Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, 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.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, 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 Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
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.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


  1. The adjective “darkling” refers to that which is dark, in the dark, or in a state of darkening—all of which could apply to the “plain” in this line. The speaker envisions the night-cloaked seascape as a battleground. The sounds of the waves are once again personified, in his case as the “confused alarms” raised by “ignorant armies.” The clash can be interpreted in several ways. In one sense, it expresses the tone of unease and dread. On a somewhat more literal level, the clash might symbolize the struggles the speaker has referred to, namely those over faith. Taken in this context, the clashing armies represent the two sides of the debate over faith as it plays out, both in society and within the speaker himself. Crucially, both armies are “ignorant,” leaving readers with no sense of righteousness or resolution.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. The final five lines of the poem restate the speaker’s sense of mounting darkness and foreboding. The world “really” is devoid of “joy,” “love,” and “light.” The use of “really” is key in that it clarifies the arc of disillusionment the speaker has undergone as the disturbing reality has revealed itself.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. The final stanza reiterates the broader decline that takes place over the course of the poem. In this line, as in the opening lines of the poem, the world appears “like a land of dreams.” However, the word “dreams” signals the speaker’s grasp of the truth, for dreams are pleasant but ultimately fantastical. The reality that lies below is more troubling.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. In the final stanza, Arnold’s speaker returns again to the beloved addressee. In a world marked by misery and devoid of faith, the speaker calls for him and his love to be “true/To one another” in the hope that marriage might serve as a source of meaning and a sanctuary from the world’s ills.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. In this case, “shingles” refers to stones and pebbles, specifically those found along the shore. The image of the “naked shingles of the world” offers a bleak vision of the future when the sea—the Sea of Faith, that is—has fully retreated, leaving the shores of the world barren.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. This line, with its combination of consonance and assonance, is one of the most musical lines in the poem. The assonance emerges in the repetition of short o sounds, heard in “melan-chol-y,” “long,” and “with-draw-ing.” The consonance occurs in the frequent repetition of the liquid consonants, l and r. These sounds imitate the repetitive cadences of the sea as it washes against the shore.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. This line combines the two metaphors previously built around the sea: the sea as religious faith and the sea as having a voice. Here the sea represents both. The “melancholy long withdrawing roar” is an utterance of the personified sea, though the cause of the roar is the decline of the sea-as-faith.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Arnold develops the metaphor of the “Sea of Faith,” describing how it “was once[…] at the full.” Arnold appends this with the metaphor of faith as “the folds of a bright girdle furl’d,” holding together the earth in a coherent embrace. One of the themes of the poem is the waning of religious beliefs and values during the 19th century. Whereas religious faith had been a relatively ubiquitous part of British and European culture in the centuries leading up to the Victorian era, new advances in scientific understanding began to create widespread religious doubt. Many critics view “Dover Beach” as a reaction to these advances, namely the theory of evolution. However, Arnold neither cites these advances nor presents arguments in favor or against them; rather, he laments the loss of the certainty and coherence afforded by faith.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. In this stanza, Arnold introduces the “Sea of Faith,” a central theme and metaphor in the poem. The metaphor of religious faith as a sea suggests its vast, encompassing nature.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. The “distant northern sea” Arnold refers to is the North Sea, which lies between the United Kingdom, Northwestern Europe, and Scandinavia. The town of Dover is situated where the North Sea and the English channel connect. Arnold cites the North Sea and its distance from the Ægean in order to convey the universality of human suffering across both time and space.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. It is unclear precisely what Arnold alludes to in his evocation of the “turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery” that Sophocles perceived. In a broad sense, Arnold’s phrase sums up Sophocles’s sensibilities around tragedy and fate. As a tragedian, Sophocles wrote often of human failure, futility, ignorance, and mortality. The events of his plays were undergirded with a sense of the tragedy of human life. One passage from Sophocles’s Antigone hints at Arnold’s “ebb and flow of human misery”:

    Thrice blest are they who never tasted pain!
    If once the curse of Heaven attaint a race,
    The infection lingers on and speeds apace,
    Age after age, and each the cup must drain.

    So when Etesian blasts from Thrace downpour
    Sweep o'er the blackening main and whirl to land
    From Ocean's cavernous depths his ooze and sand,
    Billow on billow thunders on the shore.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. The Ægean Sea lies between the mainlands of Greece and Turkey. It is an embayment within the larger Mediterranean Sea. As Arnold suggests, Sophocles lived near the Ægean since his native Athens is situated on the sea. The Ægean is the setting for numerous Greek myths and stories, from the plays of Sophocles to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Sophocles (497–406 BCE) was a Greek playwright whose best known works include Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Electra. He was the most decorated playwright of the golden age of Athens, winning 24 of the city’s annual drama competitions.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. The “eternal note of sadness” emerges from the tide, bolstering the personification of the tide as a human voice singing a song. One note of that song is the “eternal note of sadness.” This note introduces one of the central themes of the poem: the timelessness of human suffering.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The phrase “tremulous cadence” personifies the tide as a human voice. The noun “cadence” refers to rhythmic modulations, whether the rhythms of a voice or of a song or poem. The adjective “tremulous” refers to a trembling quality, granting the voice of the personified tide a sorrowful tone.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. In this line, Arnold fuses sound with meaning, form with content. The description of the tides pushing pebbles upon the shore is conveyed in language that is, like tides, rhythmic and cyclical. The iambic pentameter is crisp in its rising and falling cadences. Each word in the line contains an n in the final consonant sounds, producing a cascading effect. The only exception is “cease,” a thematically apt move that pauses the flow of n sounds in its evocation of the waves themselves pausing. Finally, the line both begins and ends with the word “begin,” a choice that subtly conveys the cyclicality of the tides, for which each end is always a beginning.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Matthew Arnold wrote “Dover Beach” in 1851 while on honeymoon with his wife, Frances Lucy Wightman. The poem reflects this context: the poem’s speaker uses an imperative to address his beloved as he ponders the future.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. The “cliffs of England” referred to here are the White Cliffs of Dover, the eight-mile stretch of coastline along the English channel near Dover. The cliffs bear a crisp white color due to their calcium carbonate, or chalk, composition. This accounts for the speaker’s description of the cliffs as “glimmering and vast.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. As the title indicates, the poem is set at Dover, a town on the southern coast of England. Dover is situated on the English channel, a narrow body of water that separates England and France. Directly across the channel from Dover lies the French town of Calais. As Arnold’s speaker suggests, the French coast near Calais, which is less than thirty miles away, is visible from Dover.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. Each stanza of “Dover Beach” begins with a line of trimeter, a metrical effect that stands out from the pentameter that defines most of the poem’s lines. In this first case, the shortened trimeter conveys the content and tone of the line. The calmness of the sea is aptly conveyed with simplicity, concision, and an ensuing pause.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. With the imperative “Listen!,” Arnold directs readers’ (or perhaps his wife’s) focus to the sounds at Dover Beach. The adjective “grating”—a grinding, harsh quality of sound—and the noun “roar”—a full, deep, prolonged noise—create a vivid auditory image of the movement of the pebbles as the waves push and pull them along the shore.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. Arnold’s description of the shore evokes strong visual imagery of the white coastline. The moon is a source of pale, white light, which “blanches,” meaning “whitens,” the land. Also, the notion that the moon can whiten Dover Beach creates a sense of beauty and wonder at the power of nature.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. Since the speaker includes “to-night” in this opening line, he qualifies the sea’s quality of calm. The implication is that the sea is not always calm, but the speaker is able to experience this calmness for the present moment. This recognition establishes the important theme of how love, life, and beauty are not ever-present; they exist, and are cherished, for their transience.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor