Well, the first two stanzas are about women with a certain color of hair, “half tan,” to which the speaker never fails to respond, and about a woman he stayed with in Pasadena, with that color hair I guess, and sorry, but I’m terribly uninterested in that. Is stuffed, de world, wif tan-haired girls. This line is odd enough that it’s interesting: “Murdered the ruses that would quack me clear / The orchard squeaks.” Except that it’s probably about a tryst or trysts in some orchard, and like I say, I’m terribly uninterested in that. Then there’s this to end things: “Cal has always manifested a most surprising affection / for Matthew Arnold,—who is not a rat but whom / I can quite take or leave.” It comes out of nowhere, making this Dream Song an unfocused ho-hum in sum. And there’s the pretty standard dismissal of Matthew Arnold, which I’ve never quite understood. What’s with that?
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172844 is one of my favorite poems. Period. It has been endlessly anthologized, but that’s because it’s not only great, it’s teachable. I’ve gone over it dozens of time with students. I can say, without irony, that very few works of literature have taught me more than this one poem, both about poetry and about modernism, the poem’s real subject. I could analyze it in detail. But, briefly: It starts with descriptions of the night and the surf on the shoreline. That line “The Sea of Faith” switches the poem from literal description of the beach to metaphor, while using the same beachy images. With all the allusions to withdrawal and receding, the point is made about modernism: The things we once depended on (like faith) are withdrawing from our grasp. There is a terrible sense of anxiety that comes with that knowledge. “Love, let us be true to one another.” This is a grasping onto something we can trust—love. For the world, which seems so wonderful, is really none of that. The last lines—I find them haunting and amazing. “we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
I gather that to admit you love this poem is something like saying you’re still a great fan of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It’s hokey. It’s passé. They may have been popular, but these TV shows never were very good anyway. We’ve moved on and so should you. The poet, Anthony Hecht, wrote one of those scathing parodies that Jonathon Swift was so deadly at. Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch” http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dover-bitch pretty much finished off “Dover Beach” in the minds of serious academic poets, I think. And these lines, I admit, are killer:
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.
A “mournful cosmic last resort”? Ouch! The satire bites. Well, when something is overblown and worn out, then satirical demolition is appropriate. Swift’s “Description of a City Shower” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180932 was the coup de grâce for poems ending with a heroic rhymed triplet. His final three lines were so devastating that the form never recovered:
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
Swift’s poem, all the way through, is hilarious. Heroic rhymed triplets are long gone, but even in Swift’s day, the form needed to be dealt with and he took on the task and skewered it dead. Did “Dover Beach” need such treatment, as it got? I don’t think so.
One summer when my son was about three, we had this ritual. I would take his wooden building blocks and construct elaborate sculptures with them at night when he was in bed. I mean, these things were good. I loved my little son, and I would focus all that, direct it into an intense sculptural creativity—with his wooden blocks. I made towers, domes, I would channel Frank Lloyd Wright one night, the Russian Expressionists the next. Some of the towers were six feet high. I built an arch with a keystone, pointed Gothic arches with flying buttresses, a dome with a hole in the top. On and on. He would get up in the morning, the innocent little savage, and kick them down. Sometimes I would hold him back, say, “Look! This is a channeling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style. See the corner windows? The overhanding rooflines?” Of course, I might as well have been explaining architectural theory to my cat. As soon as I turned him loose he gleefully demolished my fabulous work of art without so much as a quiver of appreciation for the intricacy and erudition captured so elegantly in the sculptural forms. It was all great fun, and I recognized the devastating satirist in my three year old son.
That’s pretty much what I think of “The Dover Bitch.” I like Matthew Arnold, thank you very much.