Matthew Arnold’s View on Poetry and the Poems Dover Beach and Lady of Shalott

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Matthew Arnold said: ‘More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.’ Discuss in relation to at least two Victorian Poems. Matthew Arnold believed that ‘all art is dedicated to joy’, this concept originated from the Greek’s and is known as catharsis. The idea that Greek poetry could bring composure to the soul. The Victorian Period saw a drastic change in industry compared to the Romantic era. People were losing faith in God and the advancements in technology, science and evolution left society in a state of confusion as they questioned what they once believed to be true. Arnold believed this ‘truth’ could be found in poetry. Despite Victorian poetry being inspired by the romantics it is deeply routed with questions that concern the relationship between self and society. The main themes of Victorian poetry are its focus on sensory elements, the conflict between religion and science and its interest in medieval fables and legends. Poetry reflected political issues of the Victorian period. The literature of this era was preceded by romanticism and was followed by modernism. Thus it being referred to as a a fusion of romantic and realist style of writing. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, Tennyson recognises that we cannot be content with looking at life through a mirror. Similarly Arnold conveys the message that we must look past the idyllic landscape of Dover Beach and use it to look within. It is only when we cease to be alluded we can interpret life from a realistic point of view. We can be consoled and we can be sustained. We can see beyond the ‘shadows of the world’ and the ‘land of dreams’, and we can break the real curse which is to fail to see the world for what it really is.

In both Arnold’s Dover Beach and Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot we see nostalgia for the past and hope for the future. Poetry can allow the world to become a ‘land of dreams’. To Arnold it is evident that ‘the land of dreams’ exists only in poetry and the past. The great expanse of sea is now only retreating and taking with it joy, love, light, help for pain and peace. This is representative of the ever growing uncertainty within Victorian society. Recognised by Arnold as ‘The confusion of the present time is great, the multitude of different voices counselling different things bewildering’. Dover Beach written in 1851 inspired by two visits he and his wife made to the South Coast of England where the cliffs of Dover stand. Only twenty two miles from the South Coast of France looking onto the continent evokes the question of belonging and where Britain belong’s in the continent. The poem experiments with sonnet form, which was on the rise in the Victorian era and was inspired by the romantics. The first stanza consists of fourteen lines classic to that of a sonnet however as the poem progresses the structure becomes more irregular until it leaves us uncertain as to whether it has any structure at all. This is done to break from convention with an irregular rhyme scheme of ABACEBECDJCGFG symbolic of the way society was braking from tradition and conventions. During this period England changed from a rural, agricultural country to an urban, industrialised one. It took many years for both government and people to adjust to the new conditions. The Period saw more social freedom with many women working in factories for their own wage which threatened the hierarchal social structure in the same way the rise of the middle classes did. There was much more social and geographical mobility. Self-made entrepreneurs used their new wealth to rise in society, building large houses, educating their children and employing domestic servants. Poetry reflected this engaging with questions of national identity and gender identity.

The poem is open ended, beginning with explicit imagery of the sea and the tide which becomes a metaphor for ‘human misery’. The sea was once Britain’s gateway to it’s Empire with its powerful navy in the nineteenth century however the sea could also be viewed as isolating the Island and alienating Britain and oneself from the rest of the world. It is evident Arnold wants to present a clear message to the reader using first, second and third person. To Arnold poetry can interpret, console and sustain us when daily life cannot. The poem asks ‘What gives life meaning?’ and ‘How can we have hope without faith’. Similarly Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot evokes many questions in which we have to look to the past to answer. The unexpected outcome and radical conclusion of the poem can be viewed as inverting tradition. Deliberately Tennyson resonates with the reader by manipulating common folk tales into powerful political messages. Tennyson does this by including intertextual references such as the legend of King Arthur, Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. Many believe the poem to be based on Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astalot, who died of her unrequited love for the famous knight. A feminist reading of the poem however takes into consideration the reversal of gender roles. The Lady of Shallot does not wait for Sir Lancelot to save her. The Lady of Shallot takes control of her own destiny and follows her own desires. She is therefore far more than a ‘damsel in distress’ but us a emblem of the modern day woman. Each stanza has nine lines with a rhyme scheme of following a rhythm of iambic tetrameter. The syntax is line-bound, the lines do not carry on from each other. The poem takes ballad form with a lyric quality, capturing a moment. This is done to create the illusion of a ‘fairy tale’ which often end happily as they are fantasy rather than tragedy.

Greek tragedy inspired many poets in the Victorian Period as a foundation to address moral and social issues. ‘Tragedy,’ says Aristotle ‘is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude…through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions’. Aristotle’s believed the aim of a tragedy should be to evoke pity and fear in the audience. The audience should therefore be able to recognise their own human fault. Tennyson’s poem does this and allows the audience to look at ones self. Arnold also was clearly inspired by the Greek mythology and included reference to Sophocles one of classical Athens three greatest playwrights. This reference brings with it a certain melancholy, Arnold ponders on the idea that ‘human misery’ has existed and will go on existing until the end of time if we do not look to a art and poetry as a form of salvation. In Arnold’s ‘Dialogue with the Mind Itself’ the quote ‘What those who are familiar only with the great monuments of early Greek genius suppose to be its exclusive characteristics, have disappeared: the calm, the cheerfulness, the disinterested objectivity have disappeared; the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced; modern problems have presented themselves; we hear already the doubts, we witness the discouragement, of Hamlet and of Faust’ portrays the idea that negative thoughts invade our mind breeding evil and the purity of Greek mythology is dying out. This nostalgia is prominent in Dover Beach as Arnold looks critically at his own age as Christianity can no longer wash away the sins of humanity. This was recognised by John P. Farrell as ‘Matthew Arnold’s Tragic Vision’ seeing a local disorder in relation to cosmic scheme.

Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot had two publication dates as it received criticism first published in his second book of poetry in 1833, his work received heavy criticism resulting in a silence of ten years. Published at a later date of 1842 it is thought the poem could deeper resonate with the political issues of the time. The poem could be read as a warning to ambitious and rebellious women, in order to ensure they recognised the social hierarchy in place. However the poem could be viewed as proto feminist in which it highlights the inner power women have now they no longer have to rely on men to financially ‘save’ them. The deliberate archaism used to relay modern day issues in a traditional and recognised folktale similar to the work of Keats. Poetry in the Victorian period is no longer just a form of expressionism but rather a platform for the reader to actively make changes in their own life or to view the world around them differently. To Tennyson Art should reflect on our own sense of being

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In a letter Arnold wrote to his mother in 1869 he put his own poems into perspective ‘It might be fairly urged that I have less poetical sentiment than Tennyson, and less intellectual vigour and abundance than Browning; yet, because I have perhaps more of a fusion of the two than either of them, and have more regularly applied that fusion to the main line of modern development, I am likely enough to have my turn, as they have had theirs.’ This assessment of his own poetry puts into perspective and signifies the Victorian poets inspirations. Robert Browning’s work is remarkable for the dramatic monologue which developed into a main genre in the nineteenth century and is a hybrid of drama and lyric. It enables the poet to control the way in which the persona communicates with the reader.

The Victorian Period was a time of great change and uncertainty. One had to look to oneself in order to cope with the changes. To Ivan Kreilkamp ‘Victorian poetry particularly invokes the paradoxes of temporality, interpretation, and the construction of pastness and futurity’. It is this paradox which makes Victorian poetry unique to any other it enables the poet and the reader to travel through time. To relive memories and learn from them. Poetry is a ‘mirror’ in which ones self is exposed and ones life can be explained. Thomas Carlyle describes what is to be a poet in The Hero as Poet writing in 1840. ‘To the Poet, as to every other, we say first of all, See. If you cannot do that, it is of no use to keep stringing rhymes together, jingling sensibilities against each other, and name yourself a Poet; there is no hope for you. If you can, there is, in prose or verse, in action or speculation, all manner of hope.’ Poetry gives vision. To Arnold this vision is pure, allowing us to view the world as a place ‘so various, so beautiful’ and ‘so new’ rather than a ‘darkling plain’. To Tennyson poetry should be reflective and should not be direct intervention of social reform but is instead only a reflection. This contrast between Arnold and Tennyson’s perspectives highlights how poetry provides something individual to each poet despite living in the same period experiencing the same social and political reforms. To conclude, poetry is that which we have through wars, revolutions, riots and rebellions. It is that which we can look upon in order to be consoled and sustained. It is not just one interpretation of life but innumerable interpretations as it is a reflection of so many peoples lives, living in the same or different times to our own. Through poetry we can time travel and look through the poet or persona’s eyes. Through poetry we can ‘see’ what often goes unseen in every day life.

Reflective Account

The question I decided to answer for my Approaches to Poetry critical essay was an assessment of Matthew Arnold’s view on Poetry as something which can restore faith in humanity. ’More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.’ Discuss in relation to at least two Victorian Poems. The two poems I chose to explore were Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. I chose these two poems because both poets dealt with the issues of the time but did this in two different ways. I felt that these poets were relevant to the question in hand as the question was assessing Arnold’s view it made sense to analyse and explore his poetry. Tennyson was Poet Laureate and Queen Victoria’s favourite poet replacing Wordsworth, recognised as one of the greatest poets of the Romantic era. Tennyson’s work was therefore can be viewed as a bridge between the Romantic movement and the modernist movement. This inspired me to further analyse how Victorian Poets were inspired by the works that came before them and how this formed a sense of nostalgia for the past. However researching more the poetry from the Victorian period I came across a exert from a letter Arnold wrote to his mother on the 5th of June 1869 putting his poems into perspective. Arnold compared his works to that of Tennyson and Browning. I therefore was inspired to research Browning’s poetry in order to compare and contrast it with that of Tennyson’s and Arnold’s the same was Arnold had done.

Having studied Lady of Shallot in my seminar I revisited relevant notes and condensed them into a plan and structured analysis. I took into consideration the relevance of the rhyme scheme the poems structure and form. I then did the same thing for Dover Beach which was explored in one of my lectures. I therefore listened to the lecture again using Lecture Capture a resource accessible on the Poetry Moodle page. This refreshed and furthered my understanding of Victorian Poetry as listening to it a second time I gained more from it. I then further researched Victorian Poetry using JSTOR and other useful sources found online such as The Victorian Web and other articles and websites documenting the Victorian Period and how this related to it’s poetry. I documented all the resources and extracted the most valuable parts in which I included in my essay to back up my argument. Researching the poets lives and inspirations thoroughly helped me to understand better the motives behind each poem.

Once I had thoroughly researched I began to construct an argument. I re-read the poems with the question in mind and noted down how they each made me feel. I asked myself if I found it easier to interpret life? If I felt consoled and sustained? If I felt this way not only by reading these two poems but by ever poem that i’ve read. I came to my conclusion as to whether Arnold’s statement was empty or correct. Then combined this view from the perspective of a Victorian person from each different class. Despite poetry being renowned as something for the upper classes only to appreciate literacy levels rose fairly dramatically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Therefore poetry became a political motive giving a voice to the oppressed. The rise of women poets in the Romantic era inspired to me research the treatment of women in the Victorian era. This added contextually to my analysis of Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot and I was able to put forward a strong thesis.

Presenting my plan to my peers and tutor was a very beneficial exercise. I gained more confidence which has helped me to contribute more in following seminars. I also appreciated the relevant feedback and contributions. My tutor suggested I focused more on the idea of nostalgia which helped to tailor my essay response helping me to keep my answer focused and concise. Despite choosing certain critical sources I decided to look for more as I felt limited as to what was useful and relevant to include in my critical essay. My tutor suggested I focused on Matthew Arnold’s Dialogue with the Mind Itself in this I gauged a better understanding of what contributed to Arnold’s perception of modern society. The presenting I found useful as it helped me begin to develop important life skills and overcome a fear of public speaking. It was also a different way to convey my thoughts and observations rather than an essay and I was able to obtain immediate feedback.

Overall, researching and presenting my critical essay plan helped me to have more confident in my own observations and ideas. I found the essay easier to write as the research and planning had been done prior so I wasn’t struggling to find topics to write about. Although it was a daunting prospect presenting my essay plan to the class it helped me to ensure that my research for the essay was thorough as I wanted to give a good presentation. I also enjoyed listening to my peer’s presentations and their feedback given. Although not all was relevant some generic feedback was also helpful for my own planning and writing of the essay. The skills I have obtained from presenting, planning and writing my critical essay have been beneficial in understanding the works of great poets and the contexts which have influenced them.


  1. Battin M. Pabst Aristotles Definition of Tragedy in the Poetics The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), pp. 293-302
  2. Farrell John P. What you Feel, I share: Breaking Dialogue of the mind with itself.
  3. Farrell John P. Matthew Arnold’s Tragic Vision PMLA,Vol. 85, No. 1(Jan., 1970), pp.107-117
  4. Kreilkamp Ivan, Victorian Poetry’s Modernity, Victorian Poetry, Vol. 41, No. 4, Whither Victorian Poetry? (Winter, 2003), pp. 603-611
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