The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.