Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dover Beach 100 Years Later

Below is a photo of a young Anthony Hecht [1923-2004], one of the lights of the post-War period in American poetry. In a generation of traditional versifiers, Hecht was one of the best, but he also transcended the strict forms which he so masterfully employed, in getting at subject-matter than really cut deeply, and personally. 
I think what most impressed me when I first read him, in 1968, when I got a copy of his The Hard Hours [Atheneum, 1967], was the evident tension between the propriety of his formal approach, and the strong, frequently sarcastic, even bitter emotion which informed it. (This was also a quality I noted in Edward Dorn's work, though in Dorn, the formal properties were less restrictive, albeit no less compelling.) 
The "Quietist" tradition, as Ron Silliman has characterized it, of young poets "proving" themselves through imitation of traditional forms, as a process of apprenticeship to being approved for publication and acceptance within the official literary community, probably explains in part why poets of the generation of Hecht--i.e., Wilbur, Lowell, Jarrell, Schwartz, Plath, Bishop, Simpson, Justice, etc.--all began as formalists, despite having, in several cases, enormous burdens of subject-matter, which would under other circumstances, perhaps have produced novels or straight autobiography. 
In Hecht's case, he had seen quite a bit of action in the European Theatre during WWII, and was among the first to witness the Nazi concentration camps--experiences which, by his own account, led to a nervous breakdown in 1959, requiring three months' hospitalization. The weight of that personality convulsion is evident throughout The Hard Hours, a book that feels, in every respect, like the unburdening of a terrific weight. American poets during the 1960's underwent a somewhat notorious crisis of conscience and revaluation. Those who, like Lowell and Hecht and Simpson and Bly, had begun their careers as devoted formalists, heavily influenced by Eliot and Yeats and Auden, performed a kind of public immolation, in which strict forms were burst open to admit the confessional flow of previously forbidden private feeling into the work. The experience and weight of this feeling was presumed to have overwhelmed the medium.
In Hecht's case, the phenomenon did not seem expedient or masochistic. The ironies and valorized emotional extremities of his verse in The Hard Hours appeared to bear a genuine relation to lived experience. 
The confessional approach to poetic composition is commonly held is disrepute these days, though there is little doubt that much of the best poetry in history has been about personal feeling and experience, even if transmuted through convenient personification and dramatic narrative.
Our modern attitudes may seem sophisticated and open-minded, compared, say, to those of 19th Century poets, though, carried to a limit, such presumed openness and tolerance may indeed be nothing more than crass, glib dismissal. Hecht's re-version of Arnold's famous anthology-piece Dover Beach sets up a dialectic between Victorian, and popular Modern, attitudes about love and mortality and belief. Though Hecht's poem is not one of my favorites of his, it demonstrates some of the qualities of his work, which in my view save it from the flummeries of academic versifying, out of which tradition he had originally emerged as a voice.                                

Here is Arnold's poem in full--

Dover Beach

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Anyone who enjoys poetry
will find Arnold's poem a billboard of familiar cliches, softened somewhat by an earlier style of address, and the Victorian pieties which threaten, at all points, to render vivid emotion and direct gesture, helplessly enervating and hesitant. The poem's relaxed, nearly conversational tone disarms us with its apparent frankness, but its underlying prim inhibition is guarded--indeed, that aspect seems to undermine the whole sentiment of the poem. What exactly is Arnold saying in that last stanza, anyway? 
That, since the universe is unfriendly, and mankind's history is marked by strife, and "faith" is ebbing, we ought to be "true to one another." A Victorian interpretation of such truth-ful commitment might be honesty, or directness, or frankness. A Modern interpretation might find other kinds of implication. 
Here is Hecht's reactive "version" of Arnold's little theatre piece, published about a century later--

   The Dover Bitch

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.        

This may seem a little crude, at first glance. (Actually, this brand of harshness, or deliberate gaucheness, is a quality one finds often in Hecht's poetry, which is one of the aspects that saves it, at times, from being merely decorative or showy.) Hecht posits a little dramatic scene in which Arnold's poem is seen as an address to "this girl" whom the present Author "knew." The voice of the poem comments disdainfully and condescendingly on both this imaginary Arnold, and his companion. Arnold wants to bed this girl, but she's impatient with his pretentious poetizing, his attempt to yoke her into his quaint literary apostrophe, when all she's really been led to expect is a little affection, some comfortable travel time, and perhaps some sexual diversion. These are, at our remove, 40 years later (since Hecht published his poem) undoubtedly unprincipled and politically incorrect imputations. 
And yet, given our cynical tendency to see or to imagine the worst in people, especially uptight, proper Victorian gentlefolk deliberately concealing their carnal desires under a veneer of classical wit or noble sentiment, it might not be too outlandish to propose (or impose) a modern archetype, if for no other purpose than satire or comic relief, upon an otherwise familiar setting. Hecht frequently uses Modern trite attitudes in contrast to time-tested wisdom, distancing himself as Authorial figure in order to facilitate a dramatic trope--which, after all, is what Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and Woody Allen do. Which may serve to soften our indignation a bit, when we realize that the "voice" of Hecht's poem is not in any sense to be confused with direct address. It is, in once way, as curiously removed from the "reality" of the situation as Arnold himself may have been. If, then, Arnold's "true to one another" is meant to suggest nothing more than that in order to bed this lady whom he has brought down to the coast, he must first work himself up into a suitably dignified state of mind.
In summary, Hecht's poem seems to be a kind of sarcastic naturalistic dressing-down of traditional costume-drama, an updating of the stale Romantic ideal of forsaken love, in which bestial tendencies are reconciled with staid morality. Hecht's deliberately crass "take" on this trusty old Victorian warhorse may be nothing so preposterous or ill-conceived than a burlesque upon cynical contemporary attitudes. In our im-moral age, in which "Faith" has retreated even farther down the shingle, than it had in Arnold's day, we are certainly no less bestial than people were in Victorian times, though our pretensions may be a bit less decorous.                          


Ed Baker said...

I like the line (Arnold's) w "darkling plain" ending it
(the line, that is)

reminds me of Thomas's "starry dingle"

anyway on the way back from Greece 1969 Pauline ((Fay)"this girl")) and I

took the slow ferry from Calais to Dover...and

I am gussing that they both are "diging" before The White Cliffs of...?

HEY, they r e a l l y are WHITE (the cliffs of Dover)

well ending of the Hecht piece well except for "her" running to fat"

my muse remains yet just as she was/is...

hey and the Victorians had this magazine called The Pearl speaking of the "bestial" I used to have a copy of selections from The Pearl... but it disappeared...

Conrad DiDiodato said...


"Anyone who enjoys poetry will find Arnold's poem a billboard of familiar cliches, softened somewhat by an earlier style of address, and the Victorian pieties which threaten, at all points, to render vivid emotion and direct gesture, helplessly enervating and hesitant."

do you really think "Dover Beach" is just the stale Victorian relic you say it is here, of antiquarian interest (at best).

Billboard of familiar cliches!

It's in my opinion one of the most finely-crafted poems in the English language: accessible, fresh to the eye and ear even after the hundredth reading and resonating with limitless ideas on the human condition. I suspect your view of the great poet-critic's poem is influenced a little by Hecht's silly sophomoric parody.

Curtis Faville said...


I find Arnold's poem to be a bit tiresome. And it does have cliches:

"The eternal note of sadness"

"The Sea of Faith"

"a bright girdle furled"

"vast edges drear"

"a land of dreams"

--which weaken a poem whose intellectual alembic isn't dense enough, or profound enough, to bear the weight it's intended to carry.

Certain poems capture the imagination of history, or posterity, and acquire a significance far beyond their evident quality. Dover Beach is one of these, I'd wager.

My intent is not to use the Hecht poem to "criticize" Arnold's poem, but simply to occasion a comparison. The Hecht poem is not one my favorites of his. Indeed, it may seem trite. But its triteness is not a measure of Hecht's lack of powers, or of any lack of sophistication. I submit it's his way of contrasting a cynical "modern" appreciation of the basis of Arnold's underlying "narrative" seen through glib eyes.

Its irony has the same quality as Auden's Musee de Beaux Arts--it isn't Auden's voice we are hearing in that poem, but a constructed modern attitude partly being partly satirized, in much the same way that Hecht does.

Do you really find Arnold's poem profound, or fresh?

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I certainly do.

Eye and ear rejoice in the text though the message gives pause. Poet enjoins reader to hear (through rhythms), see ( through imagery) and feel(through prevailing mood)the despair of human love in the face of a brutal world.

Every year or so I go through the ritual of rereading all the great English texts (from beginning to end), usually through the summer months: all of Browning, Blake, Milton, Wordsworth, etc. from beginning til end. It's my way of staying grounded in vital tradition. And Matthew Arnold is among the most rewarding poets.

By temperament I guess I always bristle at characterizations of a great poet's work as "helplessly enervating and hesitant". I'm literally incapable of understanding a phrase like that.

Curtis Faville said...

English Victorian sensibility was irretrievably bound by class, racial and sexual prejudice, which affected not just the common man, but intellectuals and those in positions of responsibility and in public life. It resisted directness and frankness about matters sexual. Arnold's propriety requires that he propose congress from the high ground of intellectual discourse ("this coyness, lady, were no crime") rather than naming his own base desires. What is the difference between wooing and lust?

Hecht addresses the displacement between Victorian pretension and the blunt reality. Hecht isn't taking sides (and neither am I). Each age lives within the confines of its (mis-)conceptions. We may regard the adroitness of Arnold's not-very-elaborate maneuvering strategy in his poem, while still acknowledging what--to modern eyes--it appears to be about, unclothed.

Ed Baker said...

AHHHH... them Victorians
and their White Cliffs of

found a bit about The Pearl

and a piece out of an issue:

and, dig this connection ... the guy whose site this second link goes to well he also went to Hopkins... later than I and he notes that he studied yeah "studied" with Barth who was just there when I was there
and this John "Sot Weed.." guy insisted that I take out much
"stuff" from my Okeanos Rhoos thesis acuse it was "unintelligible" and no one would appreciate it as he didn't..

anyway what was de:leated became/is Points/Counterpoints

which gets me back to this topic at hand (no sexual innyouindoes intended)

Mathew Arnold et all

heck let us embrace them Victorian... entirely that John Ruskin COULD write...

wasn't The Story of O done in those daze and that deQuincy Dope Eater Diary? I guess "it" all started when Ben Franklin visited Hingland and showed 'em how to set on a page a bnook from type?

Kirby Olson said...

The seat of the scoffer.

Mark Granier said...

"The eternal note of sadness"

"The Sea of Faith"

"a bright girdle furled"

"vast edges drear"

"a land of dreams"

Curtis, these are obviously cliches now, but were they then, when Arnold wrote the poem? And what about their combinations? Did anyone else come up with "vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world" before Arnold penned it? "Into thin air" is an unforgivable cliche now, but I don't believe it was when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest. Perhaps you are correct, and all of the above were well-worn common currency in Victorian verse, so Arnold was merely shooting blanks. But if they weren't, and he wasn't, then it is meaningless to deride them as cliches.

BTW, interesting what you say about Auden's Musee de Beaux Arts, though Auden's 'voice', ironic as always, is probably as much present in that poem as in anything else he wrote; all of our voices are partly constructed from attitudes/mores, etc. from whatever time we happen to exist in; this doesn't make them any less our own voices. I think Reznikoff understood how brilliant that poem is.

Mark Granier said...

Forgot to sat thanks for Hecht's parody. I enjoyed it.

Curtis Faville said...


I don't think of Hecht's poem as a parody, as such.

More, rather, as a commentary or the personification of a contemporary take on the earlier poem. I don't see the voice of Hecht's poem as standing for HIS attitude, but as the vehicle of an attitude which Hecht is equally estranged from. Hecht, I think, likes Dover Beach--it's a beautifully thought out situation, which teeters on the edge of indelicacy and pomposity, but just manages to pull back. That hesitancy is, I think, Victorian. When we try to talk about very large subjects, large implications, we may be tempted to use unavoidably broad kinds of descriptives. Strong emotion usually infuses language with force, but the pieces of this rhetoric may seem bland when looked at dispassionately.

Mark Granier said...

Curtis, I think that parody is as good a description as "a commentary or the personification of a contemporary take", and it's less of a mouthful too. Of course, the commentary etc. is in there too, but the title, for one thing, definitely suggests parody.

I agree though that the voice in Hecht's poem is very possibly a deliberate ventriloquism rather than his own attitude towards Dover Beach (or anything else) and that he may well have liked the poem; parodies (or whatever you wish to call them) can be a form of homage.

But what about my query regarding the cliches? Any thoughts?

Curtis Faville said...


A parody is an imitation of an original--particularly in style. This is not that.

It's a sort of "criticism of life"--or criticism of Arnold.

Beerbohm was a master of prose parody. Louis Untermeyer anthologized poetic parodies. Check those out. "A commentary or the personification of a contemporary take" is not a long way of saying parody; it's a description of what Hecht might have been attempting. Who can say what he was aiming at? --but not parody.

I thought I did address your question about cliches. I've not studied these phrases, historically. But they seem rather weak when you look at them out of context. No contemporary poet would use them, not necessarily because they might have been used before, but simply because they have a trite, hackneyed ring. I mean, come on, "eternal note of sadness"?? Who would use such a phrase?

Mark Granier said...

Curtis, I believe parody is broader than your definition; comic parody can involve a variety of different approaches/piss-takes, provided (a) the work is humouros and (b) it is clearly a take on the original. I think The Dover Bitch fulfills these requirements; the fact that it may transcend them is beside the point. But let's just agree to disagree.

Regarding those phrases you haven't 'studied', sure, they are weak out of context (as are countless phrases lifted from countless poems). My point was that they may not have been cliches, and you haven't said anything to convince me that they were. Who can know what we would have made of these if we'd been living 143 years ago? Take a similar leap into the future and there will probably be critics who'll snort at our present notions of what constitutes an 'original' or 'powerful' phrase.

Now, it's nearly bedtime and I don't want to go bumping much further down this little trunk road. Enough semantics. I agree with much of what you said. Let's leave it at that.

Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...


Ask yourself one thing: Is Hecht's poem an imitation--in any sense--of Arnold's poem?

It's spoken in the first person by a supposed "third party" who "knew" the girl in the supposed tryst. Hecht's glib, crass tone suggest nothing of the style of the original poem.

Mark Granier said...

No need. I've reconsidered and you're probably right. It's more of a response than a parody. Silly of me, should have thought twice.

I still think you were wrong to speak of cliches but it's not worth arguing about.



Bee said...

Curtis, to any one who has been to the bottom, the final stanza of Dover Beach is completely recognizeable. It is written from there. If one is looking at it in an effete bourgeois way, one can poke all sorts of fun, and holes in it. But anyone who has been to the bottom will recognize the steel there.
The final shoe dropping.
And those when they hear your snobbish comments, will have precisely the same reaction to you as you have to the author!! Dare you to print this. Don't imagine you will. Signed, been there, done that. Be well, mean you well. love Bee.

Curtis Faville said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curtis Faville said...

How we respond to the level of conviction in any piece of writing, is a measure of how effective the author has been in convincing us through the rhetorical devices he uses. That makes it sound as if writing is all about strategy and cunning and artificial feeling--but that's not at all what I'm getting at.

I think Arnold's poem is enormously effective. And there is nothing in my post which would suggest that I regard his poem as less than an impressive achievement. My purpose in placing the two poems (and poets) in opposition was to point out their relationship, and the changing impulses and attitudes over time.

I think you may be deliberately misinterpreting Arnold's poem. I don't see it as an example of a desperate outcry from the depths of depression, as you seem to ("the bottom"). Instead, I read it as a formal overture to passionate engagement, in which a man is justifying this passion with appeals to higher ideals, against the backdrop of a kind of historical cynicism. Its relaxed tone--"relaxed" in the context of its time (it sounds a bit unruffled and formal to our ears)--creates the aura of honest conviction, whereas I suspect Arnold was more concerned with creating the EFFECT of conviction, than of actually communicating the sentiment to a real OTHER.

Ed Baker said...

as an author
a poet and an artist

who is NOT interviewing for or applying for or
building towards a long list of credentials
I can tell you:

I, nor any other writer/artist, am/is not
responsible for the readers'/viewers' intelligence OR

as Al Ginsberg once told me: " I write for those who 'dig it'."

Curtis Faville said...


Not sure I follow your line of argument here.

Do you mean that writers can't be held "responsible" for their audience, or its limitations?

I think Bee's reaction to Arnold's poem is perfectly fine, but perhaps it says more about the reader than the writer. Writers might often be surprised at just what subsequent generations of readers may think about their work. I think in the case of Arnold's poem, the sentiment does survive whatever limitations existed in his Victorian milieu. That's a measure of its success.

Ed Baker said...

that. is. exactly.


I wasn't "meaning"
I was merely "being".

I, too, frequently have difficulty
following/understanding myself

like the time I was on an oil rig and lit a match to see
there "REallly" was odorless NATURAL gas leaking into the air...

well, I certainly found out what THAT meant!

it ; the result, REALLY WAS a cliche! and it s concomitant "meaning" was not
your run-of-the-mill metaphor.