Sunday Poetry: The Dover Bitch, by Anthony Hecht

The Dover Bitch

A Criticism of Life: for Andrews Wanning

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.’
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.

    – by Anthony Hecht
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A few postings ago, I wrote about how Love After Love gained depth for me after I read Love III. Today’s poem is far less subtle – it poses as a bit of a sequel, or a response, to Dover Beach, a masterpiece by Matthew Arnold.

There are at least a dozen ways to come at this poem, but the one that grabs my attention today is simply whether it is funny. It clearly has the tone of a stand-up bit from the start of “So . . .”, and the flippant phraseology of conversation stands in amusing contrast to Arnold’s poeticism. Cosmic last resort, running to fat but dependable as they come, she’s really alright – it sounds like an overheard conversation between buddies at a bar.

But is it funny?

I thought so when I was in high school. The casual and dismissive allusions to sex – I show her a good time – were a welcome macho posture for a kid who had no prospect of showing a girl anything more than an awkward and tedious time. I also appreciated the eye-rolling approach to a literary classic. And the whole thought of retelling the narrative of Dover Beach from the standpoint of the woman seemed so clever.

At 52, the humor is a bit more strained. Referring to the woman as a bitch lowers my opinion of the speaker these days. I now see that his simple approach to sexuality is improbable, and raises more questions about the speaker than it raises chuckles. The dismissal of Arnold’s questioning is more cowardly than blase’, and the whole poem is a dragging down of something bigger than itself. To me, it calls to mind W. B. Yeats’ great poem, The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned

Perhaps the poem truly is funny and cool, and perhaps I am neither, though I wanted to be both when I was 16 years old.

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