In "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold,  how do the speaker’s descriptions of the ocean portray the lesson? 

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” uses the sea as a metaphor for life in various emotional stages. His images provide a sensory experience accompanied by  a melancholia feeling as the poet watches the movement of the water.  The sounds evoke the feeling of futility as the waves are sucked back from the shore.

As the speaker looks at the shore of the French Coast and then the cliffs of Dover on the English side of the English Channel, he comments that the sea is tranquil.  It is a moon light night.  Then, the light goes away and leaves only the darkness. 

He asks his partner to come to the window and smell the sweetness of the night. 

Listen! You hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves suck back, and fling,

AT their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow…

The images provide an auditory aspect of the sea’s movements as the water makes a grating noise as it is pulled back from the shore. This sound is replaced by a slow trembling beat. This cadence illicits the feeling of a funeral.

The second stanza makes an allusion to Sophocles who heard the same sound in the Aegean Sea. To him, the sound represents the ups and downs of human life.  The suffering of mankind gives way to thought for the great thinker. The sounds evoke the “tide of misfortune” for man.

In the third stanza, the poet recalls that at one time the world was encompassed like a girdle by a “sea of faith”--a reference to religion.  Darwin and science displaced the faith that is necessary for eternity.  This conviction and belief in a higher power can no longer be heard; but rather, a sad long diminishing rumble which shows the world to be naked and dreary.

The fourth stanza finds the speaker asking for a return to the world of yesterday. No happiness, beauty, or love---this is the land now.  Although the world seems to be filled with beauty and variety,  in reality,  there is only pain and darkness.

With the sounds of war clashing in the night, the speaker feels only confusion, struggle, and a need to run from the fight. These cold unnatural sounds and the movement of the sea frighten the poet. He feels the times are lost  to a world which has no joy, peace, or creativity.