Anthony Hecht, more than any other American poet of the past half-century, wrote as a champion of traditional forms and elevated syntax. Formal verse, in his eyes, embodied the dignity and grandeur of law itself. He titled one of his books of criticism The Hidden Law (1993), another On the Laws of the Poetic Art (1995). The laws that governed poems were for him the symbols of universal moral law, and equally demanding. Hecht wrote of the
solitary, self-denying work
That issues in something
harmless, like a poem,
Governed by laws that stand for
A book of essays about him is titled The Burdens of Formality, a title that points toward, in the editor’s words, the “taut and demanding relation between formality and fate” in Hecht’s poems, his sense that he is both compelled and privileged to uphold the laws of poetic form. The title also points to the idea, frequent among reviewers, that he was a defender of civilized standards everywhere under threat. He presented himself as a scourge of poetical outlaws who swarm from “the woods and woodwork”:
They speak in tongues, no
High glossolalia, runic gibberish.
Some are like desert saints,
Wheat-germ ascetics, draped in
pelt and clout.
Some come in schools, like fish.
These make their litany of dark
Those laugh and rejoice
At liberation from the bonds of
Race, morals and mind,
As well as meter, rhyme and the
The Sixties, he said, were an era “when the inalienable rights of Americans were deemed to include Free Love, Free Verse, and the Pursuit of Sloppiness.”
“An aristocrat among poets” was J.D. McClatchy’s summary in 1988 of Hecht’s manner and status. “The lofty rhetorical grace of his work…brings to mind another, finer age. But,” McClatchy continued, “just beneath their elegant surfaces his poems often manifest an unnerving, nearly Jacobean intensity.” More than any other critic, McClatchy—Hecht’s literary executor and editor of a well-judged and deftly annotated Selected Poems—is alert to Hecht’s double edge, his oscillation between formal, aristocratic disdain and abased, formless despair.
Hecht told a friend that his poem “Green: An Epistle” was about “the way we disguise our deepest truths from ourselves.” But he seems to have been willing to acknowledge only at the end of his life, in an essay that he never finished, that even magisterial literary judgments like his own might arise from a hidden source, that his aristocratic disdain issued from childhood miseries. The last letter in his Selected Letters, written two months before his death at eighty-one, reports that the essay he is working on
will concern how deeply personal, quirky and often irrational, are our judgments of taste, about which we are sometimes very defensive, and about which we sometimes feel vulnerable, residing as these judgments do in some highly private inwardness, deeply severed from what we normally think of as …