Monthly Archives: September 2012

Ah, Love

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), by George Frederick Watts

Something strange happens when I go to parties with my wife. Hearing that I’m an English teacher, business people ask about obscure rules of grammar and converse with me on topics that must be unusual for them, are actually unusual for me too, and are certainly odd for the setting. Once one of my wife’s co-workers asked, “If the plane you were on was going down, and there was only one parachute left for you and an author, what writer would you save instead of yourself?” Another time someone asked, “What are your favorite lines of poetry, lines so beautiful you couldn’t help memorizing them?” I read these questions as ones the questioner wants to answer, the confessions of former English majors who haven’t quite left their earlier lives behind.

I’m still trying to answer the first question above, but, in answering the second, I discovered someone who shared the same lines and experienced a peculiar communion, a rapport I rarely feel and can’t forget.

My lines—our lines—come late in Matthew Arnold‘s “Dover Beach“:

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

When students read these lines in class, sometimes other students laugh. It’s easy to go over the top reciting them, and, while my students get the contents of the poem, few feel the sentiments.

If you don’t know “Dover Beach,” it’s about a couple looking out a window together, and sometimes I imagine they’ve traveled to Dover for a honeymoon or, better yet, a secret romantic tryst. The speaker describes the cliffs and how the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating” is the sound of faith leaving the world. It’s a love poem, one of the most beautiful I know.

The laughing students must think me crazy to describe it that way. The poem says the world isn’t the “land of dreams” it seems to be—or anything good at all—and has nothing good in it, no joy, love, light, certitude, peace, not even any “help for pain.” No hope. They might wonder how telling her the world sucks would make her feel happy to love him.

What the other partygoer and I know, however, is that the poem has drama, not melodrama. The weight belongs on “Ah,” and the word “love” that renames the listener. They mark the start of the poem’s chief revelation. Perhaps Arnold did mean to say more about the crappy, deteriorating world that pushed authors from the aspirations of Romanticism into the dark, clashing chaos of Modernism, but I don’t hear it that way. And I’m sure my party companion didn’t either. No matter how undefined the world may be, knowing you love and are loved compensates for the uncertainty of everything else. I feel that in the poem and feel it in myself.

Arnold’s equation is lopsided, and I can see how someone—especially someone young—might not see how it balances at all, but when I read these lines, I think of how my own loved ones anchor me in the world. I have to be true to them, even if nothing else is true. I could bear any sort of loss, it sometimes seems, as long as it is not their loss. And I want to do whatever I can to keep them from a blank world that guarantees nothing. Knowing I may not be able to save them only makes me want to do so more.

Having shared these favorite lines, the other partygoer and I couldn’t slip back into small talk, and I felt a strange blush of embarrassment before we drifted off to mingle elsewhere. As is often the case with these random meetings, I haven’t seen her since. But I caught her eye before my wife and I exited that night and silently expressed my hope she’s found someone who—for however long she can possibly wish—makes her world sure.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, life, Love, Matthew Arnold, Meditations, Modern Life, Poetry, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Work, Worry

Angry Politics

All my life I’ve tried to avoid offending people and wondered if that’s even possible. Sometimes the gap between intention and effect inches a little wider and suddenly someone you thought your friend or ally (or at least sympathetic listener) feels hurt or disrespected. You don’t mean to offend, but you do.

And I’ve been on both sides. The most neutral and, in retrospect, most innocent statement sends me into paroxysms of sensitivity and peevishness. “What did you just say?” my psyche shouts, its back instantly up, its fists balled, ready to retaliate.

What can you do in such moments? You can beg help from reason. When you’re on the offending side, you ask, “What did you hear me saying?” and when you’re on the offended side, you say, “Explain what you mean.”

But not always. Sometimes people throw their hands in the air and walk away, content to leave everything unsettled and proud to wound or feel wounded. Then they don’t really want a solution so much as proof of their rectitude. Though, as Robert Half once said, “Convincing yourself doesn’t win an argument,” sometimes that’s the only part of the argument people care about, the part that allows them to preserve their self-image. They need to be okay, so no one else can be.

We do a lot of walking away these days. Self-righteousness runs rampant in the current political climate, and few candidates seem interested in engaging or even listening to the opposite point of view. Civility offers no political advantage. Strategically, offending your opponent can pay off if you bait him or her into another gaffe, the sort of devastating mistake required to torpedo a campaign. Offending others  is the point. The intention isn’t to be polite or reasonable or to exchange political views but to goad your opponent into blowing his or her cool.

“In science,” Carl Sagan said, “it often happens that a scientist says, ‘You know, that’s an interesting argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their mind, and you would never hear that old view from them again.” In politics, Sagan said, that would never happen.

I like to think that, were humans telepathic, they might feel exactly what others feel and perceive their intentions exactly. It’s hard to judge harshly when you truly know the other person. Knowing comes close to understanding, and understanding comes close to love. Even if someone aimed to criticize or offend, we might know the source of the ill-will and accept at least its subjective validity. Knowing why the conflict exists might be enough to soothe any hurt and reach a compromise. But who is asking why now?

“Use soft words and hard argument,” says an English proverb. Perhaps we’re bound to argue, but, these days, the soft words rarely appear. Intractability is the current political fashion. Good sense and moderation seem politically devastating.

Though I did not watch much of the political convention aired this week, I saw many angry faces and heard many angry sound bites suggesting no less than the complete erasure of the last four years. I understand these speeches aim at converts. They hope to inflame adherents and spur them to a level of support bordering on zealotry. At a national party convention, you have no need to persuade or convince. Yet, I’d be more moved by dispassion, reason, and the sort of subtle distinctions that might locate the increasingly narrow path to solutions and progress. I’m tired of vehement disdain promising only more offense and more conflict.

I’m beginning to wonder who is listening and who even cares to.


Filed under America, Anger, Essays, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Presidential Election 2012, Thoughts, Worry