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 345: ‘More Light! More Light!’ by Anthony Hecht

Nothing for your cheer today, in fact this is just about the bleakest poem I know, but in a week that has seen the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings it may be appropriate to be reminded of what we should never forget, of the issues lying at the heart of that conflict that made the sacrifice of so many so necessary.

‘More Light! More Light!’

For Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt

Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
‘I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.’

Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.

And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquillity.

We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.

No light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.

Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and get back in.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.

Anthony Hecht