Anthony Hecht​ never changed. His poems, first and last, look as if they’ve been measured, cut and stitched on Savile Row. His first book, A Summoning of Stones (1954), displayed a glutton’s appetite for abstraction and the fastidiousness that marked much of his work thereafter:

We may consider every cloud a lake
Transmogrified, its character unselfed,
At once a whale and a white wedding cake
Bellowed into conspicuous ectoplasm.
It is a lake’s ghost that goes voyaging.

The book received measured but disappointing reviews (‘many of the poems have very little content, emotional or otherwise’; ‘all is craftsmanship held up for our admiration’; ‘his witty fancy gets out of control’). What reviewers seemed to resist were not Hecht’s Audenesque tendencies, but the further influence of Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane, who could not write without overwriting.

Born in 1923 in New York City, Hecht had a privileged but disrupted childhood. His father worked at a fake job paid for by his father-in-law. The boy attended private schools, rarely thriving as a student, and didn’t discover poetry until he entered college the year before Pearl Harbor. Though he took basic training at twenty, Hecht’s division was not deployed until the final months of the war, when it liberated the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany. As he knew some French and German, Hecht was asked to interview the survivors. He told Philip Hoy, who has edited his Collected Poems (Knopf, £42), that ‘the place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after, I would wake shrieking.’ He also saw his own men machine-gun a group of German women and children holding white flags. During those last months of the war, half the soldiers in his company were killed or, in Hecht’s words, ‘severely mutilated’.

His second collection, The Hard Hours, was not published until 1967, and signalled a striking change in tone and temperament. The poems were written against the backdrop of the war and lean towards the grotesque. Hecht remained classicism’s classicist, characters from Greek and biblical mythology rushing on stage as if waiting in the wings; but the subjects are sometimes more modern, more fraught. There’s little poise left in them: the emperor Valerian is flayed alive; a father realises he could not have saved his children from the camps; an alcoholic suffers a psychotic break. (At the end of his first marriage, Hecht was hospitalised for depression and dosed with the antipsychotic Thorazine.) The book includes Hecht’s most frequently anthologised poem, ‘The Dover Bitch’, a music-hall turn on Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. There were also poems that held private, darker meanings, especially ‘More Light! More Light!’, about a savage incident at Buchenwald. The Hard Hours won the Pulitzer Prize.

Hecht indulged in such dark appetites less frequently in his subsequent books. The arch style of his later poems, beginning with Millions of Strange Shadows (1977), often overwhelms their subjects or makes them merely the occasion for Hecht’s expert flaunting of language and style. He could scarcely contemplate a poem, it seems, without measuring the doors and windows for the advent of a Greek god. He was erudite past the normal boundaries of erudition. There’s a niggling suspicion, reading his work, that he was always trying to prove himself to himself.

Hecht’s poetry rejects the lure of the personal. He erected a barbed-wire fence between himself and the common reader, like a man planting ‘Danger’ signs around a minefield. One of his most cynical poems, ‘The Cost’, begins with a couple riding a Vespa around the base of Trajan’s column:

Think how some excellent, lean torso hugs
       The brink of weight and speed,
Coasting the margins of those rival tugs
       Down the thin path of friction,
The athlete’s dancing vectors, the spirit’s need,
       And muscle’s cleanly diction

The heedless young provide the necessary contrast to the column’s memorial for ancient war. The poem ends stanzas later in magnificent, despairing fashion:

               And why should they take thought
       Of all that ancient pain,
The Danube winters, the nameless young who fought,
       The blood’s uncertain lease?
Or remember that that fifteen-year campaign
Won seven years of peace?

Almost two decades after the poem was published, during a dinner party, Hecht’s best friend, William MacDonald, mentioned that the Dacian wars had lasted only two or three years, not fifteen. Hecht was shocked, and spent the entire night searching for his source, only to find it completely mistaken. He was angry with himself but furious that MacDonald had never mentioned the lapse. A terrible phone conversation followed the next day. Although Hecht later tried to mend the breach, the friendship of decades was over. His brittleness made him unable to laugh at the sort of mistake many poets have made, most famously Keats in ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, where he gave Cortez, not Balboa, credit for discovering the Pacific. Nothing in Hecht’s poems reveals so well what, however artfully concealed, lay beneath the surface of his work: guilt, self-loathing, pettiness.

Though Hecht’s poems often resembled cake decorations, he concealed an inner darkness that would occasionally refuse the frippery and leave the reader astonished. One of his most gorgeous poems, ‘Persistences’, begins:

The leafless trees are feathery,
A foxed, Victorian lace,
Against a sky of milk-glass blue,
Blank, washed-out, commonplace.

From winter’s ‘helices of snow’ and ‘silken Chinese mist’ come apparitions from the past, ghosts of those the poet has wronged, or childhood bullies, or, as the poem winds through cruelties unacknowledged and sins never discharged, those seeking justice:

Those throngs disdain to answer,
Though numberless as flakes;
Mine is the task to find out words
For their memorial sakes
Who press in dense approaches,
Blue numeral tattoos
Writ crosswise on their arteries,
The burning, voiceless Jews.

In Hecht beauty can rarely be enjoyed for its own sake, because beneath beauty horror often lurks. He was a poet so pursued by the past that even access to the splendours of the world could not soothe, knowledge of good never drive out the terrors of existence. When those ‘ancestral deputations’ draw near, ‘some sentry flings a slight,/Prescriptive, “Who goes there?”’ He has been transported back to the war. Hecht had been wounded by prejudice, even on the part of friends, and was only gradually able, he admitted, to ‘shed my shame at being Jewish’.

Hecht’s formality was not always a good or sufficient gift. In ‘Poem Upon the Lisbon Disaster’, an artful translation from Voltaire, the pentameter couplets are balanced in fine Augustan fashion; but they read like second-hand Pope. Hecht imitating Pope is never as good as Pope imitating Pope, partly because Hecht feels it necessary to sneak in a groaner or two: ‘How shall this best of orders come to be?/I am all ignorance, like a PhD.’ Such long poems are less deeply imagined and less telling than shorter ones that touch, briefly, the black depressions from which he sometimes suffered. After stanzas of gorgeous description of pre-dawn ‘Tennysonian calm’ in ‘Still Life’, for example, the poem ends:

As in a water-surface I behold
       The first, soft, peach decree
Of light, its pale, inaudible commands.
I stand beneath a pine-tree in the cold,
Just before dawn, somewhere in Germany,
A cold, wet Garand rifle in my hands.

In Hecht’s following books, The Venetian Vespers (1979), The Transparent Man (1990) and Flight among the Tombs (1996), the poems can be divided into those you wish were longer and those you wish much shorter. In the weaker work, slightly strained personae come calling like unwanted guests. Poems in his long-winded mode include ‘The Short End’, some four hundred lines on a marriage gone wrong, as Hecht’s first marriage had; ‘See Naples and Die’, five hundred lines in which another marriage comes to grief; and ‘The Venetian Vespers’, nine hundred where a man looks back ruefully on his life. Something goes dead in Hecht’s long poems; there’s a lack of tension, so that his humdrum people fail to stand for something more.

He was to the end a formal poet, thriving on the heartbeat of metre and little deaths of rhyme. Hecht stands with the strongest formal poets of his generation, Richard Wilbur and James Merrill, who accepted Auden’s legacy and for the most part worked ravishingly within the boundaries it set. There were free-verse poems over the years, but not many, and they were rarely among his best. Hecht’s most personal work is often his most personable, though even in these poems he’ll suddenly descend into the bathos of wordplay, with excruciating jokes and puns: ‘Her grace is in the gland of the beholder’; ‘Civilisation and Its Discothèques’; ‘a weakened, weekend father’; ‘the ring-a-ding-Ding-an-Sich’.

It would be unfair to say that the poems in Hecht’s final book, The Darkness and the Light (2001), are not good, but they don’t come within a moon shot of his most astonishing work. In poems about terrors past, whether derived from his own memories or inhabiting those of others, the writing is nearly impeccable but no longer moving or frightening. Hecht couldn’t let go of the idea that seriousness requires an arcane vocabulary. There can’t have been many 20th-century poets, apart from Auden, who read the OED so avidly or used it so ineffectively. Hecht was a throwback to an era that never existed, scattering among his poems words like ‘Iotacism’, ‘ipseity’, ‘neumes’, ‘shawm’, ‘otto’, ‘engastrimythic’ and ‘exsufflicate’. This backwash from the thesaurus never quite works; such words don’t bring two worlds together, they drive them apart.

The subjects that made Hecht focus, or perhaps just scared the bejesus out of him, rarely slide into the wordplay that was a magnified kind of laziness. In his sestina ‘The Book of Yolek’, it’s impossible not to be haunted by the story of a five-year-old boy taken to the camps:

You will remember, helplessly, that day,
And the smell of smoke, and the loudspeakers of the camp.
Wherever you are, Yolek will be there, too.
His unuttered name will interrupt your meal.

Without such darker purpose, Hecht was all too often like an electric drill that couldn’t be shut off.

There’s a tendency to reduce Hecht’s poems to the showstoppers and ignore the fine work he did on a more modest scale, however spoiled by archness or preciousness. If the stolid poems of his maturity were sometimes chiselled from inferior marble, his leering classical gods and biblical patriarchs looking down with a thousand-yard stare, the same poet wrote ‘The End of the Weekend’, ‘Behold the Lilies of the Field’, ‘The Man Who Married Magdalene’, ‘More Light! More Light!’, ‘The Deodand’, ‘An Overview’ and ‘Proust on Skates’, some of the most brilliant poems of the past sixty years, poems so full of ghosts they ensure that Hecht will always haunt us. In ‘An Autumnal’, what begins as a lush, inconsequent description of the season in all its ageing splendour, ends in a contemplation of death:

The last mosquitoes lazily hum and play
       Above the yeasting earth
A feeble Gloria to this cool decay
       Or casual dirge of birth.

So much unsaid is said in ‘yeasting’ and ‘casual dirge’. The missing comma after ‘earth’ turns the mosquitoes into a sacred choir, the sort of offhand metaphor that makes Hecht one of our most disruptive and unsettling poets.

Hoy has done a splendid job of collecting Hecht’s works, from pieces never reprinted before to the smatter of very late poems that might have formed the core of one last book. His notes are judicious, building on previous editors, who have been given full credit. The one lapse I noticed comes at the end of the poem ‘Visitations’, where Hoy fails to realise that the ‘figure (sometimes with a guitar)/Pompadoured, patient, prepared to wait/For the destined approach of some appointed car’, the ‘bona fide, “Love Me Tender” king’, can be none other than Elvis Presley.

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