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On Hecht’s Darkness and Light

The final poem of Anthony Hecht’s final book of poems, The Darkness and the Light (2001) takes its title from Psalm 139: “The Darkness and the Light are Both Alike to Thee.” Here is the section of the Psalm from which the title comes: “If I take the wings of the morning / and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, / even there thy hand shall lead me, / and thy right hand shall hold me. / If I say, ‘Let only darkness cover me, / and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to thee, / the night is bright as day; for darkness is as light with thee.” I have to let my vision adjust to pick up on a disclosure of this passage that I find it easy to miss. Certainly a familiar (to many) theological tradition features the divine light that is as darkness to humans since it outshines any human capacity to see; and there is–as in Milton’s description in Paradise Lost–the fire of hell that, even though it is fire, does not illuminate, as befits infernal flame. In this Psalm darkness itself is not dark to God because divine knowledge extends everywhere. Advertence to this divine knowledge is part of this Psalm’s gesture of trust and praise.

Given the divine omniscience alluded to, all the more striking is the this-worldly light in the poem’s opening lines: “Like trailing silks, the light / Hangs in the olive trees / As the pale wine of day / Drains to its very lees.” It is a rather lackadaisical light in a world running out of energy. Or at least–with the imagery of the trailing silks, the olive trees, and the “pale wine of day”–this is a world in which a party is over. The trailing and hanging light embodies the enervated mood of this world after the celebration is past. It is difficult not to hear in the last of the four lines just quoted an echo of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” as he announces, “I will drink / Life to the lees,” though it is significant that in Hecht’s poem the very wine is given the agency. For the speaker of Hecht’s poem looks ahead in a very different manner from Tennyson’s speaker. Whereas the latter, though made “weak by time and fate,” sets out to defy death with more adventurous journeys, Hecht’s speaker looks ahead to the coming of death; this speaker is preparing to give up agency.

As befits the sense of the poem’s belatedness, “Huge presences of gray / Rise up….” These rising presences signal the coming of night, as darkness rises from the earth. One need not be laden with symbology to see something like embodiments of death in these gray presences. Part of what I find intriguing here–as in the lines about the light–is the shifting back and forth between grandeur and the commonplace. These “huge presences” at least border on the sublime, but then their coming on is dispatched with the rather commonplace statement “And then it’s night.” The gesture of the poem is thus inclusive in the sense that it takes in and engages with both the larger-than-life and the common, the strange and the quotidian.

The commonplace atmosphere develops further: “Distantly lights go on. / Scattered like fallen sparks / Bedded in peat, they seem / Set in the plushest darks / Until a timid gleam / Of matins turns them wan.” I take it that these sparks bedded in peat are about to burn out, thus making these lights going on oddly like lights going out. The word choice “plushest” (and recall that ‘plush’ refers to a fabric with an even pile longer and less dense than velvet pile) makes the sparks for a passing moment (which is perhaps the only moment they have) into jewels displayed in plush displays in a case.

The final line just quoted then returns to resonances of the sacred with “matins” (which refers in some traditions to the office of Psalms and prayers said before dawn). It is this “timid gleam / Of matins” that hints at the divine for this speaker. It’s a lovely suggestion that the divine holds off in a kind of timid shyness, allowing the light to come onto the world slowly and without shock even as it turns the sparks wan. There is here only a faint echo of the grand sense of the divine registered in Psalm 139, but this faint echo and timid gleam are enough.

In the final stanza, the dying sparks become the “elderly and frail / Who’ve lasted through the night, / Cold brows and silent lips, / For whom the rising light / Entails their own eclipse, / Brightening as they fail.” I take this night to be the darkness of this world and the approach to death of the “elderly and frail.” An especially productive ambiguity occurs in relation to the final line’s word “Brightening.” The word may refer to the “rising light” that is brightening as “they [“the elderly and frail”] fail,” or it may refer to the “elderly and frail” who are themselves brightening as they fail; more remotely, the verb may even refer to the “fallen sparks,” of the previous stanza, also–thus emphasizing the connection between these “fallen sparks” and the “elderly and frail.” Further, the verb could even be read as connected to the immediately preceding noun, “eclipse.” If the eclipse itself oddly brightens, then what is happening as the elderly and frail “fail” is what the other readings that I have just suggested all reinforce: this moment of failing–of death–is swept up in a subtle infusion of light throughout the whole world. If even the eclipse itself is brightening, then we are returned once again to the words of the Psalmist proclaiming that “darkness is as light with thee.”