“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 power of religion to give unity and meaning is waning, leaving behind only the chill wind whistling over the desolate beach. The imagery of the last four lines of this section indicates that the loss of faith is not simply unfortunate but also results in a great sense of emptiness and sterility.
In the final section, the poet turns from the troubling scene to his love, almost in desperation, seeking to find some meaning and stability in a world that is otherwise a void, and cries out for them to be true to each other, because in the vision of the poet, there is nothing else possible to give meaning to life. The world, which is apparently beautiful and new (recalling the opening six lines), is in fact not so. The world can offer none of the promises it makes: joy, love, light, certitude, peace, help for pain. What the world is really like is a battlefield at night where soldiers rush about, pursuing and firing at shadows, unable to tell friend from foe; it is a dark plain “Where ignorant armies clash by night.” This famous final image of the confused battle was probably inspired by Thucydides’ description of the battle of Epipolae in Historia tou Peloponnesiacou polemou (431-404 b.c.e.; History of the Peloponnesian War, 1550).