This quotation is from the final stanza of Matthew Arnold's poem “Dover Beach.” The speaker has been standing at a window observing the sea and cliffs. He remarks, “The sea is calm tonight / The tide is full, the moon lies fair / Upon the straits...” (lines 1–3). He invites his love to join him at the window to smell the sweet night air and watch and listen as the sea spray crashes into the “moon-blanched land” (line 8).
However, as the two stand at the window, the speaker notices something else, “The eternal note of sadness” in the sound of the sea (line 14). His mind turns to metaphor, and he recalls how Sophocles looked at the sea and found an image of “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery” (lines 17–18). The speaker then develops his own metaphor. For him, the sea represents the “Sea of Faith” (line 21) that once spread broadly across the world but is now retreating and leaving behind only the “naked shingles of the world” (line 28).
Without faith, there is little left of value in the world, the speaker laments in the final stanza. What seems like a beautiful “land of dreams” (line 31) is only an impersonal material realm with no joy or love, no light or peace, no certitude or “help for pain” (line 34). Without faith, the world loses its meaning. Without faith, the beauty of the world is an empty thing, and the world fills with darkness, ignorance, and “confused alarms of struggle and flight” (line 36). Without faith, the speaker must turn to the only solace he can find: his love. He pleads with her that they might remain true to each other, for in a world emptied of faith and meaning, all they have left is their love.
Indeed, “Dover Beach” approaches despair in its final stanza, yet the speaker, even as he mourns the loss of faith in the world, emphasizes how indispensable that virtue is if those who live in the world will find any joy, love, light, certitude, peace, or help in times of trouble.