Anthony Hecht’s “‘More Light! More Light!’” is a poem of witness, a narration of murders centuries apart: first, the execution, by fire, of a medieval prisoner, and next, the killing of two Jews and a Pole in Germany during World War II. In formal, measured quatrains, Hecht speaks of nearly intolerable atrocities. The poem begins with a painfully detailed account of the death of the first man, who is burned at the stake: “His legs were blistered sticks on which the black sap/ Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.” It is part of the poem’s irony, and its power, that this horrible death is by far the most humane event in “‘More Light! More Light!’” The medieval prisoner is stripped of his life, but not his humanity. He suffers physical torture yet retains the hope of his soul’s salvation, as do even his executioners. His is an age of faith; his death is public and ceremonial and not, to himself nor to those who witness it, meaningless.
The twentieth century, in Hecht’s poem, is the true age of darkness: a world of “casual death” with no hope of redemption for victims of its random brutality and systematic evil. The only witnesses to the murders of the Jews and the Pole are “Ghosts from the ovens”; the death of a single man at the stake has become a mass burning, a Holocaust both physical and spiritual.
Much happens in this short poem of eight stanzas, and there is an urgency and immediacy in the telling that draws the reader...
(The entire section is 612 words.)