At first glance, Anthony Hecht's "Dover Bitch" is not only funnier than Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach", but also describes a more "liberated" relationship; the poem is as free from what some would consider stuffy Victorian morals as it is from references to Sophocles. Hecht's urbane and flippant persona tends to win over its audience, whether they find irony in the poem that adds to their appreciation of "Dover Beach", appreciate the poem as a criticism of Victorian morals, or laugh at Arnold's apparent inability to give his girl "a good time." "Dover Bitch" also seems to give more power to the lover, who is kept behind the scenes in Arnold, by bringing "her" opinions and wishes into the foreground of the poem. However, on closer examination, it becomes evident that Hecht appropriates rather than liberates the voice of the lover and trivializes her in a way that Arnold does not. Hecht at first seems more enlightened, but the evidence leads one to believe that Arnold's views might not have been in need of criticism in the first place.
The theme of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach", enduring love, is rather typical of the Victorian period; so it makes sense that many consider Hecht's parody rather typical of the Modernist period. In "The Dover Bitch: Victorian Duck or Modernist Duck/Rabbit?" Gerhard Joseph suggests that the Dover poems demonstrate an "epistemological shift" (9) between the Victorian and Modernist periods; the Victorian period is rigid, and the Modernist period more flexible. Joseph notes that Matthew Arnold's "value system"(9) is based on certainty (of love), and that this implies a belief that is constant and that sees constance elsewhere. Arnold suggests constancy in a poem that it makes sense to interpret in a constant way, while Hecht suggests inconstancy in a poem that can easily be interpreted in multiple ways, and that these states are symptomatic of the epistemology of the works' respective periods. In addition, the poems are representative of their periods in their portrayal of morals; "Dover Beach", published in 1867, suggests a long-enduring, honourable, very Victorian kind of love, while "Dover Bitch", published in 1967, suggests that free love is preferable to long-term attachment. It seems clear that the two poems reflect their respective periods' ways of thinking and general moral values. But are they really representative in the same way of their periods' ways of thinking about gender and gender equality?
In "Dover Beach", Arnold's lover is peripheral, playing second fiddle to his highbrow meditation. Her thoughts and opinions are not considered; she is simply Arnold's solution to the uncertainty of the world, and much of his monologue to her is issued in the imperative, leaving her no opportunity to contribute or to decide not to participate. Arnold's poem appears to be coming from a conservative Victorian patriarchal position on gender. However, this reading becomes problematic when one recognizes that though "Dover Beach" is usually interpreted as having a male persona (perhaps Arnold himself), the text itself does not indicate the speaker's gender, nor, indeed, the gender of the lover. As Eugene R. August notes, "any attempt to determine the sex of the speaker will necessarily involve gross stereotyping." (35) August uses an example of a poem dealing with a similar theme of love as certainty in an unsure world that is written by a woman (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) to impress upon us that it is impossible even to determine the gender of the writer based on his or her subject matter.
In spite of this decided ambiguity, though, many readings of the poem assume that the speaker is male (and possibly that it is Matthew Arnold). Because there is no textual evidence to support it, this assumption must come from the reader; so when the sexism of "Dover Beach" is criticised, it is not the poem that is at fault, but our own assumption that maleness is the default; that since the speaker is not explicitly female, obviously it must be male. If this assumption is set aside, there is no indication of either character's gender in the poem. Since the gender of the persona in "Dover Beach" must remain up in the air, so must the possibility of sexism existing in the poem.
In "Dover Bitch", we begin with a rather liberated lover, who resists the attempt of the "Dover Beach" speaker to trap her into his meditation and, in fact, betrays him with the speaker of "Dover Bitch." At first glance, this lover appears to be more of an equal to both poem's speakers. However, this is perhaps not the case. The woman (or "girl", a term that implies lack of maturity) is not described as "intelligent" or "thoughtful", but rather as "pretty." The speaker assumes that the audience will think less of her because she's said "one or two unprintable things" -- after all, that's not very ladylike. And finally, her redeeming quality, what makes her "all right", is her willingness to have a drink and a good time with the speaker. In fact, the woman/girl in "Dover Bitch" is no more empowered than the lover in "Dover Beach" (assuming, for a moment, that the "Dover Beach" lover was female). She is still described in terms of her looks and her behaviour with men; that she has "read Sophocles in a fairly good translation" is peripheral. Our overwhelming impression of her is a bottle of cheap perfume. It appears that "Dover Bitch" in fact does display a patriarchal position on gender, which though different in its details from such a position in Victorian times, is no less insidious or unfortunate. Although there is, again, no direct evidence for the speaker's gender in "Dover Bitch", the reference made to Matthew Arnold as the speaker of "Dover Beach" suggests that Hecht is the speaker in his parody. Where in "Dover Beach" we had no real evidence about the gender of either the speaker or the lover, in "Dover Bitch" we know the lover is female, and can make a fair guess that the speaker is male.
Anthony Hecht seems to be commenting on the treatment of the lover (the woman, he assumes) in "Dover Beach." In his parody, he implies that Arnold isn't giving his lover "a good time", and that he is not considerate of her. He seems not only to imply that Arnold's morals are stale and boring, but also to criticise Arnold's treatment of his lover. The presence of the lover's voice in "Dover Bitch" is perhaps Hecht bringing to our attention that the lover in "Dover Beach" is silenced. However, Hecht's criticism falls flat. Tom Hayes points out that Hecht "reports what "the girl" said, but she still does not -- is not allowed -- to speak for herself." (35) Just as the "girl" has not achieved any real equality or empowerment, she is still essentially without her own voice. While Hecht appears to be attempting to contrast and to criticise "Dover Beach", Hayes suggests that in fact "Hecht's poem complements the dominant readings of Arnold's poem rather than inverting them." (35) Just as some critics read Hecht's poem as an homage to Arnold, in that it throws into relief the quality of Arnold's values, Hecht's changes in the gender dynamics of the situation reinforce an impression that Arnold is not, in fact, particularly sexist, since we aren't sure what kind of speaker and lover he is really talking about. If Hecht's lack of traditional morals encourages us to see the value of Arnold's morals, his sexism encourages us to notice that Arnold might be ahead of his time in that department. If Hecht set out to defame Arnold, he was horribly unsuccessful -- however, he did an excellent job of making a compliment.
Based on the two poems' periods, or a shallow reading of them, it appears that the woman in Hecht's "Dover Bitch" is more empowered than the lover in Arnold's "Dover Beach". However, this is not the case. "Dover Beach" makes no overt indication of the gender of either the speaker or the lover, and the question of whether or not the poem contains a patriarchal subtext is therefore a moot point. "Dover Bitch", however, has a likely-male speaker, does not permit the "girl" to speak for herself, and at some points speaks of her in predominantly physical terms, as one would of a thing rather than a human being. The speaker of "Dover Bitch" presents his reality as more enlightened than that of "Dover Beach", but in fact this is far from the truth. The sexist subtext in "Dover Bitch" makes the parody's pretense to modernity and enlightenment a false pose.
Node your homework! This was written for a Victorian Literature course.
August, Eugene R. "The Dover Switch; or, The New Sexism at Dover Beach." Victorian Newsletter (Literature Online) 77 (1990): 35-37.
Hayes, Tom. "Why Can't a Duck Be More Like A Rabbit?" Victorian Newsletter (Literature Online) 76 (1989): 35.
Joseph, Gerhard. "The Dover Bitch: Victorian Duck or Modernist Duck/Rabbit?" Victorian Newsletter (Literature Online) 73 (1988): 8-10.