Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420
In “Dover Beach” (1867), one of the most frequently anthologized texts in all of English literature, Matthew Arnold created a monument to Victorian angst over cosmic instability and the erosion of faith. Standing by the shore at the southern edge of England, the poet, bemoaning post-Darwinian doubt, turns to the woman beside him and proclaims that the only consolation and certainty remaining in a violent, desolate universe is their love for each other.
In “The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life,” Anthony Hecht offers an irreverent but resonant sequel to the familiar Arnold poem. The unnamed narrator of Hecht’s revision presents himself as a straight-talking acquaintance of the bombastic Arnold. Offering a dramatically different reading of the situation in “Dover Beach,” he suggests that the beloved woman on whom the poet counts as the last bastion of constancy is in truth vulgar and unfaithful. He even admits to occasional casual sexual trysts with her.
In appropriating Arnold’s high-minded poem to the sensibilities of a smart aleck, Hecht is offering a comic lesson in narrative perspective, a reminder that, however authoritative the proclamations in “Dover Beach” appear, there are alternatives to the way its speaker sees the world. The woman addressed in Arnold’s poem is treated as part of the theatrical scenery, not as a sovereign consciousness with thoughts and feelings of her own. Hecht’s speaker, however, is most intent on trying to represent her point of view. Reducing Arnold to a literary prop, he attempts to characterize her reactions to the Victorian poet’s ardent rhetoric during their night at Dover Beach. Hecht’s speaker claims that, far from being enamored of Arnold or inspired by his grandiose speech, she had more mundane matters on her mind, like what his whiskers might feel like against her skin. “The Dover Bitch” explains that she became angry at Arnold for ignoring her as a living, sensual woman and for using her as a mere pretext for his florid oratory.
“Dover Beach” is a monument to the “high seriousness” that, in an 1880 book called The Study of Poetry, Arnold extolled as a criterion for great poetry. Hecht’s revision is an exercise in drollery. In contrast to the studied formality of “Dover Beach,” written in four stanzas of carefully organized blank verse, “The Dover Bitch” is composed in a single twenty-nine-line stanza of free verse that simulates the nonchalance of vernacular speech. Like a casual conversation, the run-on lines seem to ramble, and instead of concluding the poem merely halts.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 629
“So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl,” begins the anonymous speaker of “The Dover Bitch,” a cheeky man who does not himself pretend to “poetry” but addresses the reader bluntly in the unadorned English of the streets, a language ostensibly so frank that it does not shy away from the tactless word “bitch.” The speaker’s consistent preference for colloquial over fancy language reinforces his claim to be a candid alternative to Arnold’s specious magniloquence. Filled with casual utterances such as the expletives “so” and “well now” and the contractions “I’ll,” “it’s,” and “mustn’t,” Hecht’s speaker offers the illusion of verbal spontaneity—and thus sincerity—in contrast to the evasiveness of Arnold’s meticulously contrived clauses.
The speaker’s apparent ability to summarize all of Arnold’s elegant words in barely three lines is an implicit attack on the older poet’s verbosity: “Try to be true to me,/ And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad/ All over, etc., etc.” is presumably what Arnold would have said had he shared this speaker’s honesty and his knack for getting directly to the point. The “etc., etc.” is devastating ridicule of “Dover Beach” for being redundant, as if one need not pay much attention to exactly what Arnold is saying beyond his banal affirmation of faithful love in a treacherous world.
The subsequent account of the woman’s reactions to Arnold remains colloquial and sassy, suggesting that she shares the speaker’s impatience with Arnold’s decorous, evasive oratory. Repetition of the sloppy, slangy intensifier “really” (“really felt sad,” “really angry,” “really tough”) distances her further from Arnold the fastidious stylist. The line that informs readers of her resentment at being addressed “As sort of a mournful cosmic last resort”—another comic reduction of Arnold’s elegant poetry—is abruptly and comically followed by the judgment that this “Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty”—an assertion in very simple English of very simple truths that Arnold’s exquisite proclamations seem to ignore. The woman deploys a vocabulary including “one or two unprintable things,” obscenities that are inconceivable within Arnold’s chaste and earnest poem. The speaker seems, again, to suggest that there is a greater honesty in plain, even profane English.
“She’s really all right” is the speaker’s final, unpretentious, and tolerant judgment. In a loose, hedonistic society where encounters are casual and occasional, he is not ashamed to admit that, neither presuming nor desiring any exclusive claim to her attention, he meets her about once a year. Arnold lamented his inability to rely on anything in this bleak universe except the woman standing beside him, and although Hecht’s speaker exposes even that faith in personal love as deluded, he characterizes her as “dependable as they come.” It is faint praise, since “they” evidently do not come very dependable at all, but the speaker seems willing, all in all, to settle for much less—the merely human—than Arnold is.
The final line of “The Dover Bitch” is a nonchalant non sequitur, a further affront to the tradition of the well-made poem. “And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’Amour,” says the speaker, in an afterthought that reinforces the image of an ordinary man speaking without premeditation. Nuit d’Amour, the name of what is evidently either perfume or wine, answers the woman’s longing for “all the wine and enormous beds/ And blandishments in French and the perfumes,” a physical longing that Arnold’s metaphysical abstractions leave unsatisfied. By contrast, Hecht’s speaker gives her Nuit d’Amour, which means “night of love” and provides an alternative, carnal version of love in answer to Arnold’s abstract meditations.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 90
German, Norman. Anthony Hecht. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Lea, Sydney, ed. The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
Hoffman, Daniel. The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
McClatchy, J. D. White Paper: On Contemporary Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987.
Spiegelman, William. The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989.
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