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...
(The entire section is 420 words.)