The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

“‘More Light! More Light!’” tells its story in eight rhymed pentameter quatrains, or four-line stanzas, in a variation on the traditional ballad form. Like a ballad, the poem tells a story of the past—a story that may or may not be apocryphal, but that feels emotionally true. If the exact incidents described here did not happen, horrors like them certainly did. This blurring of history and myth is heightened by the anonymity of the characters in the poem; neither the victims nor their persecutors are named. The effect is to universalize Hecht’s parable of cruelty, denying the reader the luxury of imagining that evil is limited to one person or one time or place. All humanity is implicated in these actions.

Hecht’s diction is spare and formal. Like the ghosts from the death camps he evokes, the poet is present in the work as a disembodied spectator, relating the events as they happen. There is no first-person narrator and little attempt to mediate or interpret the action. The details are precise, almost reportorial, viewed as through a lens of time and distance.

In another poem from The Hard Hours, “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” Hecht speaks in the voice of a disturbed man who relates a dream in which he is forced to watch the torture and death of a fallen Roman emperor; bound and helpless, the watcher is forbidden to close his eyes or look away. In “‘More Light! More Light!’,” it is the reader who is made...

(The entire section is 521 words.)


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