“More Light! More Light!”
“More Light! More Light!”
“More Light! More Light!”
Anthony Hecht 1967
Poet Anthony Hecht may be said to suffer from Weltschmerz, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as “sadness over the evils of the world ….” Hecht served as a soldier during World War II and encountered painful evidence of the atrocities committed at the Nazi death camp at Buchenwald. This experience plays a role in “‘More Light! More Light!” as well as several other poems in Hecht’s Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, The Hard Hours (1967). From title and dedication to poem’s conclusion, “‘More Light! More Light!’” involves a dying man’s plea, a reference to a woman who wrote about the “banality of evil,” and the murders of four individuals whose only guilt was not sharing the same religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds as their executioners. A central issue of this poem is why Hecht attempts to create poetry out of horrifying incidents. Indeed, cultural critic Theodor Adorno made a famous and oft-quoted statement: “After Auschwitz, no poetry.” Hecht not only defies that directive, but his poetry broaches the subject, the Holocaust, that caused such a disheartened conclusion—that art should not survive atrocity. This disturbing poem may leave readers with the lingering question of why Hecht chose the topics he did. The poet, however, seems to imply that this focus is skewed. Why should the poem, because of its subject matter, be questioned when the actual incidents that prompted it appear to have been, albeit sadly, accepted? Why would anyone tolerate barbarity over art?
Anthony Hecht was born on January 16, 1923, in New York City. In 1944, he graduated from Bard College in New York. For the next three years— during World War II—he served as a rifleman with the U.S. Army, both in Europe and Japan. Later he served in the Counter-Intelligence Corps, in which capacity he bore witness, at the end of the war, to the mass graves outside of the Buchenwald death camp. This experience was to greatly influence what are arguably Hecht’s most stunning poems. At war’s end, Hecht taught at Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with the poet and new critic John Crowe Ransom. Hecht also tutored under members of a group of writers at Vanderbilt University known as the Fugitives, among whom were Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and their teacher, Ransom. In 1950, Hecht earned his master’s degree from Columbia University, and in 1954, his first volume of poetry, The Summoning of Stones, was published. In that same year he married, and eventually had two sons. Hecht married again in 1971 and had one more son.
Hecht’s career includes a long line of teaching posts and awards. He has taught at Kenyon, the State University at Iowa, Smith College, Bard, and the University of Rochester, where he was the John H. Dean Professor of Poetry and Rhetoric from 1967 to 1982. In 1982 he was named poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and in 1984, he took a teaching post at Georgetown University. His awards include a Pulitzer in 1968 for The Hard Hours (1967), the volume from which “More Light! More Light!” is taken; a Bollingen Prize (1983); the Eugenio Montale Award; the Academy of American Poets Award; and grants from the Guggenheim and Ford Foundations. He has also received numerous honorary doctorates. Perhaps the most important honor bestowed on Hecht was an invitation to present the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; it was the first time such an invitation went to an American poet.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The quotation marks around the phrase “More Light! More Light!” signify that Hecht is borrowing it from another source. Indeed, we discover that celebrated German poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe allegedly uttered these words on his deathbed. Immediately, the poem’s title—a dying man’s plea—sets a somber mood for the poem.
Hecht inscribes his poem to Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt, a couple who left Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1941. Arendt was a leading political philosopher, perhaps best known for her works Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. A second reference to Germany before the poem even begins, as well the knowledge that Arendt wrote about Nazi ideology, leads the reader to believe that the poem will focus on this place and subject.
Despite the setup of the title and dedication, the poem opens in sixteenth-century England. While the syntax of this stanza is confusing, the meaning is clear: a prisoner held in the Tower of London awaits execution by writing poetry. Then the unrepentant man is transported to a place where he will be burned at the stake. Hecht plays on the word “submitted”—in one sense it is related to the man submitting his verses to his executioners; the other referring to the man submitting to his executioners even as he protests his innocence.
Despite his courage, the man suffers a horrible death. “The sack of gunpowder,” according to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was hung around the victim’s
- Though it is a minor appearance, Anthony Hecht is interviewed about poet Robert Lowell in Robert Lowell: A Mania for Phrases on the PBS Voices and Visions series, New York: Center for Visual History Productions.
neck to hasten death (the explosive powder would quickly cause the subject to be engulfed in flames). In this instance, however, the gunpowder fails to ignite and the victim slowly burns, his agony emphasized by the comparison of his legs to pieces of hot-burning, sap-filled wood. The “Kindly Light” likely refers to God’s salvation; this phrase derives from a hymn titled “Lead, Kindly Light,” which was composed in 1833 by John Henry Newman.
After the gruesome imagery of the preceding stanza, the speaker provides the unsettling information that this was only one of numerous executions and that others were actually worse. One reason the victim’s suffering is downplayed is because he was allowed a shred of purported dignity by speaking his peace before dying. Furthermore, the victim’s soul was prayed for by onlookers.
The scene now shifts to “a German wood.” Based on the details of the task described (“dig[ing] a hole”) and the designation “Jews,” we realize that the events are taking place during World War II and that three men—two Jews and one Pole—are digging a grave. The Pole is then ordered to bury the Jews alive.
The word “light” appears once again, but this time it refers to the illumination from “The shrine at Weimar,” a museum dedicated to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that is not far from the Buchenwald concentration camp. Goethe, a poet, novelist, and dramatist, was “widely recognized as the greatest writer of the German tradition,” according to Jane K. Brown in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Weimar, the small town in which Goethe lived, was a cultural center during his lifetime and for decades afterward. More than a hundred years after Goethe’s death, the Pole receives neither strength and inspiration from Goethe’s shrine nor the light of heavenly salvation; however, he still refuses to kill the Jews. For this act of defiance, a German soldier, represented only by his Lüger—a German automatic pistol—and glove (a trope known as synecdoche), orders the Pole to switch places, lie down in the grave, and await being buried alive by the Jews.
The Jews, already demoralized and stripped of any will to resist, follow orders and bury the Pole up to his “quivering” chin. His fear is evident, yet he stoically accepts his fate. But before the Jews finish, the soldier orders them to dig out the Pole and switch places with him.
Line 25, “No light, no light in the blue Polish eye,” echoes the poem’s title, “‘More Light! More Light!’” At the moment preceding death, Goethe shouted the plea that serves as the title, suggesting that the absence of light is tantamount to death. That light has extinguished from the Pole’s eye implies that he is already dead—that the trauma he has just endured and the unspeakable act he is forced to commit have obliterated his spirit. As if out of respect and to avoid blaming the Pole, Hecht does not describe him burying the Jews alive; he only uses the words “when he finished.” Afterward, the soldier shoots the Pole in the stomach so he will bleed to death, slowly and agonizingly.
Unlike the sixteenth-century English martyr, the Pole and the Jews offer no last words nor are they prayed for—either verbally or in the form of incense lit as offering to God. The Pole is not even buried. The “mute / Ghosts from the ovens” are Jews who been cremated at Buchenwald and comprise the soot that descends to cover Pole’s body. The image of soot settling upon the Pole could convey the smothering of decency and courage by the evils of Nazism. The detail that the corpse’s eyes are covered is significant, because not only has the light extinguished from the eyes, but a “black soot” (that blocks light) is covering them.
Death is the most obvious theme of “‘More Light! More Light!’” The title, itself, comes from the last words of a dying man. The prisoner burned at the stake was a heretic, or someone who holds a religious opinion that is in opposition with church dogma. Hecht’s own note to the poem verifies this: “The details [of the execution] are conflated from several executions, including Latimer and Ridley whose deaths at the stake are described by Foxe in Actes and Monuments (1563). But neither of them wrote poems just before their deaths, as others did.” In Mary Tudor’s attempt to turn England back to Catholicism, the state ruthlessly murdered those who did not go along; in the early 1550s, some 300 people were burned for their beliefs. During World War II, death was carried out by the Nazis on a massive scale. Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, a figure estimated as two thirds of the European Jewish population. Two million Poles and Slavs were also murdered by Nazis. (There were other victims, including Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, and a quarter of a million mentally and physically disabled people.)
Victims and Victimization
In the English execution, the victim is burned because his difference in belief matters (recall that Latimer and Ridley were bishops). The victim is granted last words and retains his courage even when the burning is protracted. The auto-da-fé (another word that means “the burning of a heretic) is carried out in public and with some ceremony. However, the victim retains some dignity, as prayers are said for him. The executions in Germany, however, are quite different. The victims are ordinary citizens who are not executed for their beliefs or official position, but for their identity. The Jews appear neither to proclaim their innocence or even to speak; they seem to have lost all courage and dignity. The Pole’s last words are a courageous protest, but one not lasting long—he too is worn down by the fear of being buried alive. These executions seem completely private—almost secretive—and it seems amazing that the event was ever discovered. The incident is based on a real story told by Eugen Kogon, a survivor of Buchenwald, in his book The Theory and Practice of Hell. From Kogon, we find out that the murders took place at Buchenwald, the concentration camp near Goethe’s former hometown of Weimar. Some critics believe
Topics for Further Study
- Discuss why a heretic would be afforded the right to speak before being executed. Then discuss the Nazi soldier’s actions in regard to the Pole.
- Use synecdoche (in this case, the trope where parts stand for the whole and not vice versa) to describe a person or object and have others guess who or what is being described.
- Consult the poem “Tichborne’s Elegy” (1586), written by Chidiock Tichborne who wrote the elegy for himself while in the Tower of London before he was hanged, drawn, and quartered for being implicated in the Babington Conspiracy to murder Queen Elizabeth. Try to find other poems written in the Tower before execution. A good place to begin is The Actes and Monuments of John Foxe. Why would someone write a poem before being executed?
that because of the difference between the executions, the burning at the stake is less tragic.
Dignity and Salvation
In the case of the English prisoner, he was afforded last words which took the form of a final protest. Did this soothe him in any way? Uttering the protest might have bestowed a small measure of dignity on the man; he was granted the opportunity to be heard. And did the prayers of those who witnessed the execution lead to the heretic’s salvation? While the question cannot be answered, it could be argued that salvation resides less in assurances of salvation than in the hope of salvation. Some comfort therefore might have been afforded the Englishman. As for the Pole, he showed dignity by initially refusing the soldier’s order. And the silent Jews? Their dignity, as Hecht says, was already “drained away.” For all three individuals, it is possible that silence was the only tatter of dignity left them. As to prayer by witnesses, the fact there was none at the murder of the Jews and Pole is, for some, a problem for the salvation of Jewish and Polish souls. This is a more Catholic than Protestant or Jewish view, Catholics believing their relationship to God is mediated by others—church officials or members. For religious Protestants and Jews, there is always a witness to killings—God. This condition, makes it quite difficult to say whether the publicly executed and vocal Englishman was afforded more dignity and salvation that the privately executed and silent Jews, or the privately executed and temporarily courageous Pole.
Anthony Hecht’s “‘More Light! More Light!’” consists of eight quatrains of more or less regular iambic pentameter. In lines one and two, however, two feet are not iambic. They consist of two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one: “in the tow er” and “at that time. ” This pattern is defined as an anapest. Other lines have other variations of feet, such as two stresses placed together— “black sap ”—which is known as a “spondee.” The rhyme scheme for every stanza is abcb, though there are the near-rhymes of “earth” and “death” (in stanza 7) and also “mute” and “soot” (in stanza 8). The endings of the rhymed lines are called “masculine,” since the last syllable in each is accented (feminine endings are unaccented). In addition, masculine rhymes primarily involve one-syllable words, whereas feminine rhymes consist of two or more syllables (as in the rhyme of “dignity” and “tranquility”) There are also instances of both assonance (“black sap”) and alliteration (“Bubbled and burst”). One other technique of note is Hecht’s use of synecdoche, a use of words whereby parts stand for the whole or vice versa. Hecht employs synecdoche when describing the Nazi soldier with the words “Lüger,” “glove,” and “boot.”
Hecht’s “‘More Light! More Light!’” was published in 1967. In the United States, the late 1960s was one of the most dynamic and violent times the nation had seen since the end of the Civil War. The war in Vietnam drove millions of citizens, many of them young college students, into opposition against the federal government, and the frustration of urban blacks boiled over into race riots. Assassinations
Compare & Contrast
- 1967: Israeli forces mount successful, surprise air and ground attacks on Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq in the Six-Day War (the third Arab-Israeli War), destroying most of their opponent’s air force and completely defeating their ground forces. Israelis take the Sinai Peninsula, the Jordanian-held portions of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, which they continued to occupy; no peace treaty ended the war.
1999: The United States and Germany announce a tentative agreement to compensate 240 U.S. survivors of Nazi concentration camps. They stand to receive about $100,000 each.
- 1967: Ché Guevara, one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution (1959) who, with Fidel Castro, toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista, is executed after fighting the Bolivian military that had recently overthrown the government.
1999: A right-wing death squad outlawed by the Columbian government guns down, execution-style, fourteen people, raising the death toll for three days to sixty.
- 1967: Civil war begins in Nigeria (1967-70), as the Christian and animist Ibos of Biafra secede from Muslim-dominated Nigeria. The war would result in the loss of between 1.5 million and 2 million people, many of them children and most of them noncombatants who died of famine and famine-induced disease while government forces blocked international relief supplies.
1998: In Rwanda, during the course of the year, 864 people are tried for the 1994 genocide in which 500,000 to one million are slaughtered in the Hutu government’s attempt to wipe out the Tutsi minority. Civil war follows the 1994 genocide, and the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front defeat the Rwandan military which, with an estimated two million Hutus, flee Rwanda into neighboring countries.
of two major political figures, not two months apart, stunned the nation.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered on April 4, 1968. King was one of the principal leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, a staunch advocate of nonviolent protest who is remembered by a national holiday on the third Monday of every January. Dr. King rose to national attention in 1954, as the leader of the famous boycott against the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, where black citizens had only been allowed to ride in the backs of buses. The following year, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed, he was named its president. He was a leader of nonviolent protests against segregation throughout the South, facing death threats and spending time in jail. In 1963, he was one of the organizers of the march on Washington and delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech before a crowd of 200,000. These public, peaceful displays of African-American determination for equal rights and the violent opposition of some whites to their reasonable demands helped President Lyndon Johnson gain support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Near the end of his life, Dr. King did have opponents: black separatists, represented most visibly in 1968 by the formation of the Black Panthers, did not approve of King’s nonviolent tactics or his willingness to work with whites on racial problems, and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, waged an almost fanatical crusade of spying on King and spreading propaganda against him, fearful that he might become a black “messiah” who would lead the overthrow of the white race. When Dr. King was shot in Memphis, riots broke out in most major cities in the country, including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark and Washington D.C. Forty-six deaths resulted. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley issued orders for police to “shoot to kill” looters who broke store windows. National Guard troops were mobilized in many states, and 21,270 people were arrested.
On June 5, 1968, with the shock of the King assassination still fresh, the nation was stunned once again when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was gunned down while campaigning in Los Angeles. He was the brother of former President John F. Kennedy and had been the attorney general in his administration. His assassination was a frightening reminder of the trauma the country had felt five years earlier, when President Kennedy was killed. At the time of his death, Robert Kennedy had been the leading candidate for the presidency: he was young (42) and opposed to the war in Vietnam, and was favored by young voters, who were politically active and vocal but alienated from the system. His death, so soon after Dr. King’s and so closely paralleling his popular brother’s, became a symbol of great disillusionment to a generation that had believed in making the world a better place.
Protests against the Vietnam war took place regularly on college campuses throughout the late 1960s, and in August of 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, thousands of protestors gathered, setting off a confrontation between police and radicals that became the image of what “the Sixties” means to many Americans. The protest was originally the idea of Abbie Hoffman, a youth leader and self-proclaimed “prankster” who, the previous New Year’s Eve, had suggested to friends that they stop calling themselves “hippies” (the generic name for rebellious youth at that time, much like “beatniks” before them and “gangstas” after) and instead represent themselves as the Youth International Party, or Yip-pies. In Hoffman’s plan, the Yippies would go to the Democratic Convention and demand representation. By August, word had spread from one antiwar organization to the next. The members of the peace movement were widely varied: some were committed to peace through peaceful means, some supported violence to end the war, and some treated it all with a sense of fun, relishing the chance to annoy their stuffy elders. In Chicago, though, all were considered serious threats—Chicago Mayor Richard Daley looked on the youths as terrorists who wanted to start a revolution to overthrow the government. Sixteen thousand Chicago police, 4,000 state troopers and 4,000 National Guardsmen were equipped with riot gear and posted around the hotel where the convention was held to face what turned out to be between 5,000 and 10,000 demonstrators. The “Festival of Life” that the war protestors had assembled for included rock concerts, marijuana smoking, public lovemaking and draft card burning. When the protesters threw bricks and bottles, the police responded by firing tear gas and swinging nightsticks. Participants later said that the whole situation felt like being at war, but observers who watched it on television saw kids and news reporters and uninvolved bystanders being clubbed and sprayed with gas by police, despite a frequent chant by the protestors reminding them that, “The whole world is watching.” An independent commission studying the event later referred to it as a “police riot.” Throughout the 1960s, America’s security had declined, as the war and the never-ending struggle for civil rights eroded faith in the government: with men of peace gunned down and the military fighting against unarmed citizens, strange, irrational violence was all too familiar.
One point at which polarized readings of Anthony Hecht’s “‘More Light! More Light!’” are produced concerns the character of the Pole. In an article titled “Comedy and Hardship,” Edward Hirsch writes of the Pole’s “impossible purity of action,” but Daniel Hoffman, in his essay “Our Common Lot,” makes a more controversial statement when he conjectures, “In the absence of the light of either Goethe’s humanism or the Word, the Pole’s refusal may suggest that he, like their Nazi captor, is too scornful of Jews to kill them himself.” Hoffman seems to be one of few, if not only, critics to hold out the possibility the Pole is an anti-Semite. Another focus of criticism fixes on the comparison between the death of the Christian heretic of the first three stanzas, and the death of the triad of two Jews and one Pole in the last five stanzas. One strand of this thread divides between those who think the situations comparable in gravity (“there is nothing new under the sun” writes Alicia Ostriker in an article titled “Millions of Strange Shadows: Anthony Hecht as Gentile and Jew”) and those reasoning that Jews and Pole suffer a worse fate than the heretic. Writing in The Explicator, Ellen Miller Casey sums up the case this way: “Hecht condemns not merely the infliction of pain but the destruction of the person—both victim and executioner. It is that destruction that makes the deaths in the German wood so much worse than the fiery death in the Tower.”
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer looks at how Hecht is able to respectfully contradict Adorno’s declaration, “After Auschwitz, no poetry.”
The twentieth century has been an epoch of horror in which the ability to seize the poetic in the unspeakable has become less and less a possibility. In a famous statement, critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno declared, “After Auschwitz, no poetry.” Indeed, it is remarkable that Anthony Hecht has found a way to express the horrors of this century in his own poetic forms; he was present at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and witnessed the atrocities first hand. He once commented that “the cumulative sense of these experiences is grotesque beyond anything I could possibly write.” In many ways, Hecht’s poetry—its blunt and courageous vision—faces the horrors of the world head on. His poems are not grotesques as much as they are confrontations of the terrible inhumanity that is the nightmare of history. For Hecht, writing is an act of courage because, as World War I poet Wilfred Owen suggested, the purpose of poetry is to bear witness and “the poetry is in the pity.” In an effort not to shock but to reveal, Hecht stretches the role of the observer and the chronicler to new extremes, because the observer/chronicler of poetry, a figure who could once muse upon pleasant prospects or great acts of achievement, must now testify to the realities of the world and convey those realities to the reader. In this aspect, “‘More Light! More Light!’” is a plea for a redefinition of the role of the poet—an eye-opening experience that begs the reader for greater scope.
In terms of poetic form, “‘More Light! More Light!’” is written in a stanza where only the second and fourth lines rhyme. This “delayed” rhyme and the extended meter of certain lines postpones the sense of lyric connection. Thus, the lyricism is still present, though strained and somehow twisted by the intervention of the delaying tactics of the irregular rhythms. Poetically, the form seems to suggest that the lyricism of poetry is still possible but that it is under an enormous pressure—that art itself is under an enormous pressure to contain and express the horrors of the poet’s discourse.
As a rhetorical structure, the poem moves through a series of stories. The first, the story of the execution of the Protestant martyr Latimer during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England, borrows from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs the horrific description of the bishop being burned at the stake in Oxford in 1555. Here we are meant to see the
What Do I Read Next?
- The anthology The Sixties Papers, edited by Judith and Stewart Albert, consists of documents and essays by the leading lights of the sixties (C. Wright Mills, Allen Ginsberg, Malcolm X, etc.) and on the leading struggles (antiwar, counterculture, feminist). The volume is introduced with an overview of the 1950s.
- Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism(1951) consists of three volumes: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. The volumes cannot be overpraised and are recognized as the definitive account of the philosophical origins of the totalitarian mind.
- Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1979), by Michel Foucault, presents a provocative study of how penal institutions became a part of everyday life. The book opens with a famous and graphic passage recounting an execution.
- Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, two of the major theorists of what became known as The Frankfurt School, wrote the group’s defining text, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which was first released in 1947. The text includes sections on mass media and on anti-Semitism.
- Elain Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985) is divided into three major subject areas: first, the difficulty of expressing physical pain; second, the political and perceptual complications arising as a result of that difficulty; and third, the nature of human creation. It is a highly original book.
death of the bishop as an act of faith, a martyrdom in the cause of belief. The painful consequences (“legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap / Bubbled and burst”) of being burned alive at the stake when the “sack of gunpowder” failed “to ignite” and lessen the Bishop’s suffering are mitigated, albeit just slightly, by the piety with which he suffers his death, howling for “the Kindly Light.”
“From Hecht’s point of view there must be poetry, for poetry is one of the few instruments humanity has at its disposal to respond to the horrors of meaninglessness and negation that have gripped the century.”
“Dignity” is something that is “pitiful,” though it is still dignity, and there is the underlying premise that suffering and death at least meant something in the savagery of the English Reformation. Latimer’s death is seen as a signal not only of courage but also of the power of belief to overcome “the worst,” so that “prayers in the name of Christ / Shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquility.” In the way he meets his death, Latimer becomes a symbol of courage, and his death has meaning.
Such is not the case in the second story Hecht tells. “We move now to outside a German wood,” Hecht tells his reader, as if the persona is the narrator in a documentary who is setting a shift in scene for the viewer. He recounts the story of the deaths of three men at the hands of the Nazis in a clearing near the Buchenwald concentration camp. The problem Hecht confronts in telling this story is that death is no longer a matter of belief, but simply an act of uncontrollable tyranny and sadism. When the Pole defies his oppressors and is ordered to trade places with the two Jews who are being buried alive, there is no grand or eloquent meaning beneath the act—it is merely a matter of courage and defiance in the face of evil. “No prayers or incense,” writes Hecht, “rose up in those hours / Which grew to be years …” The horrors of the twentieth century, the poet implies, are so massive and so universal that they are blanketed by a kind of indifference, an unanswerability where “mute / Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air, / … settled upon his eyes in a black soot.” Not only is the light of dignity extinguished in this modern world—there is an absence of spiritual meaning, the vacuum of which is impossible to fill.
Hecht tries to grasp the thin straw of civilization, the frail and tormented shards of what Freud called the “superego,” the cloak upon the minds of men and women that was created to protect us from our base instincts and our own destructiveness. He does so in the title of the poem, “‘More Light! More Light!’,” presumably the last words of the great German poet Wolfgang von Goethe. In works such as The Sorrows of Young Werther and Herman and Dorothea, Goethe attempted to show the individual as he or she grappled with the weight and the complexities of civilization, the purpose of man in nature, and the role of the human spirit in relation to the universe. In German literature, Goethe was the high point, the cultural zenith that became misplaced beneath the evolving militaristic tyranny that reached its apex under the Nazis. Weimar, the city closest to Buchenwald, was Goethe’s home. The irony in all of this is really Hecht’s attempts to show the breakdown of the superego in the twentieth century—the failure of civilization to save us from ourselves. And it is irony that Hecht uses as his most effective means of opening his reader’s eyes. He has commented that irony “provides a way of stating very powerful and positive emotions and of taking, as it were, the heaviest possible stance toward some catastrophe.”
That “heaviest stance” of which he speaks is found in the comparison between Goethe’s dying request for “more light” and the light that seems to disappear from “the blue Polish eye” in the moment when courage can no longer sustain the individual. In this world, death is not a signal to create icons or trigger “prayers,” but rather an act of callous indifference; yet it is the same experience suffered by Latimer. There are still the murderers and the victims. What has changed is the meaning of the deaths. In this, Hecht sounds a stern warning. What can civilization do to stop the process of inhumanity and victimization as well as to give back the modicum of dignity in which such deaths reinforced our values and our determination by providing us with some meaning?
The answer seems to be the poem itself. The poem and its frank address of such “grotesque” and horrific subject matter, its blunt language and eyewitness-style imagery, is meant to answer Adorno. From Hecht’s point of view there must be poetry, for poetry is one of the few instruments humanity has at its disposal to respond to the horrors of meaninglessness and negation that have gripped the century. Hecht fears that “Much casual death has drained away their souls,” that the aesthetics of violence, as suggested by such critics as A. Alvarez in his famous essay “The New Poetry or Against the Gentility Principle,” will either acclimatize us to horror or awaken in us a revulsion to it. The poet must believe the latter. Hecht, a poet whose craftsmanship and care with his verses belie a courageous belief in the power of civilization, offers the poem as one of the few valid responses to the twentieth century. What is amazing is that in this vision of inhumanity there is still the possibility of lyricism, there is still that rhyme in every second line that is neither trivial nor trite but which speaks of the last few straws we have to grasp in our arsenal of answers to the forces of negation. The title, Goethe’s request for light in the face of interminable darkness, is actually a cry for poetry—a cry that Hecht answers with honesty, even courage, to confront that which is least poetic on its own harsh terms and to answer it with the faint hope of music in silence and light in darkness.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
David Caplan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. In the following essay, Ca-plan considers “‘More Light! More Light!’” in the context of other writing about the Holocaust.
“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” cultural critic Theodor Adorno declared. Indeed, the Holocaust caused many to wonder about the value of culture, as Germany, one of the West’s most literate, well-educated countries, used its collective wisdom to murder large numbers of Jews, Gypsies, and other “undesirables.” Did lessons learned from the arts make the Germans into better murderers, not people? If so, poetry bore some of the blame for the carnage. Does it follow then that, as Adorno believed, “it has become impossible to write poetry today”?
Of course poets are disinclined to agree. However, even those who continue to compose poetry after Auschwitz find the Holocaust to be an uncomfortable subject for their art. To write about an event as awful as the Holocaust is to risk trivializing it. After all, a poem gives pleasure to both its writer and its readers. Pleasure, though, is the last emotion that a genocide should inspire.
Yet poets do write about the Holocaust, at least partly because its very awfulness demands remembrance. Among the many poems written on this subject is W. D. Snodgrass’s The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle, a series of lyrics from the perspectives of Nazi leaders such as Adolph Hitler,
“Indeed, the setting of ‘More Light! More Light!’ is crucial, as the depicted action transpires at both a concentration camp and a scene of great cultural achievement.”
Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Goering. In this sequence, Snodgrass, a contemporary American poet, attempts to understand Nazism by humanizing it—that is, by trying to imagine how people committed what seem to be such incomprehensibly evil acts.
Anthony’s Hecht’s “‘More Light! More Light!’” uses a different strategy. The poem’s title and dedications quickly signal its intentions. The title quotes the last words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s greatest poet. This allusion suggests how Hecht’s poem explores the close connections between German culture and the Holocaust. The dedication is to Henrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt, a couple who escaped the Nazi persecution by immigrating to America in 1941. The dedication to Arendt, a leading political philosopher, is particularly important. In addition to her 1951 study, Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. In this book, Arendt describes Eichmann, one of the executioners of Hitler’s “final solution,” not as an extraordinary person but as a rather common one. What strikes Arendt is (in her famous phrase) “the banality of evil.” Accordingly, Arendt argues against the very popular position that the Holocaust was unprecedented. Instead, she asserts the opposite, citing several examples of previous genocides.
Befitting its dedication, “‘More Light! More Light!’” clearly agrees with Arendt. The first three stanzas of the poem describe a sixteenth-century religious persecution whose horrors foreshadow the Holocaust’s. In the first three stanzas, Hecht lingers over the details of the executions. As a consequence, the poem gives a sense of the execution’s painfully slow progress, as the prisoner endures a prolonged death by fire. After a particularly gruesome image, “the black sap / Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light,” the poem’s speaker calmly notes, “And that was but one, and by no means of the worst.” Though the details might appall the reader, he or she should not forget that innumerable, similarly gruesome murderers also have taken place.
The poem continues this seemingly dispassionate tone in its transition, “We move now to outside a German wood.” The first three stanzas establish evil as a persistent theme in Western civilization; the poem’s last six stanzas detail this theme’s continued relevance. Indeed, despite the seeming casualness of this reference to “a German wood,” the wood in question is notable. The poem refers to “the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill,” indicating that the action takes place at Buchenwald, near Goethe’s home. As Eugen Kogon noted in The Theory and Practice of Hell, the book in which Hecht read of the incident that dominates this poem, “The location itself [of the camp] was symbolic. Weimar had long been regarded as the cultural heart of Germany, the one-time seat of the German classicists whose works lent the highest expression to the German mind. And here was Buchenwald, a piece of wilderness where the new German spirit culture was to unfold.” Indeed, the setting of “‘More Light! More Light!’” is crucial, as the depicted action transpires at both a concentration camp and a scene of great cultural achievement. In Kogon’s terms, here “the cultural heart of Germany” meets “the new German spirit.” Alluding to both, the poem implicitly raises the question I began this essay with: did the lessons learned from the arts make the Germans into better murderers, not people?
If the poem answers this complex question, it does so only through the series of negative propositions that dominate the second half of the poem. At the crucial moment when the Pole must decide whether or not to bury the Jews alive, the poem declares, “Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill / Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.” If this man enjoys moral illumination, it does not arrive from outside him but from within. To put this idea a little more bluntly, the symbols of European culture and religion—“the shrine at Weimar” and “heaven”—clarify nothing. Instead, the prisoner makes the courageous, honorable moral choice without help from these guiding moralities.
Of course, the poem’s bleak landscape punishes anyone who dares to act humanely. The negative propositions continue: “No light, no light in the blue Polish eye” and “No prayers or incense rose up.” The twin references to “no light, no light” ironically echo the poem’s title. In Goethe’s dying moments, he begged for “more light! more light!”; a little more than a century later, within a short walk from the poet’s former home, a fellow countryman displays an absolute lack of moral clarity. One might expect the expression of even slight remorse to pass across any human’s eyes as he kills another person. However, the poem explains that, “Much casual death had drained away their souls.” Diminished by the murders he has already committed and the others he has witnessed, the soldier mechanically performs his grim work.
The final stanzas are effective only if the reader anticipates a revelation. In other words, the poem works under the assumption that the reader longs for an insight to make sense of this apparently senseless waste of life. No such revelation occurs. In fact, the poem’s final stanza adamantly opposes the notion that any truth can give meaning to the Holocaust.
The poem conveys this idea in its last, cinematic movement. Like a camera panning from a close-up then back toward it, the poem broadens from the particular scene to the larger panorama of the soot-filled sky and then narrows to a final, haunting shot of the dead man’s “eyes in a black soot.” This last image offers no comfort. The corpse’s blank expression registers neither solace that he acted courageously nor a sense that his soul has found what the poem earlier calls “tranquility.”
Ultimately, this final image is so mysterious as to beg the question of what the poem ultimately believes about the issues it raises. In a sense, it resists simple answers to complicated questions. Or to put this idea into slightly more precise terms, the poem gives painful answers to painful questions. Set near Goethe’s home, “‘More Light! More Light’” implies that art helped create a climate fertile for Nazism. At the same time, the poem displays an impressive erudition, a vast historical knowledge, and an elegant command of language.
In the dark times “‘More Light! More Light!’” depicts, the punishments only get worse. While the Christian martyr perishes with a “pitiful dignity,” the Pole suffers his death without the consolations that a religious faith might offer. Literally, he dies without a prayer. It may be true that, as Adorno believed, “it has become impossible to write poetry.” Indeed, another of Hecht’s poems seems to concede this point: “The contemplation of horror is not edifying. / Neither does it strengthen the soul.” For precisely these reasons, though, “‘More Light! More Light!’” aspires to the Polish prisoner’s example. Like his faithless act of faith, the poem tries to edify and strengthen the soul while convinced that these goals are impossible.
Source: David Caplan, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in cinema studies. Hochman’s essay is a meditation on darkness and light—its different appearances and different meanings in the poem.
Anthony Hecht’s “‘More Light! More Light!’” is a poem about darkness and light. The poem’s first story involves a man (a heretic, according to Hecht) confined to the dark of the Tower of London who will be burned at the stake. As the prisoner writes his poetry, a kind of light is produced by the heat of thought and sense, perhaps even the fire of passion. The light of versification, even if dim, will lighten this man’s load and tell him something about himself, tell us something about him, and tell both him and us something about the world. In other words, what might result is illumination if the poem approaches accuracy, or obfuscation (from the Latin obfuscare, to darken) if avoiding it. The verses are submitted to those officiating the execution—under the light of the public eye—so that officials are less able to deny that the verses were written and presented, and so there is better chance the heretic’s words will reach the “light of day.” The heretic also declares himself to be free of criminality, to not have darkened the word of God, whose first words, according to the Bible’s book of Genesis, were “Let there be light.” Now the heretic is to have his light put out by fire, the source of light. The fire is a reminder to those who would oppose the regime. The execution, while meant to look horrific, is not supposed to be too drawn out or look overly cruel. The victim was often, therefore, given a sack of gunpowder to wear around his neck to speed death. Hecht read about deaths like these in The Actes and Monuments of John Foxe, first published in English in 1563 and popularly known as The Book of Martyrs. This enormous multivolume work is a history of the Christian Church from the earliest times, but with special reference to the sufferings of the Christian martyrs, particularly those of Mary Tudor’s Catholic reign (1553-58). It is estimated that some 300 heretics were executed in these years. Of the many deaths described, Hecht said he was thinking especially of Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester. According to Foxe’s work, Bishop Latimer died quickly, but Bishop Ridley did not, because the fire was badly built and did not rise high enough to ignite the sack of gunpowder around his neck. In his poem, Hecht writes that Ridley shouted for the “Kindly Light,” words taken from an 1883 hymn by Cardinal Newman and referring to a light issuing from heaven, from God. Just before dying, La-timer had told Ridley: “Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as I trust shall never be put out.”
Hecht now edits us through time and space: from Renaissance England to what some suppose to be the end of the Enlightenment—Nazi Germany. The end of the Enlightenment, then, is a moral darkness descending over Europe and over the mostly proud reputation humanity had bestown upon itself. While Hecht’s German scene could have—for maximum effect or at the risk of overkill—taken place at night or in a cave to highlight the darkness, the scene does take place in the forest, a shaded place commonly associated with fear and intellectual/ moral darkness. This incident, Hecht says, came from Eugen Kogon’s The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. The scene of this peculiarly sadistic proceeding is, we know from Kogon, outside the concentration camp of Buchenwald. Weimar was home to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), whose legendary last words appear as the title of Hecht’s poem. Goethe was a man of the Enlightenment, one of the great German figures, who now has a museum (the “shrine at Weimar”) dedicated to him at Weimar. A writer of prose and verse, Goethe was a dilettante scientist who for many years studied light. About light, Goethe made a statement with the whole history of humankind behind it, a kind of cliché: “Light and darkness wage constant war with one another.” In his research into light and color, his enemy was Sir Issac Newton (1642-1727) probably the most famous scientist prior to Einstein and author of the spectrum theory of color. Goethe, against Newton, argued that before color there is light and darkness, each of them unified and homogeneous like the undiluted light of God and the unmitigated evil of Satan. Darkness, while opposed to light, is also its indispensable partner. For Goethe, color issued from light split or broken by a prism; light, however, was not composed of color. Goethe’s theory of color as discussed in his Farbenlehre (1810) is arguably far more an issue of metaphysical ideologies than physics but what is crucial here is how important his research was to him:
[Goethe] has gone to great pains. For this single work [the Farbenlehre] he has read, or thumbed through, more books and journals than in the whole of the rest of his life put together. He has made endless experiments, with the spiteful prism, with lenses and coloured pieces of glass, with plants, candles and mirrors. He has also cast his eyes about him, and to such observations we owe his most valuable results. For eighteen years he has worked on the book and now, under pressure of war and upheaval, it has to go to the printer, in two thick volumes of over thirteen hundred pages and a third volume of plates, the bulkiest work Goethe ever published. Even this was only a fragment, and was meant to be continued. He calls it Zur Farbenlehre, a contribution to the theory of colours, and he divides it into three parts: a didactic, a polemic, devoted to his battle against Bal Isaak [a devilish, false prophet conflated with Newton], and an historic.
Not only do we have Goethe’s passion about light reported by a biographer, but by Goethe himself:
“I do not pride myself in the least on any of my poetic achievements. There have been excellent poets in my time, there were still more excellent ones before me and there will be again after me. But that I am the only one in my century to know the true solution to the difficult science of the theory of colours—on this I do pride myself, and because of it I have a consciousness of superiority over many people.”
The light the Pole did not see coming from Goethe’s Weimar, nor issuing from heaven, is very similar because Goethe’s undivided light is inspired by the light from God. The Pole can be said to have refused to kill the Jews because of an inner light— a light signifying moral resolve, passion, and hatred of the Nazi soldier. Yet out of the numerous concentration camp incidents reported by Kogon, why did Hecht select this one? One answer is that this incident involved live burial: an eradication of light, the absolute opposite to death by burning, which is an overpresence of light. After the Pole is subjected to partial live burial, the light flees his eyes. By reading Kogon’s account, we know this meant the courage—the inner light—had disappeared from the Pole to such a point he could now inflict darkness on the Jews; after all, were they not willing to do the same to him? So the Pole buries the two Jews. Here we must refer back to Kogon since Hecht now alters the telling. In Kogon’s work, the Pole disappears from the story once he has buried the Jews, and the implication is that he lives. On the other hand, the Jews are, after about five minutes, ordered dug up again by prisoners. One Jew, whose face is cut by a spade, is already dead; the other is barely alive. The Nazi detail leader sends them both to the crematory. Kogon’s story seems darker than Hecht’s, since the Pole survived by losing his courage and committing murder. But Hecht denies the Pole any redemption by having him killed for “letting” his inner light be snuffed: because the Pole killed (at gunpoint), Hecht has him executed. Hecht doles out severe justice, whereas, in Kogon, no justice is to be found. Recall the statue of blindfolded Justice, and the saying, “Justice is blind.” Justice works without light to the extent that all people, Jew or Gentile, attain equal treatment. The Pole dies because he “murdered” the Jews, just as the Jews had to die for their willingness to kill the Pole. Some critics have said the Pole is a kind of Christ figure since he is buried, resurrected, and takes three hours to die like the three days it took Christ to come alive. Of course, if the Pole is comparable to Christ, it is for the sake of contrast, since the Pole, once resurrected, dies and saves no one. Symbolically then, Hecht has constructed a dark poem of ruthlessly cruel, blind justice.
Hecht is not through with darkness; he has one stanza left to make his final statement. Whereas the heretic had received the benefit of prayers and was burned in a type of sacrificial act, the Pole’s death occurs without plea and is not perpetrated in the name of God. The Pole’s death is utterly empty, without meaning. The smoke and soot from the ovens at nearby Buchenwald do not waft toward heaven—as some Nazi ideologues, thinking they were doing God’s work, might have hoped—but instead settle on and fully extinguish whatever light the Pole once had. Thus, the descending smoke of the crematory hovers over the earth in a ghostly light. Hecht’s poem is also a ghost—fleeting light composed of shadow haunting the lightness of prosperity and optimism. His black words on a white page light a candle, one illuminating religious doctrines based upon the (proper) light of God’s word and racial beliefs based upon the purity of light skin, showing these ideologies for what they are: darkness posing as light.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Adorno, Theodor, Prisms, translated by Samuel and Sherry Weber, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981, p. 34.
Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (revised and enlarged edition), New York: Penguin Books, 1964.
Brown, Ashley, “The Poetry of Anthony Hecht,” Ploughshares, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1978, pp. 9-24.
Brown, Jane, “Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 94: German Writers in the Age of Goethe: Sturm und Drang to Classicism, Detroit: Gale Research, 1990, pp. 46-67.
Casey, Ellen Miller, “Hecht’s ‘More Light! More Light!’” The Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 2, winter 1996, pp. 113-15.
German, Norman, Anthony Hecht, New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Hecht, Anthony, Collected Earlier Poems, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, p. 43.
Hecht, Anthony, The Hard Hours, New York: Atheneum, 1967.
Hirsch, Edward, “Comedy and Hardship,” The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht, edited by Sydney Lea, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1972.
Hoffman, Daniel, “Our Common Lot,” The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, edited by Daniel Hoffman, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
Kogon, Eugen, The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them, translated by Heinz Norden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976, New York: Octagon Books, 1979.
Lea, Sydney, ed., The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.
McClatchy, J.D., “The Art of Poetry XXXX: Anthony Hecht,” Paris Review, Vol. 30, fall 1988, pp. 161-205.
Ostriker, Alicia, “Millions of Strange Shadows: Anthony Hecht as Gentile and Jew,” The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989, pp. 97-105.
Snodgrass, W. D., The Fuehrer Bunker: The Complete Cycle, Brockport, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1995.
Friedenthal, Richard, Goethe: His Life and Times, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963.
Freidenthal’s 530-page biography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) includes a chronology and an excellent index. Although Freidlander discusses Goethe’s research into light at length, he makes no account of Goethe’s legendary dying words.
Hecht, Anthony, Obbligati: Essays on Criticism, New York: Atheneum, 1986.
Hecht, Anthony, On the Laws of the Poetic Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
This is the publication (with very little change) of the A.W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The lectures include those about poetry’s relation to painting and music, and art’s relation to nature and morality.
Sayres, Sohnya, Anders Stephanson, et. al., eds., The 60s Without Apology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
This anthology is a leftist’s guide to the period and includes essays by distinguished critics, such as Fredric Jameson, Stanley Aronowitz, and Cornel West.