Of Love, Recommitment, and "Dover Beach"

07/24/2017 04:05 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2017

Letter to my husband Larry on our 40th wedding anniversary (23 July 2017)

To my Beloved Husband:

As the song goes, “You must remember this….”

Thirty-four years ago, a good six years into our marriage, we had a most memorable discussion---at least for me, perhaps less so for you.

We were living for the year in Newport, Rhode Island, while you attended the Naval War College, learning the art of strategy, big-picture thinking. Given your course of study, it seemed natural to take the notion of strategic thinking to the personal level: What were the principles---yours and mine---behind our approach to life? Discuss.

You, with your poor but happy childhood and your successful Navy career, going from one ship command to another, argued for the upward course. Life was tractable, manageable, and hard work led to better and better things---a process of study, mastery, reward. Though you’d weathered an early divorce, you still energetically subscribed to the Auntie Mame school of thought: “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving.”

This was a defensible view in the 1980s, despite the tragedies of the ‘60s and ‘70s---the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., the stalemate of the Vietnam war, which, because of the vagaries of assignments, you missed. America at that time was still of a mind to study a tragedy for “lessons learned” and to do better. That was why you were assigned to study strategy: to do better, and you went about it with your customary zest. Your zest was a major reason I married you.

I, with a less sunny childhood endured in a chilly household, studied my way into an understanding of the world and tended toward the melancholic view. A brief marriage and divorce might have reinforced the melancholia but instead had a galvanizing effect: I came out a new person, able to say Yes and No, a life-saving skill that led to a career in civil rights that I adored and to a new husband I adored---and still do, more than ever---you.

Yet, despite working myself onto that upward course where you operated, and despite coming to find deep comfort in our marriage as my safe harbor, that evening in Newport I still had to say that, all things considered---the assassinations, Vietnam, where life leads to in the end, to Death---I still subscribed to a view of life described by the Roman poet Virgil, one embodying “the tears in things.”

To which you said: “Sorry, Dear, I just can’t buy it.” You pointed out that “the tears in things” is a point of view, not a strategy. Besides, you noted, in our married life I’d become, like you, the “happy warrior”---now there’s a strategy: happy warriors working their sword arms---so could we carry on, please, as is? It was true: I sighed less, worked my sword arm more. I’d become in fact more Auntie Mame than Virgil.

The years passed, much happiness accrued. Through life’s challenges we became, truly, each other’s compagno di vita, companion in life. We address each other as such---mio compagno, mia compagna---and see ourselves on the Road of Life together, shoulder to shoulder, moving in the same direction.

Fast forward: Ten years ago, I read you a poem---“Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold.

In it, the poet describes the “grating roar” of the sea, which for him brought “the eternal note of sadness in.” “Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.” Actually, I didn’t read you that part, nor the part where the poet speaks of “the Sea of Faith” which was “once, too, at the full,” but now one hears only “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” I didn’t read you those parts because I knew you’d fix on “melancholy” and cast me a look that said, “You’re not going back there again, are you?” So, cleverly (I thought), I read you only the last verse:

“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.”

But you’re too clever and you caught the melancholy anyway. You liked the first part---“Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!”---but you weren’t buying the poet’s view of the world, a “land of dreams,” nor the “ignorant armies” clashing by night, and certainly not the nonexistence of love in such world. And you did cast me that “You’re not going back there again, are you?” look. I laughed.

At that time you were beginning what became an eight-year career in our state legislature; I was toiling away as a writer, trying to make the moral point in a world losing its compass. Ten years ago, the world still seemed tractable.

But now, today, change of a sadder kind is afoot in the world. And now it’s not just a matter of a poor pilgrim who might become sad, too. Suddenly it is the world itself that is grown more melancholy, and certainly it’s become less tractable.

With the last election, when an angry electorate installed an angry baby-man in the White House---I will not mention his name in this paean---America, leader of the free world, has fallen into shadow. Our easy smile is gone. Suddenly the poet’s view applies: America has become a “land of dreams,” bereft of joy or light. Certitude itself is under fire, with the baby-man’s assault on fact and truth. Peace suddenly is threatened, with the baby-man’s trashing of alliances and treaties and his affinity for autocrats and their methods. Suddenly that other poet, Virgil, who saw “the tears in things” in ancient times, speaks again: The world is suddenly full of tears.

Even you, inveterate happy warrior, walk around these days with furrowed brow and heavy heart. We speak constantly of the baby-man and his daily outrages. We hate what is happening to the beautiful---and, yes, exceptional---foundational idea of America; we hear it cracking and shuddering. For you, a life-long public servant, the new reality is agonizing. O what a falling-off from our Greatest Generation parents....

So: Our strategy? May I propose “The Dover Beach Principle,” the part in the poem about commitment, complete with exclamation point---“Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” “To be true”: the idea itself---the love---invigorates. Not to despair, not to fade, but to be true---to one another, to the idea of America. You may say it’s not quite a strategy, an action plan. But with our sword arms revived, and with our hearts recommitted, it is enough.

“Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!” In that recommitment we will find all the joy, light, certitude, peace---and love---we will need in this sad new world.

All my love, your wife and compagna di vita of 40 years,

Carla

Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”

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