In "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, what is the effect of the moon on the straits?

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the first stanza of "Dover Beach," Matthew Arnold describes a beautiful scene out of his window.  He is looking down at the beach, the moon is shining, and the tide is gently lapping at the pebbles on the shore.  The descriptions are calm and soothing--unlike the connections that Arnold makes between this scene and the misery that exists in the world.  But at the beginning at least, the reader may enjoy an idyllic view with Arnold, as he paints a beautiful picture of what he sees out his window.  One of the images is that of the moonlight shining on the ocean, and on the cliffs.  He describes the effect of that moonlight as such:

"the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay."

First of all, the moonlight is "fair," which is another, older-fashioned way of saying light and beautiful.  Then, he describes how the moonlight makes the French coast "gleam," and the cliffs of England look "glimmering and vast."  So, the light and beautiful moonlight make the scene in front of him shine, glimmer and gleam, like a pearl or luminous light.  If you have ever been outside on a night when the moon was particularly bright or full, you will be able to picture what Arnold was talking about--the moon casts a very soft light on everything that makes it seem almost as if it is glowing from within.  It is very beautiful, and Arnold reflects that phenomenon in the first stanza of his poem.  I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!