from American Poetry Review, November / December 2011
At the climax of Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, the main character and his family are held captive in their home by a thug named Baxter. The daughter of the family, Daisy, is a published poet and has been made to strip naked and stand in the center of the room. Baxter then commands her to recite one of her poems to him. In subtle, unnoticed defiance, she recites from memory Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach."
. . . Baxter has broken his silence and is saying excitedly, "You wrote that. You wrote that."
It's a statement, not a question. Daisy stares at him, waiting.
He says again, "You wrote that." And then, hurriedly, "It's beautiful. You know that, don't you. It's beautiful. And you wrote it."
She dares say nothing.
"It makes me think about where I grew up."
Robert Creeley was a poet of home-places. For him, the phrase "where I'm coming from" was ever explicitly literal and specific. And often, the place to which he referred was one particular poet or one particular poem. Myself, I take deep instruction from the fact that, in the later phase of his writing life, the poem he most often alluded to was "Dover Beach." Strange to say, given its melancholy and stoic resignation, Arnold's masterpiece turns out to be a honeymoon poem, an epithalamion of sorts. Addressed to a beloved, it sorts through desolations in search of tenderness and sweet union. Think, then, of the many desolations of Creeley's early work: the hasting catastrophe of "I Know a Man"; the barely contained rage of "The Hill"; the gorgeously morbid classicism of "Heroes." And of course there is also that most chilling of love poems, "The Warning," which begins:
For love—I would
split open your head and put
a candle in
between the eyes.
In the later poems comes the great change, not heavy, but lightsome. In those books addressed to his married life with Penelope Highton (whose given name alone speaks volumes and truly did), there is, even in dark moments, unprecedented respite, relief and ease of tensions. Undeceived but unafraid, mournful but gratefully connected to a common place, a site in common, grounded in fidelity and the remembrance of filial piety, Creeley's later work never fails, in any of its occasions, to come all the way home to very first things. The thug Baxter, in McEwan's novel, avers that "Dover Beach" makes him "think about where (he) grew up." The poet Robert Creeley, in post-lude to the eloquent violence of his early work, likewise references Matthew Arnold's most famous poem as a portal, opening backwards and forward, into peace.
The much-abused notion of "paradigm shift" is nonetheless entirely apt to a true sense of the Victorian imagination. In the backward of warm Christian retrospect and in the forward hopes best characterized by the close of Tennyson's "In Memoriam"—"one far-off divine event, / To which the whole creation moves"—that imagination flourished early in self-confidence and self-assurance. But then the heavy changes disrupted minds and dislodged sureties. Malthus, Marx and Darwin disturbed all privilege in every direction. "Dover Beach" is the anthem of that disturbance. Both aftermath and prelude, it details a world still very much our own. After an opening stanza of calm and conventional description in which all the tropes of late Romantic landscape poetry are beautifully deployed across the beaches at Dover, Arnold suddenly shifts. First the poem and then the world are seen to change utterly.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd;
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Some honeymoon! Backwards goes the poet's mind to a misery predating Christianity: an oceanic misery that proves an implacable precedent. And forward, the poem leans into emptiness. With a shock of sudden insight, "Dover Beach" translates simple landscape into something very much like despair. Somewhere in the space between the poem's conventional opening stanza and the line "Sophocles long ago," we find a perfect synecdoche of the Victorian mind. And too, perhaps, of the experience of every true mind afterwards. The consequence? Despair at first, yes, surely, but then Arnold ventures upon a wild and willed affirmation in full consciousness of despair.
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,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Some epithalamion! Yet this final stanza is perfectly and lovingly undeceived. It proposes a foundation for marriage which, albeit desperate, is true. And here Matthew Arnold finds a model for the marriage of poetry to experience in the aftermath of profound disillusion. Through dire pronouncements, truth somehow manages to embrace another's truth. The name of the embrace is love.
Robert Creeley's first explicit hommage to "Dover Beach" appears in his 2003 collection If I Were Writing This. The book's title jibes uncannily with the circumstance of McEwan's novel. Daisy survives and in the process saves her family via an impersonation, an appropriation of Arnold's poem. And, surely, the over-arching theme of Creeley's later work is the project of family life and its projection onto the restless endeavors of our common world. If, by impersonation and loving appropriation, by imagining that he himself were writing "Dover Beach," Creeley might mend and manage the damages that family life inevitably entails, then love could find a way. In the poem "Pictures," dedicated to his wife Penelope, he explores the darkling plains of memory and anxiety just as Arnold does. There is the darkness of the past:
If one looks back
or thinks to look
in that uselessly opaque direction,
little enough's ever there.
In the backward and abysm, "Pictures" shows no help for pain. Opacity obviates imagery and impoverishes the poet's eye. Likewise, futurity is a blindness:
Like sitting in a back seat,
can't see what street
we're on or what the
one driving sees
or where we're going.
Waiting for what's to happen ...
Beautiful echoes here of "I Know a Man" and also of William Carlos Williams' "No one / to witness / and adjust, no one to drive the car." Yet between a helpless past and a blinded futurity, Creeley's impersonation of Matthew Arnold bravely and modestly intervenes. The ignorant armies are ignorant surely, and poets despair when simile falls apart in their hands. Nevertheless, reckless faith intervenes.
I could not compare you to anything.
You were not like rhubarb
or clean sheets—or, dear as it might be,
sudden rain in the street.
All those years ago, on the beach in Dover,
with that time so ominous,
and the couple so human,
pledging their faith to one another,
now again such a time seems here—
not to fear
death or what's been so given—
to yield one's own despair.
When the conventions of poetry fail, the poems themselves remain. Discarding simile, "Pictures" reaches out to another poem. Despairing of poetry, Creeley is nevertheless resigned (or as he would himself have said, "given") to the poem at hand. His imagination embraces another imagination, Matthew Arnold's, and faith makes a way. As it turns out, poetry believes in itself. There is a reckless piety of phrasing and phasing here: "now again;" "time seems here." Present and pastness, time and space intertwine, as Creeley comes to realize love is a bulwark against regret in one direction and despair in another. Gratefully, he "yields" his despair to an acknowledged kinship with a Victorian poet on honeymoon in Dover.
It is in his last and, sadly, posthumous collection On Earth that Creeley makes his affiliation with the Victorian mind most explicit. At the end of his writing life, despair and affirmation become simultaneities. The imagination of "Dover Beach" exclaims a forwardness without the slightest hope for what may lie ahead. Repetition—the Malthusian and Marxist and Darwinian paradigm—inclines toward inevitabilities, prime instances of death and/or disruption. In Creeley's plainsong, these are expressed by his constant recourse to the simple word "again." And so it is that in On Earth, we find an eight-line poem entitled "Dover Beach (Again)":
The waves keep at it,
Arnold's Aegean Sophocles heard,
the swell and ebb,
the cresting and the falling under,
each one particular and the same—
Each day a reminder, each sun in its world, each face,
each word something one hears
or someone once heard.
The backward is ever more complex; the poem must reach through Arnold to reach Aegean Sophocles and the primary ebb and flow of human misery. There is an ebb tide in the language and in the human mind. And forward, the poem faces a crowd and wilderness of particulars. Words must somehow be found for each in the absence of any stable definitions. Here is the essence of the Victorian dilemma, and Robert Creeley avows it as his own. Still, there is recourse, as Arnold found and as "Dover Beach (Again)" insists in its very first words: "The waves keep at it." Persistence takes the place of pattern and of plan. Persistence and particularity become articles of a new faith accustomed to despair. The tragic passing of every "each" somehow finds its place in a sequence of passages. And so Creeley turns to the elements of his art so as to make an ending. If in the faltering of poetry (and of all its comforting assumptions vis-a-vis canon and continuity) poems continue, then in the faltering of poems, the words themselves, in their solitude, persist. At the end of his writing life, Creeley was a calm and compassionate Lear. Truly an "unaccommodated man," he could despair of poetry while somehow keeping faith with single words. In his last poems, it is easy to hear that the "long, withdrawing roar" is a single word and also to know that such a singularity is sufficient to our needs.
In Robert Creeley's Autobiography, there is a sentence utterly striking in its simplicity and avowal. The sentence could pass for an autobiography unto itself:
We believe a world or have none.
To replace a faith withdrawn into the shadowlands of antiquity, the Victorian mind reached toward a reckless faithfulness: "Ah, love, let us be true / to one another!" In order to bridge the gap between despair and affirmation, it imagined an other-worldly worldliness. America's great Victorian, Walt Whitman, called it friendship. Matthew Arnold called it love. In his late work, Creeley folds the two names into one. A faith in the fact of one's relations here and now persists into a credible hereafter. The world as given, in all its contradiction and catastrophe, is nevertheless a world we can believe. Right to the end, Creeley addresses himself to loves and to friends, living and dead. The last time I ever had occasion to write to him, I was in a blue funk about the re-election of George W. Bush. I'd taken solace in the diary of a fabulous Victorian vicar, Francis Kilvert. When I came upon the following passage, I could not help but send it on along to Bob:
One bell did not ring loud enough to satisfy the people so they
took an axe up to the bell and beat the bell with the axe till they
beat it all to pieces.
Three days later, he wrote back to me:
Thanks for the great story! Just back from visit to not one but two family cemeteries. Small world! Anyhow it seemed appropriate and thanks for the advice of terrific Rev. K/.
Attached to his reply was a new poem, one of his last. It appears in On Earth and is entitled "Old Story: from The Diary of Francis Kilvert":
One bell wouldn't ring loud enough.
So they beat the bell to hell, Max,
with an axe, show it who's boss,
boss. Me, I dreamt I dwelt in
someplace one could relax
but I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
You got a song, man, sing it.
You got a bell, man, ring it.
The poem is addressed to a beloved friend, Max Finstein, who died in his car near Las Vegas in 1982. Coming from a visit to two cemeteries, Creeley avows that there is an afterlife which is this life all the same, and he resumes his conversation with Max (begun in the heartbroken 1983 elegy "Oh Max") via the observations of a Victorian divine. "Small world!" is the perfect exclamation and rhymes with Arnold's "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!" Yet the smallness of this world is not a deprivation, but rather evidence of enduring connections. The distance between despair and affirmation is very small, as is the distance between the living and the dead. The Victorians grasped terrifying enormity and made it near. And Robert Creeley made of it a deathless friend and heartfelt company.
Matthew Arnold, ed. Lionel Trilling. The Portable Matthew Arnold. New York: The Viking Press, 1949.
Robert Creeley. Autobiography. New York: Hanuman Books, 1991.
—. If I Were Writing This. New York: New Directions, 2003.
—. On Earth. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Francis Kilvert, ed. William Plomer. Kilvert's Diary. London: Pimlico, 1999.
Ian McEwan. Saturday. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.
About the Author
Donald Revell is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently of A Thief of Strings (2007) and Pennyweight Windows: New & Selected Poems (2005), both from Alice James Books.
American Poetry Review
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon