Joshua Charlson

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.