In “Dover Beach,” Arnold seems very focused on illuminating the overwhelming sense of despair pervading his society at the time. This is somewhat understandable. Based on other readings about the early Victorian Period and the immense amounts of cultural changes occurring during this time, it is easy to see how individuals felt like their entire world—everything they had known and been familiar with—was being taken away from them. This realization is brought to light in the poem when Arnold discusses how this world, “so various, so beautiful, so new, // Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, // Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain.” Certitude may be the most important characteristic that this new world is lacking, as it shows that there is no sense of security in such great change.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting lines in the poem occurs when Arnold describes that “on the French coast the light // Gleams and is gone.” The inclusion of light in this moment draws a parallel to Culture and Anarchy in which Arnold explains that “he who works for…light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail.” If that same idea is applied to the light discussed in “Dover Beach,” then this could very well be a commentary on the early efforts of the French Revolution in which the society (if not only temporarily) seemed poise to reach one of those “happy moments of humanity…when there is a national glow of life and thought, when the whole of society is in the fullest permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive.” Perhaps Arnold relates the glimpse of this light on the French coast as a time when the “sweetness and light” of culture almost occurred so near to England, but so devastatingly fell apart. This failure of the attempt to pursue perfection as a society could very well be a reason that Arnold illuminates “human misery.” In other words, the ideal society had already been attempted, and yet proved to be impossible and unattainable.