In its clear-eyed mercy toward human weakness, Anthony Hecht's poetry goes from strength to strength. "The Venetian Vespers" is at once an intense corroboration and an ample extension of his subtle, supple talents. Nothing humane is alien to him….
[There is a handful] of short poems that are fostered alike by beauty and fear. But it is the four long poems ["The Grapes," "The Deodand," "The Short End," and "The Venetian Vespers"] that confirm Hecht as a poet of the widest apprehensions and comprehensions, and this without the gigantism that so haunts American poetic ambition. (p. 1)
Succinct and poignant, and with a steely unsentimentality despite its width of concern for all concerned, the title poem constitutes the quintessence of an entire novel. The plot—an unforgivable yet hideously natural family betrayal—is direct, and yet it is released, with touching reluctance, only indirectly and piecemeal. "The Venetian Vespers" ends, after legitimately availing itself of "The Merchant of Venice," of T. S. Eliot's lurid Venice in "Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar" and of "Death in Venice," with the undying worm of self-disgust. Yet it does not disgust us, this moribundity in Venice…. Hecht has genius in his command of rhythms, above all, where an imagined self-command falters and yet does not break.
One would need his powers of economy to get far enough in praise. There is much to be said about the illuminations that he gets from light in all its diversity; this book is, among much else, an anthology of light….
["The Venetian Vespers"] returns to a language that is not directly transparent (and that repeatedly speaks explicitly of brilliance, polish and scintillation) but that draws attention to itself. Verbalism and mannerism, tensed against much else, are now more deeply available themselves for exploration as well as for exploring with. (p. 44)
Christopher Ricks, "Poets Who Have Learned Their Trade," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1979, pp. 1, 44-5.∗