How does the speaker's tone change through the first stanza of Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the earlier lines of the first stanza the speaker's tone is one of pure enjoyment, peace of mind, and appreciation of beauty. He is standing at an open window enjoying what must have been a marvelous view--a view which would naturally remind one of the centuries of history associated with it. The first line, "The sea is calm tonight," suggests that the speaker himself feels calm. Then his tone changes with his mood when he becomes aware of the pebbles being rolled back and forth by the incoming and outgoing waves. It seems as if he is being forced to think about things he would like to forget about, at least temporarily. The stanza ends with the words

and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

It seems as if he cannot simply enjoy beauty, peace, and the intimate relationship he apparently enjoys with his paramour. Something always reminds him of the opposite. He is reminded that life was once simple and stable, but modern times have brought doubt and foreboding because of the loss of religious faith.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

He sees this loss of religious faith as a process which is only beginning. It will go on and on, with dreadful consequences for humanity. William Butler Yeats expressed a similar foreboding in his poem "The Second Coming" (1919). 
 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
 
Religious faith was being undermined by science in the Western world, but some felt science did not have any consolation to replace it. It has been call "the crisis of faith." This conflict between science and religion has long been one of the most important concerns of serious thinkers. Matthew Arnold was better known as a literary critic than as a poet, but "Dover Beach" is very well known because of his inspired way of expressing what is a universal human problem.
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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The speaker's tone changes in several ways over the course of the first stanza of Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach." The first change comes when the poem shifts from a general third person reflection concerning the scenery in the first five lines to directly address a listener: 

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air! ...
Listen! you hear ...

The tone of the beginning of the stanza is calm and peaceful, and uses such words as "tranquil," "calm," and "sweet"; the scene is described as "fair" (meaning, in this context, beautiful).

In the second part of the stanza, the tone is sadder and more conflicted:

... you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return ...

This "grating roar" is not a peaceful or calm sound; it foreshadows the martial imagery we encounter in the final lines of the poem. Finally, at the end of the stanza, the tone becomes sad or melancholic, and the narrator no longer sees the waves as peaceful, but their sounds repeat:

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in ...

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