Flight Among the Texts: Anthony Hecht as Critical Essayist

The essays of Anthony Hecht bear more than a passing resemblance to the poems. There is, first of all, his scrupulosity of word-choice—diction, for Hecht, being replete with moral or ethical considerations. There is his emphasis on the fine arts and classicism, with due regard for Italian Renaissance painting and architecture. There is his vast knowledge of Scripture, and of the secular and religious traditions of Europe. And there is the urbane, refined manner of a gentleman aesthete, whose sober procession of thought may swerve into dark ironies at any moment, and betray the folly of our deepest held premise.

Another link between the poetry and prose may be found in Hecht’s justification of his role as critic. In his third and final collection of essays about poetry, he writes:

What, I have asked myself, is a critic trying to do? And there are plenty of answers. But perhaps we might begin with the urge governing Poe’s Auguste Dupin: to solve a mystery. Not infrequently this means discovering that there was a mystery to be solved in the first place, because no one has noticed any need for scrutiny.

The title of that book is, appropriately, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry. Just what sort of mysteries are we talking about? They involve not the disclosure of vatic truths or trade secrets, but rather the Dupinesque problem-solving that evokes what he calls, later, in the same preface, “gumshoe pleasures.” As with most pleasures, such sleuthing is not strictly necessary, but done for its own sake. By Hecht’s own admission, if he had not chosen to complicate matters with these essays, readers might never have known “there was a mystery to be solved in the first place.” I submit that Hecht’s literary criticism, like his poetry, abounds in visual, aural, and intellectual discoveries that would not have come to light if the seeker were less fastidious than he, less insistent on a “need for scrutiny.” The poet whose stately measure can solemnize the most fleeting observations—of sunlight, wet stones, or cloud-shapes—is also the poet whose refined speech can yet deliver some of the worst acts of human cruelty to our doorstep. This is especially true of his earlier poems—think of the anonymous victims in “More Light! More Light!,” “The Feast of Stephen,” and “The Deodand.” Such horrors had been kept out of view for decades, but Hecht recounts the episodes in their original sin. They have been painstakingly recorded, but saved for an opportune moment in each poem; and while the analogy risks trivializing Hecht’s subjects, it is as though we arrive at the end of a potboiler where the detective calmly lists the gruesome facts that point to an unyielding culpability.

Our detective is gifted with abundant self-knowledge, and he has the grace and good humor to recognize other motives in his sleuthing than the dogged pursuit of justice. One must return to the notion of Hecht as a connoisseur, basking in his own intellect, dimly aware that “something harmless” may result from his investigations. The phrase comes from a passage in Hecht’s poem “Peripeteia,” which he quotes in the preface to On the Laws of the Poetic Art, a volume based on his 1992 Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts. The poem captures “that instant, which the mind protracts, / From dim to dark before the curtain rises” at the start of a theater performance, when “each of us is miraculously alone / In calm, invulnerable isolation.”

I, as a connoisseur of loneliness,
Savor it richly, and set it down
In an endless umber landscape, a stubble field
Under a lilac, electric, storm-flushed sky,
Where, in companionship with worthless stones,
Mica-flecked, or at best some rusty quartz,
I stood in childhood, waiting for things to mend.
A useful discipline, perhaps. One that might lead
To solitary, self-denying work
That issues in something harmless, like a poem,
Governed by laws that stand for other laws,
Both of which aim, through kindred disciplines,
At the soul’s knowledge and habiliment.
In any case, in a self-granted freedom,
The mind, lone regent of itself, prolongs
The dark and silence; mirrors itself, delights
In consciousness of consciousness, alone,
Sufficient, nimble, touched with a small grace.

All three of Hecht’s essay collections—in addition to The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H. Auden, which will not be considered here—share a titular theme. The books’ titles refer to an undercurrent (musical, metrical, and ethical) he will spend their pages on exploring. Hecht published his first critical volume, Obbligati, in 1986. The title, he says in a preface, denotes his “complex set of obligations” to the poets and poems and teachers and editors that provided the subjects or occasions for the essays. But he also describes “the proper role of criticism as a musical obbligato: that is, a counterpoint that must constantly strive to move in strict harmony with and intellectual counterpoint to its subject, and remain always subordinate to the text upon which it presumes to comment.”

Even without a knowledge of Hecht’s biography, one would suspect from the donnish tone of this statement that the writer is a teacher of distinction. One would also infer, from the phrase “subordinate to the text,” that Hecht is a latter-day New Critic. To be sure, he credits the close reading techniques of William Empson and, in more recent times, Christopher Ricks, with inspiring his own strategies as scholar-critic. (There was also that stint at Kenyon College, where he came to know and admire John Crowe Ransom.) Far more telling, however, is the zest for empirical discovery he shares with the original New Critics, even their prophet, T.S. Eliot.

New Criticism was to philological and biographical literary criticism what Newton was to Descartes. When we speak of “the laws of gravity,” we are ascribing governance to a principle that would have kept working quietly and efficiently in any case, regardless of whether we had conferred upon it an official capacity. (This nomenclature inflects our logic, so that we come to see such “laws” as inviolable, rather than the theoretical boundaries they truly are.) Just so, the New Critics divined unseen principles governing their responses to the poems that most appealed to their generation. Nominally allied with the scientific method—one has only to think of I.A. Richards’ “protocols” and Eliot’s “shred of platinum”—these critics became increasingly biased in their hypotheses, more strident in their pronouncements, so that today such terms as “objective correlative” and “pathetic fallacy” (the subject of the first essay of Obbligati) seem about as relevant as Aristotle’s unities.1

If all politics are local, then so is all good criticism. Like the New Critics, Hecht applies a close literal reading of the text on the page. But he is saved from their grand theorizing by his gifts of modesty, tact, and erudition. This much is clear from his apology for On the Laws of the Poetic Art:

A word is perhaps in order about my title. I hope it will be understood that I am not presuming to lay down the law. Indeed, I almost equally fear that I shall be accused of mincing matters to such a degree that no laws whatever are discernible. What I intend, with a polite bow to Cicero’s De senectute or Montaigne’s On the Education of Boys, is the informal, speculative discourse that addresses a topic with no pretensions to exhaustiveness. I have earnestly tried to avoid the polemical and the doctrinaire….

Candor demands that I acknowledge that the avoidance of polemical and doctrinaire positions is not always so easy as it might seem, and many unconscious agendas may well have insinuated themselves into my discourse. There is no quod erat demonstrandum in the discussion of such matters. I make these comments by way of reminding myself that whatever views I have advanced in these pages are surely the provisional views of an individual with certain tastes, a certain background and education, and they are not to be taken by me or anyone else as incised, marmoreal verities. Be that as it may, I am fully aware that I think of poetry as properly governed by laws, which are often the better for being implicit rather than explicit; and which signify something more than supine obedience to tyrannies of style or the dictates of others.

In parsing the title of these lectures, Hecht embodies the ideal of a postmodern critic who is sympathetic to the New Critics’ methods, if not always to their programs. For all the polish of execution, it is a rough and ready sensibility, unfettered by dogma, at home with a variety of texts. A free agent, Hecht locates puzzles that go undetected by the official forces—the hapless Scotland Yards and Interpols of academia—and then regales us with his solutions.

To give a flavor for the sorts of discoveries awaiting a reader of Hecht’s essays, I will limit myself to one from each book—though there is randomness to this exercise, since any number of other specimens might have been chosen. As with the review of a suspense novel or movie, a spoiler alert seems necessary.

Obbligati: “The Riddles of Emily Dickinson” (originating, improbably, from a TV Guide article Hecht wrote in the 1970s) works deftly through some of her most obscure (or deceptively simple) lyrics. The charm of this essay is in realizing anew that the most profoundly helpful act of literary criticism is to debunk conventional notions of how to read a particular poem, thus enriching our future encounters with it. This can be done not only by rooting out some long-buried historical reference, but, even more impressively, by showing that the clues lay in plain sight all along. Such is the case with Hecht’s reading of Dickinson’s #1129, “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant,” where he demonstrates—by reading the poem alongside two scriptural passages—that her poem “has behind it the authority of both the Old and New Testament: that parables, riddles, the Incarnation itself are but aspects of a Truth we could not comprehend without their mediation.” Another memorable performance in this book is Hecht’s enumeration and clarification of five puzzles in the received texts of Othello.

On the Laws of the Poetic Art: “Poetry and Music” features, like all of the essays (originally lectures) in this book, accompanying artwork to illustrate the claims he makes for poetry’s relation to the other fine arts. This particular essay shows da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and an architectural plan by Andrea Palladio to support Hecht’s validation of a theory of Auden’s: namely, that the Italian sonnet form’s survival throughout literature is due to its ideal proportions of octave and sestet. Self-deprecatingly, Hecht elaborates on this “small ‘discovery’” in Melodies Unheard.

Indeed, by the time he published this book, at the age of 81, Hecht the literary sleuth had perfected his methods. Consequently, more examples flourish here than in either of the previous volumes. The briefest essay, “On Robert Frost’s ‘The Woodpile,’” will suffice. Although countless commentators, high school English classes, and undergraduate or graduate seminars have discussed “The Woodpile,” Hecht uncovers a possible meaning that even they might have overlooked in reading and re-reading the poem.

For surely one easily conceivable reason that pile is there is that the man who cut and stacked it has died. This is not said; it is in fact deliberately avoided. But nothing could be more plausible, when you stop to think about it, and the more you think about it, the more it will strike you that the poet’s declaration that ‘only someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks’ could have abandoned the pile is a transparent evasion, an explanation selected precisely for its blandness, its easy evasiveness; as when with some euphemism we avoid some terrifying or unlucky topic. And if, as I urge you to consider, this ‘handiwork…on which he spent himself’ were poems that had gone virtually unnoticed during the poet’s lifetime, and were to be chanced upon by some stray wanderer long after the poet’s death, then this wood-pile might well signify for Robert Frost the secret fears he must have entertained when, a year earlier, his first book had been greeted by such discouraging reviews; and there he was, husband and father of four—it might have been father of six, but for the early deaths of two children—in a foreign country [England] where his work had been briefly and summarily dismissed.

I append this long passage to show, as if it needed showing, that Hecht is not bound by rules that would thwart a traditional New Critic.2 He does not fear to commit an intentional fallacy. Rather, the stuff of biography and history are fuel for some of his most revealing analyses, as when, in “Uncle Tom’s Shantih” from Melodies Unheard, he explores the life and times of one Countess Marie Larisch, who proves critical to the first 18 lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Perhaps it is biography to which we must turn in clearing up another mystery, one that hovers over the collected works of this poet-critic. What accounts for the inimitable blend of generosity mingled with critical detachment that we find in the poems and essays? Put another way, how did the writer acquire his utterly humane recognition that art and morality can never be divided, though it is presumptuous, and insulting to both, to insist that one adopt the visage of the other? There is no one answer, of course, but I find the stirrings of Hecht’s critical sensibility in an experience he recalls from childhood.

A Merchant of Venice was clearly an important play for Hecht—he devotes his longest essay in Obbligati to it, and the mind races at the prospect of a published volume of his Shakespearean criticism, akin to John Berryman’s, though one also suspects there might not be enough material.  In a rare essay in which he discusses his Jewish heritage, Hecht performs a close reading of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. He finds that it is impossible to ignore anti-Semitism in the text, just as “it is impossible to be a Jew of my generation without being keenly aware of anti-Semitism, and sensitivity on this point alone has invited a study of Christian doctrine.” Later in the essay, he returns to The Merchant of Venice, and his recoiling, as a child, from the portrayal of Shylock. In that instant, we see the origins of Hecht’s lonely brilliance, and indeed the “connoisseur of loneliness” he would become.

I can remember being assigned in grade school to read The Merchant of Venice. It was mortifying, and in complicated ways. I was being asked to admire the work of the greatest master of the English language, and one universally revered, who was slandering all those of my race and religion. I was not even allowed to do this in private, but under the scrutiny and supervision of public instruction. And it took many class periods to get through the whole text. I can also remember the unseemly pleasure of my teacher in relishing all the slanders against the Jews in general and Shylock in particular. It was a wounding experience and the beginning of a kind of education for which I received no grades. And it has continued for the rest of my life. Despite that early anguish I went on to find myself increasingly devoted to Shakespeare, and to literature in general, always tensely alerted to the possibility of being wounded, nearly always surprised by genuine kindness and understanding in matters that touched upon race and religion.

Reading the last sentence, one thinks of these lines from Hecht’s hero, Auden: “If equal affection there cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.” Yet if, despite the pain, Hecht opened himself to English literature, then the Muse returned that devotion with interest. The same poet would grow into a passionate reader of George Herbert, whose intricate forms and metaphysical arguments surely made Hecht a better poet. We are thankful he persevered.


1 In this essay, originally intended for a collection of writings honoring Hecht, the term “New Critics” is tossed around rather glibly. The practice masks essential differences in the methods, styles, and sensibilities of the large cohort of talented critics—many of whom were poets—who often attract this label.
2 See previous footnote. Your editor directs me to Cleanth Brooks’ 1971 book, A Shaping Joy: Studies in the Writer’s Craft, the “Introduction” to which states: “The pigeonhole assigned to me carries the label ‘The New Criticism.’ Now, it is bad enough to live under any label, but one so nearly meaningless as ‘The New Criticism’—it is certainly not new—has peculiar disadvantages. For most people it vaguely signifies an anti-historical bias and a fixation on ‘close reading.’ The New Critic would seem to be trapped in a cell without windows or door, staring through a reading glass at his literary text, effectually cut off from all the activities of the world outside—from history and science, from the other arts, and from nature and humanity itself.”
Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He lives outside Washington, D.C., where he works as an arts research director.
Sunil Iyengar

Author: Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He lives outside Washington, D.C., where he works as an arts research director.