UW News

October 10, 2023

“Ways of Knowing” Episode 2: Close Reading

Dover Beach,” a poem by 19th century British writer Matthew Arnold, can be read as both a romantic lament and, as many scholars have concluded, a dark, existential commentary on the loss of religious faith.

Click to see the full transcript of the episode

Ways of Knowing

The World According to Sound

Episode 2: Close Reading



[person reading a poem]


The sea is calm tonight;

the tide is full, the moon lies fair

upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night air!


Chris Hoff: This is “Dover Beach,” a poem written by Matthew Arnold in the 1850s. It’s one of the most famous “love” poems of all time.



[person continues reading the poem]


…And then again begin

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.



CH: The narrative of the poem is fairly easy to follow. The speaker is looking out the window, across the English Channel at the French coast.


[person continues reading the poem]


Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,


CH: The view makes him think of a Greek playwright listening to the same waves…Sophocles long ago heard it on the Aegean…He muses about how people used to be more religious…The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore…But now that faith has disappeared. Finally, at the end of the poem, he tells his lover they should be true to one another because basically everything else in the world is a mess.


[person continues reading the poem]


And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Where ignorant armies clash by night.



A lot of Romantic poems from the 19th century grappled with existential dread. Most have been forgotten; “Dover Beach” has endured. It’s not just because of the content of the poem, but the way it sounds. Its rhythm and rhyme leave a lasting impression.



Charles LaPorte: Your body hears it even if you don’t hear it. Your ear hears it.


CH: Charles LaPorte is a professor of English at the University of Washington. He specializes in 19th century anglophone poetry. He says the first few times he read “Dover Beach,” he didn’t even notice the unusual rhythm and rhyme. When he finally did, it became a key to the way he understood the poem.


Often 19th century English poems are predictably rhythmic. Lines are in iambic pentameter. Five pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables — five beats per line. Think Shakespeare’s sonnets.


CL: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun, badmup badump badump badump badump.


CH: “Dover Beach” is in iambic pentameter too…And then, sometimes, it isn’t. Suddenly, several beats are missing, or manqué.


CL: It’s giving you this iambic pentameter manqué. It’s giving you this rhythm that you expect and want to hear but then taking away at intervals.


CH: The disruption of rhythm is jarring…unsettling.


CL: Because most of the lines in the poem are in iambic pentameter, a line like the “sea of faith” is missing three feet. It should be the sea of faith, badump, badump, badump. The poem in some ways represents the absence that’s there. The poem is struggling with the absence of meaning and also representing its absence.


CH: The sea of faith does not resolve nicely…It just kind of hangs there. Even if you don’t totally follow the literal meaning of the poem or lose track of what’s going on at times, you can feel this lack of resolution. It’s not just the rhythm that creates a sensation of unease and emptiness, but also the way the poem rhymes. It’s sneaky.


CL: For me the first time going through this poem, I’m positive I didn’t notice the rhyme.


CH: That’s because the rhymes don’t come at regular intervals, and often they aren’t pure — they almost rhyme, like the words faith and breath.


CL: He’s not fully satisfying you. The sea of faith is a problem.


CH: Your ear wants the resolution of all these irregular and near-rhymes, but doesn’t get it, until the final stanza of the poem, where suddenly there are several, powerful, clear rhymes right in a row.


[person reading from a poem]


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,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.


CL: That triplet of light, flight and night is the only place he does that in the poem. But sonically, that repetition of the rhyme does provide a sort of closure.


CH: The poet’s search for meaning and reassurance through all the irregular rhythms and unresolved rhymes and wandering thoughts of the poem has finally come to a conclusion, albeit a dark one.


CL: It’s totally brutal. To end by comparing the world to this hopeless night battle where you don’t even know who you are killing or who is trying to kill you.


[person reading from a poem]


Ah, love, let us be true To one another! 


CH: The only refuge from all the chaos…is love.


Even if you can’t fully follow the literal meaning of the words in the poem and lose track of what is going on, the language still delivers a distinct, deep feeling. Doing a close reading of the language and analyzing things like the rhyme and rhythm shows how the poem creates that feeling.


CL: Close reading is about reading for insight; it’s not about reading for information. You’re never going to explain the poem. It’s not a car. But you can understand it more deeply. I don’t think…for me the mystery doesn’t go away. For me the analysis doesn’t ruin the poem. It sort of brings it out and shows its contours.



CH: Close reading is arguably the most fundamental analytical tool in the humanities. Its origins go back millennia, originating in the exegesis, or explanation, of sacred texts from faiths around the globe. Close reading focuses on details and the specific, as opposed to the general: It’s interested in individual words, syntax, diction and formal structures, whereas plot or story take on smaller roles. As Charles said, close reading is about reading for insight, not just for information.


In the early 20th century, a group of literary scholars known as the “New Critics” used close reading as the primary way to analyze literature. This school was later criticized for centering the text so much that it discouraged analysis of anything outside the work — like larger historical and cultural forces. In the next episodes, we’re going to show different ways close reading has been recuperated to include these and other perspectives. Today, close reading is as fundamental as ever to the humanities and plays a role in all the other ways of knowing we’re covering in the series.



CH: Here are five works that will help you learn more about Close Reading as a way of knowing.


Close Reading: The Readeredited by Frank Lentricchia and Andrew DuBois


This is an anthology of close readings done by the 20th century’s top literary critics. Not only is it a survey of this analytical tool in action, the collection’s introduction is a great primer on close reading, tracing its evolution from New Criticism through poststructuralism, including works of feminist criticism, postcolonial theory, queer theory, new historicism and more.


“How to Read a Poem” by Terry Eagleton


An accessible book from a renowned critic. Insightful and a pleasure to read.


“The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry” by Cleanth  Brooks and Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson


These are both seminal texts in New Criticism. Published in 1947 and 1930 respectively, they are both relevant, but also interesting historical texts to understand how close reading became a central force in literary analysis. For a more contemporary take on that history, you could read Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s article, “What was Close Reading?”


English Romantic Poets” edited by Jonathan Bate


If Dover Beach whetted your appetite for 19th century Romantic anglophone poetry, this is the anthology for you.


Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World” by Pádraig Ó Tuama


For a wider array of poetry and musings about its modern-day relevance, check out this collection. Charles LaPorte was reading it when we interviewed him for this piece.



Sam Harnett: Ways of Knowing is a production of The World According to Sound. This season is about the different interpretative and analytical methods in the humanities. It was made in collaboration with the University of Washington’s College of Arts & Sciences. All the interviews with UW faculty were conducted on campus in Seattle. The recording of the poem was made by actor John Neville in the 1950s. Music provided by Ketsa, Chad Crouch, and our friends, Matmos.


CH: The World According to Sound is made by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett






Charles LaPorte, professor of English

Charles LaPorte, professor of English

Through close reading, a way of reading for insight, not information, University of Washington English Professor Charles LaPorte dissects “Dover Beach.” Focusing on the inconsistencies of rhythm and rhyme of the poem, LaPorte demonstrates how we can use close reading to study any work, to go beyond the surface and uncover meanings we didn’t know we were looking for. “You’re never going to explain the poem. It’s not a car,” LaPorte says. “But you can understand it more deeply.”

This is the second of eight episodes of “Ways of Knowing,” a podcast highlighting how studies of the humanities can reflect everyday life. Through a partnership between The World According to Sound and the University of Washington, each episode features a faculty member from the UW College of Arts & Sciences, the work that inspires them, and suggested resources for learning more about the topic.’

Next | Episode 3: Close Reading Redux