Despite the difference of generations and world events, both Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold share remarkable similarities in terms of love, hate, and the validity of these emotions in a complex and weary world. Both poets bemoan a sense of isolation, both in terms of God and the world in general. Given the overall melancholy tone of both poems, especially in lines dealing with everyday concerns such as war and jealousy, the only bright points in either work is when individual love is discussed. Both Arnold and Shakespeare often touched on darker themes, particularly Shakespeare in his sonnets and it is worth noting how love is addressed within the terms of some of these darker themes and how it either balances out or attempts to make compromises with some other aspects of the subject matter of either of these poems by Shakespeare or Matthew Arnold.
For Arnold and Shakespeare, the thought of love seems to break up the clouds, and the heaviness cast by humanity melts suddenly, “Like to the lark at break of day arising” (Shakespeare, “Sonnet 29” line 11). Along these same lines, the world and its troubles seem to fade in out, love and hate are intertwined and although there is the bright spot in each poem, it “Gleams and is gone” (“Dover Beach” line 4) and the dreary, lonely world is left to smother the love that once flickered as feelings of hate and sadness return. Interestingly, each poem ends on a political note as Arnold mentions the “ignorant armies” and Shakespeare brings up “the state with kings.” This may suggest that the hate derives from the world of men, of kings and armies, which leaves no room for the love that can only exist in these fleeting moments of love and a romantic clarity that lightens each of these texts considerably, if only for a gleaming moment. In other words, as the poem of Shakespeare suggests, the world is a dreary place but it is the brief glimpses of love that provide light and solace.
Unlike in the sonnet by Shakespeare, in Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach” the reader is introduced to the grand scene without moonlight as the only illumination. The tone itself is dark and ponderous as the speaker laments the days of Socrates and a time when faith still held mankind together. The heavy tone throughout the beginning is caused by the speaker’s opinion that few things make sense and humans are lost in the world. The speaker laments, “Ah love, let us be true / To one another! 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” (l.29-33). The world the speaker speaks of lack light and any meaning and even wars are fought by the “ignorant armies” whom themselves are shrouded in darkness as they “clash by night” (l.36-37). While love is clearly the saving light and something that can give meaning to otherwise dark lives, the speaker’s plea to his lover indicates just as much desperation as it does romance. He feels that the loss of faith, as alluded to by the metaphor that religion is a receding tide and as it drifts away, has erased what little meaning one could glean from living, and with the disappearance of faith, all that is left is a world in which “ignorant armies” and darkness take over.
In the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, love provides the only solution, it is the only thing left for the speaker to cling to and provides the only glimpses of light the reader can see, especially since the poem occurs by moonlight. The image of the two lovers standing on the “darkling plain” is a very lonely one and one scholar has recognized that even the love these two seem to be clinging so desperately to may itself be hollow. “In a poem about a man and his beloved contemplating these matters, the inclusive passion does not sufficiently appear, either directly or by definitive contrast, even though we may like to assume that the passion is somewhere or somehow there. Are we then given two non-persons embracing nullity amid splendors of scene and history? Perhaps nullity is all that is left” (Carrithers 266). If this idea is correct then even those glimpses of light by the presence of love are set up their own “darkling plain” as they can only be seen through a fog, they are dimmer than may otherwise seem in a traiditional love poem. In many ways, it is fair to conclude that “Dover Beach” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” are not necessarily poems about love, but about meaning; they discuss how love can give one meaning in a world that is consumed with hate and darkness.
In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 29” there is a similar sense of darkness and a lack of faith in either God or humanity that later is offset by the light of love. The speaker of this Shakespeare sonnet troubles “deaf Heaven” with “bootless cries” and laments the sad thoughts he has about his “outcast state” and troubles of the world. It is only when “Haply I think on thee—and then my state / Life the lark at break of day arising / from sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate” (l.10-12). Much like the speaker in Arnold’s poem, in this sonnet by Shakespeare, the presence of love makes the godless world a better place to live in and returns him to thoughts of “heaven’s gate” as opposed to the envy and anger he feels at the beginning when he is without thoughts of the “wealth” of love. There is a speaker in this sonnet by Shakespeare that exists in the world of envy and hate, the one presented at the beginning of the poem who is said to be alone and to “beweep his outcast state” but this all changes when the security and light of love enters the poem with the sudden shift occurring at the use of the words “then my state” which changes.
One critic concurs with this observation about this issue in Shakespeare and adds, “The sonnet works out a consolation of sorts, in the form of a contrast between the persona’s perceptions before and after he thinks of his beloved, a contrast made all the more forceful because of the breakdown of the initiating when/then structure” (McRae 7). Much like in Arnold’s poem, in Sonnet 29 by Shakespeare, the world is shrouded in darkness and the vices of men as well as a lack of faith. It should also be noted that there is also the same sense of desperation in Shakespeare’s sonnet as exists in Arnold’s because both poets make it seem as though the love interest is the only object that can restore all that the dark world lacks, thus Shakespeare’s poem imbues the love interest with almost holy or religious significance when he associates his arrival at “heaven’s gate” through the light of love while Arnold’s poem uses the love interest, although she, like in the sonnet is quite hollow and faceless, to provide meaning in a world full of spite, hate, and a lack of faith. In sum, both the poem by Arnold and the sonnet by Shakespeare present a world that is rather dreary and even hopeless to the average man. In the midst of the chaos and general lack of faith, the only glimpses of light in such dark worlds are presented by love. Both poems by Shakespeare and Arnold open and are supported by ideas that their lives lack meaning aside from the shallow and vice-ridden concerns of the everyday and thus they feel they are living in darkness. The tone of both “Dover Beach” and Sonnet 29 by Shakespeare changes when love enters the picture, thus the reader is presented with images of hate and vice illuminated by the gleam that only love can provide.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Comparison of Sonnet 127 and Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare on Meaning
Carrithers Jr., Gale H. “Missing Persons on Dover Beach?.” Modern Language Quarterly 26.2 (1965): 264
Mcrae, Murdo William. “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29.” Explicator 46.1 (1987): 6