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 our faculty of judgment.
In a familiar paradox of art, Hecht’s poems got their structure and strength from his irrational judgments and defensive vulnerability. But Hecht did something deeper and more complex than finding compensations in the perfections of art for the faults of life. What is uniquely unsettling about his poetry is its insistence that its aristocratic poise is helpless against the inner terror that gave rise to it. As he suggests in “A Birthday Poem,” he finds in art a “clarity that never was,” a clarity outside of time that offers only an illusion of escape from the tangled misery of actual and specific moments, naming as an example “that mid-afternoon of our disgrace.”
Hecht was born in New York in 1923 to upper-class secular Jews whose grandparents had emigrated from Germany. His father had dropped out of Harvard to run the family’s kitchen utensil business when his own father went blind. Three times during the Depression, starting when Hecht was around seven, Hecht’s father lost all his money and that of his investors. All three times he attempted suicide and was rescued financially by Hecht’s mother’s family. On one occasion he briefly and mysteriously disappeared.
“The first serious poem I ever tried to write was a disaster,” Hecht said, “and it was bad because I tried to express unmediated feelings about one of my father’s collapses.” Paternal failure hurt him into poetry. For the rest of his life, all his serious poems expressed well-mediated feelings about his father’s failure as the giver and keeper of law that a father ought to be. In the world of Hecht’s imagination a father always fails or departs or a son is lost or abandoned. In a more or less different way, when the son grows up to be a father, he too fails or departs.
Hecht’s sons, he writes in one poem, imagine him as a folktale hero, while his own image of himself is that of a Jewish father helpless against the Nazis, a father “Who could not, at one time,/Have saved them from the gas.” In some of his letters, he half-jokingly imagines himself his father’s father, addressing his parents as “Dear kids” or “Kinderlein [little children].” The novelist whom he most admired was William Maxwell, whose mother died when Maxwell was ten and whose whole body of work, like Hecht’s, looks back to a childhood catastrophe.
Hecht enlisted in the Army in 1942, and in the last few months of the war experienced the horrors of the battlefield—including the slaughter of German women and children by his own side—and the horrors revealed when his division liberated the death camp at Flossenbürg. On his return he taught poetry in colleges, had a nervous breakdown, launched his reputation through the lucid formal intensity of his early poems, and won a year-long fellowship to Rome, where he later returned for a another year. As McClatchy writes in his introduction to the Selected Poems, on the map of Hecht’s sensibility “Germany and Italy border each other.” The first is the site of manifest, bloody horrors, the second of hidden, psychological ones.
At thirty-one he married Patricia Harris, with whom he had two sons. The marriage began unhappily and got worse. On the evidence of almost any writer’s letters, including Hecht’s, all unhappy marriages fail in the same way. The letter-writer looks on in passive bewilderment while his spouse, with no visible motive, metamorphoses into an irrational fury. Hecht’s early poems, however, suggest that he understood his wife’s grievances and knew he was unable to relieve them. These poems record his dismay at his own adolescent smartness about sex and his alienation from intimacy. “The Dover Bitch,” for example, is a monologue spoken by a man who occasionally spends a night with the woman to whom Matthew Arnold had addressed “Dover Beach”:
To have been brought
All the way down from London,
and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last
Is really tough on a girl, and she
I still see her once
in a while
And she always treats me right.
We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and
perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there
Running to fat, but dependable as
And sometimes I bring her a
bottle of Nuit d’Amour.
In many of Hecht’s early poems, his formal stanzas, Latinate diction, and learned allusions are the means by which he makes himself heir to generations of British literary fathers from Shakespeare and Herbert through Yeats and Auden. (He spoke with an English accent though he never lived in England.) In “The Dover Bitch” he wins an Oedipal battle by going to bed with a woman loved by one of his literary fathers. He writes the poem in the bad-boy style he used in his other early poems about sex, and he portrays himself—and the woman—as cynically shallow, incapable of Arnold’s intensity and depth. The subtitle of Hecht’s poem is Arnold’s phrase about poetry, “A Criticism of Life,” and the poem is his criticism of his own life.
A year after Hecht and his wife divorced, she married a Belgian and announced that she was taking Hecht’s two sons with her to Europe. Deeply depressed at imagining himself another in a line of failed fathers, he spent three months in a mental hospital. After a letter in which he reports to a friend that he has seen his sons for the last time before their departure, a three-year gap opens in the Selected Letters, during which he returns to teaching but seems to leave no visible record of his inner life.
Hecht’s poems ask repeatedly why he is moved by the weightless luminescence he finds in art and nature. In “Somebody’s Life” he wonders at his taste for poetic diction:
He smoked, recalled some lines
Felt himself claimed by such rash
These were the lofty figures of his
What was it moved him in all that
swash and polish?
In “After the Rain” he wonders at his taste for evanescent mists:
Yet what puzzles me the most
Is my unwavering taste
For these dim, weathery
In “Still Life” he wonders at being drawn to the motionless silence above a lake:
Why does this so much stir me,
like a code
Or muffled intimation
Of purposes and preordained
He answered these questions in his longest poem, the lightly disguised double autobiography “The Venetian Vespers.” The larger of the two autobiographies is that of the speaker, a rentier living alone in Venice, remembering from childhood
those first precocious hints
Those intuitions of living
That last a lifetime.
Hecht insisted that the narrator “is not me, though I have used some events in my life,” but the psychological self-portrait is unmistakable. The speaker grew up above his uncle’s store, where his father worked. One day his father disappeared. “We never heard from him again.” When the speaker was six, his mother died. “My whole life was changed/Without my having done a single thing.” Other sufferings followed. Now, in Venice, the architectural filigree of St. Mark’s offers an escape from time and loss, but also from all meaning:
No room is left
For antecedence, inference,
One escapes from all the anguish
of this world
Into the refuge of the present
The past is mercifully dissolved,
Easy obedience to the gospel’s
One takes no thought whatever of
The soul being drenched in fine
The next line breaks the spell: “Seeing is misbelieving.”
Hecht detailed in a letter the miseries behind the poem. The speaker, he wrote,
has cut himself off from family life as his father was cut off. He has taken upon himself the penance for all the accumulated guilt, largely suspected, but absolutely unproveable, of what went on when he was a child.
Venetian architecture offers to the speaker the same delusive paradis artificiel—an inferno in elegant disguise—that Hecht’s prosody and diction offer to himself, the same “clarity that never was”:
His [the speaker’s] doom is never to know for sure; therefore his constant attention throughout the poem to visual clarity, and his constant assertions that visual clarity, for all its clarity, is misleading: we never know the truth. Venice for him is hell. But it is an apt, a fitting hell because it is all artificial, that is, man-made, just as all he suffers from is man-made.
Hecht’s much-praised visual descriptions, such as his grand evocation of a storm rising over Venice, are gorgeous but wheel-spinning, as if he felt compelled to create in verse the same artificial hell that he found in the stones of Venice.
The second autobiography in the poem is a quick vignette of an army comrade who cherished a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, another work of man-made clarity and elegance:
he had been brought up in
So the book was his fiction of
A novel in which personages of
Firmly secure domestic
This was to him a sort of Corpus
An ancient piety and
The soldier, Hecht said, was real, someone he knew in the army. What makes him autobiographical is Hecht’s interpretation of him as a son without a father, seeking in the rules of etiquette the same body of laws that Hecht sought in poetry:
He haunts me here, that seeker
In a lawless world….
He was killed by enemy machine-gun fire.
Hecht saw himself a seeker after law in a world where even poetry was ultimately lawless. He acknowledged in the preface to his book of criticism On the Laws of the Poetic Art that “I shall be accused of mincing matters to such a degree that no laws whatever are even discernible.”
What moves him about the purity of nature’s light and silence, and about art’s clarity and loftiness, is the impossible vision they offer of unanxious calm and unalterable law in a real world of anxiety and change. Unexpectedly, when Hecht was forty-eight, he experienced in life the calm clarity that he imagined to be possible only in the illusions of art. He chanced to meet a former student, Helen D’Alessandro, who was twenty years younger than he; they married three months later; his third son was born the next year.
The happiest and comeliest of his poems, “Peripeteia,” ends in a moment when vision suddenly becomes real. As he sits in the audience at a performance of The Tempest,
she, even she,
Miraculous Miranda, steps from
Moves up the aisle to my seat,
where she stops,
Smiles gently, seriously, and takes
And leads me out of the theater,
into a night
As luminous as noon, more
Simply because of her hand, than
Shakespeare or I or anyone ever
Hecht was lastingly happy in his second marriage, but his new happiness never overcame his earlier miseries. After his parents’ death, when he was nearly sixty, his brother disposed of some favorite books that had been at his parents’ apartment. Hecht was provoked into shock,
and it was shock more than anything else that so stirred me. I knew at once that the loss was almost entirely symbolic, though the knowledge did not in the least diminish my Gordian knot of rage, guilt, and other violent emotions that I had thought pretty well buried for good.
He was notoriously thin-skinned; even the most affectionate memoirs, among them Brad Leithauser’s, published in these pages in 2004, recall moments when he was “vaguely affronted.” He was defensive about his own defensiveness, and, in essays and letters, insisted that it was less a personal quirk of his own than an occupational disease of poets:
We are a touchy and easily offended lot, and this reflects the uncertainty of our place in society…. Now, other men get tired and bored with other kinds of employment…. But there are not many for whom their entire amour propre is so intimately tied to their professional careers.
In private, he was wounded by slights that no other poet ever imagined. As a visiting professor at Yale, he startled colleagues by complaining that he had been obliged to introduce himself to his students when the department chairman neglected to visit his first class and make the introduction for him.
W.H. Auden wrote that the virtue of meters and stanzas was that they liberate a poet from the iron law of his private obsessions:
Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses,
force us to have second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.
Hecht had begun writing with the conviction that poetic laws stand for other laws. Late in life he began citing Auden’s entirely different way of thinking about poetic form. In Hecht’s early work, in obedience to arbitrary laws that decree the shape and size of a stanza, he tends to stuff his lines with inert adjectival filler. An eighteen-line stanza about the Defenestration of Prague is filled out with “certain ambassadors” (not “ambassadors”), “the town of Prague” (not “Prague”), “And so it happened that,” “that famous height,” and “in a manner worthy to be sung.” (Auden told him that he should have reduced the whole stanza to a brief allusion.) He later became skilled enough to dispense with filler, and the regular stanzas of his later poems are often starkly exhilarating:
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.
In contrast, when he wrote poems in unrhymed quasi-Shakespearean blank verse, in which no stanza form compelled him to mold his thoughts, he lapsed into the overripe syntax that Eliot half-parodied in The Waste Land:
While thorned and furry legs
embrace each other
As black mandibles tick. Immature girls,
Naked but for the stockings they
To tempt the mucid glitter of an
Asked about his taste for words like mucid and pavonine, Hecht said he used them to portray fictional characters:
I normally put them into the mouth of a person who is characterized as one who uses an exotic language. The narrator of “The Venetian Vespers,” for example, is someone who out of a kind of pathological drive learnt a lot of fancy language.
This ignores the fact that Hecht used the same exotic language in poems written in his own voice, and his phrase “a kind of pathological drive” implies more than he says about his motives. The style of Hecht’s blank-verse poems is that of an adolescent trying to fill the capacious formal clothes of his poetic fathers.
In his critical prose, with no metrical form to constrain him, Hecht rambles and grumbles, and submerges his convincing craftsman’s insights in paragraphs that begin “Candor demands that I acknowledge,” or “At the same time we must consider,” or “If the foregoing can tentatively be accepted.” When he sees in another writer his own double obsession with fatherhood and law, he loses all sense of proportion. He discovers that the key to The Merchant of Venice is the arbitrary Old Testament law that Portia’s father has bequeathed to her through his will, and which she must transform into the New Testament dispensation of love. While writing up his discovery he tells a friend, without irony:
I am convinced that I am the only person who understands that play; and that, moreover, my essay will not simply be one more “interpretation.” …What I am writing I think will prove to be unassailable and incontrovertible…. I believe that once my essay is published it will become an indispensable exegesis for the play, and will be beyond dispute correct.
No magazine would print the essay, so it appeared only in Hecht’s prose collection, Obbligati (1986). The published version again makes his claim that it offers “an unassailable case in behalf of my answers to the questions I deal with,” that it is not merely one among many possible interpretations.
Hecht was famously generous to students and to strangers who sent him their poems. He wrote long letters of detailed, judicious criticism, with no trace of vague flattery. Jonathan F.S. Post, once Hecht’s student and now editor of his letters, repays Hecht’s generosity with tactful biographical summaries and, where needed, succinctly relevant headnotes. Except for the dreary sans-serif typeface used for the letters (the introduction and headnotes are more legible), this is a model edition. The letters themselves are vastly interesting for what Hecht says about himself and his poems, less so about everything else. Some of the humor will escape readers who never heard Hecht tell a story in a sly ironic voice.
Hecht’s best poems are driven by the same generosity he gave to his students. He uses his suffering not as a provocation to self-pity but as the vehicle through which he can imagine someone else’s greater suffering. In “The Short End,” after having dramatized his own learned aestheticism in “The Venetian Vespers,” he again portrays someone destroyed through a passion for art, a woman who collects decorative pillows and dies when they catch fire as she smokes in bed. One of the aims of the poem, Hecht said, “was to take a character almost entirely unprepossessing, a fat and slovenly drunken woman with garish and vulgar taste, and to try to win the reader’s sympathy for her by the time the poem was over.”
In “The Book of Yolek,” he remembers himself as a boy lost in the woods and thinking of home, and then thinks of the boy Yolek, seized from his home by the Nazis in 1942. This taut, imposing poem evokes Hecht’s two deepest themes: the doomed lost boy and the disastrous law cited in the poem’s epigraph, the German words from Luther’s Bible that translate, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die.” The poem is a double act of personal memory and personal identification, but Hecht freed it from the fetters of self by writing it in the strict form of a sestina.
Hecht was one of the rare poets who increase in power and self-knowledge as they grow older. In his last book of essays, Melodies Unheard (2003), he tried, with partial success, to renounce his angers and resentments:
By now I have largely, almost entirely, put behind me that militant sort of “severe reprobation” Ruskin found it a moral imperative to administer; and I’ve done so with a sense of shame I was too young to feel at the time of commission….
One of the last poems in the Selected Poems is “Sarabande on Attaining the Age of Seventy-Seven”:
A turn, a glide, a quarter-turn and
The stately dance advances; these
Bone-deep and numbing as I
should know by now,
Diminishing the cast, like musical
Hecht had written often about dying, most memorably in “The Presumptions of Death,” a grim sequence where death speaks in the roles of poet, archbishop, society lady, carnival barker, and more. He had always imagined death forcing its victims to join the grotesque movements of the Totendanz, the dance of death. Now he imagined himself accepting death’s summons but refusing death’s indignities, in the stately voluntary motions of a sarabande.