"Dover Beach" is a difficult poem to analyze; 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 naturalistic scene, its soundscape (in the first and second stanza) and the retreating actions of the tide (in the third stanza). Arnold hears the sound of the sea as "the eternal note of sadness". Sophocles, a 5th century BC Greek playwright who wrote tragedies of fate and the will of the gods, also heard this same 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 critic sees a difference between Sophocles in the classical age of Greece 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...
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