While I was reading the opening lines of The Waves, something about it felt vaguely familiar. I kept thinking I had read this book before, but I knew that I had never picked up a Virginia Woolf novel until this course. As I kept reading, I became more and more frustrated by how the italicized portions of the novel resembled something that I had read before, but I could not put my finger on it. Instantly, while sitting on the train, I remembered and smiled. As soon as I got home, I ran to my room and opened up my anthology of Victorian poems to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1851). I re-read my favorite poem by Arnold just to make sure that I remembered correctly. The way the waves behave in the opening section of The Waves is the same way the waves behave amongst the pebbles in “Dover Beach.” This landscape poem describes the scene the speaker sees at night as he watches the sea. Arnold describes the night as “tranquil” and “calm”. As the speaker sees “where the sea meets to moon-blanched land,” there is:
“a grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in” (1.8-14).
Arnold’s use of commas creates a series of stops and starts along the one sentence to mimic the motion of the sea. The back and forth motion that the reader must do in order to finish the sentence across the stanza mirrors the back and forth motion of the waves. Also, the imagery of the water drawing back on the pebbles is like the image of the shore breaking and sweeping a thin veil of white water across the land in The Waves. The white water across the land also reminds me of the moon-blanched land described earlier in this poem. This long sentence creates a sense of long, drawn out waves in the poem. Similarly with The Waves, Woolf uses a series of commas in order to track the motions of the sea. Woolf writes, “As they neared the shore each bar rose, heaped itself, broke and swept a thin veil of white water across the sand. The wave paused, and then drew out again, sighing like a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously” (5). The imagery in this passage is vivid and Woolf’s use of the words rose, heaped, broke, and swept are indicative of how a wave reacts.
It is interesting that although there is no proof to note that Woolf used Arnold’s poem as an inspiration how striking similar they are. It is also interesting to see how Arnold and Woolf use similar literary elements in order to describe different times of the day. Arnold’s poem takes place in the thick of night while Woolf’s passage takes place right before dawn.
If you would like to read Dover Beach, here is the link: