There is a low tremulous sound swinging backward and forward all the time. The poet implies that this sound suggests the eternal note of sadness in human life. Arnold in 'Dover Beach' notes how the pebbles of the sea rolled by the sea-waves bring into the mind the “eternal note of sadness.” Here he points out that in ancient times Sophocles heard the same sound of the pebbles on the shore, and it reminded him of the ebb and flow of human misery. In his Antigone Sophocles expressed this thought. Now this poet hears the sound of this Dover Beach, and he finds in it the same thought.
The poet explains the gradual loss of man’s faith in a grand and suggestive simile. He compares faith in religion to a sea that surrounds the world. The sea has its full tide, and then it ebbs away with the mournful music over the pebbles and the grating of the pebbles brings the “eternal note of sadness in”. The poet reminds the world in which there was full of faith and men believed in religion. But now that faith is gradually passing away and men’s minds are like pebbles on the shore. The passing of faith causes the minds to be isolated in the border between belief and disbelief. It is a sad melancholy state. When the poet hears the grating roar of pebbles of the sea, he is reminded of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith as it retreats from men’s minds. It is a chilly prospect, like the breath of the night wind, and it brings into the mind a dreary feeling of helplessness, as though the mind is left stripped and bare on the vast and dreary edges of an unknown land.
The lines from 'Dover Beach' give bitter expression of Arnold’s loss of faith, his growing pessimism. The world seemed to be strangely unreal, without anything real to cling to on grasp. It has variety, beauty and freshness. But it is all blind negation: there is in it neither love nor joy nor light nor peace. There is nothing certain in it. Therefore he compares men struggling in the world with armies struggling on a plain at night. There is a sound of confused alarms and struggles, but the soldiers are ignorant as to what they are fighting for and why.
'Dover Beach' is one of Arnold’s typical poems. It expresses frequently the lack of faith and certitude which was the principal disease of the Victorian age. The first stanza opens with a calm, bright moonlit sea which reflects the serene, peaceful, receptive mood of the poet. He calls upon his companion to share the sweetness and tranquility of the night air and even as he does so, he is conscious of ‘the grating roar’ a harsh sound which disturbs the peace, the calm and the sweet music. The stanza ends on a ‘note of eternal sadness’, that ‘still sad music of humanity’ disturbs the calmness of mind and spirit as much as the calm bay. Here he points out that in ancient times Sophocles heard the same sound of the pebbles on the shore, and it reminded him of the ebb and flow of human misery. In his Antigone, Sophocles expressed this thought. Now Arnold hears the sound of this Dover Beach, and he finds in it the same thought.
In the second stanza the poet effectively uses a metaphor where the ebb and flow of human misery is compared to the tides of the sea. The fortunes of Oedipus are like the ebb and flow of the sea sand and the retreating tide is a symbol of the loss of faith. Arnold describes the slow and solemn rumbling sound made by the sea waves as they swing backward and forward on the pebbly shore. The poet implies that this sound suggests the eternal note of sadness in human life.
The poem falls into two parts. In the first part, Arnold speaks of the resonances of sea-waves on the pebbly shore. In the second he speaks of armies struggling ignorantly at night. There is perhaps not very clear connection between the earlier and the latter part. Yet the poem reads well because it is held together by a unity of sentiment. The two descriptive analogies are drawn from classical sources, but the unifying sentiment is romantic in its haunting pessimism and lack of faith.
Arnold through 'Dover Beach' describes the effects of industrialization of the 19th century England. Victorian world was changing very rapidly with the growth of science and technology. This poem condemns the loss of faith, religion and the meaning of life resulting from the industrialization and advancement in science and technology.
Arnold describes the difference between the appearance and reality of the Victorian world. It looks new and beautiful like a land of dreams but in reality this world does not really have joy, love, light, peace, certitude or any help for pain. He describes the world as a dark plain which is becoming even darker as the time passes. He compares the people struggling and running in their ambitions to the armies fighting at night, unknown of why and with whom they are fighting.
Although, this poem had shown the loss of faith, religion and love of 19th century it is similar in the context of the 21st century as well. People have lost their faith in God. They are engaged in commerce. They have become materialistic which has decreased their satisfaction in life. They are more isolated and lonely. Now, they have forgotten “us” and only remember “I”. So, the poet wants to aware all the human being from this disaster created by the sufferings, sorrows and melancholy. The only way out of this disaster according to Arnold is to love and to have a faith in one another and do believe in God and live in reality rather than the land of dreams.
Arnold’s skillful use of elaborate similes and lively images has made the message of the poem even more poignant.