Exploring the Literary Brilliance of Anthony Hecht: A Must-Read for Poetry Enthusiasts

Anthony Hecht

The literary world is replete with influential figures, but few have embodied the transformative power and innovative spirit of poetry quite like Anthony Hecht. His work, characterized by a profound understanding of human nature and a masterful command of language, has established him as a pillar of 20th-century literature. A journey through Hecht’s repertoire is therefore a must for any poetry enthusiast.

Anthony Hecht at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1947 | C. Cameron Macauley

Born on this day January 16, 1923, Hecht’s genius lies not only in his dexterous wordplay but also in his ability to infuse the most intricate themes with an approachable, almost conversational tone. This blend of intellectual rigor and accessibility makes his body of work an extraordinary territory to explore for those passionate about poetry. His writings, such as “The Hard Hours” for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1968, embody a rich exploration of the human condition and our collective struggle with morality, faith, and self-understanding.

One cannot discuss Anthony Hecht without mentioning his unique ability to synthesize a multitude of cultural and historical influences into a seamless poetic narrative. From Greek mythology to the Holocaust’s horrors, Hecht’s poetry is a testament to his expansive knowledge and his capacity to interweave disparate elements into a cohesive and compelling whole.

Furthermore, Hecht’s mastery of form is another reason for his standing in the annals of literary history. His technical prowess, particularly in the use of traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, is truly awe-inspiring. Yet, he was never constrained by these structures; instead, he used them as vehicles to delve deeper into his explorations of humanity’s complexities.

Anthony Hecht’s literary brilliance shines through his profound thematic explorations, stylistic versatility, and technical mastery. His work extends an open invitation to all poetry enthusiasts to embark on an enlightening journey through the human experience – a journey that is as intellectually challenging as it is emotionally rewarding.

One of his most famous poems, The Dover Bitch, is a reply to Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, a poem where Arnold decries the declining world and “Sea of Faith.” In The Dover Bitch, Hecht offers a humorous, imaginative perspective of the female companion to which Dover Beach was addressed. Here are both poems for consideration:

Dover Beach

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The Dover Bitch

By Anthony Hecht

A Criticism of Life: for Andrews Wanning

So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, ‘Try to be true to me,
And I’ll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.’
Well now, I knew this girl. It’s true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn’t judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She’s really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it’s a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d’ Amour.

Curated by Jennifer

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