“Dover Beach” is a brief, dramatic monologue generally recognized as Arnold’s best—and most widely known—poem. It begins with an opening stanza that is indisputably one of the finest examples of lyric poetry in the English language. The topography of the nocturnal setting is a combination of hushed tranquillity and rich sensory detail. It is the world as it appears to the innocent eye gazing on nature: peaceful, harmonious, suffused with quiet joy. The beacon light on the coast of Calais, the moon on the calm evening waters of the channel, and the sweet scent of the night air all suggest a hushed and gentle world of silent beauty. The final line of the stanza, however, introduces a discordant note, as the perpetual movement of the waves suggests to the speaker not serenity but “the eternal note of sadness.”
The melancholy strain induces in the second stanza an image in the mind of the speaker: Sophocles, the Greek tragedian, creator of Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715) and Antigone (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) standing in the darkness by the Aegean Sea more than two thousand years ago. The ancient master of tragedy hears in the eternal flux of the waves the same dark note, “the turbid ebb and flow/ Of human misery.” Thus, the speaker, like Sophocles before him, perceives life as tragedy; suffering and misery are inextricable elements of existence. Beauty, joy, and calm are ephemeral and illusory. The speaker’s pessimistic perspective on the human condition, expressed in stanzas two, three, and four, undercuts and effectively negates the positive,...
(The entire section is 695 words.)