Application #6

Matthew Arnold

Application # 6
(Something I wrote in graduate school)

The “interpoetic relationship” between Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach and Anthony Hecht’s The Dover Bitch could hardly be less subtle. Hecht “clears poetic space” for himself by means of a “purposeful misreading” of Arnold in which Hecht inserts himself as a peripheral character in “Dover Beach”. This playful approach belies Harold Bloom’s contention that poets inevitably grapple with the “anxiety of influence” of prior works.

“Dover Bitch” is a lighthearted parody which mocks the sincerity and the seriousness of the original text. Hetch does this by transforming the object of desire in “Dover Beach” into a “girl” who is quite unworthy of her lofty stature. The woman spoken to in “Dover Beach” is the recipient of a protestation of a love which is meant to replace all the shattered Victorian certitudes which no longer exist:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world ….
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

This is quite a tall order to fill: Make my life meaningful in a world without God. Hecht slyly deflates Arnold’s heroic affirmation of devotion by turning its recipient into a woman far more interested in having a good time than resolving Arnold’s spiritual devastation. Hecht does not merely remove her from her pedestal, but makes her scornful of Arnold’s attempt to recreate her “(A)s a sort of mournful cosmic last resort”.

Hecht’s attempt to supplant his predecessor offers a rich vein to be tapped by those who would extract psychoanalytical deposits from the rivalries which exist between authors. When Hecht proclaims “I knew this girl”, he means it in the biblical sense. It is hard to resist the Oedipal interpretation in which Hecht not only seduces the fictional object of Arnold’s desire, but has his way with his poem as well.

Hecht’s reduction of Arnold’s contemplation on the meaning of life into a tawdry one night stand is possible because Arnold permits him the space to do so. Arnold’s failure to consider how the poem plays to its internal audience makes it possible for the reader to accept her as seeing him as an insufferable blowhard.

by Richard W. Bray

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