More Light! More Light!

Joshua Charlson: On "More Light! More Light!"

In "More Light, More Light!" and "Rites and Ceremonies," two poems from The Hard Hours (1968) that deal directly with the consequences of the Shoah, Hecht's lyric voice is neither that of the objective historian nor the subjectively striving voice of individual expression; somewhere in between, Hecht's speakers are both lecteurs describing events in history and individual personas implicated in the traumatic history unfolding before them. Like the narrator of "Behold the Lilies of the Field," who in a dream is "made to watch" the torture of the emperor Valerian, Hecht's Holocaust poems share a state of what Peter Sacks calls "enforced witnessing," that of an individual who is impelled, for reasons reaching beyond his own comprehension, to stare at and perhaps make sense of atrocity. Yet Hecht does not restrict his historical view to the Shoah alone; both of the poems I consider here connect the atrocities of the Nazis to persecutions farther back in history. Indeed, Hecht's sense of continuity and repetition in history, closely connected to the much-remarked-on formalism of his poetry, distinguishes him from most of the other poets treated in this chapter (and from most American writers of the Holocaust). Hecht's poems provide a particularly useful test-case for the problematics of lyric and the Holocaust, for Hecht seems in many ways the prototypical poet's poet, one who places a high esteem on the aesthetic properties of poetry. Yet his poems avoid a merely solipsistic subjectivism; they insist instead that the lyric is historical, that aesthetics need not mean an escape from history but instead are very much implicated in history, yet still capable of providing insight into it

"More Light! More Light!", whose title comes from the words attributed to Goethe at his death, juxtaposes two events: the execution of a heretic in the Middle Ages and the live burial of three Jews "outside a German wood" in wartime. Hecht's voice in the poem is level and somewhat detached but clearly present, unlike the consciousness of Reznikoff's poems. The poem in fact begins in a clipped style that elides the identity of the implied pronoun referred to in the first quatrain:

 

Composed in the Tower before his execution

These moving verses, and being brought at that time

Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:

"I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime." (64).

 

The identifying "he" appears in the next line, but the reader has already been jarred by the sudden immersion into the description of an execution bereft of historical context or identifiable personage. The next stanza describes the grisly nature of the primitive execution. While I do not quite agree with Edward Hirsch's assertion that the tone of the poem is "documentary," certainly some lines—such as the following—attain an extremely prosaic and descriptive quality: "Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible, / The sack of gunpowder failing to ignite" (the words "horrible" and "sack" deflating the more elevated diction of "forsaken of courage"). Similarly, the later scene, "In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down / And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole," is notable for its lack of outward outrage or commentary (64). The largely twelve-syllable or longer lines allow Hecht to achieve this slightly more prosaic level of utterance while still maintaining a sense of gravity; the more regular pattern of pentameter would lend the quatrains a too-restricting formality, potentially emphasizing the aesthetics over the subject matter.

One of the most striking moments of the poem is the transition from the earlier historical atrocity to the more recent one, unambiguously signalled by the single sentence, "We move now to outside a German wood" (64). The voice here is that perhaps of the history teacher, briskly and unapologetically moving his class from one example to the next. Yet if it is a history teacher, the presumed guide offers no critical apparatus, no commentary, no explanation for the specific choice of these two examples. Why does Hecht intrude with this strange stage direction? It seems to me a necessary moment in the poem. The objective tone of the poem is only a fiction, of course, and this line reminds the reader that a "we" does exist—that the poem is not simply a recital of two possibly analogous historical episodes, but presumes a compact between the poet and his readers, a potential for ethical judgment beyond the pointedly non-ethical confines of the poem's narrated action.

The scene in the German wood constitutes a total upheaval of normative expectations. The upheaval consists not merely in the pointlessly cruel command (as in most of Reznikoff’s Holocaust) to bury the Jews alive, but in the Pole's refusal at first to commit the act, followed by the Jews' apparent willingness to do so after "He was ordered to change places with the Jews." "Much casual death had drained away their souls," Hecht writes, apparently accounting for the Jews' action here, and the episode concludes inevitably with the German's reversal of the command once again, and the Pole's carrying out of the murder this time, only to be shot to death himself.

The poem ends with the grotesque image of the Pole's eyes being covered with ashes from the crematoria, continuing the imagery of light, eyes, and sightlessness that appears throughout the poem:

 

No prayers or incense rose up in those hours

Which grew to be years, and every day came mute

Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air,

And settled upon his eyes in a black soot. (65)

 

The shutting off of the Pole's vision with the remains of Jewish victims might be taken as a statement about the Pole's blindness to the humanity of the Jews he has helped kill, a blindness already suggested in the line, "No light, no light in the blue Polish eye" (64). But the Pole nevertheless seems a strange figure to make an example of, for he seems almost as much a victim himself as an oppressor. Where is the German (referred to, as Hirsch points out, only metonymically as a "Luger") in all this? And how is the reader to make sense of the movement from the execution of the heretic in the first three stanzas to the more fully narrated murder of the last five?

Peter Sacks suggests that "We become horribly implicated in this poem, beyond merely wondering 'what would we have done?' For if we are somehow made to witness the events, we also survive them—in the company of the only other survivor, the Nazi killer." (91) Yet such a reading of the poem makes central the liminal figure of the German, rather than the Pole who receives most of the attention. (Indeed, it is the Jews who seem the least recognizable figures in the poem, referred to only impersonally and in the plural, perhaps already close to death.) We still must ask why Hecht asks us to identify with the perpetrators here.

One must return, I think, to the title and its implications about the desire or need for light, from Goethe's perspective not simply the literal light that means one is living but the metaphorical light of humanism, enlightenment, moral awakening. And here the connection between the two historical episodes becomes clearer. For it is not a simple analogy that Hecht draws between religious persecution in two different eras (indeed, even the parallel of religious persecution is tenuous, for Jewish belief was hardly an issue for the Nazis, as it was for the Christian inquisitors), but an analogy marked by a significant divergence related to the question of light. For the religious sufferer of the first part, the "Kindly Light" exists as a possibility; the "tranquility" of his soul may be imagined in the face of his torture only because "the name of Christ" still carries that power.

In the latter event, however, light has been thoroughly extinguished. The repetitions of "Not light" and "Nor light" that begin lines 16 and 17, and the phrase "No light, no light" (negatively echoing Goethe's cry) in line 24 establish figuratively what is borne out in the action narrated: that for all parties involved in the Holocaust, any notion of a redeeming light must be dismissed. To the contrary, the poem can be viewed as a repudiation of Goethe's idealistic hope; his Germany has produced the very opposite of the light he so fervently desired. The utter dehumanization of Pole, German, and Jew in this poem attests to a determinedly non-redemptive historical reading on the part of Hecht. Moreover, the poem puts into question the reader's own ability to "see" the events being transcribed. To what extent, the poem challenges us, has our own line of vision been stripped of any capacity to witness atrocity in a compassionate way? From this angle, the Pole may indeed be the appropriate analogue for the American reader, for both nationalities have been called "bystanders" to the Holocaust. The ostensible exculpability of being a bystander, however, is severely undermined when associated with the actions of the Pole—or, more broadly, the many European bystanders who through inaction allowed mass murder to occur. The rigor of Hecht's formal skill does not aestheticize pain in this poem; it does, however, place into tension the restraining qualities of the formal arrangement and the chaotic and violent subject matter bubbling beneath. The simplicity of the form here works in the poem's favor, producing a dynamic tension without calling attention to itself.

Peter Sacks: On "More Light! More Light!"

"More Light! More Light!" enacts the multiplication of historical agony . . . and it does so within a repetitive structure of commands whose totalitarian rigor becomes yet another image of fate itself. The strict quatrains with their ballad rhyme-scheme reinforce this by their allusion to narratives of unavoidable fatality. And once again, the poem has a ritual quality, for it describes savage ceremonies of execution and entombment, the last of which even involves a grotesque kind of game. As the German officer orders the Pole to bury the two Jews alive, then reverses the order after the Pole’s refusal only to reverse it yet again and finally to kill all three, he is degrading their very desire for survival. And the poem itself plays against our desire that at least someone survive the transaction. We become horribly implicated in this poem, beyond merely wondering "what would we have done?" For if we are somehow made to witness the events, we also survive them—in the company of the only other survivor, the Nazi killer. It is this manner in which Hecht has trapped himself and his readers within the uncanny association of narrator-observer, survivor, and killer that most thoroughly seals the darkness of the poem and enforces the most despairing vision of the relation between poetry and the bearing of historical witness.

This time, there is no question of prayer. In the earlier execution, centuries ago, the spectators prayed for the victim's soul, their prayers more than ironized as the dying man "howled for the Kindly Light." In the later scene "No prayers or incense rose up" as the Pole lay bleeding to death. In a literal sense within the poem there were no witnesses (least of all, God!); or if we have been somehow "present," the unavailability of any offered forms of response leaves us arrested in a frozen silence so mute as to render us almost absent. Perhaps this is the ghostly position most of us occupy in relation to the historical events around us. If we resist association with the killer, perhaps in our muteness we should recognize our similarity to the only final attendants on the corpse: "every day came mute / Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air, / And settled upon his eyes in a black soot."

Edward Hirsch: On "More Light! More Light!"

In the ethical cosmology of The Hard Hours there is little room for heroism. …Think of the parable of the Pole and the two Jews in "More Light! More Light!" It serves as the book’s most bracing example – and it is an example – of the way that "casual death" drains away the soul and barbarism dehumanizes its victims. Those victims are not even permitted a "pitiful dignity." The language of the poem is steady and neutral, even documentary, the outrage distanced, the riveting story told without much commentary:

[Hirsch quotes the poem]

In this bleak twentieth century exemplum, heroism is unrewarded and suffering is neither redemptive nor tracendental. It doesn’t signify. The Pole acts humanely (and without any sign higher than his own conscience) and yet he suffers a death as slow and brutal as that of his victims, the Jews who have already lost their souls and now lose their lives, too. The dehumanization is complete – even the guard is metonymically identified only as his "Luger." There are no mourners or saviors in this poem. There is only the relentless stripping certainty of the death camps. And the eventual passing of time. The Goethean ideal of light has been replaced by the banal darkness of evil. Humanism, like the Age of Reason – is effectively over.

Daniel Hoffman: On "More Light! More Light!"

… At times Hecht’s dramatic lyrics armored in biblical allusions remind one of the diction and vehemence of [Robert] Lowell ("These yes, which many have praised as gay, / Are the stale jellies of lust in which Adam sinned"). But in poems that dramatize the hard hours of his generation’s history, Hecht speaks with a tragic irony that is his own unmistakeable voice. "More Light! More Light! plays out against the implications of Goethe’s dying cry two episodes from history: the burning at the stake of an accused heretic in the Middle Ages, and this:

[Hoffman quotes the two stanzas before the last.]

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. As for them, "Much casual death had drained their souls away," and they obey the order to bury the Pole. But then the Nazi makes them dig him out and get back in. The gravity of Hecht’s quatrains molds this fable of "casual death" as unassuageable, without transcendence.

Measured Chaos: Form in Anthony Hecht’s “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek”

When I see a Holocaust poem which is rhymed and/or metered, I am reminded of an anecdote about the Polish fiction writer and poet, Tadeusz Borowski. When he was first arrested by the Nazis, he was detained in a holding cell in nearly perfect isolation and without pen or paper to write. In order to pass the time, Borowski composed poems in his head, counting off the meter by pacing back and forth in his small cell. Isn’t this the classic image of the poet using his art to combat adversity? I am hesitant to turn it into an academic exercise, but there is something critically inviting about that detail of his composing metered—that is, regulated and controlled—verse to combat his external lack of control and the chaos his world had become.

There is an immediate conclusion one might come to. The poet creates some semblance of order in a world which no longer does. That is likely a part of the impetus (conscious or unconscious) to write formalist verse in the face of chaos, whether it is the chaos of genocidal violence or that other, more common, human chaos. Even though Anthony Hecht did not suffer detainment at the hand of the Nazis as Borowski did, his poems “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek” raise similar questions about the ordering of human chaos with poetic form, as well as certain other questions about the aestheticization of the Holocaust.

Let’s look first at “The Book of Yolek.” The sestina is a famously difficult form, often considered the most difficult, especially when one adds, as Hecht has here, the further constraint of meter. It is also often considered a showy form, one that is used to prove a poet’s mastery more than anything else. I would argue, however, that in this context, the rhetorical effect is quite different. The sestina’s reputation of showiness is precisely due to how difficult it is to write even a passable one. And again, Hecht adds meter to his versifying burden, thus making his effort all the more difficult. Here, the effort strikes me as respectful, almost as if Hecht is suggesting that writing about such material should not be easy—not in terms of content, of course, but also not at the level of form.

The poem also refuses the neatness form can give a subject matter, almost as if Hecht is additionally suggesting that while it should be difficult, it should not be clean and overly organized; not contained and utterly understood. For example, in stanza 6, line 4, we get an anapest, an iamb, an anapest, a trochee, and an iamb.  So, of the five feet, only two are iambs, meaning a majority of the line is not strict iambic pentameter (though it is pentametric, so it still attains the aforementioned ordering effect to a certain degree). This is set in notable opposition to the opening line of the poem, which neatly has five iambs. There are only a few other strictly iambic lines in the poem. One worth noting is the first line of stanza three—“The fifth of August, 1942.”  Is Hecht mirroring the precision of the date with the precision of his meter? I would argue that, at least in part, this mirroring of form and information is the effect we should see in the line.

“More Light! More Light!” is written in a less demanding poetic form, rhymed quatrains, but many of the same concerns obtain in this poem as do in the more formally complex “The Book of Yolek.” Hecht, widely admired as a virtuoso of form, purposely “messes up” his meter in both of these poems (and, given the many perfectly metered poems Hecht has published, it would be almost insulting to think this were mere error on his part). Writing about the Holocaust should be difficult, and damned difficult, he seems to be saying, but we must not delude ourselves that any perfect rendering of this material is possible. Also, I’d argue, this disruption of perfect meter is purposefully done in order to avoid putting a too perfect aesthetic veneer on such material.

Moving away from issues of form to issues of content, “More Light! More Light!” (supposedly Goethe’s dying words) is a title that invites multiple readings. Hecht is perhaps being ironic by using the dying phrase of the greatest German literary figure in a poem about the greatest German atrocity. Goethe was famously an avid humanist, an accomplished scientist, and a masterful writer. We could therefore see a dark irony in how far the German people had fallen from its ideal man, Goethe, to its most heinous man, Hitler. Another possible reading of the title is that it is an indictment of Goethe’s Enlightenment thought. Many consider Enlightenment thinking as the progenitor of the Holocaust, and so the irony of quoting Goethe would be quite different here. It’s not that Germany (or Europe) fell from some lofty height, but rather that the barbarism of the Nazis was always-already present in the humanitarian Reason of the Enlightenment. Yet one more useful reading is worth considering: Perhaps one of the poem’s messages is that Enlightenment humanism died with the Holocaust, just as Goethe died, and that the call for more light is in vain, as it was for Goethe. I am not concerned here with endorsing any of the above possible readings, but rather offer them as productive possibilities for reading the poem.

In closing, I want to return to my earlier point about the effort to battle chaos with artistic form. This makes immediate sense in the case of someone who experienced the Holocaust (or some other trauma), but in what ways is the rhetorical-aesthetic stance of someone who did not experience the Holocaust different in respect to form? Is it the subject matter that demands we try to re-order the universe, or is it the experience that demands it? Do both require it, but in different ways and with different ethical concerns? We could doubtless offer several answers to these questions, but no matter how we answer them, I maintain that they are among the questions that must be considered in regard to formal poetry and the representation of trauma.