“A Far from Comic Plot”: The Life in Verse of Anthony Hecht

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Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life
by David Yezzi
(St. Martin’s, 469 pp., $40, 2023)

Collected Poems: including late and uncollected work
by Anthony Hecht, edited by Philip Hoy
(Knopf, 612 pp., $50, 2023)


Two photographs: The snapshot of Anthony Hecht on the dustjacket of Late Romance, David Yezzi’s vivid and engagingly written literary biography, places him circa 1950 aboard a ship. Caught mid-blink (unfortunately) while otherwise gazing seaward, he leans against the railing, right forearm resting there—and looking a little bohemian, as Yezzi likes to say, with his neat black beard and pompadour, dark turtleneck, loose-fitting sport coat with padded shoulders. Contrastingly, in the studio portrait here on Philip Hoy’s majestic edition the Collected Poems, a clean-shaven Hecht from the 1960s stares a little to his left, his enviable hair, with perhaps some strands of gray, brushed casually left to right, a suit on (it appears), straight-collar shirt and necktie.

But when Yezzi observes, “In public, Hecht came across like one of his own poems,” he has in mind the Hecht whose “personal style was essentially professorial, but with an aristocratic bearing and flare: a pocket square; a bow tie; a neat, Renaissance-style beard, and swept-back hair”—as you, if you happen to have met him, are likely to picture him now almost twenty years after his death: “beard pointed and ‘aristocratic.’” By the way, Yezzi writes as a storyteller—that is to say, colloquially (I now know the noun “meet-cute,” as when Hecht meets a female friend from childhood at the quay in Naples; also the Britishism “put paid to”)—rather than scholar or even critic, though Late Romance does have a literary thesis. He is very effective at making Hecht a physical presence through descriptions of photographs, as he is also with setting, as though following in Hecht’s footsteps and seeing the place as maybe seen by him.

If you do happen to have met Hecht and especially if you heard him read, you’ll know that his personal style included an accent. Yezzi describes it as “a mid-Atlantic lilt,” which seemingly relates his speech to that of Eliot and Auden, “that struck some American ears as mandarin or even British.” J. D. McClatchy, when asking about it in his 1988 Paris Review interview, “remember[s] being at a reading of yours . . . and overhearing two people sitting behind me. ‘He’s English, isn’t he?’ the one said to her neighbor. ‘No,’ the other replied, ‘he was born in Germany and then was forced to flee to England before the war.’” (For memorable readings by Hecht, google “Anthony Hecht + Library of Congress”; once there, follow the links to the live recordings in the Coolidge Auditorium on October 4, 1982, and October 3, 1983.) “Doubtless it’s a mask,” Hecht replies, the product “very likely” of the “shame . . . of being Jewish.” An infantryman during World War Two, Hecht was among the first American GIs to enter Flossenbürg, a forced-labor camp “an hour’s drive,” as Yezzi times it, “from his Jewish great-grandfather’s hometown of Buttenheim,” “a traumatic event in Hecht’s imagination,” as the valuable chronology in the Collected Poems (reproduced from McClatchy’s 2011 selection) puts it. Subsequently, as Hecht explains in conversation with Philip Hoy, he “came to feel an awed reverence for what the Jews of Europe had undergone . . . I came to feel that it was important to be worthy of their sacrifice . . . and slowly I began to shed my shame at being Jewish.” While Hecht’s characteristic look apparently dates to his 1982 appointment as poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, Hecht wonders if his voice didn’t begin to acquire “its present character” in high school when “I played the role of John Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, and I worked hard at my speech for that play.” (Curiously, the accent may also have been his mother’s.)

Interestingly, as Yezzi points out, Hecht’s “boyhood passion for acting” dates from 1935-1939 at summer camp in Maine. Performing on stage won Hecht the attention lacking at home. He describes to McClatchy his home life then as “a poisonous brew,” as Yezzi’s narrative confirms, of “self-loathing, impotence, and deep discouragement,” among other things. Maybe even then, there on the outdoor stage, he was creating a praiseworthy mask for fear of worthlessness, a fear that lay deeper than the embarrassment due to being Jewish; after all, Camp Kennebec “was widely known as a ‘camp for Jewish boys,’” a camp, as Yezzi observes, that corresponds to the summer camp in “The Book of Yolek,” which calls to mind for Hecht’s persona the “special camp,” the concentration camp, to which the Jewish boy Yolek is sent. Whatever miseries Hecht may have suffered at home, his childhood was, by his own admission, “comparatively privileged.” “The Book of Yolek,” like other of his “meditation[s] on historical violence, was a little homiletic warning to myself against cheap feelings of self-pity.”

That elegant persona of Hecht’s was “a product,” in Yezzi’s words, “of self-creation”; and insofar as this mask is worn as well by the oftentimes ornately formal poems with their expensive diction (poems that I for one can hardly read without picturing the poet, white pointed beard and swept-back hair, strands falling in commas on either temple, and hearing that voice for the stage, even when the mask depicts a chambermaid at the Hôtel de l’Univers et Déjeuner), it draws attention to “the complex connections” between Hecht’s “life and work.”

Yezzi’s thesis (not an entirely original one, as he acknowledges, citing McClatchy’s essay “Anatomies of Melancholy”) is that Hecht is one of those poets—here he’s quoting Hecht—“whose poems are remarkably intimate, once you crack their codes.” “Frequently favoring indirection,” Yezzi explains, “he encoded traumatic memories into his descriptions of nature,” desolate, ugly (at first look) landscapes that are “at once external and internal.”

Hecht’s memories of “past upsets” belong to his childhood, which was nurtureless and lonely; his military service, which was truly traumatic and guilt-inducing; and his first marriage, which was unfaithful—all of which embittered Hecht and challenged his self-worth. Those memories of such upsets may rear as a hill, “mole-colored and bare,” with trees resembling “old ironwork gathered for scrap / Outside a factory wall.” Or they may spread as “wild, ungoverned growth,” a “worthless, thick, / And unsuppressible fecundity / . . . dotted with a scattering of graves / Of the most modest sort.” Or rise as “thin gray smoke twists up against a sky / Of German silver in the sullen dusk / From a small chimney among leafless trees.” Such are the landscapes as viewed by a “connoisseur of loneliness,” who has “come to regard / Life as a spectator sport” owing to his “early vigilance at windows,” open windows perhaps with “wrought-iron window guards / Meant to keep pets and children from falling out,” a spectator who, as a boy, also “stood” outdoors before that hill “for hours in wintertime,” “waiting for things to mend”—or rather, perhaps, until he learned “To love this place” whose “plain bitterness” has been a projection of his resentments. As Simone Weil reflects, “It is better to say, ‘I’m suffering,’ than to say, ‘This landscape is ugly.’” (For Weil, love is the individual’s achievement of wholeness with the universe—in which state projection becomes impossible, of course. Hecht’s typical persona, self-absorbed if not also selfish, is rendered incapable of love, even self-love, by a fear of worthlessness, no matter that individual’s success in “elocution” and “‘building’ a vocabulary.”)

These are only some examples chosen to illustrate Yezzi’s thesis and the stance of Hecht’s protagonists, passages knitted together from poems that nearly span the poet’s career, from his Pulitzer Prize-winning second book, The Hard Hours (1967), to Flight Among the Tombs (1996), his penultimate collection. “A Hill” and “Apprehensions,” spoken apparently by Hecht himself, encode or plainly reveal memories from childhood and wartime (in particular Hecht’s eye-witness encounter with horrors of the Holocaust); “See Naples and Die” appears to examine obliquely Hecht’s first marriage, likewise “Death the Whore” while also encoding memories from wartime Germany; “The Short End,” while charting the disintegration of a marriage (a “short story,” as Hecht terms it when introducing the poem at one of those Library of Congress readings, told in third person from the self-loathing wife’s perspective), encodes memories from childhood in the guise of one of the female protagonist’s antagonists, who shares a nickname, “Two Potato,” as Yezzi has discovered, with a playmate of Hecht’s; “Peripeteia,” spoken by Hecht himself without a mask (other than his own), conveys perhaps how impotent he felt as husband and father in a home that was breaking and not only as a child in a dysfunctional family; and “The Venetian Vespers,” Hecht’s most ambitious poem, a complex, thematically ambiguous masterpiece in blank verse, does it all, the persona being a shell-shocked veteran, who endured a nurtureless childhood (with a German cook), believing himself to be an orphan, a none-too-wise child whose mother had in fact conceived him with another man than her husband (in more than one poem does Hecht conflate his unfaithful first wife with his mother).

On the jacket flap of the 1990 Collected Earlier Poems is a provocative photograph of Hecht, which does not appear in the generous album included in Late Romance, that presents the elegantly attired, aristocratic-looking poet as reflected in a mirror, eyes staring as though at you but really at himself—as in “Peripeteia,” a “mind . . . mirror[ing] itself.” Reading with that portrait in mind Hecht’s poems with their desolate paysages moralisés, one can’t help thinking that Hecht is himself gazing past those eyes to where

The footpath ends in a dried waterhole, Plastered with black like old tar-paper siding. The fearfullest desolations of the soul Image themselves as local and abiding.

(Referring in the interview with McClatchy to William James’s distinction between the “healthy-minded soul” and the “sick soul,” Hecht identifies his own as the latter.) Arguably—despite the loving depictions in “After the Rain” (discussed in Late Romance but absent from the index) and “The Lull” of transitional locales whose ashen, metallic-tasting atmosphere and fungoid smells confront the speaker, Hecht, with his mortality—the last two lines of that stanza could serve as an epigraph to Hecht’s Collected Poems, a stanza from “Auspices.” Appearing in The Venetian Vespers (1979), this poem postdates the reversal of fortunes dramatized in a fanciful way by “Peripeteia” in Millions of Strange Shadows two years earlier: Hecht’s “late romance” with Helen d’Alessandro, whom he married in 1971 and with whom he enjoyed, as he puts it 25 years later, “A quarter-century of faultless love.” That romance, the subject of the lovely “Aubade,” one of seven “Late Poems from Liguria” written in 2004, endures to the end of his life. Another of those poems, “Motes,” remembers how the poet used to watch with “delight” as a child the movements of dust motes like tiny angels on sunbeams, composing a Jacob’s ladder amid the room’s “interior skies”; performing, they seemed to be, a narrative only for him, but nonetheless cryptic, “Some esoteric story / Wrought in encoded signs:”

One more of the shrewd, well-tried Ways that a child is kept From some shrouded, grown-up truth, Probably linked with tears; For the one thing clear to youth Is that no joy goes unwept, And that their utmost fears Will be amply justified;

Which makes them minor sages, Without the words for what They cannot yet know or say: That whatever lies in store, They were type-cast in some play With a far from comic plot— Grief, selfishness, and war Crowding its dog-eared pages.

“If light dispels darkness,” Yezzi observes, “it also delineates and deepens it. [Hecht] remained grateful for his new life with Helen, and they spoke of their good fortune in reverent, almost mystical terms. But nothing could eradicate the darkness or even lessen its threat.”

Hecht’s reversal of fortunes, as Yezzi describes it, spanned several years, beginning with the publication in 1967 of Hecht’s second collection, The Hard Hours, and its reception in 1968 of a Pulitzer Prize and culminating in his marriage to Helen in 1971. (In between came his appointment to a professorship at the University of Rochester, where he settled for some 15 years.) Afterwards, by which time we are three quarters through, Hecht’s life story is less involving, because less fraught.

The Hard Hours faced a formidable competitor, in Yezzi’s telling: James Dickey’s retrospective Poems 1957-1967—a hardly less worthy choice, including as it did a book-length selection of new poems, among them such signature poems as “The Sheep Child,” “For the Last Wolverine,” and “Falling.” (Dickey, by the way, was never one of Harry Ford’s Atheneum poets.) Dickey it was who introduced me, in the mid-1970s, to Hecht’s poetry when he read “The Vow” in class—read it from the 1957 New Poets of England and America anthology, a text for the course. When I shared this anecdote with Hecht in the early 1980s, he expressed relief and gratification. Nagged throughout his career by self-doubt, Hecht empathized when spotting signs of it in others, Dickey for one: “There are always doubts about oneself. They do not disappear or diminish with age,” he acknowledges in a letter quoted by Yezzi. “Very often what seems naked vanity (as in Jim Dickey) is a mask for anxiety of this sort.” Fifty years later I am still hearing that poem’s emphatic last line, “This that I swear” (a line unfortunately misquoted in Late Romance), as read by Dickey: two spondees. Five books of poetry (and now a sheaf of uncollected poems) later, “The Vow,” remains one of Hecht’s most overtly personal poems—about his first wife’s miscarriage during the couple’s first, already rocky year of marriage. The crisis, which included the unplanned pregnancy itself, unfolded in Rome where Hecht’s Guggenheim Fellowship had taken them. Yezzi’s account is gripping. Two of the poem’s five stanzas are spoken by “[t]he dead thing” to its grieving mother at night in dreams. Its words are reported by the father, who otherwise speaks the poem. Weirdly perhaps, I also cannot read this poem without wondering if that notorious poem of Dickey’s, “The Sheep Child,” spoken as its surprisingly beautiful second half is by the still-born “wooly baby / Pickled in alcohol,” doesn’t owe a debt to “The Vow,” which Dickey would have known at least from that anthology if not also from a 1957 issue of The Hudson Review, nine years before “The Sheep Child” saw publication in The Atlantic. Regrettably, Dickey fails to appear in the roster of twenty-odd impressive poets produced by Hoy, in his introduction to the Collected Poems, that makes so “significant” a “prominent” critic’s tentative judgment of Hecht as “the major poet” of his generation. (Nor does Dickey appear in the index to Late Romance. More broadly, as I’ve already implied, the index is insufficient.)

Thirteen years separate The Hard Hours from A Summoning of Stones (1954), many of whose poems Hecht had written while studying first, as a “special student” thanks to the G.I. Bill, under John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in 1946, and then in 1947 as an informal mentee in New York City under Allen Tate. Tate, who died in 1979, remained a “potent mentor” through Hecht’s third, 1977 collection, Millions of Strange Shadows. (Hecht dedicates its concluding poem, “The Lull,” to Tate.) An hours-long interview about his poems with W. H. Auden on Ischia in 1951 was a “milestone,” according to Yezzi—not so much for the poems that went into A Summoning of Stones, however, as for the ones that Hecht began to assemble ten years later for his second book: “Perhaps,” Yezzi writes, “it was Auden’s voice he heard in his head as . . . he pared away the linguistic filigree of Stones in favor of the immediacy of The Hard Hours.”

Auden had complained, as Hecht reported to Tate, “that there was an excess of detail in most of the poems which tended to obscure, by their abundance, the central theme or argument of the poem . . . In the main . . . he seems to think of details as being illustrative to a thesis.” Even as Hecht went on to prune and did sometimes write discursive poems that argue a thesis (“Eclogue of the Shepherd and the Townie” is a nice example), his method, contrary to Auden’s as he understood it, remained “to incorporate the meaning in the details so that it exists only in them, and not apart from them”—in other words, as he wrote to his parents, “to incarnate [in details] the point and meaning of a poem.” (This method was appropriate, because it draws the reader further in, to the dramatic lyrics and narratives Hecht inclined to write.) Tate had already impressed on Hecht “the way a poem’s total design is modulated and given its energy, not by local ingredients tastefully combined, but by the richness, toughness and density of some sustaining vision of life—sustaining, at least, throughout the world of the poem.”

It was Auden’s impression, as Hecht reported to his parents, “that I’ve been too much influenced by Ransom and Tate not in style but in theory.” “Samuel Sewall” and “Alceste in the Wilderness” (in A Summoning of Stones) pay stylistic tribute Ransom. In The Hard Hours so do “Three Prompters from the Wings” and the early masterpiece “‘More Light! More Light!’.” Ransom can even be heard, thirty-plus years later (2001), in “The Road to Damascus” (in The Darkness and the Light). What Auden meant was “that my verse was perhaps too formal—not in the metrical sense, but in being somewhat impersonal in tone, disengaged from the central emotions of the poems.”

While Hecht, “with many qualifications,” could agree, he had Ransom to thank for the realization, as he explains to McClatchy, that “I could write about what happened to me if I disguised myself as someone else . . . I was freed to experiment with other voices than my own, and encouraged to empathize with the experience of others. And slowly my work did in fact begin to improve.” Auden’s view, as remembered by a friend of Hecht’s on Ischia and quoted by Jonathan F. S. Post in A Thickness of Particulars (2015), “that your poems were too detached from your personal life, good, even excellent as they were,” and his advice “that you should give yourself the task of writing poems that were more direct, more forthright” may have been crucial, but it misrepresents Ransom’s influence, much less Tate’s, to blame his declaration of a poet’s need for aesthetic distance for Hecht’s years-long failure, as Yezzi puts it, to “write about the war to his satisfaction.” (By the way, I say “much less Tate’s” influence because 1954, the same year as saw the publication of A Summoning of Stones, saw the publication of Tate’s autobiographical poem “The Swimmers,” about the aftermath of a lynching as observed by an eleven-year-old Tate with “water on the brain,” “a key portent,” as Christopher Benfey describes it, “of what came to be known, a decade later, as ‘confessional poetry,’” which Hecht, of course, masked himself to write.) Besides, every one of the poems in The Hard Hours that’s plainly about the war—“Behold the Lilies of the Field,” “Rites and Ceremonies,” “‘More Light! More Light!’”—depends on a mask or appears to derive from the Holocaust literature in which Hecht immersed himself after his discharge. As Yezzi acknowledges, Hecht revealed to Langdon Hammer that a later poem, “Still Life,” in The Venetian Vespers, “was probably as near to being a direct personal account as anything that I’d written.”

As I’ve implied, there is for the critical reader’s mill precious little grist in Hecht’s life story once it becomes, after the 1967 publication of The Hard Hours and the 1971 marriage to Helen, a “late romance.” Now with the end of this review of mine in sight (at least to me), I want to examine one of those poems in The Hard Hours, a puzzling monologue, with Yezzi’s thesis about moralized landscapes in mind: how Hecht encodes “past upsets” in landscape. After all, a literary biography ought to give its reader new eyes for the work produced by its subject, as Late Romance, written by a splendid—witty, elegant—poet with affinity of heart and mind for Hecht, has gratifyingly done for me. “Behold the Lilies of the Field” encodes disturbing memories, or presents them obliquely, from childhood, war, and marriage, though not, at least obviously, in sick-looking landscape.

Here at the outset, some biographical information is pertinent. In 1947 Hecht suffered the first of two nervous breakdowns, this one due to post-traumatic stress, and “entered psychoanalysis.” The second breakdown came in 1962, the year following his divorce from first wife Pat. As Hecht explains to McClatchy, “My former wife then settled in Europe, married a European, and took my sons with her. My grief at the departure of my boys was paralyzing; I was hospitalized for three months for profound depression.” The revelation from Yezzi about this marriage is that wife Pat had conceived the second of those two boys with another man than Hecht, a man who was not, by the way, the “Belgian aristocrat” that became her second husband. “The man who married Magdalene” in both Louis Simpson’s poem of that title and Hecht’s own (also in The Hard Hours) is Hecht. (For Yezzi, Simpson’s satirical portrait of Hecht as one Christopher Green in his 1972 autobiography, North of Jamaica, opens a window on Hecht’s first marriage. About Hecht’s later, admittedly personal poem “Green: An Epistle,” with its array of pronouns, “I,” “we,” “you,” one may wonder exactly who is writing and to whom; of course it’s Green, the resentful, malicious, hateful poet Green!) Yezzi speculates that Hecht reentered psychoanalysis “soon after the separation from Pat.” Hecht’s persona in “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” written in 1961, the year of Hecht’s divorce, is talking to a therapist.

What the patient with his fractured psyche (cracked open as it were to the fourth dimension, where he is simultaneously a psychiatric patient whose mother gabs with girlfriends on the telephone and an erstwhile third-century Roman soldier)—what he shares with his therapist is in the main a graphic account of “what I saw them do to the emperor,” Valerian; and what they finally did, those barbarians, was flay him alive, then make with his skin a “hideous life-sized doll”; and all the while “tied to a post,” the speaker, along with his fellow captives, was “made to watch.” But he precedes this account with an anecdote, from his boyhood, about his mother:

. . . “Your mother’s a whore,” Someone said, not meaning she slept around, Though perhaps this was part of it, but Meaning she had lost all sense of honor. And I think this is true.

At the conclusion, after the emperor’s gruesome execution, “I was ransomed,” he reveals to his therapist. “Mother paid for me.”

McClatchy, in “Anatomies of Melancholy,” refers to this poem as a “nasty little Oedipal fantasy.” Indeed, the poem does read like a Freudian dream and, in view of Hecht’s life story, an autobiographical one to boot. To put the matter in a crude schematic way, Hecht’s persona, the psychiatric patient, is Hecht; the emperor, personifying as he does the patriarchal social order, his father; the mother Hecht’s. Now Yezzi provides no evidence that Hecht’s mother slept around. She did, however, humiliate her husband in another way. While visiting her son in Rome during his 1951-1952 residency at the American Academy,

She told me that my father’s job . . . was not “real” in that it was entirely subsidized by her parents, the money being paid to the employer by her own father. She went on to say that she planned to divorce my father, and that immediately his salary would cease. The point was not simply that he would be penniless once again but that the discovery that he had not been holding a real job but was being supported by his in-laws would so humiliate him that he would “probably commit suicide” . . .

—as he had attempted to do on more than one occasion. In the story (which wasn’t true), a wife, secretly empowered by her father’s money (the source of the ransom?), subverts the household’s patriarchal structure—unmans her husband. The poem, in a manner of speaking, puts the mother, a wife who dishonors her husband, in bed with the barbarian king. Allegorically, they together embody the pleasure principle, which is socially and morally transgressive, here sadistic. The later display of that hideous effigy degrades the barbarian’s rival in a conspicuously sexual way: “young girls were brought there by their mothers / To be told about the male anatomy.” In life the emperor-father embodies the morality principle on which the soldier-son’s honor depends. With the emperor’s execution there “passed away the honor of Rome,” thereby freeing the soldier-son from enthrallment and winning him the attention of his mother in the form of ransom. This does nothing, however, to restore his honor. I picture that ransom as coins with the emperor’s portrait in low relief, which the mother’s lubricious touch has smeared. Insofar as the son has desired his mother’s attention (maternal nurture, which is erotic, according to Freud) at the expense of his father, he is complicit in the barbarity, which he has experienced with ambivalent pleasure. His guilt will also have tarnished the ransom. I must acknowledge in passing that Hecht’s rival for maternal nurture was his brother, Roger, whose physical and neurological afflictions—he suffered epileptic seizures—exhausted their mother’s capacity. (As Yezzi suggests, Hecht presents this fraternal rivalry obliquely in a deft, faux-naïf, previously uncollected poem, “Cain the Inventor of Death,” written sometime after Roger’s death in 1990.) That said, Hecht did see his father as a rival, whose chronic depression obliged him “to pull my punches.”

It may be, as I implied, that Hecht’s persona in “Behold the Lilies of the Field” is in therapy because Hecht went there after his marriage broke up. A similar Freudian scheme applies to the poem when read as a psychodrama featuring Hecht and his unfaithful wife—and no wonder, since the economic degradation of the senior Hecht by his rich wife finds a sexual parallel in the son’s humiliation. The psychological truth of the analogy is illustrated by an incident during the poet’s hospitalization. Against strict doctor’s orders, Hecht’s father contrived to see his son. The two “exchanged no words,” while the old man’s “grin,” as Hecht described it, “was terrible, almost triumphant”—a castrating grin. It’s likely that Hecht, a self-described “‘depressive’ type,” saw in his sometimes suicidal father a reflection of his fears about his mental health. Now it was not his father, “a shackled and enfeebled man,” whom mental illness had confined to “Crazy Square” (Gracie Square so called by the patients) but rather himself, the rival son. Anyway, here are Hecht, as psychiatric patient-Roman soldier, and his wife in the guise of Mother who sleeps around: wife Pat, whose promiscuous embrace of the pleasure principle violates Mosaic Law and dishonors her husband. Meanwhile, he’s as good as “tied to a post and made to watch,” made to not only by her flagrant willfulness but also by his own benumbing self-recriminations and paralyzing depression. The emperor, who personifies the social order and embodies the morality principle, which the wife-as-mother’s adultery flouts, is Hecht’s self-image as husband and father. If, sometimes, Hecht’s “flaw” was his “lecherous” nature (like that, as Yezzi notes, of Simpson’s Christopher Green), from all appearances his superego during his marriage kept a rein on his centaur lusts. Undergoing torture, the emperor objectifies for the spectator persona the poet’s own psychological flaying by “barbarians,” a therapy for which is talk. Perhaps the ransom, which signifies her sexual authority, hints at reconciliation: a return of the wife’s attention, prone to stray though it is, to her husband. The ransom lacks luster.

Hecht had himself “hoped” with the account of “something that happened to a Roman emperor” to evoke “in the reader’s mind . . . a vision of the kind of mental process that results in contemporary cruelty and barbarity”—like the atrocities inflicted on European Jews by the Nazi Germans. For me, that Roman emperor’s afterlife as a “life-sized doll” evokes the lampshade made of the skin of Jews at Buchenwald—a myth, as I’ve now read, but an image that gruesomely persists since childhood in my imagination. Hecht himself alludes to this lampshade in “Apprehensions,” “a lamp-shade of the finest parchment,” when envisioning a reunion with his sadistic “Teutonic governess” in wartime Germany. Thus the emperor-as-artifact becomes for me an allegorical figure for atrocities suffered by the European Jews, an archetypal scapegoat-as-effigy for the likes of Hecht’s persona, who is now, however, tormented by survivor’s guilt—which was for Hecht exacerbated by his shame of being Jewish. Survivor he is thanks to a “ransom” as it were from home, his country whose violations, as witnessed by him, of rules of engagement unmasked its barbaric nature—in particular the slaughter by Hecht’s own company, while on patrol, of some five or six German women and an unspecified number of children, “white flags of surrender” awave, a slaughter in which Hecht took no part. As he tells Hoy, “what I saw that morning was, except for Flossenbürg, the greatest trauma of the war—and, believe me, I saw a lot of terrible things.” In “The Venetian Vespers” Hecht’s persona tells about a corporal, the “enemy machine-gun fire” that “sheared away / The top of his cranium like a soft-boiled egg, / And there he crouched, huddled over his weapon, / His brains wet in the chalice of his skull”—“a friend of mine,” Hecht reveals to McClatchy, “a member of my company.”

In fact, he took no active part at all in combat—not as a conscientious objector, an “Aid Man,” like the speaker of “Vespers,” but rather a delinquent, whose dereliction he kept secret except from Helen, who revealed it to Yezzi: never had he aimed his rifle at enemy soldiers when returning fire. For the poet in “Still Life,” though he “proved,” as Yezzi writes, “an accomplished marksman” at summer camp in Maine, the soldier’s life “somewhere in Germany, / A cold, wet Garand rifle in my hands,” is guiltily inactive before and after the lull. Consequently—ashamed of his inaction and motivated by a dawning identification “with all Jews who have experienced persecution,” as Hecht told me, “for I have felt the effects of anti-Semitism throughout the whole of my life, though not in extremis”—he produced some half a dozen little masterpieces: “‘More Light! More Light!’,” “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.’,” “Still Life,” “Persistences,” “The Book of Yolek,” and “1945.” (“1945,” the last of three poems whose overall title is “Sacrifice,” does gain resonance from the two skillful poems spoken alternatively by Abraham and Isaac that precede it.) “Rites and Ceremonies,” the most ambitious poem in The Hard Hours (in which Hoy has thankfully corrected two misspellings), is moving as well as impressive, if self-consciously so, in its formal control of many voices.

Unlike many another poem of Hecht’s with its paysage moralisé, “Behold the Lilies of the Field” does not encode the poet’s traumatic memories in ugly landscape. Or does it? In an appreciative essay Hecht quotes admiringly from William Maxwell’s 1948 novel Time Will Darken It a long descriptive passage whose subject is “the flayed landscape of the western prairie”—the flayed landscape! No doubt Hecht relished that choice of words. The emperor, the evidence of his flaying preserved in the form of a “hideous” effigy, personifies perhaps the poet’s ancestral Heimatland (to use the designation in “Apprehensions”), flayed as it were of Jewish lives (and those of innocent others mowed down) by barbarians—the flayed ground as well of his psyche against which is set that “field” in the Sermon on the Mount where lilies “grow.”

“Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow,” the Tyndale translation reads. “They labor not, neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his royalty, was not arrayed like unto one of these.” (A note in Collected Poems helpfully points readers to the Tyndale translation, in which one finds the imperative “Behold” in place of the familiar “Consider.”) But in Hecht’s poem, lilies they may not be, but rather, as the speaker suggests, “narcissus or jonquils.” Of course jonquils are a type of narcissus. The therapist’s aim in directing the patient’s attention to those flowers “there in the glass bowl” is to relax his mind and loosen his tongue for the narrative that unfolds. That image, along with the suggestion that the kind of flowers there is the narcissus and not the lily, is evocative: it brings to mind the pool in which Narcissus, seduced by his reflection, drowned. (It also recalls for me that photograph of Hecht in the mirror.) The challenge for Hecht’s persona is to find within the pool of his psyche, or rather as at a window, through its reflecting glass, the locus of his stress. “Where was I?” he asks himself. He is able to see for now only so deep, so far, as to find a “place” where the sources of his stress encode themselves as in a dream that invites a Freudian interpretation. At the end of the session, his eyes on those flowers, the patient says, “I wish I could be like them”—and labor not.

Meanwhile, that labor of his has issued in talk—which is to say, Hecht’s poem. Langdon Hammer asks about an observation by the similarly post-traumatic stressed persona of Hecht’s who speaks “The Venetian Vespers”: “I look and look, / As though I could be saved simply by looking.” These lines are spoken by a self-described “infidel,” whose concept of salvation is aesthetic. All the same, Hecht replies by citing Weil: “One of the principal truths of Christianity . . . is that looking is what saves us,” and he explains: “Surely part of that ‘salvation’ is engendered by a capacity, at least momentarily, to forget ourselves, and fully to attend to something else.” It’s a paradox, or, better, an indication of the degree to which Hecht’s poetry is dialectical that the more intently the speakers of his poems look outward, away from themselves, at other things—behold narcissuses, for instance—the more deeply inward do they look, as through their eyes in a mirror, toward sick souls like his. (In one of his 1992 Mellon lectures, “The Contrariety of Impulses,” Hecht maintains that “the richest, most eloquent and durable of the arts in general, and poetry in particular, is always . . . implicitly when not explicitly dialectical.”) It would be ironic to describe as “self-denying work” (in “Peripetia”) the labor that produced such exercises in self-disclosure as “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” “The Venetian Vespers,” and many other poems of Hecht’s. (Not that his characters aren’t sometimes blind about themselves.)

As Hecht, in the guise of those personas, has been engaged as well in self-examination, so has his labor, which is really the serious play of Homo ludens, “man who plays,” produced a “spectacle of skill” (this phrase I take from Robert Hughes). Hecht cites approvingly the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s analogy, in Homo Ludens (1938), between the “rules” that govern play and the design of “religious ceremonies and rituals, the marking out of sacred space,” an analogy that extends to “all aesthetic undertakings.” A vision of life as serious play sustains Hecht’s poems. Without the formal order, the “limitations,” he concludes, “the imagination” would take less “pleasure in its own life.” A spectacle of skill—among its poems maybe these continue to please me the most: “A Hill,” “The Vow,” “‘More Light! More Light!’,” “‘It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.’,” “Green: An Epistle,” “Sestina d’Inverno,” “After the Rain,” “The Feast of Stephen,” “Apprehensions,” “The Grapes,” “The Deodand,” “Still Life,” “Persistences,” “The Venetian Vespers,” “Curriculum Vitae,” “See Naples and Die,” “The Transparent Man,” “The Book of Yolek,” “Proust on Skates,” and “1945.” The plot, embracing as it does “grief, selfishness, and war,” is “far from comic.” But then as Hecht himself reminded me that Keats maintains, “The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth”—to which I would add, “Examine Anthony Hecht’s Collected Poems, and you will find this exemplified throughout.”