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Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach:” A Cultural Polysemy

Himmet Umunç
Hacettepe University

Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” which has always been a popular text of the Victorian canon, embodies a number of cultural intertexts with multiple thematic and semantic dimensions. What follows is, therefore,

an attempt to demonsrate this culturally

polysemic nature of the poem and gesture towards the uses of cultural criticism in the study of the canon. However, before we can proceed with this task, it is necessary first to dwell in general terms on the problematics of the relationship between the canon and the practice of cultural criticism. I say “the problematics” because, as many of you will recall, a great controversy has already risen between pro-canonists and students of cultural criticism over the issue whether great literary works which, for Harold Bloom, constitute “the Western canon” can be subjected to the aims and practices of cultural criticism. As far as Bloom is concerned, it is more than a mere controversy: it is a war which the pro-canonists including Bloom himself have fought and lost to the champions of cultural criticism. Although Bloom’s heavy tome The Western Canon (1994) is the final blow to date delivered at cultural criticism and its work, the victory in this war has already fallen

Paper presented at the Cultural Studies Conference “Crossing the Boundaries: Cultural Studies in the U.K. and the U.S.” 16-17 May 1996. Ege University, Izmir.


to cultural critics. So The Western Canon opens with an introduction which is entitled “An Elegy for the Canon” (15-41), implying that cultural critics have murdered or, rather, about to murder the canon and that what remains to be done is to write a funeral song for

the canon. Upon the publication of his Western Canon, Bloom was interviewed by Newsweek, and in the interview, entitled “We Have Lost the War,” he repeated his argument in an explicitly polemical...
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