Dover Beach Questions and Answers
by Matthew Arnold

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In "Dover Beach," what is it that Sophocles might have heard, literally and figuratively, on the Aegean Sea, according to the second stanza?

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In "Dover Beach," Arnold seems to meditate on the changing world around him, lamenting the "melancholy" of that world and asking his companion to cleave to him as a refuge from what surrounds them. The opening stanza sees the speaker use extensive imagery to describe the scene at Dover Beach. He asks his companion to join him at the window, and the stanza ends with the speaker referencing "the eternal note of sadness" he senses in the waves and the sea breeze.

Next, the speaker introduces Sophocles. The second stanza reads,

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.
The "it" in this stanza refers to that "eternal note of sadness" the speaker just mentioned at the end of the previous stanza. That note led Sophocles, according to the speaker, to consider "human misery." The speaker tells his companion that "we / Find also in the sound a thought." This is the clearest explanation of how the sound he and his companion hear off of Dover Beach, the sound that Sophocles would have heard from the Aegean Sea, is symbolic. The sound itself exists literally, but it also conveys something deeper, something more abstract. The human mind reads into the sounds of nature with its own experience.

Later in the poem, the speaker references a "Sea of Faith" that no longer seems to envelop the shore as it once did, and he also mentions the "confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night" in his final two lines. These third and fourth...

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These are the lines from Arnold's elegiac poem, Dover Beach you refer to in your question :

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Aegaen, 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 the distant northern sea.

Arnold, looking at the nightscape of the Dover sea--the 'moon-blanched' sandy shore, 'the long line of spray', the image of the moon on the straits, the glimmering light on the French coast, the upcoming & retreating waves--and listening to harsh frictional noise of pebbles in the tides, remembers the ancient Greek tragedywright, Sophocles, who must have also heard the same 'eternal note of sadness' in the tides of the Greek sea, as Arnold hears in the Dover sea in the middle of the 19th century.

The lines show a literal as well as a symbolic switch to the past from the present. Arnold, an avid reader and admirer of Classical Greek literature, writing an elegy on the tragic decline of faith in the world of man in an age of Industrialism, finds proximity with Sophocles. At the heart of Sophocles's tragedies was a deep perception of 'the turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery' which his successor can still hear in a different time and space. The auditory image of the 'grating roar' in the perpetual movement of the sea-waves brings into the mind of the English poet of the Victorian era an 'eternal note of sadness', and it was not unknown to the ancient writer of tragedies. Thus Arnold believes that he himself and his illustrious predecessor were both artists working out universal tragic predicament.

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