Anthony Hecht, who died Wednesday at the age of 81, was often described as courtly and elegant, both in his person and his poetry.
He wore beautifully cut suits, spoke with meticulous precision and practiced the gentlemanly manners of a better age than ours. He could quote Shakespeare at will -- and W.H. Auden (about whom he wrote a superb study), and Elizabeth Bishop, and George Herbert, or virtually any poet of merit in English. He also greatly enjoyed wit and literary gossip, and at his lively Washington dinner parties, presided over by his beloved wife, Helen, one might find distinguished classicists, famous writers and critics, noted scholars and mere journalists. Tony Hecht possessed not only a gift for poetry but also an equal one for friendship.
He seems to have known everyone in the literary world. During conversations -- we met in 1982, shortly after he became the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress -- I learned that he had been in school with Jack Kerouac, been friends with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon. As the years passed, he would frequently send me meticulously typed notes about my weekly reviews in Book World, praising some but even more often gently pointing to factual errors or mistakes in judgment. Anthony Hecht believed in criticism as the correction of taste, and he helped correct mine.
That generosity of spirit can be found in all his writing. Much of his oeuvre -- and the old word seems right in his case -- takes the form of homage. He translated Aeschylus, Horace, Goethe and Baudelaire, composed elegies for departed friends such as the poets James Merrill and Joseph Brodsky, and regularly evoked in verse the sensual heat and beauty of the Italy he visited throughout his life:
This is Italian. Here
Is cause for the undiminished bounce
Of sex, cause for the lark, the animal spirit
To rise, aerated, but not beyond our reach, to spread
Friction upon the air, cause to sing loud for the bed
Of jonquils, the linen bed, and established merit
Of love, and grandly to pronounce
Pleasure without peer.
-- From "The Gardens
of the Villa d'Este"
Pleasure without peer -- that might describe the experience of reading Hecht. His poems are never half-finished or rough-hewn; they are shaped, carefully molded, almost chiseled in their concordant, harmonious beauty. They can be stylishly literary, whether alluding to Byron's love for animals ("a menage that was a menagerie") or deftly parodying -- in that anthology standard, "The Dover Bitch" -- Matthew Arnold's most celebrated lyric. Yet Hecht might also write about his experiences as a soldier in World War II, or the Holocaust, or even generate a suite of poems about death. Certainly no one is better at showing us "long inventories of miseries unspoken, / appointment books of pain, / attars of love gone rancid, / the pitcher broken / At the fountain" (from "Circles").
Still, Hecht can also celebrate, in one of several beautiful late poems about his wife, "a quarter century of faultless love." This isn't surprising, for although Hecht is properly regarded as a master of the high style, of a classical tact and delicacy, few modern poets can write more sensuously, more gorgeously. Consider these lines from "The Deodand," which depict Parisian women pretending to be harem girls in a painting by Delacroix or Ingres:
The scene simmers with Paris and women in heat,
Darkened and airless, perhaps with a faint hum
Of trapped flies, and a strong odor of musk.
For whom do they play at this hot indolence
And languorous vassalage? They are alone
With fantasies of jasmine and brass lamps,
Melons and dates and bowls of rose-water,
A courtyard fountain's firework blaze of prisms,
Its basin sown with stars and poissons d'or,
And a rude stable smell of animal strength,
Of leather thongs, hinting of violations,
Swooning lubricities and lassitudes.
Lest this seem a mere Orientalist fantasy, "The Deodand" then shifts to a horrible vision of the torture meted out during the Algerian war to a young French legionnaire, who is mutilated and made to beg for his food -- while dressed in women's clothes as Marianne, the symbol of hated France. One distorting myth replaces another.
For all his intensity and elegiac vision, Hecht is nonetheless often quietly deliciously wry. Sometimes the humor is fairly learned, as in such titles as "The Hanging Gardens of Tyburn" (Tyburn being the site of public executions) and the punning "Le Masseur de Ma Soeur," or in the amazingly complicated light verse form called the double dactyl, which he helped invent. In one poem, Hecht's protagonist neatly describes a painting of Jesus: "Behind / The altar He appears / Two fingers raised / In benediction, in what seems two-thirds / Of the Boy Scout salute, wishing us well."
Over the years, Anthony Hecht received numerous awards for his work, including the Pulitzer Prize. He presented the distinguished Bollingen Lectures at the National Gallery (gathered together as "On the Laws of the Poetic Art"), and he taught for many years at the University of Rochester and then at Georgetown until his retirement in 1993. He was honored by his peers, was a mentor to the young and was an exemplary man of letters and a teacher. But he was, above all, an irreplaceable poet, and readers everywhere will mourn his passing even as they celebrate his lasting, permanent achievement.