In the poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, the poet describes sounds and makes use of sound devices throughout the poem to reinforce his message. Please provide an example and discuss its...

In the poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, the poet describes sounds and makes use of sound devices throughout the poem to reinforce his message. Please provide an example and discuss its effectiveness in relation to how the poet creates the poem's meaning.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," the poet uses sensory details involving sound to describe the waves washing up on the shore.

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.

The first thing the author does is to tell the audience he has something important. He does not say, "Look!" Rather, with an exclamation point, he charges us to "Listen!" While he begins with visual images, he then moves to carefully detailed descriptions of the sounds one hears at the beach.

From its initial visual images, the first stanza and the subsequent two stanzas move toward the dominance of auditory images. The shift is justified by the obviously limited opportunity to see, even with moonlight, but also by the strong impact of the waves breaking on the beach.

While at first reading this may sound lovely, the word "grating" (a form of onomatopoeia, which appeals the one's sense of sound) has a negative connotation. A sound that is "grating" is extremely unpleasant.

Without a closer examination, the use of these sensory details may at first draw in any reader who has experienced time at any beach anywhere in the world—allowing the reader to hear in his or her mind the sound of the water hitting the shoreline, and recalling how soothing it is to listen to it. However, the speaker does not intend to allow the reader to stay in that gentle, relaxed state. The next to the last line above refers to the waves' rhythm as a "tremulous cadence." This phrase begins to overtly change the feeling of the poem. "Tremulous" is "characterized as trembling, as from fear, nervousness, weakness." It also has a negative connotation. "Cadence" refers to "the ending part of a piece of music." So "cadence" introduces the reference to a musical note. Found at the end of a musical piece, it may well foreshadow an end of some sort. The final line of the stanza directs our attention to an "eternal note of sadness." Choosing his words carefully, the author uses a play on words that alludes again to something musical (a "note") and the way it appeals to the sense of hearing; but in the sound of the waves is a "note" of sadness that has no end.

The next stanza speaks to the "ebb and flow / Of human misery." While the poem began with lovely imagery, the mood has now changed completely.

In the following stanza the speaker refers to the "Sea of Faith," which used to surround the world (his world). All that is left for him now is "Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar, retreat..." (again appealing to one's sense of sound) just as the waves at the beginning move in and out. Except now, with the loss of faith, it retreats and (we can infer) he does not anticipate its return. This is in direct contrast to the nature of the ocean. This reference may demonstrate the speaker's sense that something of his world is unnatural now. The loss of faith is as dramatic for him as a wave that leaves a beach but does not return. (Critical analysis notes that Arnold is referring to a loss of faith in God.) 

It is here that the significance of the end of the first stanza (quoted above) is evident. How lovely is the sound of the waves, moving up and then back, to repeat itself endlessly. How impossible to contemplate the departure of a wave that never returns: the thought of such an event is almost impossible to imagine. However, the speaker seems to indicate that his loss of faith has left him in a situation too terrible to face. It is with a seeming sense of desperation that the speaker addresses his companion:

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...

The speaker's loss of faith paints the world as a terrible place: there is no substance in the world, anymore than a dream has substance. While the world appears lovely, he declares that in truth it has nothing to offer: no joy, love, light, certainty, peace or release from pain. The world he sees is desolate. If there is no love in the world, what does this mean that he addresses his love and asks for a promise of "certitude" if the world offers neither love nor certainty? (Arnold is referring to the love of God. He is experiencing the loss of God's love because of his loss of faith; he is trying to fill the void that remains with human love.) Having lost his faith, his cry to his "love" seems as empty as the world he sees before him. 

If love is all humans have, what do they do when they cannot find love, or keep it?

This desperate scenario makes us reflect once more on the sound of the waves on the shore. They are no longer reminders of the comfort and constancy of the ocean, but a harbinger of life without faith. The repetition of the water on the shore (if the author has been successful) may now draw the reader's mind to the speaker's constant state of desolation. As the sound of the waves will reverberate until the end of time, so too will "the eternal note of sadness" that he hears.