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In Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” the speaker says, in lines 15-16, that
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean . . .
To what does the word “it” refer? The word clearly seems to refer to “The eternal note of sadness,” mentioned in line 14. In other words, the speaker is implying the following ideas:
- The sadness he feels is not simply peculiar to himself. It is not a private or isolated feeling, rooted in his own particular mental makeup. Instead, it is the kind of feeling that other thoughtful people have felt, for as long as we have records of human thought.
- The sadness he feels is not limited to his own era or his own place; it is not the product of special or unusual circumstances. It is the kind of sadness that has been felt by other sensitive, reflective people of all times and locations.
- The reference to Sophocles prepares us for a later argument of the poem: Greek civilization and Greek thought were once dominant, but now the Greeks are long dead and their thinking – especially their religious beliefs and their whole panoply of gods, such as Zeus and Athena – are no long accepted as literal truths. The speaker of this poem feels as if he is living during a turning point in history when Christianity itself might one day decline and perhaps even disappear as a guiding force in people’s lives. Just as the religion of Sophocles now seems outmoded, so, someday, may the religion of the speaker. Religion is one way we keep the “eternal note of sadness” at bay, but that note (the speaker suggests) inevitably returns because it may be truer than any of the religious beliefs invented to try to suppress it.
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