In Stefan Collini's opinion, "Dover Beach" is a difficult poem to analyze, and some of its passages and metaphors have become so well known that they are hard to see with "fresh eyes". Arnold begins with a naturalistic and detailed nightscape of the beach at Dover in which auditory imagery plays a significant role ("Listen! you hear the grating roar"). The beach, however, is bare, with only a hint of humanity in a light that "gleams and is gone". Reflecting the traditional notion that the poem was written during Arnold's honeymoon (see composition section), one critic notes that "the speaker might be talking to his bride". The sea is calm to-night.
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!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Arnold looks at two aspects of this scene, its soundscape (in the first and second stanzas) and the retreating action of the tide (in the third stanza). He hears the sound of the sea as "the eternal note of sadness". Sophocles, a 5th-century BC Greek playwright who wrote tragedies on fate and the will of the gods, also heard this sound as he stood upon the shore of the Aegean Sea. Critics differ widely on how to interpret this image of the Greek classical age. One sees a difference between Sophocles interpreting the "note of sadness" humanistically, while Arnold in the industrial nineteenth century hears in this sound the retreat of religion and faith. A more recent critic connects the two as artists, Sophocles the tragedian, Arnold the lyric poet, each attempting to transform this note of sadness into "a higher order of experience". Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
Having examined the soundscape, Arnold turns to the action of the tide itself and sees in its retreat a metaphor for the loss of faith in the modern age, once again expressed in an auditory image ("But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar"). This third stanza begins with an image not of sadness, but of "joyous fulness" similar in beauty to the image with which the poem opens. The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
The final stanza begins with an appeal to love, then moves on to the famous ending metaphor. Critics have varied in their interpretation of the first two lines; one calls them a "perfunctory gesture ... swallowed up by the poem's powerfully dark picture", while another sees in them "a stand against a world of broken faith". Midway between these is one of Arnold's biographers, who describes being "true / To one another" as "a precarious notion" in a world that has become "a maze of confusion". The metaphor with which the poem ends is most likely an allusion to a passage in Thucydides's account of the Peloponnesian War. He describes an ancient battle that occurred on a similar beach during the Athenian invasion of Sicily. The battle took place at night; the attacking army became disoriented while fighting in the...