and, to me, crazy answers, many like this one:

“A man is walking along a beach where the sun is just setting. Is that the gleaming light that is gone? Maybe. The man is there with some guy named Sophocles, and a terrible battle is taking place in the dark.” When I went on to ask what the “Sea of Faith” might be (line 21), students were largely at a loss. Could it mean “faith in humankind” or “faith in love,” they asked? Which is why the speaker is so keen on lovers being true to one another? Because no one sticks together anymore? They really had no idea.

Are you equally at sea from your first reading or two of this poem? If so, you have plenty of company over a whole history of confused readers.
The good news: there is no need to walk into most poems this far off the track.

What if before reading, we looked up a brief bio of Matthew Arnold and found out that he was writing in England in the Victorian era, the 1850s and 1860s, that he was a very serious person who wrote about the state of religion in that time, and that he had studied and admired ancient Greek writers? Also, not neglecting to learn what the title is about (see Understanding   Poetry Step 1), we could quick-search “Dover Beach,” and find a host of images of this unusual, rocky beach huddled under the startlingly white, grandly-tall chalk cliffs. We can also quickly learn that Dover Beach runs along the narrowest part of the English Channel, the Strait of Dover, and that Calais, France, is visible across the strait, about 20 miles away.

Apply Quick-found Knowledge to the Poem’s Situation

Prepared with this basic knowledge, it is much easier to picture almost everything in the first stanza (that is, the first section) of the poem: the moon glimmering on the water, the light gleaming from Calais (most probably a lighthouse), and the pebbles being flung by the tide (since the beach is not sandy, it is rocky). Less puzzled by those things, we have time to notice that the speaker is not walking on the beach, rather he is inside a building (a hotel or guest house, probably), looking out the window, and he is not alone, because he has invited someone to come to the window to take in the sweet night air (line 6).

When we come up to the mention of “Sophocles,” a quick Internet search tells us that he was a writer of tragic dramas in ancient Greece. Ah, now it is clear why the sound of the waves going out at low tide might have made him think of “human misery,” since human misery is the central subject of every Greek tragedian. The speaker of “Dover Beach” thinks of Sophocles because he also finds this sound to be very sad (“melancholy,” as he puts it).

Now, also, the meaning of “Sea of Faith” should be less puzzling; it should be clear from quick research into Arnold’s life, and the date of publication (1867), that “Faith” must refer to Christian faith, the majority faith by far in England in the 1860s. Arnold is saying that the Christian faith is slowly withdrawing from England just like the tide is slowly going out; people, including the speaker, are losing their religious beliefs, and he finds that sad.

Finally, when we come to final stanza, because we have in mind the situation that is happening as we read, we should not now be thinking that there are literal battles happening in the poem. For one thing, there were no battles in England going on near the Straits of Dover in the 1860s. For another, we observed in Stanza 1 that a pair of people are inside a building looking out the window at a calm and beautiful night. What would a pair of lovers be doing in this scene at all if troops were massing on the beach for a showdown? That doesn’t seem like a very safe place for a vacation!

Of course, there is much more to “Dover Beach” than we have covered here, but now that we have unraveled the actual situation–where we are, what era the poet was writing in, who is speaking, and what is literally happening in the poem’s situation, it will be much easier to take on the more complex and subtle parts of the poem. We will return to some of those in a later post, Unlocking Poems Step 5.

Don’t Get Carried Away with the Author’s Bio: Heaney’s “Valediction”

As much as some quick research and basic knowledge can help us decipher a poem, I do think it’s important not to go too crazy researching an author’s life before reading. Focusing on too many biographical details can send us on a wild goose chase, far from a poem’s actual theme and meaning. My students were often tempted to try to pair every remark and incident in a poem to a specific event from an author’s life, maybe hoping that this information would be the magic key to interpreting language that might seem mysterious or difficult.

For an example, let’s stop here and read Seamus Heaney’s “Valediction.”

Photo of Seamus Heaney--head shot. Author of "Valediction."

Seamus Heaney, author of “Valediction.”*

In one class, my  students began  debating whether the woman who is addressed in the poem and the speaker were separated by a quarrel or by some innocuous, non-angry reason.  One of the students said she had found information that the poem was addressed to Heaney’s wife while she was away from home tending her sick mother. This student thought this information clinched the argument that the couple were not separated by anger. Many students jumped on this, as if this biographical information provided a key to some drama being depicted in the poem. His wife still loves him! She is coming back!

That might be true, or it might not be–but as I see it, this biographical detail is a red herring, making us focus on something outside the poem, not on what the poem itself is actually focusing on.  We need to look more deeply and carefully into the beautiful and rich language of the poem itself. We want to see what meanings are embedded there.

Reading the words carefully, we can see, for one thing, that “Valediction” does not talk about any kind of anger or quarrel. It doesn’t mention the reason for the couple’s separation at all. What the poem DOES focus on is the warm nurturing personality of the absent woman: “frilled blouse / And simple tartan skirt,” “a smile,” and “your flower-tender voice.” Second, the speaker describes the chaotic effect that her absence is having on himself: the “emptiness” of the house “has hurt / All thought” and has “unmoored / The days.”

Without this beloved woman to “command” him and give order to his life, the speaker is like an un-anchored ship floundering on choppy ocean waves. Gently, and somewhat humorously, he gives literal life to the old cliché “I am at sea,” and expresses in these few sweet lines just how much he relies on this woman’s presence to organize his life and thoughts, and give them meaning.

Painting of HMS Prince Sailing Ship tossing in a roiling sea. The ship at sea is Heaney's metaphor for how it feels to be separated from his loved one.

A Sea-Tossed Sailing Ship is Heaney’s metaphor of how it feels to be away from a loved one.*

As for my students’ yen to know whether she will return, the second to last line “Until you resume command” [italics added] suggests that the speaker does expect her back some day, but we cannot know for sure. In fact, we shouldn’t be worrying about that, because this poem does not exist to document the story of this couple. Instead, its main purpose is to ponder how deeply we can come to rely on a loved one’s personality for the most intimate thoughts and rhythms of our inner lives.

So, yes–we need to know the meaning of a poem’s title, and as we have seen with “Dover Beach.” And it helps to know something about the author, era, and setting of a poem before we wade on in. But don’t go crazy investing in knowledge of an author’s biography. We must prepare to let the poem stand on its own terms. Just walk on in and see what it has to say for itself.

Click Here to Proceed to Step 3: Experiencing Imagery

Index to How to Read Poetry Series

*Photo Credits:

Shakespeare Cliff at Dover Beach,  by John Mavin [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

Seamus Heaney  By Sean O’Connor, cropped by Sabahrat (File:Seamus Heaney.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wreckage of the Black Prince by Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. Ellen

    “Valediction” is such a sweet poem.

    Your site is a trove of quality information.

    • MJ Booklover

      Yes, it is a lovely poem, isn’t it? Thanks so much for your comment on the site. So glad you are finding it useful!

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