The last three lines of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" are among the most quoted lines in English poetry. They reflect Arnold's belief—a belief shared by many in late Victorian England— that the slow decline of religion left the people of England on a "darkling...
The last three lines of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" are among the most quoted lines in English poetry. They reflect Arnold's belief—a belief shared by many in late Victorian England—that the slow decline of religion left the people of England on a "darkling plain" of ignorance, on which all were "confused" and filled with a sense of "struggle." The word "darkling" emphasizes the idea that the sun is setting on something; in this case, it is plunging the country into spiritual darkness as science becomes more significant in people's lives and the clear light of religious faith diminishes. Arnold's use of words such as "struggle" and "armies" suggests that there is no one straightforward belief among these confused people—on the contrary, they are all arguing with each other, divided in their ignorance.
Hecht's "Dover Bitch" is gently mocking Arnold's pessimism. Hecht suggests that the woman who is presumably with Arnold on the beach would much rather have preferred to feel "his whiskers...on the back of her neck," and that while it may be true that things are "bad all over," there is no need to behave as if the world is ending. Hecht's speaker suggests that anyone who behaves as Arnold's speaker does will not long hold the attention of a "pretty" girl. By contrast, he suggests that the girl came to him instead for "a good time." The poem is fairly affirming, suggesting that humans will always have the capacity for straightforward happiness; there is no need to despair.
The final stanza of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," leading up to those final three lines, seems contradictory and complex. Here is the stanza in its entirety:
Ah, love, let us be trueTo one another! for the world, which seemsTo 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 plainSwept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,Where ignorant armies clash by night (lines 29-37).
The last three lines of Arnold's poem "Dover Beach",
"And we are here as on a darkling plain...swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight...where ignorant armies clash by night",
express the author's bewilderment at the state of the world, which, instead of being filled with "joy...love...and light", is more like a battleground, where confusion and destruction reign. It is the author's hope that the love he shares with the woman to whom the poem is addressed will transcend a reality where comfort and peace are lacking.
I think that in his poem "Dover Bitch", Hecht is both making fun of Arnold's pessimistic belief and affirming it as well. His crass portrayal of the object of Arnold's affections as a woman who is, unbeknownst to him, vulgar and unfaithful, is told with an earthy realism which makes Arnold's flowery, romantic notions seem ludicrous. Ironically, the effect of this portrayal affirms Arnold's pessimistic fears at the same time as it mocks them. The world is indeed not a place where high-mindedness and noble ideals prevail, and Arnold's hope for refuge in an untainted love is empty and meaningless as well.