Anthony Hecht, The Darkness and the Light

The Darkness and the Light

80 pp, ISBN 1-904130-09-7, £8.95 (cloth only), UK Publication, October 31 2002

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A note about The Darkness and the Light

The critic George P. Elliott once declared: "Hecht's voice is his own, but his language, more amply than that of any other living poet writing in English, derives from, adds to, is part of the great tradition." The Darkness and the Light, Hecht's seventh volume – whose 44 poems include fine translations of poems by Horace, Baudelaire, Goethe, Vaillant and d'Orleans – vividly demonstrates that Elliott's claim is as apt now as it was when he made it, a quarter of a century ago.

A note on Anthony Hecht

Anthony Hecht was the author of seven books of poetry, among them The Hard Hours,which received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1968, and, more recently, Flight Among the Tombs. In 1984 he received the Eugenio Montale Award for a lifetime achievement in poetry, and in 2000 the Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. He wrote a critical study of the poetry of W. H. Auden, The Hidden Law, On the Laws of the Poetic Art (Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts), and two collections of essays, Obbligati and Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry. He taught for some years at Bard College, the University of Rochester and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He died in October 2004.

Praise for The Darkness and the Light

"Some years – no decades! – ago, Anthony Hecht was pleased to call the poems in The Hard Hours, his second book, ‘a few snapshots from along the Via Negativa.’ Loyal to that figuration the poet remains, though how much more intense the chiaroscuro here, how much deeper the imprint: these are the poems of Horatio after so much of Denmark’s personnel has been cleared away, meditating loss and survival, rich with a survivor’s torn wisdom. For all the glee of the poesis, Hecht’s lines are severe even in their civility, their music wild even in its mastery. Rendered in his eighth book is the judgment of an unrelenting and an unreconciled art.”  – Richard Howard

Reviews of The Darkness and the Light


New York Review of Books

“Hecht, for all his pessimism, is fascinated by the sheer sumptuous richness of things ... He loves language as much as he loves the visible world, and handles rhyme and meter with the same scrupulous, almost sensuous attention to detail as he paints still life ... [He has] the sharp eye for pretension of a latter-day Byron ... A wry and wholly contemporary American voice." – Al Alvarez


Sewanee Review

"Hecht's superb new collection is stuffed with rich and complex poems that beggar easy description and that demand our closest scrutiny. One reading won't be enough to yield the fullness of meaning and the artfulness of language and form embodied in these poems." – George Core


San Francisco Chronicle

"The music of his work, and the gorgeous precision of his language, are as strong as ever." – Carmela Ciuraru


Washington Post

"One of our greatest living poets." – Michael Dirda


St Louis Post-Dispatch

"The ... poems in this latest volume reflect the distinct versatility and disciplined precision that have marked his craft, in both free and strictly formal verse, from the beginning ... If certain poets are still regarded as prophets, gifted with extraordinary spiritual and moral insight, Anthony Hecht is surely a prince among prophets." – Charles Guenther


The New Republic

"His gifts are of a kind rare today –  seriousness, intelligence, formal discipline – and he has expressed as skilfully as any writer of the last fifty years the anxiety of the civilized mind facing the large and small barbarisms of the age." – Adam Kirsch



"...Hecht knows his classics and uses them, to the extent of including translations of ancient, medieval, and modern master poets in this book. He appreciates the perdurable forcefulness and relevance of classic situations and conceits. He sees in the predicament of weekend fathers patrolling "the Olmsted bosks of Central Park, / Its children-thronged resorts, / Pain-tainted ground" that of lost souls in a circle of a Dantesque hell. Many poems borrow from the Bible, allusively in 'The Hanging Gardens of Tyburn' (Tyburn was eighteenth-century London's gallows), and directly in 'Saul and David,' 'Judith,' 'The Road to Damascus,' and others. 'Sacrifice' juxtaposes God's trial of Abraham and Isaac with a modern incident in which a fleeing German soldier threatens but spares a French farm family's 14-year-old son; the poem challenges each reader to ponder the historical as well as theological nature of mercy. These provocative, impeccably crafted poems are to be read repeatedly and not exhausted. They are, in short, classical." Ray Olson


Kirkus Reviews

"A fiercely melancholic sequence of lyrics, odes, monologues, and translations, many of them written with the Biblical tales in mind. The severe rhythms and wild rhymes ('guano'is made to chime with 'soprano') make wonderfully baroque patterns Bach partitas set stylishly to words. But music is only part of the festivities offered in Hecht's work. His poems are also painterly, full of still lives, landscapes, and jewel-box miniatures. Lot's wife remembers the 'exquisite satisfactions' of her childhood in this way: 'The iridescent labyrinth of the spider, / Its tethered tensor nest of polygons / puffed by the breeze to a little bellying sail / Merely observing this gave infinite pleasure.' Hecht often figures the poet as a witness, and the infinite pleasures of observation are always mixed with more difficult moral concerns like passivity, historical atrocity, and individual despair. In 'A Witness,' a 'briny, tough, and thorned sea holly' watches as 'The ocean rams itself in pitched assault / And spastic rage to which there is no halt . . . / At scenes of sacrifice, unrelieved pain, / figured in froth, aquamarine and black.' That pain should go unrelieved is Hecht's way of acknowledging poetry's limits and history's wounds; the tough holly is his protest against both. Another tactic for combating forgetfulness is to resurrect a voice. Hecht's most well known poem of this type is 'The Maid of Dover' (after Arnold), and in the new collection he approaches those heights with the savage 'Judith': 'It was easy. Holofernes was pretty tight; / I had only to show some cleavage and he was done for.' No contemporary poet is so lapidary as Hecht. That he can put such beauty at the service of a stringent ethic is his continual gift." Unsigned

From The Darkness and the Light


Against the enormous rocks of a rough coast
The ocean rams itself in pitched assault
And spastic rage to which there is no halt;
Foam-white brigades collapse; but the huge host

Has infinite reserves; at each attack
The impassive cliffs look down in gray disdain
At scenes of sacrifice, unrelieved pain,
Figured in froth, aquamarine and black.

Something in the blood-chemistry of life,
Unspeakable, impressive, undeterred,
Expresses itself without needing a word
In this sea-crazed Empedoclean Strife.

It is a scene of unmatched melancholy,
Weather of misery, cloud cover of distress,
To which there are no witnesses, unless
One counts the briny, tough and thorned sea holly.


"The Darkness and the Light Are Both Alike to Thee"

- Psalms 139:12

Like trailing silks, the light
Hangs in the olive trees
As the pale wine of day
Drains to its very lees:
Huge presences of gray
Rise up, and then it's night.

Distantly lights go on.
Scattered like fallen sparks
Bedded in peat, they seem
Set in the plushest darks
Until a timid gleam
Of matins turns them wan,

Like the elderly and frail
Who've lasted through the night,
Cold brows and silent lips,
For whom the rising light
Entails their own eclipse,
Brightening as they fail.



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