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A Formal Feeling Comes: Anthony Hecht’s Elegaic Forms by David Rothman
Posted By David J. Rothman On November 23, 2011 @ 11:54 am In November 2011: Poetry Criticism Conference,This Month | 1 Comment
Those who condemn form in poetry are often given to venting their wrath upon…received forms, and often chiefly on the grounds that they coerce the mind, limit the imagination, force language with Procrustean barbarity into set molds. But in fact our greatest formal poets—Donne, Herbert, Campion, Herrick, and Hardy—rarely embrace received forms apart from the sonnet. What they so conspicuously and brilliantly do is to invent forms of their own. This means that with such a poem the poet is free to create whatever pattern and music he cares for; but in each subsequent stanza of that poem the original music and pattern must be religiously observed. And in following a pattern of his own invention, the poet is being as obedient as he would be in writing a sonnet. – from Anthony Hecht, “The Music of Forms,” in Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry
I only encountered Anthony Hecht a few times and he certainly would not have remembered me. The first several occasions were when I was in the audience at readings in the 1980s. I was then an undergraduate and graduate student and was attracted to the poetry, for I was discovering that I, too, was very much drawn to overtly formal verse, despite its deeply unfashionable profile then. At that point, however, there was a great deal about Hecht’s work that I did not understand very well, including even the famous anthology pieces. I knew that I liked it and was drawn to it without having the slightest idea of how it worked in many cases. But that is an important part of how a poetic education proceeds (something worth remembering in an age obsessed with assessable outcomes). I could surely sense the troubling nature of some of Hecht’s subjects, and the passion and pain underlying poems such as “A Hill,” “Rites and Ceremonies,” “‘More light! More light!’” and “The Book of Yolek,” without understanding how they worked. Still, his readings surprised me. I was utterly unprepared for his demeanor and delivery, which I found pretentious and painfully old-fashioned. More than 35 years his junior, I found myself asking myself, Why does this New York Jewish-American poet seem to be working so hard to sound and even look like a Brahmin? His diction and self-presentation—right down to the bow tie—seemed hopelessly affected to me. Although I thought Ginsberg was at least half crazy, I somehow felt more comfortable around him because he seemed to be, well, more authentically himself.
I was formally introduced to Hecht just once, and that was many years later, quite near the end of his life. I was then living in the mountains ofColoradoand Hecht was visiting a nearby town, Telluride, with David Mason, who introduced us. We chatted about nothing in particular for a few minutes. In person I found the man quite different from what I remembered, though of course I was the one who had changed far more than he had. I now found him gentle, engaging, and thoughtful, without anything that would seem pretentious. Indeed, he was gracious and considerate to a fault, especially as I now understand that he was probably suffering, even as we spoke, from significant and chronic pain that he surely knew was part of his final illness.
The impression I took away from the encounter was that I had judged the man quite unfairly twenty years earlier. While this was not the only case of youthful arrogance for which I have had to find a way to forgive myself, in this case contemplation of what had happened in the intervening years has also helped me to understand certain things about Hecht’s work more clearly. In particular, Hecht’s manners – those I saw, at any rate – now seem to me to illuminate his overt, committed, stubborn, unfashionable, and even flamboyant approach to verse and its pleasures, including the careful forms that are central to his work. Viewed incorrectly, either through the lens of contemporary fashion or perhaps through the eyes of a jejune student, these forms might at first seem obtrusive and affected to the point of Mannerism, a reasonable criticism of his first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954), with its overt debts to Ransom and Tate. Throughout his oeuvre the forms certainly do draw attention to themselves, a fact noted by every serious critic. It is perhaps only with the passage of time and the experience of a little pain of one’s own that the poems quietly metamorphose into far more complex artifacts. For – as many have pointed out – Hecht’s forms are both a defense against pain and suffering and a response to it. They enable him, at his best, to bring forward ideas, experiences and facts that otherwise could not be summoned, let alone exorcised, if that is what happens to them. Indeed, I now think his careful use of fixed forms is a significant part of what enabled him to become a poet who was able to address issues that many of his contemporaries either could not or would not address.
In this estimation of the importance of Hecht’s formalism I agree with many others, such as David Mason, who has pointed out that Hecht’s war poems “are among the most moving in all of twentieth century literature, but they succeed by virtue of their deeply ironic doubleness and cold intelligence, their dramatic structures as well as their calculated use of high and low diction, moments of beauty and moments of brutal frankness.” Thus their formal qualities and careful, detached irony are utterly necessary to their success and constitute, like Auden’s war poems, “a sane response to an insane world.” I agree, but want to elaborate on that claim: at their best, Hecht’s poems suggest a way of living with history. This resolution may take place, however, more in what they do than in what they say.
Mason is not alone in emphasizing the relations among Hecht’s themes, his diction, his use of dramatic irony and above all his reliance on very tight, foregrounded verse forms. To discuss or at least to allude to Hecht’s overt formalism is a locus classicus of response to his work. As Ted Hughes pointed out in response to The Hard Hours forty years ago, Hecht’s work “was remarkable” from the beginning for “its classical poise and elegance.” When reviewing Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), Harold Bloom praised Hecht’s “high artistry” and “formal power,” along with “emotional intensity.” Upon the publication of Collected Later Poems in 2003 Peter Davison admired his “highly formal poems” for being “majestic, orderly and intense.” And Adam Kirsch has pointed out, when discussing “More Light, More Light!”, that “[t]he means of expression are not called into doubt by the horror of what must be expressed. Quite the contrary. Hecht insists on still greater decorum and rigor when his theme is darkness and chaos.”
Virtually every contributor to The Burdens of Formality, the major collection of essays on Hecht to date, comments on Hecht’s foregrounding of poetic forms. Among others, Brad Leithauser—a gifted poet of verseforms himself—points out that “Those same formal aspects that contrast so powerfully with his violent subject matter—the sophistication of tone and language, the intricacy of metrical and rhyme schemes—here serve to enhance innocence and render it somewhat ironic.” Even the collection’s title emphasizes Hecht’s direct engagement with tradition and with order. Hecht’s formalism is hardly unacknowledged, anywhere.
Others have gone somewhat further, characterizing specific uses of technique in “’More light!’” Cynthia Ozick misidentifies the poem’s metrical form as “an efficient pentameter quatrain.” Joshua Carlson goes somewhat further:
The largely twelve-syllable or longer lines allow Hecht to achieve this slightly more prosaic level of utterance while still maintaining a sense of gravity; the more regular pattern of pentameter would lend the quatrains a too-restricting formality, potentially emphasizing the aesthetics over the subject matter.
Still, this closer approach is more of a characterization than an analysis, and a questionable one at that. Hecht hardly seems to have found more regular patterns of formality “too restricting” in any of the many cases in which he chose it. Such tight formality hardly seems to damage, say, “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid it.” That poem—with its agonizing conclusion—is couched in very tight iambic trimeter quatrains rhyming abab, with mostly endstopped lines and periods at the end of almost every stanza. It is metrically formal to a fault despite the painful subject matter.
All of this suggests that Hecht’s verse technique is perhaps a bit like a purloined letter, insofar as everyone notes it, and yet few if any have spent the time to open it and analyze how it actually works in any of the poems. This is not unusual in the early decades of response to a significant poet, for it takes time to digest such powerful work. Given all of this, to characterize the poems anew would be only to restate the obvious: Hecht spent his career foregrounding the formal elements of verse language in his poetry; while he loosened his metric and took up a more demotic diction in much of his mature work, he nonetheless refused to participate in the fashionable rejection of metrical verse in the 1960s and 1970s; he foregrounded traditional verseforms to discipline and restrain his passion, making it into art through a careful decorum. All true, yet perhaps the best way to honor Hecht’s achievement at this point is to give one of his strongest poems the attention it deserves as a verbal work of art, to take its versification as seriously as possible. After all, this is a poet who (with John Hollander) created and named a new verse form, the double dactyl. His technique, which stands stubbornly at the heart of his achievement, now deserves its due in its details. This is because everything else that his admiring critics describe—syntax, diction, themes, tropes—could be achieved in prose.
The poem I want to examine more closely is “‘More light! More light!’” from The Hard Hours. It is deservedly recognized as one of Hecht’s strongest and is one of the most widely discussed. It is also emblematic of how he uses forms throughout his work. A close reading—or at least the suggestion of one, as there is not enough room here to do the poem full justice—can give us a sense of just what Hecht achieved through his astonishingly careful attention to verseform. The poem is certainly dark and terrifying—but I believe that such a reading may provide a balance to what Peter Sacks characterizes as this “most despairing vision of the relation between poetry and the bearing of historical witness.” For despite its terrifying subject, it is still a work of art. As Hecht wrote, in “The Music of Forms” (the essay which provides the epigraph to this essay), “[t]he music of forms require some kind of regularity, some pattern that allows us as readers to judge proficiency, that engenders expectations which it can then fulfill in some novel way, withhold for strategic reasons, satisfy with dissonances or harmonies that surprise and delight.” This is exactly what Hecht does in “’More light! More light!’”, despite—or perhaps in part because of—the harrowing subject.
Harold Bloom may actually understate things when he argues that the meaning of a strong poem is always another poem. In “‘More light! More light!’” as in so many Hecht poems, scores of poems (and other texts) lurk in the background or near foreground. And, as Hecht himself points out in an interview with William Baer collected in Fourteen on Form: Conversations with Poets, “Poems are only written because people have read other poems, and no one today would dream of inventing poetry. It’s a traditional form, and even the wildest kinds of it have become part of the tradition.” Even a poem as difficult and painful as “‘More light!’” epitomizes this poetics. The title, which quotes the last words of Goethe, evokes that writer’s entire career and poses the Enlightenment commitment to reason against a modern abyss of violence. Like many of the poems in The Hard Hours, “‘More light! More light!’” also bears a dedication, in this case “for Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt.” Whatever the personal connections, most readers would presumably be prepared for some treatment of authoritarianism, and indeed the poem does consider that results of that particular flavor of political evil in all its brutality and banality.
The two intertwined stories that the poem tells in its eight quatrains (three for the first; five for the second) are relentless in their cruelty, a cruelty that proceeds directly from strains of authoritarian political evil. The first is the description of the execution by burning of someone who appears to be a Protestant martyr under Queen Mary. The second narrative is even more terrifying, recounting a story built up from Hecht’s own war experiences (he was a member of the 386th Infantry, 97th Division, when it liberated Flossenbürg, an annex of Buchenwald, on April 23, 1945), and from Eugene Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell, which describes a sadistic scene similar to the poem’s. The event Kogon describes and Hecht refashions took place in Buchenwald, the setting of Kogon’s book, not far “from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill,” meaning of course Goethe’s home. In Hecht’s version of the story, an armed Nazi officer requires a Pole to bury two Jews alive. When he refuses, the officer then requires the Jews to do the same to the Pole, and they comply. The officer stops them at the last moment, orders them to dig out the Pole and then orders the Pole again to bury the Jews. This time he does so. The officer then shoots the Pole in the stomach and leaves him to die slowly and painfully. The inescapable lesson is that, as “horrible” as the martyr’s death in the poem’s first half may have been, at least he had his “pitiful dignity.” Now human beings now have neither faith nor reason to guide them. The Nazi officer is a sadist, and in the poem his murders include obscenely gratuitous humiliation that can have no utility other than his own pleasure in committing acts of torture upon victims who will then only die. In the poem no one else even witnesses the scene, although it is worth noting that in Kogon’s book it is witnessed, and “the Pole” has a name, Strzaska. The event took place in spring, 1944 on a quarry detail, and the German executioner was an SS detail leader. As Susan Gubar points out in Poetry after Auschwitz, Hecht has accurately kept some of the details, but jettisoned others, only heightening the horror of the situation. Among other things, Hecht adds the final detail about the shooting of the Pole, which is not in Kogon, and which grew, according to Wyatt Prunty, out of Hecht’s own experiences as a soldier. Hecht’s fictive combining of these events only intensifies the perception of evil. As a parable, it seems to teach only despair.
Many have suggested that the original of the martyr in the poem’s first story might be Nicholas Ridley or Hugh Latimer, Bishops who perished together near Balliol College, Oxford, on October 16, 1555. One powerful clue is Latimer’s supposed final words, which resonate with the title and the theme of light as reason or faith as it runs through Hecht’s poem: “Be of good comfort M. Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day lyght such a candle by Gods grace in England, as (I trust) shall never be put out.” This phrasing comes from the 1570 edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, though the words did not appear in the 1563 edition, and may be apocryphal, as they echo other, earlier tales of martyrs. The words attributed to Latimer also appear to echo John 16.33 “In this world ye shall have tribulations, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” The suggestion is that there was, at least for these victims, a sea of faith. Other connections to Latimer and Ridley include Foxe’s description of Ridley’s death, in which his legs did burn first and which he describes as “horrible,” and a statement of Latimer’s the night before his execution which resonates with line 4 of Hecht’s poem: “God I thanke thee, and to thy prayse be it spoken, there is none of you all able to lay to my charge any open or notorious crime: for if you could, it should surely bee layd in my lap, I see very well.”
At the same time, just as with the material from Kogon, there are differences with Foxe that Hecht has either invented or whose sources he has so carefully obscured that to my knowledge no one has identified them as yet. Among other things, Ridley and Latimer were executed in Oxford and while they had been imprisoned in the Tower of London (with Thomas Cranmer), they were not there directly before their execution. In fact, both were imprisoned in the Bocardo Prison, which was adjacent to the church St. Michael’s of the North Gate. The prison is gone, but there is still a tower (the oldest building in Oxford) adjacent to the church, and it now holds the door of the prison cell in which they were kept, though they were probably not kept in the tower itself. At any rate, St. Michael’s Tower is not what most readers would generally understand, then or now, by “the Tower” when referring to English prisons. Also, while both Latimer and Ridley apparently wrote lengthy letters before their executions, there is no mention I can find in Foxe or elsewhere that refers to or quotes verses they may have written then. At the same time, there is a tradition of such verse-writing before execution in the Tower of London, including most famously Chidiock Tickborne’s “elegy.” This is ironic if read in the context of Hecht’s poem, as Tickborne was executed not as a Protestant heretic, but as a Catholic conspirator, in 1586, by Elizabeth. Others who wrote verses in the Tower include the young Lady Jane Dudley, and of course there were many others who wrote prose, from Boethius to Sir Thomas More and Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer. Most interestingly in all this, no one has been able to identify the line in quotation marks, “I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.” Given what we know of Hecht’s methods, I have little doubt that it has a concrete literary source, but if one of the victims named above did write it, it is well-buried and Hecht has not been helpful or obvious in leaving us clues. In short, Hecht is using all of his sources in tangled ways. If the goal is to confront the demons of history, as Susan suggests (she discusses the poem in her chapter titled “Documentary Verse Bears Witness”), the question must remain: why do this? For every source in Hecht’s poem is transformed and obscured, hardly what one would expect if the primary motivation were to document and respond to facts. Indeed Hecht plays very fast and loose with even terrible facts, changing them as he sees fit to make his poem. I believe the answer to why Hecht transforms his materials so cunningly lies in his approach to genre and versecraft, the latter of which is for him far more than a mere adornment of sense or scoring of the voice.
So what are Hecht’s formal concerns in “’More light!’”? As Sacks points out in his essay in The Burdens of Formality, the verse scheme of Hecht’s eight quatrains, abcb, could evoke the ballad tradition, but the meter itself is less clear in this regard. Most ballads employ 4-beat lines or 4-3 alterations (fourteeners), but in Hecht’s poem some lines are tight pentameters, but most have 5 beats with looser syllable counts, undoing the strict accentual-syllabic pattern. The longest lines has 16 syllables (“Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible”). While this line could scan as having 5 beats, at least one other, with 14, seems to require six: “I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.” While some lines enjamb, the stanzas never do; every stanza ends with a period.
Such careful quatrains, especially given Hecht’s subject, invoke the great pentameter quatrain tradition in English, notably the tradition of the elegiac or heroic quatrain, a pentameter stanza that rhymes abab. While there is not room here to delve into the complicated history of this form – let alone the entire elegiac tradition—I conjecture that what Hecht has done is to meld the abcb rhyme scheme of ballad or hymnal quatrains with the pentameters (albeit often loosened) of the heroic or elegiac stanza, the most famous exemplar of which is Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It is interesting that many of those who treat the poem seem to have missed this crucial fact. Gubar’s strong book includes a chapter on elegy, but she doesn’t include “’More light!’” in that discussion, though she does provide strong discussions of “Rites and Ceremonies” and “The Book of Yolek.”
It makes sense that many would read “’More light!’” as a kind of documentary witness in verse, as Gubar argues, but significant as its sources are, that reading obscures the poem’s force, which is inextricably dependent on the transformation of that material in a formal elegiac context. Many aspects of the poem point to this. Just as the Pole, the Jews, and the German are unnamed in Hecht’s poem, so also is the martyr who wrote the verses in the poem’s first part anonymous. This is the same situation as the “mute inglorious Milton” of Gray’s poem, and we should remember that many great elegies, ancient and modern, address the death of a poet. As noted above, the anonymity of everyone in Hecht’s poem is a highly artful and intentional omission – in that first line, for example, the martyr-poet’s name has been forcibly refused from the poem, in a sense, because the verse could not possibly accommodate it without losing its structure. “Composed in the Tower before his execution” is 13 syllables with 5 strong stresses; the line is full to bursting, making the sentence intentionally a fragment as it lacks its proper-noun subject, which would require at least one more stress.
We then come to a second fascinating fact rarely noticed, which is the floating deictic adjective in “these verses.” Well—which verses are they? Again, the meter helps us, as the verse are probably not meant to be the subsequent quotation. First, those words are supposed to be a declaration at the stake, not writing that was “composed in the Tower.” But just as importantly, as if to make the point even more clear, this is one of the longest lines in the poem, at 14 syllables, and as noted above, the single line hardest to fit into a 5-stress pattern (I scan it with 6). So, the question then remains, which “verses” are being referred to? The poem provides no clear answers, but one reasonable suggestion is that they are the only verses we have in hand: the verses of “’More light!’” itself. While there is a “he” who emerges in line 5 to be the martyr—“Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible”—some kind of identification of Hecht with the poet-martyr seems unavoidable.
Nothing in a Hecht poem—or as little as this poet can manage—occurs by chance or without clear reference, right down to the typography of individual letters. Consider the capitalization of “Kindly Light” at the end of line 8. I do not think any critic has previously noticed that this phrase is part of the title of a well-known hymn by Cardinal Newman, who wrote the first three verses in 1833, when he was still John H. Newman (the fourth was later added by Edward H. Bickersteth, Jr.; the tune was written by John B. Dykes in 1865). Newman’s verses read as follows:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou
shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
pride ruled my will: remember not past years!
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
the night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Hecht’s astonishing textual cross-referencing becomes more and more clear as we investigate the reference to Newman’s hymn. First comes the sense of irony upon realizing that although he wrote it while still an Anglican, Newman was a leader of The Oxford Movement and of course eventually converted to Catholicism. We then realize that Hecht has placed famous words penned by a man deeply associated with his conversion to Catholicism on the lips of someone who appears to be a Protestant martyr, upon his moment of death. When we add to this the fact that the execution Hecht describes in his poem seems to have taken place in Oxford, the sense of irony only intensifies.
Hecht’s sly allusion to Newman illustrates the exquisite care he took in making his verses. To make such complex interlocking allusions flow so gracefully is not the work of an afternoon, and helps us to understand something of why he needed seventeen years to produce The Hard Hours. And here we come to the crux. Hecht once said (in his interview with William Baer) that “My poems often try to take all that worst part of existence into account and then try to find something redemptive in it.” And for Hecht, I would argue, much of that redemption lies simply in the fact of making verses in the first place, “moving verses” composed as if they are the last ones the poet will ever have the opportunity to make. And the purpose of such verses is, as it has always been with verses, not only to instruct but also to give pleasure. For in this poem that appears to school us so deeply in the futility of reason and of faith, let alone our propensity for sadistic butchery, great attention has been paid to the details of pleasure as well as those of pain. They are terribly mixed. Indeed, it is the pleasure of such finely made verses that helps—that is necessary—to fix the narrative and its painful lesson in our minds, to make it stick.
Consider the four lines in “‘More light!’” that can be scanned as iambic pentameters with no extra syllables:
We move now to outside a German wood.
No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air.
Note that the first three are also complete sentences, which seems only to drive their tight accentual-syllabic quality home more forcefully. I believe that Hecht is quite aware of what he is doing here and that these lines scan and parse so tightly for good reasons. The first is the axis of the poem, the line which connects the two stories. Making it tight focuses the dramatic movement from one story to another. The second is the horrible axis within the second story, when the Pole’s spirit is utterly broken and his humiliation is complete. The third is the quickly following turning point where that humiliation is revealed for what it is: pointless, unable even to save the one who was humiliated from a less painful or protracted death. And the fourth, with its heartbreaking enjambment—“…and every day came mute / Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,” drives home the horrible silence of God and of man in light of what has happened. If this reading bears any merit, it suggests that the distinction here is not between a loose form throughout, as Joshua Carlson suggests in the passage quoted above, and a tighter kind of poem, but is enacted in the poem itself – Hecht can tighten or dilate his verse at will (or so it appears) to affect our sense of dramatic pacing and turning.
Everywhere we look in “‘More light!’” we find this level of organization. In writing this unusual form, Hecht does with it exactly what he observes in the epigraph to this essay that other poets have done with theirs—he takes previous forms and synthesizes something of his own, then carefully follows its rules throughout. And what he has created, to return to the suggestion I made above, more and more seems to me to be a melding of the elegiac or heroic abab pentameter quatrain of Gray’s “Elegy,” with the ballad or hymnal abcb rhyme scheme and a five-beat line with a ghostly relation to iambic meter that surfaces more clearly in certain places. I would go so far to say that Gray’s poem is the most important precursor of Hecht’s elegy, though Hecht takes on not just a country town but the entire continent of Europe and by extension all mankind (Gray is just as ambitious, but begins with less horrific material). Gray’s poem is worth rereading in this retrospective context, but consider only the opening, which begins with fading light and the invocation of a tower, and then these lines:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where, through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault,
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Can storied urn, or animated bust,
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid,
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire,
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll,
Chill penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear,
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast,
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell, guiltless of his country’s blood.
Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The treats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined:
Forbad to wade through slaughter to a throne,
Or shut the gates of mercy on mankind,
The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenious shame,
Or heap the shrine of luxury and pride,
With incense kindled at the muse’s flame.
Not only the verseform and the theme of the humble, unmarked dead echoes through both poems, but word after crucial word resonates from one to the other: darkness, tower, incense, woods, mute, crime, God, and so on. Note particularly the emphasis in Gray on seeing and eyes: the page of knowledge will not be unrolled to the eyes of these humble, anonymous dead; pure rays of light die unseen in the ocean and flowers blush unseen; the fate of these poor dead forbids them to read their history in a nation’s eyes. And it bears emphasizing that in Hecht’s poem the small-town killers have indeed tried to “wade through slaughter to a throne,” and have in terrible fact “shut the gates of mercy on mankind.”
What then do we make of the content of Hecht’s poem, the overwhelming force of its depiction of the human appetite for cruelty? In his poem Christian and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, believer and unbeliever, even murderer and victim, all share in the disgrace and shame. There is no escape. The dreams of reason and of faith are both revealed as illusions when confronted with sadism, fanaticism, racism, fear and violence. Dignity is at best “pitiful” and at worst an illusion. Even attempts to refuse to participate, like the Pole’s, are quickly crushed, and for that matter crushed even more brutally than they were in the documentary source of the story. More than an elegy for individuals, it is an elegy for faith and reason. This seems to be what is at the root of Hecht’s manipulation of his sources and refusal to identify any of the victims or their killers when he easily could have done so. The entire point is to focus the power of the elegiac tradition on larger matters than the death of any individual, no matter how “horrible” that individual story may be.
In this purposelessness there is a strange and disturbing parallel between the Nazi officer’s actions and the work of the poem. In Hecht’s version of the story, the Nazi executioner’s actions are utterly gratuitous, serving no military or even instructive aim to others (none are even present to be intimidated by it). Like many kinds of crime it thus becomes a terrifying creative act. In response, however, the utterly ineffectual engine of the poem’s pleasure principle—as embodied in the formal elements and generic traditions grounding its verse—offer up something quite different from the brutal sadism of the officer or guard. It is not hope. There is no hope here; this, the poem says, is how human beings can and do behave. Yet, Hecht writes in his final stanza:
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
The difference is that in the endless present of the poem those mute years have ended, for the ghosts are no longer silent; at the very least they have a surrogate voice in the poet. This is a witnessing, and a witnessing in verse, but it is more than that as well. Elegies may be about the dead, but they are for the living. The nameless Protestant martyrs and the nameless Pole, Jews and Nazi of the poem are now all dead. Newman, Gray, Goethe, the victims of the camps, Blücher and Arendt, and now even the poet—all are dead. Yet the poem, like Gray’s “Elegy,” which also leaves the dead unnamed, can be alive to anyone who reads it with care. Again, this is not a triumph of hope – it is a triumph of life, of vitality even against, or beyond such extremity, and this is the solace the poem can offer even in the absence of traditional elegiac praise. Hecht did his utmost to insure the possibility of that triumph by composing a poem whose verse structure is so rich and well-made that it could articulate even the most difficult challenge to life itself, which is our own capacity for evil, and yet even so continue to provide pleasure to the living, which is what all poems must do if they are to survive. The only way to grasp this kind of thing in a poem is to see how its verse is no mere ornament to the sense but rather a crucial and necessary source of it.
Hecht was more aware than most of the regenerative power of forms and rituals. In a luminous paragraph that he wrote as the preface to A Passover Haggadah, edite by Herbert Bronstein for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and published in 1974,
The rejoicing that end the service [the seder] is plausible only if all the preceding events are fully realized – not just the pain and humiliation of bondage, but the difficulties and excitement of the deliverance. So the service ends not only in joy but in clarification: a movement from darkness to light – we understand what we had not known, or had forgotten, or had neglected, or had misunderstood before.
We might say the same of the way Hecht draws on verse forms and structure. “’More light!’” is an elegy hiding in plain sight. Its terrifying power can at first blind us to its formal and generic strategies, but those choices constitute one ground of its success. Like every great elegy, it mourns the dead, and even though it does not praise or seem to provide solace, it yet returns us to vitality. Its strategy for doing so is as far as it could possibly be from Wyatt Prunty’s characterization of the poem as “not written to sing because its subject cannot sustain even the hope of human wholeness.” It does indeed sing, in a rich and ancient tradition. The heart of the poem lies in Hecht’s cunning, even sublime verse and his deep understanding of elegy. It is through the pleasures of verse and the mastery of genre that Hecht’s half-truths, obscurities and even outright lies return us to life in the face of utter devastation. Without that deep connection to the art, where the art comes first, Hecht’s manipulations of fact would be senseless. If anything, it is a tribute to his imagination that the poem comes across with so much force that some critics think it is a documentary witnessing that does not sing, when it is nothing of the sort.
To end where I began: after great pain a formal feeling comes. When I was young and callow I saw Hecht’s manners as an affectation, and his difficult art as most often a kind of Mannerism. How wrong I was. I did not know the man, but I now think that what I saw of his self-presentation, much like his poetry, was perhaps part of a carefully constructed response to a world that he knew had the capacity to become savage indeed. This was more, I now see, than “pitiful dignity.” At least in his art, Hecht’s formal feeling was an affirmation of something that could go beyond mere coping or surviving. Hecht’s formality is not a stylistic choice, but rather a generative strategy. His is an art that insists on forging more life from life, even at the gates of hell.
In his New York Times obituary, Hecht was quoted as saying of his own war service, “There is much about this I have never spoken of, and never will.” In addition to participating in the liberation of Flossenbürg, the Times said “[h]e saw men of his company machinegun German women and children who were waving white flags, something that he said ‘left me without the least vestige of patriotism or national pride.’” And, true to his word, in his poems Hecht does not merely document or witness his or anyone else’s response to the terrible things he witnessed. Rather he does something only a few have achieved – he transforms them into an art with an even more ambitious purpose. That continuance of life, that vitality, that obvious secret so difficult to achieve is, in the end, the true secret of “these moving verses.”
“’More light! More light!’”
for Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt
Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
“I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.”
Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite.
His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.
And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
Permitted at least his pitiful dignity;
And such as were by made prayers in the name of Christ,
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquility.
We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.
Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.
Much casual death had drained away their souls.
The thick dirt mounted toward the quivering chin.
When only the head was exposed the order came
To dig him out again and to get back in.
No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.
The Lüger hovered lightly in its glove.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
Which grew to be years, and every day came mute
Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
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