Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    painting of fallen down fir tree in a dark forest

    Kindling the Kindly Light

    Anthony Hecht and the Religious Impulse

    By Rhina P. Espaillat

    August 5, 2021
    2 Comments
    2 Comments
    2 Comments
      Submit
    • MICHAEL NACRELLI

      The slander of Paul is unconscionable. He never practiced or condoned persecution of anyone after his conversion.

    • Bonnie Naradzay

      I have never before read such a profound exegesis of Anthony Hecht’s poetic project. Thank you, Rhina, for your splendid analysis. Now I want to read all these poems of his.

    I first encountered the work of Anthony Hecht in The New Poets of England and America, a 1957 paperback edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson and introduced by Robert Frost. The Hecht poem that struck me most forcibly in that volume was “The Vow,” not least because I was a young mother, and the poem – the words of a bereaved father to the ghost of a child recently miscarried – spoke powerfully to my sense of parental love and the sorrow that such a loss must entail.

    There are, of course, darker elements in that poem full of biblical overtones: the troubling words of the “dead thing” that comforts its living parents by claiming that it is, after all, “the best of all the fates not to be born”; hints of difficulties perhaps inevitable in marriages between Gentile and Jew; a veiled allusion to the Holocaust. But I took away from the final stanza chiefly the poet’s passionate commitment to life and the future, despite its risks, maybe because at twenty-five, and the Gentile half of just such a marriage, I was not ready for much beyond what I wanted to hear.

    In 1962, however, the second edition of the same anthology brought me a very different Hecht poem – or maybe one not so different, but one that I was, by then, better prepared to read. It left such a powerful and complex imprint on my mind that, after a first reading, I could neither reread it at once nor forget it. What was this profoundly disturbing poem showing me, and why was it inviting me to leap across three centuries from the execution of a Protestant heretic under the reign of Queen Mary I of England, to the mid-1940s “outside a German wood”?

    The poem was, of course, the magnificent “More Light! More Light!” whose title, the dying words of Goethe, also suggest an echo of the defiant “More weight! More weight!” of a victim of Massachusetts’s witchcraft persecution of 1692, as he was being pressed to death under stones. When I summoned the force of will to reread the poem, its final effect was a sense of suffocation, as if I had been forced to take the place of the two Jews buried alive by the Polish prisoner, and then buried again by the ashes that cover the eyes of the dying Pole in the final lines. But the initial shock of the first reading is created by the three opening stanzas, all the more troubling for the restraint, precision, and detachment of their language. Those stanzas focus on the martyr’s awareness of his own guiltlessness, the physical effects of a slow-burning fire on living, conscious flesh, and the faith – as unquenched as the flames – of the dying man as he continues to howl for the “Kindly Light.”

    Stanza three – the most troubling for me – notes drily that many such executions took place, and that many others were even worse, since at this one, at least, the martyr is perceived as having some degree of dignity because he is dying for his faith, and also because some in the crowd did, after all, pray for his soul, “in the name of Christ, that shall judge all men.”

    The five stanzas that follow are devoted to the murder of two Jews at the hands of a Pole, who is commanded by a Luger-wielding German soldier to bury them alive. No faith is involved, no higher power invoked, no prayer said over the bodies of the dead. Presumably, then, according to some critics who have commented on the poem, Hecht is considering these two martyrdoms together in order to contrast them, to show that the World War II incident is the more barbaric because it is not motivated by religious belief, and therefore the resulting deaths lack the dignity and transcendent meaning conferred upon events by a religious context.

    But can that really be what Anthony Hecht means to convey? Is this Jewish poet, who was himself present at the liberation of a death camp, comparing a Catholic queen’s burning of a Protestant martyr to a Nazi atrocity in order to show that the theological disputations that led to the first – and the Christian prayers that accompanied it – mitigated the martyr’s suffering to any degree, or rendered the brutal ideologically motivated killing somehow more dignified than it would have been otherwise? That strikes me as unlikely, and a serious misreading of the poet’s intent.

    What seems highly likely to me is that the two events are being presented to the reader together, not because they are being contrasted, but because they are being compared. I believe the reader is being asked to consider how two institutions dedicated to such different principles and responding to such divergent motives as Christianity and the Third Reich can nevertheless arrive at such similar behavior. I suspect that it is not any loss of transcendent meaning – a loss allegedly visited upon the twentieth century by its secularism – that troubles Hecht, but the barbarity of which human beings are capable, in contexts that may be either secular or religious, and not only in our time but in every age. The pertinent aspects of the two scenes that together comprise this remarkable poem are not their differences, but their similarities, in particular these three, which I intend to examine in the following paragraphs: the victim’s need to be perceived as guiltless; the telling absence of the executioners; the devaluation of the physical body in favor of abstract goals.

    Clearly the Protestant martyr is adamant as to his lack of guilt: he declares from the flames, before God and witnesses, that he has “made no crime.” And the Polish prisoner, when first ordered by the soldier to bury the Jews, remarkably enough refuses, despite the gun aimed at him. In that sense, he, too, is crying out for the “kindly light” of conscience and fellow-feeling, and wants to remain guiltless of the crimes he is being ordered to commit. But he is then ordered to change places with the Jews, and is permitted to emerge from the newly-dug grave only when he is almost wholly buried. This time there is “no light” left in his “blue Polish eye,” and he does as he is told: fear will do that, not always, but often.

    The light that failed to succor the martyr at the stake has also failed the Pole and his two victims. In the first instance it is identified by implication as the light of religious faith, and in the second as the light kindled by the civilizing influences of culture and art: the triple murder takes place near the home of the revered Goethe, “the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill.” Whatever the elusive light is that should halt atrocities by spiritually illuminating the prospective perpetrators, clearly Hecht believes it cannot be counted on to reach us from shrines, whether those shrines are devoted to a divinity or to the champions of art and civilization.

    The physical absence of the murderers from the first scene of horror for which they are responsible is palpable and curious in the account, and the crowd is only vaguely referred to as “such as were by.” In the second incident, the absence is conveyed by syntax: all the verbs that denote action on the part of the soldier are in the passive voice. We are told that “three men are there commanded to dig a hole,” and that “two Jews are ordered to lie down.” The man who is commanding and ordering is represented only by his weapon, the Luger that “settled back deeply in its glove,” as if acting eerily under its own power, and later by the riding boot that “packed down the earth” over the still-living Jews, just before the Luger shoots the Pole in the belly.

    That sinister absence of the active agent reminds me of the lines from Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles,” in which “Out of the air a voice without a face proved by statistics that some cause was just,” and suggests the comfortable detachment of those who manage to distance themselves from their acts by losing themselves in the emblems of their power. Those emblems or garments – the trappings of whatever trade replaces individual identity with another, more public one – grant them authority to do things they might not feel free to do wearing only their own skins. The Pole is unmanned by fear for himself, but the soldier who gives him his orders has already been unmanned, in a deeper sense, by the power his public, official identity has given him over others, presumably in order to defend the glory of his people, or the purity of his race, or some other abstraction he has been taught to deem valuable above all else, including the living bodies of others.

    The devaluation of the body exemplified by both executions takes place for reasons ostensibly very different: the heretic’s earthly body must be destroyed in order to purify and save his soul, which, perceived as immortal by his executioners, is held to be infinitely more valuable than his flesh. The Jews and the Slav, on the other hand, must be physically destroyed in order to further the aims of the Nazi political regime and its ideology, which includes the protection of Aryan purity from contamination with inferior races. Even assuming purely impersonal motives in both cases – an unsound assumption, since much else may be involved in such crimes, including personal grudges, delusions, and the self-interested hope of acquiring the material goods of the victims – it is undeniable that the results are essentially the same, at least for the victims. Is the disestimation of the body, perceived as an entity lesser in value than some other perceived good, or in defense of some ostensibly nobler, purer, intangible element of our nature, ever free of danger? Hecht’s poems suggest that he thought not.

    painting of fallen down fir tree in a dark forest

    Ivan Shishkin, In the Fir Forest Public domain

    Further reading of work by Anthony Hecht brought to my attention the way he revisits, in poem after poem, the theme of the religious impulse, the various forms it takes, its power over the human mind, and its many differing, incalculable, and startling effects on human behavior.

    As everyone knows, the hope of personal gain, selfish callousness, and cruelty are all perfectly capable of drowning out empathy: there would be fewer violent crimes if that were not so. But the seductive pull of a higher cause to be served is just as capable of rendering those in its service deaf to humane considerations, even if that higher cause springs from the pursuit of some initially selfless and even noble goal. The poems of Anthony Hecht, so often perceptive and lyrical in their appreciation of religious art, are also riddled with caveats as to the unpredictable ends of doctrines arrived at, and measures undertaken, out of genuinely positive religious motives.

    The poem titled “Pig” comes to mind, with its list of tame animals emblematic of holy innocence – the cow, the lamb, the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem – as well as the idyllic image of the “Peaceable Kingdom.” Then the pig is introduced, as the sacrificial vessel chosen to contain “the thousand fiends of a human soul” to be “driven hence,” as the herds of the Gadarene swineherds were driven over a cliff, bearing with them the burdens of men formerly possessed by demons but now liberated. The final stanza presents a fatal division dear to religious thought: the holy one “thus cured” of evil is free to worship and to pray, but only because the “Swine that takest away our sins” has been somehow assigned the task of assuming that evil and has been driven away from those who must be kept “pure.”

    Pious cant, like zeal, has its consequences: if the latter breeds cruelty, the former breeds cynicism.

    According to this scenario, in order for moral purity to exist, there must be a vessel to contain all the impurity and carry it away, and that vessel is destined for destruction, even if that vessel is conceived as a pure – even divine – being who offers himself for that purpose in order to purchase the purity of others. In that case, of course, the martyr is both the god and the sacrificial animal, the holy being and the primitive gift offered to him by the tribe. But when Hecht closes this poem with a jarring, parodic echo of the Agnus Dei, can his words be read as a celebration of the doctrine that divides the human being into pure soul bound for heaven, and worthless flesh bound for hell with its burden of sin? As celebration of a doctrine that – more dangerous still for those so “appointed” – divides a society into the lucky ones “cleansed” by another’s sacrifice, and the sacrificed themselves, who may or may not have anything to say in the matter? Or is the poet, instead, bringing judgment against that doctrine, and asking the reader to weigh the consequences of such a belief, and reconsider the value of any purity bought at such a price? I tend to believe the latter.

    The same view of the animal as a convenient vessel for evil – just similar enough to us to serve as a substitute, just helpless enough to accept the punishment due us, and just different enough to minimize our guilt in our own eyes – suffuses the disturbing “Lizards and Snakes,” in which children tease an elderly woman by hiding small creeping animals in her sewing. But they stop when, “after the day of the big wind,” it becomes evident to them that Aunt Martha equates those harmless animals with the power of evil, which she obviously visualizes during a harrowing episode of derangement, describing “how he grins and swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.” That image illustrates the monster-making capacity of the human mind, which objectifies what it fears in an effort to distance it, even if – or especially if – what it fears is the product of its own psychic making. The creation of scapegoats owes something to that fear, and something to the fruitless search for perfect purity, and the longing for magical protection from the forces of evil.

    The four-part series that comprises “Rites and Ceremonies,” a dark, compelling juxtaposition of prayer, veiled accusation, excruciating memory, meditation, and bitter appraisal, is full of commentary on the role of religion in history, and it is not a song of thanksgiving.

    Part I, “The Room,” moves from the room of creation to the domestic scene, then to the body of the speaker, and finally to the poet’s question: “Who was that child … whose holy name all shall pronounce Emmanuel, which being interpreted means, ‘Gott mit uns’? I saw it on their belts.”

    After that leap, reminiscent of the three-century leap from stanza three to stanza four of “More Light! More Light!,” the poem continues with a graphic description of a dead German soldier wearing the military belt with its inscribed buckle. He is very young, “blond and boyish and bloody,” and the reader is not spared any detail of his appearance in death.

    Immediately twenty years have passed, and we are with the poet in room after room filled with the hair, shoes, and cardboard valises of dead Jews, and then in the poet’s own room after the war, where he tells us that “the screaming continued, night and day.” There are ironic echoes of the New Testament – “And the little children were suffered to come along, too” – and finally we are in the last room, the one with the vents in the ceiling, where prayer again proves futile. We hear the Pope whispering about “the saving of lives,” and we learn that “a great church has voted to ‘deplore’” the fact that “millions have come to this pass.”

    Part II, “The Fire Sermon,” carries the theme of the futility of pious rites back to the time of the plague, noting how death takes believers and unbelievers alike, animals, children, the powerful, and the poor, until finally the authorities determine that the plague is not a judgment upon the people after all, but the work of some evil alien force within the local population. Providentially two Jews confess – under torture – that they have caused it by poisoning the wells. The solution follows quickly: in numerous towns platforms are erected on which all the local Jews are bound together with ropes and burned. The harrowing account of that martyrdom is followed by six stanzas of prayerful, agonized lyricism, all finally and uselessly “blown past the sheepfold out of hearing.”

    Again “The Shield of Achilles” comes to mind, specifically those lines in which Auden refers to “the mass and majesty of this world, all that carries weight and always weighs the same,” which is so often “in the hands of others.”

    Part III, “The Dream,” determines to abandon the horrors of religiously-motivated martyrdoms as “not edifying,” and moves, instead, to a different context, that of the arts. The poet Joachim Du Bellay is strolling in sixteenth-century Rome, observing the full range of entertainments on display, from bull-baiting to theater, during the Carnival. He is sad and homesick, thinking of his own losses, when he encounters twenty young Jews awaiting their turn to engage in the race for which “Christ’s vicar chose them,” during which they will be beaten with whips already in the hands of the cheerful crowd. This is to be their share in the day’s festivities. Du Bellay, however, is preoccupied with his own sense of exile and alienation – perhaps germinating one of his moving and nostalgic poems – and barely notices them.

    Part IV, “Words for the Day of Atonement,” rejoices over the survival of the Jews in the present, but cautiously, with a reference to how “the child screams in the jellied fire” that is reminiscent of Vietnam-era napalm. There is a suggestion that injustice is inherent in the strong biblical emphasis on punishment – and often such horrific punishment – over nothing more than “the deformed consequences of our love, the painful issues of our mildest acts.” The poet asks not simply for “forgiveness for us,” but also for the voice of one who, like Lear, is “mad, poor and betrayed enough to declare that ‘None does offend, None, I say, None.’” (Act IV, scene 6)

    The poem ends with another invocation, a passage that begs for compassion on both the soul and the body, and for forgiveness of “our sins, though they be very great.” The use of the subjunctive “be” there is significant, as if the sins were being posited as hypothetical, not confessed to as facts that “are.” The final stanza is not so much a prayer for the future survival of a beleaguered people as an accounting, a reference to promises made and unkept, and a challenge to our divine Father, in what seems either a demand disguised as a vision of some distant future, or an indictment disguised as a “revision” of the past:

    Neither shall the flame
    Kindle upon them, nor the fire burn
    A hair of them, for they
    Shall be thy care when it shall come to pass,
    And calling on thy name
    In the hot kilns and ovens, they shall turn
    To thee as it is prophesied, and say,
    “He shall come down like rain upon mown grass.”

    It is impossible to read this poem without being struck by its greatness, its largeness of vision, its somber beauty and searing honesty, and the courage required to confront the insights that underlie it.

    If any reader doubts the personal nature of the anxiety behind the closing passage, he should turn to “It Out-Herods Herod. Pray You, Avoid It.” In nine quatrains spoken in the voice of a father contemplating the uncertain future of his young children, the double focus is on the pious simplicities that may keep children feeling secure, and the dark, complex realities that keep their father constantly aware of dangers invisible to them. He relishes their innocent delight in fables that guarantee the triumph of good over evil, but when he seems to engage in rites that support belief in that triumph – as when he continues to “say this childermas” – he does so, not because he believes in the power of prayer to protect, but despite the fact that he doesn’t, knowing that he “could not, at one time, have saved them from the gas.”

    “The Feast of Stephen,” a series of four sonnets, derives its title from the day devoted to the memory of the earliest Christian martyr – December 26, day of the stoning of Saint Stephen during the early years of the first century. The execution, ordered by the Sanhedrin, was occasioned by Stephen’s impassioned defense of the new religion to which he was a convert, and his accusation of the Jews as guilty of the death of Jesus of Nazareth. One of the witnesses to the saint’s gruesome death, which he accepted with prayers for the forgiveness of his killers, was Saul of Tarsus, the future Saint Paul.

    Hecht’s treatment of the event begins playfully with “the coltish horseplay of the locker room,” and goes on to a celebration of the body, especially the young body and its pleasure in motion guided by the “carnal spirit” that encourages group play as well as competition and struggle. But the scene darkens as the third sonnet asks the reader to “Think of those barren places where men gather to act in the terrible name of rectitude,” and ends with “the rope, the chains, handcuffs and gasoline.”

    This is, again, Auden country, and the fourth sonnet makes the outcome explicit “in the rippled heat of a neighbor’s field,” where the young killers strip for action, “having flung down their wet and salty garments at the feet of a young man whose name is Saul.” The barbaric martyrdom, like others described in Hecht poems, closes with “an unintelligible prayer.” And with an added complication: the frisky young killers this time are Jews defending what they perceive as a threat to their religion at the hands of a heretical splinter group. But how to define Saul/Paul, at this stage in his career still defending Judaism from heresy, but destined to become the most vehement vocal instrument of Christianity?

    The eight quatrains of “An Overview” examine the notion of metaphorical distance as a factor in the human capacity for violence against others. A common landscape viewed from a 707 by a traveler who feels momentarily “god-like” is described in terms of toys. The poem moves from that “intricate and cute” image of the world to the “engaging roguishness” of the bombardier who drops his deadly cargo, under the twice- or thrice-removed authority of the president, upon the unseen and scarcely imagined “wounded, orphaned, indigent, the dying and the comatose.” To the extent that religious thinking, like political ideological thinking, may encourage a long-range, impersonal view of issues, rather than a small focus on the living here and now, does it necessarily abet, in some, the kind of detachment here imputed to the bombardier?

    That exaltation of the ordinary passing thing, the mixed bag of creation, is also a defense of the mortal being capable of enjoying the details of the world for what they are, and himself for what he is.

    As if to answer by means of contrast, “Devotions of a Painter” revels in the small, tangible pleasures the natural world offers to the senses, right down to “the glittering eyes and backs of frogs,” and rejoices that the sun “dispenses its immense loose change” with such careless abandon on “blossoms, ripples, mud, wet stones.” That exaltation of the ordinary passing thing, the mixed bag of creation, is also a defense of the mortal being capable of enjoying the details of the world for what they are, and himself for what he is. And that exaltation is not alien to the religious impulse: Hecht reminds us of that when he represents the painter in this poem as engaging in “devotions.”

    And in defense of the religious impulse inspired by faith but animated by almost familial loyalty to those in need of care, “Sisters” portrays, in warm, humorous terms, a group of nuns attending to the needs of “poor, baffled patients, shy as gerbils … having lost their marbles.” The young nurses – Sisters of Charity – are described as “made beautiful with care,” distinguished and ennobled, not by any passionate professions of faith or extreme and striking acts in defense of what they believe, but by active and unassuming devotion to the human totality of those in their keeping.

    In “The Life of Crime,” on the other hand, the speaker – son of “a lean Methodist Father in daily touch with the Sublime” – finds it natural, even inevitable, that he has advanced to become a happy, successful petty criminal. He describes, with disarming, satisfied candor, his early deconstruction of the primly deceptive allegories his father uses to tailor reality to his doctrinal needs, employing the animals as emblems of virtues and vices, until finally reality is emptied of meaning or integrity, the father is an object of loathing, and the son’s source of pride is his skill at picking “the pockets of all the elegantly clothed.” Pious cant, like zeal, has its consequences: if the latter breeds cruelty, the former breeds cynicism.

    Another view of the religious impulse gone hilariously astray is “Indolence,” in which a “flower child” interprets the famous lilies of the field referred to in Matthew 6:28, which “toil not, neither do they spin.” The speaker prides himself on his perfect obedience to Holy Writ, a commitment that has led him to live, “blissed to the gills on hemp,” on the charity of passersby, thus providing strangers rushing to work for a living the opportunity to achieve salvation by engaging in charity. The second line takes a good-natured swing at Walt Whitman when the hippie proclaims, “I loaf and invite my soul.”

    References to the New Testament occur in numerous other Hecht poems, to achieve a variety of effects, from the satirical, sampled above, to the somber, as exemplified by “The Ceremony of Innocence” and “The Road to Damascus,” among other poems. But nothing in his work speaks more clearly than the essay “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians,” in the prose volume, Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry.This dense, absorbing essay, which begins by considering the use of connotative language in the service of bigotry and propaganda, goes on to discuss the crucial role of that particular book of the New Testament. The epistle is a work by Saint Paul that says much about its author, and one that proved useful to Martin Luther, among others, by at least appearing to lend authority to the persecution of the Jews.

    Hecht gives an account of Paul’s strenuous efforts to legitimize himself as a true disciple of Jesus, despite the fact that the two never met, and that, in fact, Paul – when he was still Saul, a Pharisee zealously protective of his faith – persecuted the early Christians with a rigor and cruelty of which he later repented. Perhaps because he had a great deal to answer for to his fellow apostles, Paul insisted that dependence on circumcision and other observances of Jewish law were not only unnecessary to a self-identified Christian, but downright detrimental, in that such loyalty to the old dispensation seemed to detract from the soul-saving power of the new dispensation, which he insisted had to be deemed sufficient by itself. Both Jewish-born Christians and newly Christianized Gentiles were urged to adhere to the doctrine of salvation as wholly the fruit of faith in Christ, with no other requirements, thereby permitting the Gentile members of the new Church to regard themselves as on an equal footing with those earlier members, who shared the older religion in which Jesus himself lived and died.

    Some of the other disciples quibbled or doubted or disagreed openly, but the forceful Paul had his way, and even went so far as to suggest that his personal link to Jesus was stronger than that of the disciples who had followed Jesus during his life, because his contact was based on spiritual communication – visions and visitations – rather than on mere bodily acquaintance. According to Paul, the spiritual is far holier and more meaningful than the physical, hence a visitation from the Spirit invests a relationship with a closeness that no mere sensory knowledge can provide.

    Touching upon the “vituperations” of the hot-tempered Paul against those who would not love Jesus (Galatians 1: 8-9), Hecht remarks, “It is a tone of voice I recognize from news accounts of the desecraters of graveyards, synagogues, and even of churches; it is the tone of the fanatic.” In a revealing commentary on Paul’s celebrated and lyrical praise of charity and love in I Corinthians 13:1, the poet astutely questions the saint’s apparent modesty, by which the hearer is supposed to be struck: “Doubtless we would be more struck by it if it were not so frequently in abeyance.” Love, he notes, is “the generous solution in which all factions dissolve,” and yet “it doesn’t need much reflection to see how love in its finer throes can become zeal, and zeal in its fiercest devotion can become fanaticism, and demand persecution.”

    The separation between love and justice is arbitrary and unreasonable.

    Hecht reminds the reader that a long-held misconception assigns to Judaism a great concern for the law, and to Christianity an overwhelming devotion to love, as if the two operated in opposition. The truth, he suggests, is that they work in tandem: respect for the law amounts to a search for justice, which is a necessary aspect of the love of one’s neighbors – and of strangers too – if love is to be regarded as more than sentimentality that makes no practical demands upon the giver beyond lip service. The misconception to which Hecht refers, which flatters Christianity unduly and misrepresents Judaism, stems from an incident recounted in Mark 12:28-31.A Pharisee has asked Jesus which, in his opinion, is the chief commandment, and Jesus replies that the two chief commandments are those that enjoin the love of God and “the love of thy neighbor as thyself.” But he is, of course, not saying anything essentially Christian: he is quoting from the Torah, the book of Jewish laws – specifically Leviticus 19:18. The primacy of love in Jewish law, routinely equated with justice and fair treatment of both neighbor and stranger, was already old when Jesus was born: he learned it from that source.

    The separation between love and justice is arbitrary and unreasonable, and has led, Hecht points out, to a concomitant “opposition of the most unsound and perilous kind.” The poet’s careful analysis of that opposition and its results touches upon such timely matters as warfare and the resistance to conscription, the issues surrounding birth control, the reliance on the individual conscience, the questionable nature of guidance from supernatural sources, and the facility with which “the cloying sentimentality of comfortable Dickensian piety” manages to make room for dangerous, casual bigotries easily accepted and acted upon by the culture, to the misfortune of millions, sometimes with the approval and at the instigation of several Popes, even some much more recent than Gregory XIII.

    Saint Paul, says Hecht, was confident of “the illumination and eternal truth vouchsafed to him. It is that confidence of his,” adds the poet, “that may in the end be most alarming and that may serve as a warning against my replacing his fixed convictions with fixed convictions of my own.”

    The close of this essay, which examines some of the unforeseen consequences of religious thought on the history of the twentieth century up to the present moment, includes this autobiographical observation: “I … became increasingly acquainted with the convictions of my Christian neighbors. Many of these were good people whom I admired and from whom I learned goodness itself, among other things. And there was much in Christian doctrine that seemed appealing as well.” The lengthy section that follows the inevitable “But” contains much that should be taken to heart soberly by those of us who think of Christianity with a degree of fondness as “the church of our fathers,” whether we adhere to its observances or not, and, in fact, by all who care about the future of religion itself, over and above any specific faith.

    More important than bringing indictments against specific institutions, what Anthony Hecht does in much of his work is to warn, convincingly and justly – which is to say, with love – of those elements in religion that allow it to degenerate into zealotry or cant, and make possible behavior that runs counter to the avowed intent of religious faith. To deny that such dangerous elements exist, even today, in institutions we may value – and even deep in the impulses that gave rise to them – is to deny that fire is capable of burning, disfiguring and destroying what it touches, on the grounds that we are disloyal and ungrateful to find fault in what warms us so well when we are cold.

    No poem or prose, however good, is going to bring about a change in human nature that will do away with injustice, cruelty, or cynicism, whatever its source. But excellent writing can sharpen the senses, challenge the intellect, kindle the imagination, and encourage the reader to generous thought. And great writing – like that of Anthony Hecht, which so qualifies on all counts, aesthetic, moral, and intellectual – can do more. It can teach us to confess doubt, to acknowledge the moral ambiguities inherent in every human impulse, and to guard against self-satisfied overconfidence in ourselves and in those institutions we have created in our image.

    Contributed By portrait of Rhina Espaillat Rhina P. Espaillat

    Rhina P. Espaillat, a bilingual poet, is winner of numerous prizes including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Richard Wilbur Award, and (twice) the Howard Nemerov Sonnet award.

    Learn More
    2 Comments

    Sign up for Plough's weekly newsletter