Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454
For all its mockery of Arnold, Hecht’s dramatic monologue is a tribute to the power that its predecessor continues to exert. Moreover, for all its irreverence, “The Dover Bitch” is nevertheless a love poem, though it is a poem about love without illusions—as if that were not a contradiction in terms, as if love were not irreducibly itself an illusion. As an alternative to the elevated but perhaps empty sentiments that the speaker in “Dover Beach” proffers his companion, Hecht’s speaker offers a kind of love that is candid and carnal, and all the more ardent for his acceptance of his beloved’s imperfections. While Arnold can love the woman standing beside him on the coast at Dover evidently only by elevating her into a disembodied philosophical principle, Hecht’s speaker embraces concrete love by embracing a woman who is alive in an imperfect body, one “running to fat.”
In The Study of Poetry Arnold called poetry “a criticism of life,” by which he meant not an attack on, but a disinterested examination of, the subject as it is in itself. Hecht echoes the phrase in the subtitle he attaches to “The Dover Bitch,” as though the poem that follows is, in contrast to Victorian obfuscations, going to allow readers to examine life for what it is in itself. Hecht’s appropriation of the phrase “a criticism of life” is perhaps also a coy play on the contemporary sense of criticism as deprecation, as though the shabby world of materialism and lust celebrated by the speaker is a sorry disappointment.
The speaker may be somewhat self-deluding when he presents himself as a clear-eyed modern man impatient with Victorian sublimation. Hecht published “The Dover Bitch” in 1960, just before a wave of feminism swept over American culture. The poem at first seems more sexually enlightened than its nineteenth century predecessor, not only in its recognition of the claims of the libido but also in its refusal to treat a woman as mere appendage to her male companion. However, just as in “Dover Beach,” the woman on the strand remains unnamed and voiceless. Hecht’s poem imagines what is going on in the woman’s mind while she listens to Arnold on the beach, but it refuses direct access to that mind, filtering it instead through the words of the male speaker, who persistently reduces her to “this girl.” Though he poses as a champion of liberation, he controls her thoughts and feelings. Hecht suggests that, though the speaker prides himself on seeing through Victorian delusions to the tangible realities of the here and now, materialism and cynicism are simply another set of illusions to which people cling as a stay against cosmic erosion.