“Dover Beach” is a dramatic monologue of thirty-seven lines, divided into four unequal sections or “paragraphs” of fourteen, six, eight, and nine lines. In the title, “Beach” is more significant than “Dover,” for it points at the controlling image of the poem.
On a pleasant evening, the poet and his love are apparently in a room with a window affording a view of the straits of Dover on the southeast coast of England, perhaps in an inn. The poet looks out toward the French coast, some twenty-six miles away, and is attracted by the calm and serenity of the scene: the quiet sea, the moon, the blinking French lighthouse, the glimmering reflections of the famous white cliffs of Dover. He calls his love to the window to enjoy the scene and the sweet night air; there is one element out of tune with the peaceful scene, however, and the speaker strongly urges his love to “Listen!” to the rasping sound from the shingle beach as the waves, flowing in and out, drag the loose pebbles back and forth. This repetitive sound underlies the otherwise peaceful scene like background music and suggests to the speaker some unspecified, unrelenting sadness. To this point (line 14), the poem has been essentially straightforward description.
In the second section, the speaker (presumably grounded in the classics as Matthew Arnold was) is reminded that the Greek tragic dramatist Sophocles had heard the same sound in the Aegean and it had suggested to him the turbid ebb and flow of human suffering, which had been the dominant subject of his plays. (The precise passage referred to in Sophocles is obscure; several have been suggested.) The poet and his companion—or perhaps the “we” of line 18 is more generalized—are also reminded by the sound of a related but somewhat different thought.
Like the sea, Faith (principally Christianity) once girded the world, like an attractive, bright-colored scarf tightly binding all together. Now, however, the sea of faith is receding; the...