Dover Beach Questions and Answers
by Matthew Arnold

Dover Beach book cover
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How do the noise and the movement of the "pebbles" mentioned in the first stanza relate to the idea of the loss of faith described in the rest of the poem? the answers can also relate to the "shingles" in the third stanza.

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
Arnold thinks of Sophocles, who wrote plays about human misery, including the famous Oedipus Rex. The thought that the ancient Greek playwright might have heard the same sound he was now hearing over two thousand years later on the coast of England prompts Arnold to offer his own impression of the mournful sound. It is not the sound of waves crashing, but the sound of thousands of small stones being rolled back and forth by the incoming and outgoing surf. To Arnold the sound is not exactly that of the ebb and flow of human misery, but it is closely related. It is the sound of the retreat of what he calls the Sea of Faith, which was once full of comfort and assurance to assuage Sophocles' concept of human misery. Arnold lived at a time when science was undermining traditional religious faith. "Dover Beach" was published in 1851. Charles Darwin would published his devastating Origin of Species in 1859, but the assault on traditional Christian faith had begun before the French Revolution.
There is obviously a close connection between the "ebb and flow of human misery" and "the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the shrinking sea of religious faith. Arnold has no consolation to offer for his melancholy thought. When he asks his paramour to cling to him, they seem like two doomed souls who have nothing to look forward to but annihilation, like a couple of civilians in a building that is being bombed into rubble. The poem is important because it expresses the spirit of the age. 

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Blake Douglas eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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 pebbles may be thought of as people, or as their faith, going through cycles of "high" and "low" times, but never escaping them, and always being subject to outside influences over which they have no control. This strikes the speaker as a commentary on human misery. 
The rest of the poem seems to do away with the idea of a cycle, and instead treats the low tide as an analogy for the current lack of faith among humanity, with the world seemingly to be lonely and dark, and only those immediately close to you can alleviate it. 
In relation to the "shingles", this seems to imply that the protective covering of faith is being stripped away, revealing the raw and unpleasant truths beneath. The noise of the pebbles, twice described as a roar, may imply that this is taking place amid great protest and conflict, but this has no effect upon the event itself. 
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brandon2015 | Student

Loss of faith is indeed a prominent theme in "Dover Beach." Though its complexion grows darkest in the final stanzas, the sound and movement of the pebbles, or shingles, on the beach, both set the stage for, and then, upon subsequent readings, echo the angst of the speaker. The night air is ‘sweet’ and the bay ‘tranquil’, but the noise made by the pebbles, as they are ‘drawn back’ and ‘flung’ by the waves is ‘grating.’ It is the first tacitly unpleasant image in this poem that defines the world as a cruel, lonely place.

The sound of the constant ‘ebb and flow of human misery’ may’ve once been tempered by religion. Sophocles' works are rife with references to the gods. Dover Beach alludes to none. This dimension of faith, in a higher power, is as lost to the speaker as the cliffs of England and the tranquil bay are wholly nonexistent to the pebbles. In this poem, as seen through the journey of the pebbles, there is nothing to look forward to except for the regeneration of individuals experiencing human misery.

Though the speaker forges a kinship with ‘you’, it is born of the idea that we, the individual pebbles, must suffer, each and all, the overwhelming elements of this world, which carry us to and fro on our pointless journey. The image of myriad pebbles, too, along with the reference to ‘ignorant armies’ both reflect the history of mankind’s propensity for war, and prophesy the brutal world wars that would occur in the century after the poem was written. 

briael | Student

The “turbid ebb and flow of human misery” equates to the “Sea of Life” in that life is a constant struggle; the same struggle of the pebble that is tossed around by the waves. According to Matthew Arnold, there is no hope in the world, just constant misery, a continuous dirge or cadence. Life’s continual back and forth motion, like that of the tides, plays a song of misery. The ocean’s movement grates on the pebble like the naked shingles are exposed to the elements of nature; nature continues to beat down on the possibility of love like that of army that clashes. Whether on pebbles, shingles, or with people, the realities of the world create a rough and pessimistic view of life.