The Poison of Cool: Arnold’s Beach and America’s Bitch
Contributed by Paul H. Schmidt, Ph.D.
Georgia State University
At first glance, Anthony Hecht’s "The Dover Bitch" (1967) reads like a derisive modern caricature of the hyper-grave Matthew Arnold, evangelist of Victorian high seriousness, as he appears in his famous dramatic monologue “Dover Beach” (1867). And initially, from the point of view of laid-back twentieth-century America, there is much to mock in Arnold’s uptight stance of moral rectitude.
In Arnold’s poem, the speaker (certainly a version of Arnold) addresses his “love” from the window of a beach cottage, looking out to sea and reflecting profoundly about Sophocles (15) and the meaning of life in a world “Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night” (36-7). The speaker’s lover passively receives his pronouncements, and does not reply to his passionate plea for their love to provide all that is lacking in a world bereft of “joy . . . love . . . light . . . certitude . . . peace . . . [and] help for pain” (33-4). The auditor’s passivity might simply be a consequence of the poem’s dramatic monologue structure, but the speaker’s self-absorption is still palpable.
In Hecht’s version, the speaker, using sloppy late-twentieth-century colloquial diction—itself a mockery of the fastidious stylings of Arnold’s poetry—reveals that he “knew” the lady in question (6), and tells the story of the sea-side rendezvous from her perspective, that of a well-read but trivial-minded cocotte, who had come to the sea for pleasure and “blandishments in French” (15) yet received neither, and who had voiced her anger and disappointment in the experience of being brought down to the eponymous shore only to be addressed as a “sort of mournful cosmic last resort” (19). (It should be pointed out here that this woman may be the biggest weakness in the Hecht poem, as it is hard to imagine the honorable Matthew Arnold taking vacation with such a demi-rep).
But in order for this poem to work as a parody of Arnold, the reader has to have some respect for the speaker. Initially, the speaker’s casual, knowing disposition seems a welcome and irreverent relief from the solemnity of his Victorian predecessor. He reflects the hedonistic attitudes and values of the middle twentieth-century, and he seems able to understand the physical needs of the woman Arnold’s speaker seems so blind to. But on second consideration, we see that Hecht has slyly undercut his speaker’s position as judge of Matthew Arnold.
One of the primary problems modern readers have with Arnold’s poem is the speaker’s obliviousness to the thoughts and feelings of his partner, and the Hecht speaker at first seems to offer a corrective to that. However, by the end of “The Dover Bitch,” we see that while the speaker does give the woman what Arnold could not – a nuit d’amour – contrasted with the Arnold speaker, he is shallow and even more brutally indifferent to her. He uses her for his own pleasure (“she always treats me right” ) and believes he has secured her good will with a bottle of perfume (29). And although unlike Arnold’s speaker, he listens to what she has to say and accepts her as he finds her (“She’s really all right” ), he still reduces her to “this girl” (twice 1, 6), and cannot really see beyond her body, as he points out that she had been “pretty” but is now “running to fat” (19, 28).
So whereas Matthew Arnold’s speaker may be a bit pretentious and too earnest by twentieth-century standards, he approaches the world with conscience and moral seriousness. The Hecht speaker has no moral concerns at all and, far from taking the world too earnestly, lives without any ethical considerations other than the desire to get whatever pleasure he can. The sub-title of “The Dover Bitch,” is “A Criticism of Life,” a phrase taken from Arnold’s essay “The Study of Poetry” (Matthew Arnold: Selected Prose, Penguin, 1987, 340-66). And the poem works as a criticism not so much of Arnold’s world, but of the developing American slacker “cool” outlook of the twentieth century, much like what Matthew Arnold refers to in the same essay as “charlatanism,” an approach to life that does not concern itself with making “distinctions between excellent and inferior” (341), or right and wrong for that matter.
Arnold’s anguished speaker struggles to understand his role in a seemingly meaningless world, while Hecht’s speaker thrives there, has long ago given up trying to discriminate between right and wrong in his own behavior, and lives without distress. He reports mockingly that on that night at Dover, Matthew Arnold paced about, played with his watch chain, and seemed “to sweat a bit” (21), clear signs of anguish, indications of some kind of crisis that neither Hecht’s speaker nor the woman seems to care about or understand. Their only concern is for their own pleasure, for having “a good time” (26).
Clearly the Matthew Arnold character is not cool, and Hecht seems aware of how poorly this uncool kind of anxiety plays in a world where cool is all that matters. And yet I think his final sympathies lie not with the relaxed, easy-going speaker of his own poem but with the tortured soul of “Dover Beach.”