On Reading Poetry: “Dover Beach”

Poetry may be an art, but reading poetry in itself is also an art. Of all the forms of writing, it is safe to say that people shy away from reading poetry the most. One of the biggest mistakes we make, when confronted with poetry, is that we tend to immediately look for deeper meanings, or what some like to think of as “hidden” meanings. There are two problems with that:

  1. As Dr. Martha Bowden repeatedly likes to remind her students, there are no “hidden” meaning but layered meaning, and
  2. We tend to completely overlook the fact that there is, in fact, a very literal meaning to any poem that we read.

The fact of the matter is that we cannot analyze poetry and find an accurate deeper meaning until we acknowledge and take into account what a poem is saying on its surface. Take “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, for example. The poem very literally is about a two lovers looking out a window onto Dover Beach despairing a violent and painful world. And only when we acknowledge that as readers can we dig deeper to find that Arnold using the image of the sea to illustrate the melancholy and nostalgia of the loss of faith and love in what used to be a beautiful world, now turned to chaos and war and darkness.

Apart from  the surface-depth reading of a poem, another thing to consider when analyzing poetry is the context in which a poem is written. In Digging into Literature, Joanna Wolfe and Laura Wilder indicate that “persuasive uses of context bring in external information to support a surface/depth claim” (145), and go on to list out some types of contextual information that may be used for this purpose:

  • the historical period in which the text was written,
  • cultural references within the text,
  • the historical usage of particular words,
  • other mentioned or alluded works.

For example, in analyzing “Dover Beach”, we could consider things such as the Victorian period in which the poem was written, when England was colonizing the world to support the melancholy and nostalgia that is present in the poem as a reflection of changing times and constant warfare. Furthermore, we could also use the allusion to Sophocles to support the claim since we know that Sophocles wrote Greek tragedies highlighting  the bleakness of human existence.

In employing these strategies, we can make our experience of reading poetry not only easier but also enjoyable. It is important to remember that we are not performing brain surgery and we don’t have to pick it apart to enjoy or understand it. Here’s some advice that I practice:

Stop looking for something that may or may not be there, and just read the words that are in front of you. When you go into a poem with an open mind, you often discover more than you ever thought you’d find.

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