Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light…
— Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach
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.”
— Anthony Hecht, The Dover Bitch
Poor Matthew Arnold. He never had my sympathy for this unprovoked roasting until 2001.
At one point during that summer my task was to write a big chunk of my life story and present it to a group of people with whom I was working. I took the matter seriously and spent a lot of time on the writing. When the time came for me to present what I had written to the group, I quickly realized that I cared about words and the way things are expressed much, much more than the rest of the group. I also used words that the rest of the group didn’t know.
They indulged me for about three minutes before they began squirming in their seats and otherwise signaling their displeasure and lack of comprehension. The group leader cut me off and asked me to summarize the rest of what I had written, doing to me what Anthony Hecht had done to Matthew Arnold. The prose I had crafted with such care dwindled to “etc., etc.”
At the time I was hurt; then I was angry. I’m more or less philosophical about the whole thing now, but a few points stay with me:
- People don’t always really want what they ask for
- The fact that I’m ready to talk doesn’t mean others are ready to listen
- People with limited vocabularies hate to be reminded of it
I’ll draw out that life story another time when I have the right audience. The story of that first audience will make a nice introduction for it.