The Parodies And Narratives Of Atrocity Of

Anthony Hecht Essay, Research Paper

The Parodies and Narratives of Atrocity of Anthony Hecht

Anthony Hecht, a past Pulitzer Prize winning poet and a former United States Poet Laureate, is arguably one of America’s best poets of the post-modern era. Born in 1923, he rose to literary prominence in the 1950s and 1960s with the publication of two books A Summoning of Stones (1954) and The Hard Hours (1967). In his writing, he uses wit to create a situation for parody and uses irony in his “narratives of atrocity” (Hecht, Vol. 19 209).

Anthony Hecht’s poetry is renowned for its examples of parody that are all creations of his “classical erudition and wit” (Hecht, Vol. 19 207). He attempts to show the contrast between artistic, false views of life and harsh reality through witty parody as seen in “Nominalism” and “The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life”(Hecht, Vol. 19 207). The wit provides poetry with strong, underlying meaning as seen in “Nominalism:”


Juliet Capulet

Cherished the tenderest

Thoughts of a rose:

“What’s in a name?” said she,


“Save that all Montagues

Stink in God’s nose.” (Readings)

Hecht creates parody in this piece by recounting a dramatic scene with a knowledgeable and humorous approach to the literature. The parody of Juliet Capulet’s famous line in Romeo and Juliet

with such precision and craft as to fit both the meter and the classic Shakespearean language provides an example of Hecht’s use of wit to create a parody (Hecht, Vol. 8 269). Hecht uses wit and parody in a similar manner in “The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life” which is a parody of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The tragic vision presented in the “The Dover Bitch” is of stark contrast to the romantic and idealistic vision of “Dover Beach” (Brown 121). Here Hecht shows through the use of wit the falsehood of Arnold’s beautiful yet unrealistic poem. “Dover Beach” ends with Arnold explaining to his girl that the only sure thing in this world is their relationship:

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. (Arnold 648)

Arnold’s belief in the relationship of himself and this girl while stating that it is more stable than anything else in the world allows Hecht an easy avenue for criticism of Arnold’s belief. Consequently, Hecht’s poem begins with lines that convey the harsh reality that nothing in the world will last and especially not the love between two people (Brown 121):

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 to you, for things are bad

All over, etc., etc.” (Hecht, “The Dover Bitch” 1632)

In the same manner that Hecht employs wit and parody, he also employs irony and “narratives of atrocity” (Hecht, Vol. 19 209). Four poems “Birdwatchers of America,” “More Light! More Light!,” “The Vow,” and “Christmas is Coming” are the finest examples of this type of Hechtian poetry. “Birdwatchers of America” utilizes irony to create twists in the poem in its use of a dove as the bird that pecks out the eyes of a dead man (Hecht, “Birdwatchers of America” 1072). This use of the dove, typically a bird that represents peace, displays the role irony plays in Hecht’s works:

It’s all very well to dream of a dove that saves,

Picasso’s or the Pope’s,

The one that annually coos in Our Lady’s ear

Half of the world’s hopes…

For instance, the woman next door, whom we hear at night,

Claims that when she was small

She found a man stone dead near the cedar trees

After the first snowfall.

The air was clear. He seemed in ultimate peace

Except that he had no eyes. Rigid and bright

Upon the forehead, furred

With a light frost, crouched an outrageous bird. (Hecht, “Birdwatchers of America” 1072-1073)

The dove is first described as being a creature of divine inspiration serving as both a muse to artists and the Christian church, but the expected “positive” ending is thwarted by the horrific and ironic picture of a dove sitting upon the forehead of a man missing his eyes. A bird that possesses a positive connotation pecks out a man’s eyes. Having a dove act in such a manner creates the irony Hecht seeks in this poem (Hecht, Vol. 19 210). “More Light! More Light!” also employs irony in order to convey its “narrative of atrocity” (Hecht, Vol. 19 209). A Pole working at Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp, is shot for refusing to dig a grave for two Jews.

No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.

When he finished a riding boot packed down the earth.

The Luger hovered lightly in its glove.

He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.

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. (Hecht, “More Light!” 1073-1074”)

On the surface, his lack of a proper burial represents the lack of resolution in the conflict of World War II. However, it more deeply connotes Hecht’s continual theme of man’s inhumanity to his fellow humans as well as the destruction of humanity. The irony stems from the fact that the only burial he received came from the soot from the ovens used to burn the Jews.

“The Vow” is a disturbing poem that relates the narrative of a father’s conversation with his recently miscarried child (Hecht, Vol. 19 207). The image of the bloody, formless child speaks to the father, and the child’s comments establish the irony that shows the “narrative of atrocity:” “Mourn rather for all/Who breathlessly issue from the bone gates,/The gates of horn,/For truly it is best of all the fates/Not to be born” (Hecht, “The Vow” 726). The child presents the view that never living is the best fate which depicts Hecht’s view that “pain and grief mix so homogeneously with the stuff of existence that we may assume their omnipresence” (Hecht, Vol 13. 269). Finally, “Christmas is Coming” is a poem reflective of Hecht’s time spent in the Army during World War II. Hecht develops irony in this piece by alluding to the old Christmas carol that states “Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat./Please put a penny in the Old Man’s hat” (Brown 118). Hecht in his poem uses brutal imagery to convey the harsh situation that existed for the soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge:

Must find out thistles to remember pain.

Keep to the frozen ground or else be killed.

Yet crawling one encounters in the dark

The frosty carcasses of birds, their feet

And wings all glazed. And still we crawl to learn

Where pain was lost, how to recover pain.

Reach for the brambles, crawl to them and reach,

Clutching for thorns, search carefully to feel

The point of thorns, life’s crown, the Old Man’s hat. (Brown 118-119)

The irony is that frozen, malnourished birds surround the soldier narrating the poem (Brown 118). Futher irony exists in the description of the soldier seeking out the pain of the thorns. The pain which most soldiers try to avoid, ironically, is here the only thing that reminds the soldier he is alive (Hecht, Vol. 19 209)

Anthony Hecht’s poetry contains elements such as wit, parody, irony, and the “narratives of atrocity” that make him standout as a current poet. His poems attempt to convey what he sees as the harsh reality of the world to readers.


Arnold, Matthew. “Dover Beach.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. 648-649.

Brown, Ashley. “The Poetry of Anthony Hecht.” Modern Critical Views: Contemporary Poets. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 113-126.

Hecht, Anthony. “Birdwatchers of America.” Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry. Eds. Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988. 1072-1073.

“Hecht, Anthony.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978. 266-269.

“Hecht, Anthony.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1980. 269-270.

“Hecht, Anthony.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 19. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1981. 207-210.

Hecht, Anthony. “The Dover Bitch: A Criticism of Life.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 3rd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. 960.

Hecht, Anthony. “More Light! More Light!.” Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry. Eds. Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988. 1073-1074.

Hecht, Anthony. “The Vow.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy. 4th ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, 1987. 725-726.

Reading in Contemporary Poetry: Anthony Hecht’s “Letter” and “Nominalism.”, 5/26/99.


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