Week 464: The Dover Bitch, by Anthony Hecht

I feel that there must be a single word term for this kind of irreverent gloss or counter-poem, but for the moment I can’t bring one to mind. You cannot, I think, call it a parody. A good parody works by close imitation, so close that you could almost think you were reading an original work by the target author, just giving the game away by the subtlest of exaggerations, the most innocent-looking of stumbles. Think, for example, of Henry Reed’s parody of T.S.Eliot, ‘Chard Whitlow’, of Chesterton’s versions of Yeats and Whitman, of Max Beerbohm’s take-offs of Henry James and Arnold Bennett, of Hugh Kingsmill’s A.E.Housman.

In contrast, Hecht’s poem is in tone and style nothing like Matthew Arnold’s celebrated Victorian poem ‘Dover Beach’, about the ebbing tide of faith and the loss of the old certainties. It is not even clear to me whether Hecht dislikes Arnold’s poem and finds in it a pomposity that needs puncturing, or whether he feels that high-mindedness is all very well but sometimes a bit of low-mindedness doesn’t come amiss either, or whether he is just having a bit of fun. In any event, I do find the poem good fun, and of course Arnold’s original remains a powerful piece well able to take the hit and sail on.

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.

Anthony Hecht

Week 463: Under The Waterfall, by Thomas Hardy

Bit of an odd one this week. On the face of it this is a rather decorous, even slightly naïve poem about two Victorian lovers enjoying a picnic by a waterfall, yet it portrays the event with a sensuous precision that borders on the erotic, and while the last thing I would want to do is get all Freudian about a beautiful poem, I can’t help wondering if Hardy, with a knowing twinkle in his not-so-innocent Victorian eye, was not well aware of certain symbolic possibilities in the poem. This is after all the man who in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ gives us such a dazzling account of Sergeant Troy’s swordplay in ‘the hollow amid the ferns’. But never mind all that: as always with Hardy, any other theme is subordinate to the passage of time, the transience of human happiness and the bittersweetness of memory.

Under the Waterfall

‘Whenever I plunge my arm, like this,
In a basin of water, I never miss
The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day
Fetched back from its thickening shroud of gray.
      Hence the only prime
      And real love-rhyme
      That I know by heart,
      And that leaves no smart,
Is the purl of a little valley fall
About three spans wide and two spans tall
Over a table of solid rock,
And into a scoop of the self-same block;
The purl of a runlet that never ceases
In stir of kingdoms, in wars, in peaces;
With a hollow boiling voice it speaks
And has spoken since hills were turfless peaks.’
‘And why gives this the only prime
Idea to you of a real love-rhyme?
And why does plunging your arm in a bowl
Full of spring water, bring throbs to your soul?’

‘Well, under the fall, in a crease of the stone,
Though where precisely none ever has known,
Jammed darkly, nothing to show how prized,
And by now with its smoothness opalized,
      Is a drinking-glass:
      For, down that pass
      My lover and I
      Walked under a sky
Of blue with a leaf-wove awning of green,
In the burn of August, to paint the scene,
And we placed our basket of fruit and wine
On the runlet’s rim, where we sat to dine;
And when we had drunk from the glass together,
Arched by the oak-copse from the weather,
I held the vessel to rinse in the fall,
Where it slipped, and sank, and was past recall,
Though we stooped and plumbed the little abyss
With long bared arms. There the glass still is.
And, as said, if I thrust my arm below
Cold water in basin or bowl, a throe
From the past awakens a sense of that time,
And the glass both used, and the cascade’s rhyme.
The basin seems the pool, and its edge
The hard smooth face of the brook-side ledge,
And the leafy pattern of china-ware
The hanging plants that were bathing there.

‘By night, by day, when it shines or lours,
There lies intact that chalice of ours,
And its presence adds to the rhyme of love
Persistently sung by the fall above.
No lip has touched it since his and mine
In turns therefrom sipped lovers’ wine.’

Thomas Hardy

Week 462: The Burial of the Old, by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry (1934-) is an American poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist and environmental activist. I admire this poem for its terse unsentimental serenity, even if it does appear to take a rather brisk attitude towards the dying of the aged. I sat with my father in his last hours, wanting to say to him those things it is so difficult to utter in normal times, but he never came round from the operation, so all went unsaid, and whether the light became again the sky for him I cannot say. But the third verse certainly rings true: when I left the hospital it seemed an extraordinary thing to walk in sunlight and for days afterwards I felt charged with an almost lacerating sensitivity to my own aliveness.

The Burial of the Old

The old, whose bodies encrust their lives,
Die, and that is well.
They unhinder what has struggled in them,

The light, painfully loved, that narrowed
And darkened in their minds
Becomes again the sky.

The young, who have looked on dying,
Turn back to the world, grown strangely
Alert to each other’s bodies.

Wendell Berry