Even while we are hoping that Elizabeth Bishop was wrong in evaluating ours as the “worst century so far,” and that future historians will look more gently upon the scrambling lives we lived under the gathering clouds of the third millennium, hers is a judgment that many of us—and perhaps most writers—share. How obvious it sounds, and how complex it makes our existence: we perceive ourselves as the inhabitants of a dark age. When future literary historians examine us (with the assistance, no doubt, of technological marvels that will make our own newly emergent computerized concordances and statistical studies look very primitive indeed), they may well choose to begin their analyses with this perception.
Of course no one can say which of our literary judgments these historians will eventually corroborate, and which will be deemed confused or shortsighted. But whether or not our age looks as dark to them as it does to us, surely they will regard as central to our literature this perception of gathering darkness. To read Thomas Hardy near the end of his life defending himself from the accusation that his most recent volume had been “gloomy and pessimistic” (quite the contrary, he insisted: “I had been, as I thought, rather too liberal in admitting flippant, not to say farcical pieces into the collection”) is instantly to perceive how much has changed in our literary climate since the first decades of the century. In recent years it is the poets of celebration, like Marianne Moore and Richard Wilbur, who may feel a need to defend their work against a charge of optimism or, worse, lightheartedness. In a century that has witnessed two global wars, and a steady, incremental amassing of weaponry that would seem designed to ensure that the next conflict finally “gets the job done” by expunging humankind from the planet, the poet almost inevitably defines himself against what, in a more religious time, might have been called the Forces of Darkness.
Not surprisingly, that process of definition is often provisional and complex. Responses run deep, and in many directions. Some poets will turn to polemical protest or to raw documentation. (Such poetry seems to surface less often now than in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the “antiwar poem” for a time fiercely flourished.) Others will simply turn tail and run. (A common enough occurrence these days, when the unnamed tragedy at the heart of so many volumes seems to be the frustration of teaching poetry-writing at an unappreciative university.) There will be poets who take a queer glee in their own impotence, the utter inability of any verse to influence the times, and there will be poets like Berryman who seem sometimes to regard the world’s evils as some subset and manifestation of their own egos, and in a struggle at once noble and quixotic and distressing will set out to subdue them. Even Marianne Moore, one of the sanest and calmest voices of the century, may have turned shrill and incoherent when seeking to deal with world warfare. A number of critics, anyway, including Randall Jarrell, have found fault with Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits,” particularly the lines, “they’re fighting that I / may yet recover from the disease, My / Self.” Much depends in this poem on how the “I” is interpreted, whether it springs from unintended self-aggrandizement or a vision of universal shortcomings. One might plausibly regard the poem not as egotistical but as a ferocious attack on egotism, a touching—the more so given this poet’s patent honor and probity—upwelling of self-revulsion. But in any case, the poem highlights the difficulties in any attempt to grapple with something so vast as world warfare or the anguish of unavoidable moral compromise. It raises the question of how the contemporary poet may plausibly find some practicable way to come to terms with the times:
Through the four decades of his literary career, Anthony Hecht has shown himself to belong not only to the small group of truly accomplished contemporary American poets, but also to that still smaller group whose members have discovered some fruitful way to dwell upon the special horrors of the age. A plausible case could be made that his four books—A Summoning of Stones (1954), The Hard Hours (1967), Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), The Venetian Vespers (1979)—record a journey from darkness into greater darkness; certainly, The Venetian Vespers is a very dark book indeed. Hecht’s approach in poem after poem has been measured and thoughtful, avoiding the reciprocal temptations of self-pity and (the more dangerous because the less frequently condemned) of self-congratulation at his own toughness. But if he comes at his subject directly, he does not do so lightly armed. Most of his work is “formal” in two senses—elevated and patterned. He is probably the grandest of our contemporary poets in tone and dignity. With his ramified syntax, his venturesome Latinate vocabulary, and his readiness to retrieve words and constructions that verge on archaisms, he presents a voice of unexampled refinement. It is not the sort of voice one would expect to hear dealing with torture (as he does in “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” from The Hard Hours, with its inch-by-inch excoriation of a prisoner of war) or mayhem (as in “The Venetian Vespers,” with its soldier who is struck by a machine gun that “sheared away / The top of his cranium like a soft-boiled egg”). Much of the power of his work derives in fact from the incongruous tension that results when the most civilized of voices confronts civilization’s most gruesome barbarities.
One might conveniently, and it is hoped without too much distortion, divide into two groups those poets who make some successful attempt to portray the evil forces loose in the world. The hell that each seeks to depict has its own distinctive characteristics, its own archetypal horrors and its own species of dread. On one side we might put those whose hell seems to have fury as its source; on the other, to which Mr. Hecht would belong, are those whose hells are built on cruelty. Violence and pain abound in either hell, but in the former these generally arise out of the heat of anger; in the latter, out of the coldness of malice. The former would represent the triumph of emotion over reason; the latter, the poisoning of reason itself. Theodore Roethke probably provides the best example of a poet in our time whose hell was of the first, the furious sort. His work trembles with a dread of vast, mindless forces, as is evident even through a mere glance at the table of contents of his collected poems—“Big Wind,” “The Pure Fury,” “The Surly One,” “Her Wrath,” “Heard in a Violent Ward,” “The Storm.” In his landscapes, thundering storms are forever massing on the horizon, while underfoot the earth is tunneled by armies of worms and slugs that evoke the unthinking parasitism of death. In Hecht’s work, by contrast, it is cruelty—cool, collected sadism—that turns up like a recurrent nightmare, frequently to be met by a stunned disbelief. Neither the actual victims in his poems nor the bystanders (who often play the role of narrator) can compass the vastness of man’s inhumanity to man—a vision so dismaying as to drive the innocent or weak into mental dissolution (“Third Avenue in Sunlight,” “The Venetian Vespers”). In poem after poem, Hecht’s speakers recall an earlier self—one who had not yet encountered the vision that in some way undid him.
The very innocence of so many of these personae charges Hecht’s work with an additional tension. 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. These formal techniques distance poet from subject even while a restrained, clear, suffusing sympathy suggests deep levels of identification. Our “distant” author begins to look like a former innocent whose knowledge has been painfully achieved.
There is often something appealingly childlike about Hecht’s innocents, and one may gradually come to discern the figure of a wide-eyed child at the very heart of his work. One thinks of the desolate boy who is revealed at the close of “A Hill” (which begins, marvelously, “In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur, / I had a vision once,” and only slowly makes its way from sunlit piazzas, umbrellas and carts, to a child in upstate New York, who stands before a hill, “mole-colored and bare” for “hours in wintertime”). Or the mischievous lad in “Lizards and Snakes” who amuses himself by putting snakes into his aunt’s knitting box—until the day he realizes that for this devout, Milton-quoting old woman such creatures really are a manifestation of Satan. Or the seven-year-old in “Apprehensions” who is fascinated by the tabloids read by his Teutonic governess (“Which featured stories with lurid photographs—/ A child chained tightly to a radiator / In an abandoned house; the instruments / With which some man tortured his fiancée…”). This young boy—perhaps the central archetype in Hecht’s imagination—watches in a kind of frozen, hypnotic horror as the evil of the world, and the desolation of death itself, unfolds. What this child perhaps finds hardest to absorb is the thoroughness of human cruelty—the devious and ingenious ways in which men contrive to hurt each other. In its most intimate form, this revelation finds its prototype in one man’s physical torture of another; on the largest social scale, in Nazi Germany.
While Hecht’s innocents are apt to buckle in the moment of horrific vision, the poet who stands behind them seems resolute in his desire to complete his examination, as though seeking to master evil as much as possible through the mind’s powers of understanding and categorization. (An early poem in A Summoning of Stones was entitled “The Place of Pain in the Universe.”) This effort is seen in its most ambitious and impassioned form in “Rites and Ceremonies” (The Hard Hours), a poem that calls on, among other sources, the King James Bible in its sweeping locutions, Eliot of The Waste Land in its structure and subtitles (e.g., “The Fire Sermon”), and Herbert in its paradoxical tone of intricate, ingenious simplicity (the poem quotes from, and gives a twist to, “Denial”). Yet the largest single presence, in spirit if not in language, may be Hopkins, especially the poet who wrote “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” Like Hopkins, Hecht seeks desperately to reconcile earthly woe with heavenly well-being, and at times addresses the Lord contentiously, as in this meditation on the Nazi death chambers:
At night, Father, in the dark, when I pray,
I am there, I am there. I am pushed through
With the others to the strange room
Without windows; whitewashed walls, cement floor.
Millions, Father, millions have come to this pass,
Which a great church has voted to “deplore.”
Are the vents in the ceiling, Father, to let the spirit depart?
We are crowded in here naked, female and male.
An old man is saying a prayer. And now we start
To panic, to claw at each other, to wail
As the rubber-edged door closes on chance and choice.
He is saying a prayer for all whom this room shall kill:
“I cried unto the Lord God with my
And He has heard me out His holy
The quest for harmony between the actual and the ideal, between evil and goodness, is left unfulfilled in “Rites and Ceremonies,” although there is an implicit sense that the natural blessings of the world (“the soft light on the barn at dawn,” “the perfect treasuries of the snow”) stand in some sort of impenetrable causal equilibrium with the atrocities the poem so powerfully recounts.
This sense of a dynamic, causal balancing of good and evil finds its most explicit formulation in Hecht’s “The Deodand,” from The Venetian Vespers. An author’s note explains that a deodand is a “personal chattel which, having been the immediate occasion of the death of a human being, was given to God as an expiatory offering.” The poem, a meditation on a Renoir painting entitled Parisians Dressed in Algerian Costume, is perhaps the most harrowing that Hecht has written. It certainly contains a passage as brutal as I have found anywhere:
In the final months of the Algerian war
They captured a very young French Legionnaire.
They shaved his head, decked him in a blonde wig,
Carmined his lips grotesquely, fitted him out
With long, theatrical false eyelashes
And a bright, loose-fitting skirt of calico,
And cut off all the fingers of both hands.
He had to eat from a fork held by his captors.
Anyone who meets the poem first and the painting later will likely be struck by an unexpected innocence: one would not have expected this pretty canvas to yield up a vision of such terror.
Renoir’s women are in the midst of a sort of children’s game of “dressing up.” Their charade takes place in someone’s living room, away from the eyes of the world—notably from the eyes of men, though it is a man who has depicted them. They are got up in opulent Arab finery, and what could be a more innocent pastime than this? Yet the poem very quickly tinges their play with menace. The poet sees in the brass ornaments at wrist and ankle sexual fetters (to be linked, some sixty lines later, to those that bind the young Legionnaire). Kohl eyeliner produces “dark, savage allurements.” These women are playing with the trappings of French imperialism’s spoils, and under the law which the poem invokes (the reader now recalls that “deodand” is a legal term), their game of appropriation demands some eventual restitution.
This law, or balancing, is nothing so simple as “Bad must follow good” or “Innocence is doomed.” The poem is a complex deliberation on the intertwined fates of innocence and evil. What these women are guilty of is an inattentiveness to the past—a failure to perceive the networks of complicity and cruelty that pervade their lives. Who would have supposed these networks capable of penetrating even here, into this shrouded luxurious living room that no men can see? But it turns out that their haven is no haven. Even here, there is no such thing as a private act. One might have thought their “crime” minor enough, and much of the poem’s horror springs from the ferocity of the punishment, which falls on someone worlds and years away. And one notes that the Legionnaire is “very young”—which is to say, not much older than the archetypal boy in Hecht’s work.
The “innocence” of childhood seems in Hecht’s poetry a dangerously vulnerable state, an unpredictable Eden from which one may at any moment be calamitously expelled. Safety—as much as is to be found—lies in an informed adulthood, an attendance to those monstrous lessons of history that wait so eagerly to repeat themselves. While there is pathos in any good poem’s portrayal of the loss of Eden, in Hecht’s verse this is a poignance enriched by a bitter irony: one leaves Eden, in part, out of a need for self-protection.
If a sense of menace pervades most of Hecht’s work, especially The Venetian Vespers, one meets here and there a generous benignity as well. That child who stares in rapt incomprehension at evil has a sunny, blessed counterpart: the child or innocent who stands in sudden hushed incredulity before a vision of the undeserved bounty and goodness of life. The beauties of this world, often linked in Hecht’s poetry to rainfall, have a way of taking the poet and his personae by a surprise that is vast and mystical and transformative. This state is—to toss a word at the ineffable—transcendent. One gets hints of its nature at the conclusion of “The Lull,” in the moments before a cloudburst:
Some shadowless, unfocussed light In which all things come into their own right,
Pebble and weed and leaf Distinct, refreshed, and cleanly self-defined,
Rapt in a trance of stillness, in a brief Mood of serenity, as if designed To be here now, and manifest The deep, unvexed composure of the blessed.
and in the middle section of “After the Rain”:
How even and pure this light!
All things stand on their own,
Equal and shadowless,
In a world gone pale and neuter,
Yet riddled with fresh delight.
The heart of every stone
Conceals a toad, and the grass
Shines with a douse of pewter.
It finds perhaps its loveliest expression in “Peripeteia,” from Millions of Strange Shadows, a poem that draws on what is perhaps the most haunting account of unexpected bounty and beauty we have (“O brave new world”), Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“Peripeteia” opens with fragments that function like stage directions to a poem that is itself about the theater. The reader is introduced to an anonymous man—the “I” of the poem—who has come alone to a Broadway performance. If this man is a sort of Everyman spectator, the play is a kind of Everyplay; not until the poem’s last few lines is the drama unfolding on the stage identified. The poem lovingly recounts that sweet expectancy, with its inexhaustible promise of release, which we feel whenever the houselights dim and the curtain rises:
And then the cool, drawn-out anticipation,
Not of the play itself, but the false dusk
And equally false night when the houselights
Obey some planetary rheostat
And bring a stillness on.
This time, we in the audience once more find ourselves believing, something extraordinary will happen.
And this time, something extraordinary does occur. The queer, dreamlike world of the theater, the looser world of sleep and dreams, and the “real world” of the paying Broadway audience all are momentarily united when, at the poem’s close,
Miraculous Miranda, steps from the stage,
Moves up the aisle to my seat, where she stops,
Smiles gently, seriously, and takes my hand
And leads me out of the theatre, into a night
As luminous as noon, more deeply real,
Simply because of her hand, than any dream
Shakespeare or I or anyone ever dreamed.
These concluding lines could hardly be bolder—in a sense, they rewrite Shakespeare—or more satisfying. Only now does the reader grasp the full poetic benefit of having the performance be not only “something by Shakespeare” (as the poem’s “I” first identifies it) but the most magical play ever written. No, not even The Tempest can re-create the transportive splendor of this moment when our anonymous spectator meets his dream woman in the flesh. That reckless juxtaposition in the last line—“Shakespeare or I”—begins to look perfectly justified. No human achievement or conception can match the actual, tactile plenty of the world. Our Everyman in the audience has met something that feels like first love, and what string of mere words can stand up to that? It’s as though that archetypal girl Miranda, who has no memories of human treachery, and that archetype of Hecht’s verse, the boy who has encountered some savage trauma, are united at last. No wonder, then, that they drift out “into a night / As luminous as noon.” Theirs is a moment more enchanting than any poem’s, though it’s a poem that must attempt—again and again over the centuries—to do it, and the two of them, justice.
February 13, 1986