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  • Matthew Arnold
  • Clinton Machann (bio)

Recent discussions of Matthew Arnold’s poetry include two related to “Dover Beach,” which remains his most popular poem, and others related to “Sohrab and Rustum,” which does not receive a great deal of attention today, though Arnold intended it to be the centerpiece of his 1853 volume of poems. One interesting topic in “Dover Beach” studies, linking it to twenty-first-century literature, has been Ian McEwan’s use of Arnold’s poem in his 2005 novel, Saturday. The character Daisy Perowne recites “Dover Beach,” which is mistakenly taken to be her own poem by Baxter, a violent intruder in the Perowne house, at a critical time. Baxter, who suffers from Huntington’s disease, has become enraged because of a collision between his car and that of Henry Perowne, the novel’s protagonist, and he holds a knife to the throat of Perowne’s wife while threatening the daughter with rape—but he is overcome by the effect of the poem and calms down. It is Arnold’s appeal to his love for a companionship that will defy the darkness and mindless violence—“Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”—that “disarms” the intruder and potential rapist.

Among the critics whose essays discussing McEwan and Arnold’s poem I have described in the past are Elaine Hadley (2005) and Molly Clark Hillard (2008). Katharina Rennhak refers to both of them in her book chapter “Dover Beach and the Politics and Poetics of Perspective” from The Beach in [End Page 331] Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, ed. Ursula Richter and Virginia Richter (Ashgate, 2015: pp. 37–52). Rennhak’s opening comments will be of interest here: “If there is a paradigmatic ‘beach poem’ that draws on the ‘liminality, instability and transitoriness’ of the beach and uses this ‘contradictory and unstable signifier’ [quoting from the book’s introduction] in order to negotiate not only philosophical and religious issues but also questions of human relationships, it is, of course, Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach.’” Current interest in that poem “was certainly triggered by the central position occupied by the poem in the plot of Ian McEwan’s Saturday.” She reminds us that “the novel is set in post-9/11 London on 15 February 2003, the day of the great London antiwar march” (p. 37). Hillard is among critics who attempt to counter Arnold’s “liberal project,” that is, his “liberal humanist vision” (p. 38). Rennhak recalls Hadley’s opinion that “Arnold and his poem are touchstones of a Victorian liberal humanism that is ideologically suspect as it combines a pre-Foucauldian belief in the self-conscious, self-present and holistic individual subject as agent with universal truth claims and patriarchal and imperialist assumptions” and that McEwan does not question Arnold’s values. On the other hand, Hillard “argues that McEwan does not simply reinstate Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ but presents various rereadings of the poem and demonstrates that its interpretation is dependent on the context and on the particular perspective of its (diegetic) reader” (p. 38). Rennhak goes on to interpret several “beach poems” before and after “Dover Beach.” Pre-Arnoldian poems include works by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, William John Courthope, William Lisle Bowles, and Philip Bourke Marston. Late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century poems include works by Iain Crichton Smith and Daljit Nagra. I will not attempt to summarize Rennhak’s readings of all these poems, but references to “Arnold’s liberal human politics” and the canonical status of his poem make this book chapter one of the most significant recent contributions to Arnold scholarship. A related article by Rebecca Mills entitled “The Elegiac Tradition and the Imagined Geography of the Sea and the Shore” (Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 17, no. 4 [2015]: 493–516) includes readings of “Dover Beach” along with several other poems dealing with the sea and seashore in “the elegiac tradition from a geocritical perspective” by John Milton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Lowell, Carolyn Kizer, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop. Though her emphasis is on Plath and Bishop, Mills, like Rennhak, assumes the canonical status of Arnold’s poem.

In “Persia by Way of Paris: On Arnold’s...


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