This first line gives us two simple, basic facts. It's nighttime, and the sea is calm. Can't you just picture it? Hey, that's all we need to start building a mental world.
As you'll see, "Dover Beach" will end up running back in time and all over the world, but that image of the ocean at night will always be front-and-center.
In addition to giving us the image that will anchor the poem, this line sets a very particular tone. The words are short and clear.
The line ends with a period, making it a complete, simple sentence. There's no activity, just stillness and simplicity. In a word, this line is calm, just like the ocean.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Here we get a little more description of the setting of this poem. It's high ("full") tide, the moon is out, and it's beautiful ("fair").
We've pointed out how the first line was self-contained, a complete thought in itself. In this line, the end of the line isn't the end of the sentence, so the phrase "the moon lies fair" isn't complete. It makes the reader want to know where the moon lies fair, or how. To find out, you have to continue to the next line. That poetic technique, where a sentence is broken up across more than one line, is called enjambment.
We also want to point out that little break in the middle of the line (marked by the comma). The line takes a pause here, between two complete phrases. That fancy little trick is called a caesura, and it divides the line into two parts.
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
That moon that's lingering from the last line? Well, it turns out that it "lies fair / Upon the straits." That just means that the moonlight is shining on a narrow body of water ("the straits"). The speaker tells us that he can see across the strait to the coast of France.
If we put this together with the title "Dover Beach," we get a pretty clear idea of where the speaker is. He's on the coast of England, looking out at the English Channel, which separates England from France. Dover is a town (you might have heard of its famous white cliffs) right at the narrowest point in the channel. The French town of Calais is just a little over twenty miles away, which is why he can see the light there.
Notice the enjambment in this line, too. Arnold keeps us rolling from line to line here, building up momentum in the beginning of the poem.
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand, Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Suddenly the light that he saw shines out and then disappears (with Arnold's much prettier alliteration, it "Gleams and is gone").
When the light in France disappears, the speaker looks back at his own coast. Here he sees the famous white cliffs of Dover, which are shining in the moonlight out in the bay. The bay, he reminds us, is "tranquil." This picks up the image of calm water from line 1.
And once again we've got a break in line 4. See how the line pauses at the semicolon, and then the speaker turns to a new thought? Yep, that's another caesura.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Here we get a little more information about what's happening in the world of the poem. We learn that the speaker is indoors (in a room with a window).
We also find out that he's talking to someone who must be in the room with him—that's his audience.. We don't learn much about that person yet, but our speaker wants him or her to come to the window to smell the "sweet" air.
The tone of the poem is still really calm. Adjectives like "tranquil" and "sweet" establish a relaxing, comforting mood here at the beginning of things.
Only, from the long line of spray Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Now, all of a sudden, we've got a little shift on our hands. As we look out with the speaker and his companion, he says "Only." (Here that means something like "But.")
Only what? What's the matter with this scene? Arnold is just beginning to build our expectation.
The speaker draws our attention to the edge of the water and the surf ("the long line of spray"). Instead of looking at the beautiful landscape as a whole, we're looking at the specific point where the sea meets the land.
And check out that vivid image of the "moon-blanched land." Blanched means "whitened"—we might say "bleached." You know how bright moonlight can make the whole world look white? Well, that's what our speaker is talking about.
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Before, we were imagining what this scene looked like. Now the speaker tells his companion (and us) to change the frame, to use one of our other senses.
Suddenly we're going to "Listen!" (that exclamation point is mean to wake us up) to the sound of the water.
Turns out that sound isn't "calm" or "tranquil" like the moonlight on the water. The speaker describes it as a "grating roar."
The harshness of the word "grating" might be a little surprising, since there's nothing relaxing about a grating sound. It seems to Shmoop that the atmosphere of this poem is changing. Let's keep an eye out for more shifts in the future.
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, At their return, up the high strand,
That "grating" sound from line? That comes from the sound of pebbles. Those little rocks are being pulled out by the waves as they go out, and then thrown back up on the beach ("strand" is another word for beach or shore) when the waves come back in.
Maybe you've heard that sound before, like a rhythmic rumble, a giant breathing. The speaker really focuses in on the sound of the waves. He wants us to really feel their inevitable, steady force. Because if one thing's for sure, it's that waves will continue to crash on beaches all the world over.
Begin, and cease, and then again begin, With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The grating sound of the pebbles starts, and then stops, and then starts again. The speaker has a fancy way of describing this rhythm of the ocean. He calls it a "tremulous cadence slow."
Let's break that one down, huh? "Tremulous" means shaky or trembling. We think that comes from the fact that this one big sound is made up of many little sounds of rolling pebbles. "Cadence" refers to the rhythm of that repeated sound. That's a significant word to use in a poem of all things, where rhythm is so crucial to the reading experience. The speaker hears a slow rhythm in the sound of the waves, and it mingles in with the rhythm of his poem.
And just what is the rhythm of this poem? Well, Arnold plays around with that a little. The basic meter for the poem is iambic, which has just the same kind of rolling rhythm as those waves.
Line 12 is actually a great example of that: Begin, and cease, and then again begin. See? Perfect iambic pentameter.
That's not the case everywhere though; he switches things up a fair amount. For more on that, see our "Form and Meter" section.
The eternal note of sadness in.
Now the rubber really hits the road in this poem. We started out calm and tranquil, but the first stanza ends on a much darker note, with the introduction of a "note of sadness."
We think the word "note" is pretty key here. It picks up on the word "cadence" up above, and makes us think that the sound of the world is something like music.
This isn't just a temporary sadness, either. It's "eternal." Our speaker clearly thinks that the music of the world has an endless sadness built into it.