6 December 2005
The Darkness and the Light
Anthony Hecht's The Darkness and the Light is a collection of poems mostly concerned with appreciation of life as a whole. Humanity as a whole enjoys the light because we can compare it to darkness. Hecht's poems show us that we are only able to appreciate the good and the bad parts of life together. Noticeably, appreciating the bad is highlighted. That is not to say the horrors of the world should be found pleasurable, only that everything can be assessed to hold value or even be admired.
Hecht's gift of finding value in anything cannot be discussed without also discussing his Biblical and historical references. While quite a few of his poems can be fully enjoyed without knowing a single Bible passage, just as many use biblical or historical backdrops that are essential to the poem. More specifically, most of these poems cite the Hebrew Scriptures and refer to the Second World War. "Sacrifice," which uses both, juxtaposes the story of Abraham's son Isaac with an account of a French family during close of the war. The poem is broken into three parts: the first two retell the biblical story from Abraham's and Isaac's point of view respectively. Hecht explores the human feelings of obedience, fear, and relief. Abraham struggles to choose between obedience to his God and the life of his God-given son, as when he says "A miracle that would command my tears / With piercings of the grave." Isaac, a child, understands his fate but cries for his life anyway: "Hate and love and fear / Wrestled to ruin us." As the story goes, Isaac is saved and a goat is sacrificed in his place. Through the first two parts of the poem, the reader encounters the old story with new pathos for the father and, especially, the son.
The final part finds an analogous story of a son held at gunpoint by a German solider looking to commandeer a bicyclette. The father has only to surrender the bicycle to save his son. After a long pause the solider relinquishes: "It wasn't charity. Perhaps mere prudence, / saving a valuable round of ammunition." The son is spared but unlike the happy ending that we expected, "For years they lived together in that house… / In agonized, unviolated silence." The sharp contrast between the son who could not forgive his father's choice and Isaac's relief shows the reader how different the 'fairy tale' is from real life. While Abraham and Isaac share tears of agony, the father attempts no intervention for his son's sake. The emotion of the first to parts corresponds more directly with the father's need for his bicycle. The father, who would be left without transportation, has used his own son as the scapegoat. Even more chilling is the image of the God-figure solider who allows the son to live for no visible reason. The son was not spared out of respect for his life and the father is forever exposed as loveless.
The strength "Sacrifice" gains from allusion to Genesis can be seen as well in the final poem (and the book's title) "The Darkness and the Light are Both Alike to Thee." The bible passage from which it comes reflects on Gods omniscience. Likewise, Hecht displays this omniscience in the passage of time from dusk to dawn. Hecht uses the common metaphor equating the day to one's life. However, the city lights extinguish the light of the falling sun and the new sun repays the favor in the morning. For God there is no end. Hecht determines that each person's night is the shadow of a new generation's new light: "the rising light / Entails their own eclipse, / Brightening as they fall." Undoubtedly Hecht's age played a part in this poem. It must be an easing thought in one's own twilight to imagine the grandeur of things that may come from the future. Such grandeur could only be completely appreciated by seeing, as God sees, the darkness the same as the light.
In the past and now, Hecht has drawn from his experiences in war and the Bible. In this collection, the last in his life, he draws also from his experience in age. In "I.M.E.M." he describes a man who feels he is a burden to his family and his "generous" suicide. The first four stanzas of "Elders" express a candor about an awkward unpopular adolescent boy who has wet dreams. In the same boy's old age, he finds a girl in a similar adolescence. "Elders" may not be confessional, but it contains elements of very private experiences and fantasies of an old man. Age also plays a role in "Memory," where Hecht expresses the joy or "temporary wealth" of a reminiscent room.
The romantic preserved parlor in "Memory" is arranged to follow "Circles". These two poems are the only two in which the speaker is an average person reflecting on his own life. In "Memory" time is motionless; everything takes place in a vacuum of time or a place where time does not change. In "Circles" time is constantly moving but each weekend is the same as the one before.
Hecht opens "Circles" with a stanza about the speaker's divorce. The rhyme scheme in this stanza is a, b, a, c, d, e, b, e, d. Hecht uses the wife's words to show the heated anger of the relationship gone bad, while the speaker, looking back on the situation, remains calm. The narrator describes how what once was a happy marriage for some reason went bad: "Attars of love gone rancid." In the following stanza the speaker "filled in the blanks / With lazy, bitter fictions… feeling nothing, won her grateful thanks." The meaning of filling in the blanks as to why and how this happened doubles with the signing of divorce papers. She too could be thanking him for his understanding or just for getting it over with. The 'why' and 'how' might seem most pertinent but are completely irrelevant. All that matters now is the 'now'.
Now the narrator has "become a weakened, weekend father." With all the love of his wife gone, like many divorcees, he sees his child on the weekend only. The law confines his love "To Saturday, / Trailing off into Sunday-before-dark." He finds himself in the same routine each weekend: going to the park and watching the carousel. Like his wife, child and himself go around in their "own circle of hell" the carousel mocks them with its "single-songed, maddening monotony." Hecht uses all his tools as a poet to construct a monotonous feeling. He has the husband speak in a slow calm tone throughout. Their circle of hell matches the circle of the racing horses on a carousel. The husband is tormented by the horses stuck in a race no one will win because he sees his own empty life in them. Hecht drags the circle even slower in his use of alliteration describing his thoughts of hearing one song repeatedly every weekend.
Along with his secular poems, Hecht also includes a number of translations from French poets. These poems have continuity by themselves and with the entire work as well. "The Ashen Light of Dawn" (Baudelaire) is in many way like the title poem. The subject is concerned with the beginning of a new day and the end of life of the night before. Images of morning fog dispersing along with the whores are followed by a sleepy Paris beginning a new day's work. The theme of translation also fits well with his retelling or translations of the bible stories as seen in "Sacrifice." The topics of the French poems also bridge the gap between 'civilian' poems like "Circles" and those with military allusions like "Rara Avis in Terris."
In what others would find nothing but sadness, Hecht has learned to prize for its own authenticity. The circular pattern of divorced life or tension between a son and father over a sacrifice are both appreciated. His poems can be generally enjoyed without knowing the bible verses from which they came or living though the hell of war. The words "balding buzzards who brandish the smart bomb" from "Rara Avis in Terris" can be understood without knowing the difference between an F15 and a B52. Even in the poems "Judith" and "Lot's wife" can be enjoyed fully simply by finding a bible and reading the corresponding passages. His work may appeal specifically to those with interests in bible study and the history of World War II but it is accessible enough that anyone can read it. In addition there are many poems with appeal to the universal audience such as "I.M.E.M." and "Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love."
Finding beauty in something is very subjective. After all, what some people call art others call trash. Many people find the smoggy sunsets in Los Angeles beautiful despite the carcinogenic qualities. In "Late Afternoon: The Onslaught of Love" Hecht reveals a parallel outlook to oil floating in a harbor. The effects of polluted water on the ecosystem are arguably worse than that of smog. Conversely there are relatively few people who enjoy watching an oil slick over a bright red-orange sunset. He likens the shape of the oil slick to famous sculptures and the color to a miracle. Truthfully, the spectrum of colors reflected on the surface of oil is much more vibrant than any rainbow. This is how Hecht finds worth in things which otherwise are considered problems.
Hecht, Anthony. The Darkness and the Light. New York: Knopf, 2001.
"Chateau de Chillon, Lake Geneva, Switzerland." <http://www.olsztyn.mm.pl/~grzegorzg/gory/
Holy Bible The King James Version. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982.
Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia, eds. An Introduction to Poetry. 11th ed. New York: Pearson