The World Is SickSICK; (So Kiss Me Quick)!
Or, The Poisoned Apple: part one
(Note: this is the first in an occasional series about how specific artworks can lie to us. I don’t know how often or how frequently the series will feature here, but expect at least three more essays in the series, as well as, perhaps, some guest posts. Let us go then, you and I . . . )
Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” is a regular feature of poetry classes in high schools and colleges throughout the English-speaking world. The poem is archetypical; it’s about as close as anyone will get to the platonic example of a poet working through “vast, weighty themes” through their art. It seems to align with all the soul-searching and uncertainty that figures in the lives of most teenagers across time and space . . . and it is rotten. Let me tell you why.
Don’t be distracted by the poem’s poetics—its allusions to other works, its lush and gorgeous language. The sweetest candy can often conceal a deadly poison, as in Snow White’s apple. Don’t be bamboozled by those lines at the end:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Ooh! A tingling down the spine! Just as with the first couplet of Nabokov’s Pale Fire poem,1 I have a feeling that people like these lines more for the sound than the substance. Don’t get me wrong; I love the craft of poetry—the way poets can work with the raw materials of language (sound, wordplay, metaphor, all the rest)—and I find Arnold’s “Dover Beach” a quite splendid example of the craft. Arnold is one of the masters. And it’s only fitting for a master of the craft to tackle the heavy stuff, to struggle with titanic, existential ideas. I know I’m certainly not a good enough poet to write about that sort of thing. A necessary competence must accumulate around a poet, just like it must with a painter or a musician, before they can be trusted with commentary on the state of culture and the struggle for meaning in a secularized world. Arnold had certainly achieved this by the time he wrote “Dover Beach.” He was, and still is, considered one of the greatest English poets of the nineteenth century, and a particularly incisive cultural critic; when Matthew Arnold has something to say about the decay of culture, we ought to listen.
That being said, however . . . the view from where Matthew Arnold watches the tide sure is . . . bleak!! Is this what poetry is really all about—to make us feel like everything is falling apart and there’s no certainty? Good job, Matthew! You’ve got yet another crop of kids feeling glum and moody! Don’t you have anything positive to say to the situation? Our cultural memory of the Victorian era might be one of blissful domesticity, rigid manners, and the kind of goopy drapery and heavy coats that Edward Gorey loved to draw—but we oughtn’t fool ourselves: as the era wore on, it can be seen in the novels and poems that a deep malaise, an existential dread, had gripped the Victorian social imaginary. In this regard, Arnold’s poem sums up the situation quite nicely: we’re on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves . . . and we can’t help but think of our own existential situation. Just like the tide rolling back, the comfort and security of religion has been draining away from the social consciousness, leaving . . . nothing but broken bits, crumbled rocks, shards of meaning that are worthless in the end. What should we do??
Arnold’s answer to that question is what gets me mad. His answer can be interpreted either charitably or uncharitably. The charitable interpretation is that he proposes a new religion since the old one is dead—a humanistic religion, based on shared commitment and mutual affection. Really, it doesn’t sound too bad. “Let us be true to one another”—that’s actually a very noble sentiment! But the problem is that there is nothing grounding it. “Dover Beach” could be the blueprint for much of whatdescribes in her excellent book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. In that book, she details how people have created various substitute systems of belief to replace the waning effects of Christianity in the industrialized West. That’s what Matthew Arnold is doing in the poem: he is trying to create something he can believe in, a refuge of security amidst the howling mess of meaninglessness he sees creeping up all around him.
The uncharitable interpretation is that Arnold just wants to be close to his lover for purely sensual reasons—being near her gets his mind off his troubles. Here at RUINS, we love to note connections between the art of different times and periods, and this idea is the same feeling that pops up every once in a while in the poetics of Efrim Menuck, the brains behind a good chunk of the indie music scene in turn-of-the-21st-century Montreal. The title of this essay is a song title from A Silver Mt. Zion’s first album. The theme also occurs in the spoken word introduction to Godspeed You Black Emperor’s album F#A#∞ : “I said kiss me, you’re beautiful, these are truly the last days.” I don’t know if Menuck was directly inspired by Arnold’s poem, but the similarity is uncanny.
I have to assume that Arnold is being honest; that he truly does see the world “as on a darkling plain” and that his poetic angst is his honest reaction. But his honest feeling conceals a lie—not a deliberate lie, to be sure, but still a lie. A misrepresentation of the truth, if you would rather put it that way. In art there are many kinds of these misrepresentations, these lies: there is the Francis Bacon kind of lie, in which all is eaten up by the most malignant despair and there is no hope for anything; there is Arnold’s lie, in which the existential problems are profoundly disturbing but “let’s just make up our own little bubble of sweetness and light over here, okay?”; there is Thomas Kinkade’s career-long lie of “just don’t think about it, just focus on pretty things to make yourself happy and don’t admit even the possibility of anything uncomfortable or bad.” There is Oscar Wilde’s lie: “nothing really matters anyway, he said, as he dipped his slender fingers in a bowl of rose-scented water and looked languidly at the wisteria on the trellis.” Arnold is commendable in that he doesn’t fall into complete and abject despair, but his “solution” to the problem of cultural decay is, in my mind at least, a rather dangerous path to take—eventually even his “true to each other” compact with his lover will prove inadequate, since there’s nothing of substance underneath it; he is thus only setting himself up for greater failure down the road. The true problems haven’t been solved yet. Earlier I said that “Dover Beach” was “rotten”—I don’t believe it is evil, but its moral foundations are rested on beams that are riddled with termites and decay, and ripe for falling down. It’s been more than a century and a half since Arnold wrote his poem, and since then we’ve seen the West try everything it can to have a morality without God in it—and these days it seems like the whole thing is more precarious than ever.
Compare this situation with the one in Anthony Hecht’s 1967 poem “Dover Bitch.” Go ahead and read it—I’ll wait.
I must say, the first line of “Dover Bitch” has got to be one of the most glorious, exquisitely perfect lines of iambic pentameter ever penned:
So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
It’s just stellar. Matthew Arnold . . . and “this girl.” Whomp! The rarefied heights of poetic immortality and the mundane world of the everyday! The Western Canon—and some girl! It reminds me of the mood at the end of Billy Collins’ “The Rival Poet”2 . . . only more so. Hecht brilliantly turns Arnold’s “love,” who barely featured in Arnold’s original poem, into a real person. Arnold might be having a tense moment here, and is hoping his love helps him get through it—but how does she feel about all this?
In Hecht’s version of the events at Dover Beach, Arnold’s “love” is not having any of his glowering despair. She’s fed up with this whole contrived situation, much like the narrator in Maddie and Tae’s brilliantly funny “Girl in a Country Song.” And Anthony Hecht is on her side. However, there is still a note of sourness here: the poem is quite funny but I don’t see any way out of Arnold’s gloominess other than a coarse hedonism. If that is so, then Hecht’s solution isn’t much better than Matthew Arnold’s. Hecht’s characters are living in the moment and having a good time, but there is still nothing of substance propping up their bliss. If they were to ever sit quietly and think about their situation . . . would they suddenly notice the same lack of faith that Arnold notices around himself? Would they be similarly discouraged?
So . . . what should be the answer to the problem? Is there a satisfying answer to Matthew Arnold’s angsty, troubled broodings—one which acknowledges the reality of the surrounding cultural decay yet doesn’t fall into despair or false hope?
There’s a passage in the Bible where the prophet Elijah also notices the lack of faith in the surrounding culture.3 He flees into the wilderness; on the mountain of Horeb he hears the voice of God. The voice says, “what are you doing here, Elijah?” and when the prophet describes the moral decay that he has seen among the people of Israel, God doesn’t directly comfort him; instead he sends him off with a set of commissions. Later, God indicates to Elijah that there is still a remnant of the faithful left in Israel; but this awareness is not required for Elijah to act in faith. The meaning of this passage is that the antidote to despair over cultural decay is to remember the truth about the God who has the situation under control.
What a simple yet wise answer to creeping despair! From our limited perspective, it can indeed seem like the entire world has “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;” but then we shouldn’t be looking to the world for those things anyway. The idea is elaborated upon by king David in one of the psalms:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.4
It’s too bad that Arnold’s melancholia distracted him from the reality of God’s providence, but we don’t have to be similarly distracted. The Bible is full of stories of people who had to act in faith even when things looked terrible around them. That faith can be ours as well, despite the present moment’s brokenness. Maybe this sounds like too easy of an answer but if our focus is on the decayed culture, of course the answer will seem inadequate; however, if we focus on God instead, the cultural problems will be seen in the proper perspective.
That’s an important point to remember when reading poetry; despite poets being the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” their perspective is sometimes flawed and doesn’t need to be normative for the rest of us.
I am the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure of the windowpane.
You are the one below
fidgeting in your rented tux
with some local Cindy hanging all over you.
It’s found in 1 Kings 19:8-18.