On "More Light! More Light!"

Daniel Hoffman

… At times Hecht’s dramatic lyrics armored in biblical allusions remind one of the diction and vehemence of [Robert] Lowell ("These yes, which many have praised as gay, / Are the stale jellies of lust in which Adam sinned"). But in poems that dramatize the hard hours of his generation’s history, Hecht speaks with a tragic irony that is his own unmistakeable voice. "More Light! More Light! plays out against the implications of Goethe’s dying cry two episodes from history: the burning at the stake of an accused heretic in the Middle Ages, and this:

[Hoffman quotes the two stanzas before the last.]

In the absence of the light of either Goethe’s humanism or the Word, the Pole’s refusal may suggest that he, like their Nazi captor, is too scornful of Jews to kill them himself. As for them, "Much casual death had drained their souls away," and they obey the order to bury the Pole. But then the Nazi makes them dig him out and get back in. The gravity of Hecht’s quatrains molds this fable of "casual death" as unassuageable, without transcendence.

From Daniel Hoffman, "Our Common Lot," in Daniel Hoffman, ed. The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing" (Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1979), 144.

Edward Hirsch

In the ethical cosmology of The Hard Hours there is little room for heroism. …Think of the parable of the Pole and the two Jews in "More Light! More Light!" It serves as the book’s most bracing example – and it is an example – of the way that "casual death" drains away the soul and barbarism dehumanizes its victims. Those victims are not even permitted a "pitiful dignity." The language of the poem is steady and neutral, even documentary, the outrage distanced, the riveting story told without much commentary:

[Hirsch quotes the poem]

In this bleak twentieth century exemplum, heroism is unrewarded and suffering is neither redemptive nor tracendental. It doesn’t signify. The Pole acts humanely (and without any sign higher than his own conscience) and yet he suffers a death as slow and brutal as that of his victims, the Jews who have already lost their souls and now lose their lives, too. The dehumanization is complete – even the guard is metonymically identified only as his "Luger." There are no mourners or saviors in this poem. There is only the relentless stripping certainty of the death camps. And the eventual passing of time. The Goethean ideal of light has been replaced by the banal darkness of evil. Humanism, like the Age of Reason – is effectively over.

From Edward Hirsch, "Comedy and Hardship," in Sydney Lea, ed., The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989), 57-58.

Peter Sacks

"More Light! More Light!" enacts the multiplication of historical agony . . . and it does so within a repetitive structure of commands whose totalitarian rigor becomes yet another image of fate itself. The strict quatrains with their ballad rhyme-scheme reinforce this by their allusion to narratives of unavoidable fatality. And once again, the poem has a ritual quality, for it describes savage ceremonies of execution and entombment, the last of which even involves a grotesque kind of game. As the German officer orders the Pole to bury the two Jews alive, then reverses the order after the Pole’s refusal only to reverse it yet again and finally to kill all three, he is degrading their very desire for survival. And the poem itself plays against our desire that at least someone survive the transaction. 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. It is this manner in which Hecht has trapped himself and his readers within the uncanny association of narrator-observer, survivor, and killer that most thoroughly seals the darkness of the poem and enforces the most despairing vision of the relation between poetry and the bearing of historical witness.

This time, there is no question of prayer. In the earlier execution, centuries ago, the spectators prayed for the victim's soul, their prayers more than ironized as the dying man "howled for the Kindly Light." In the later scene "No prayers or incense rose up" as the Pole lay bleeding to death. In a literal sense within the poem there were no witnesses (least of all, God!); or if we have been somehow "present," the unavailability of any offered forms of response leaves us arrested in a frozen silence so mute as to render us almost absent. Perhaps this is the ghostly position most of us occupy in relation to the historical events around us. If we resist association with the killer, perhaps in our muteness we should recognize our similarity to the only final attendants on the corpse: "every day came mute / Ghosts from the ovens, sifting through crisp air, / And settled upon his eyes in a black soot."

from The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht. Copyright 1989 by the University of Georgia Press.

Ellen Miller Casey

Anthony Hecht's frequently anthologized "'More Light! More Light!'" is not simply a poem about a terrible event in World War II, but a meditation on the nature of evil. Those critics, such as Daniel Hoffman and Edward Hirsch, who largely ignore the first three stanzas of the poem also ignore Hecht's insistence on the importance of a poem's architecture:

I prefer the work that is decidedly more architectural, in which parts balance one another, and in which everything is essential, so that if something is removed or misplaced, the whole thing collapses, as would be the case with a large building. (McClatchy 185)

The first three stanzas of Hecht's poem place the reader in the sixteenth-century Tower of London, where a man protesting his innocence is being burned at the stake, probably as a heretic or a traitor. His executioners attempt to give him a quick and merciful death by throwing a sack of gunpowder into the fire, but when the powder fails to ignite they can only pray for his soul as he howls in agony. Though not a specific figure, the victim evokes such men as the Protestant martyrs Nicholas Ridley and High Latimer, whose last words before being burned to death in 1555 were, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man: we shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England as I trust shall never be put out" (Ann Hoffman 294).

The second part of the poem describes an actual incident from World War II: a Pole first refuses and then obeys an order to bury two Jews alive (Kogon 96-97). The incident took place at Buchenwald, a few miles from "the shrine at Weimar," the home of Goethe, whose dying words provide the title for the poem.

While some critics, such as Ashley Brown and Peter Sacks, recognize the greater horror of the second death, others misread the poem's judgment. Alicia Ostriker understands the poem as teaching that human cruelty and atrocity are the same through the ages: "there is nothing new under the sun" (99). Norman German reads the phrase, "And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst" as a comment by the executioners in the Tower, arguing that it proves their "absence of compassion in the face of extreme anguish" (129). Critical response to the Pole's act is also mixed. In a short but perceptive commentary on the second half of the poem, Edward Hirsch recognizes the Pole's "impossible purity of action," his humane gesture based only upon his own conscience (58-59). Daniel Hoffman, on the other hand, goes so far as to suggest that "the Pole's refusal may suggest that he, like their Nazi captor, is too scornful of Jews to kill them himself" (44).

Despite these critics, the poem makes a clear judgment: the second death is much worse than the first. It says of the death in the Tower, "And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst." The deaths in the woods are among the worst because they lack the first death's ritual of law and prayer and its "pitiful dignity." Painful though the death in the Tower is, the executioners believe in what they are doing, follow the rule of law, try (if unsuccessfully) to be merciful, pray for the man's soul. The German soldier, on the other hand, is gratuitously cruel, playing mind games, forcing the Pole to deny his own heroism, destroying souls as well as bodies.

The poem uses formal devices to expand its explicit judgment. It condemns the German soldier by its amazing use of metonymy and the passive voice. The soldier is a void, to be inferred only from a Luger and its glove and a riding boot. Unlike the executioners in the Tower, who pray, the soldier never acts. The Pole and the Jews are, rather, the recipients of actions expressed in the passive voice ("are there commanded," "are ordered," "to . . . be buried," "was ordered," "was exposed," "was shot").

On the other hand, the poem creates the Pole's heroism by the rhythm of the poetic line, especially by the force of the climactic short sentence which comes after the only emphatic caesura in the poem: "But he did refuse." Despite the lack of either human or divine light, the Pole refuses the initial order, surely heroism of a very high kind. After he has been buried and dug out, however, there is "no light, no light in the blue Polish eye." He has lost both the divine light that sustained men like Latimer and Ridley, and the humanistic light that Goethe epitomizes. Like the Jews whose souls have been "drained away," and the men in Auden's "The Shield of Achilles," who "died as men before their bodies died," the Pole is destroyed by his experience, his eyes finally blinded by the ghosts from the ovens.

We misread "'More Light! More Light!'" if we make it too small, only the story of an event, no matter how striking. The poem, which is dedicated to Hannah Arendt, the author of Origins of Totalitarianism, and her husband Heinrich Blucher, does not simply tell a story. It judges the Nazi soldier and the system that created him. Hecht condemns not merely the infliction of pain but the destruction of the person - both victim and executioner It is that destruction that makes the deaths in the German wood so much worse than the fiery death in the Tower.


Brown, Ashley. "The Poetry of Anthony Hecht." Ploughshares 4.3 (1978): 9-24. Rpt. in Lea 10-25.

German, Norman. Anthony Hecht. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Hecht, Anthony. "'More Light! More Light!'" The Hard Hours. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

Hirsch, Edward. "Comedy and Hardship." The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht. Ed Sydney Lea. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989. 53-61.

Hoffman, Daniel. "Our Common Lot." The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing. Ed. Daniel Hoffman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979. Rpt. in Lea 42-48.

Hoffman, Ann. Lives of the Tudor Age: 1485-1604. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1977.

Kogon, Eugen. The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them. Trans. Heinz Norden. 1950. New York: Berkley, 1958.

Lea, Sydney, ed. The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.

McClatchy, J. D. "The Art of Poetry XXXX: Anthony Hecht." Paris Review 30 (fall 1988): 161-205.

Ostriker, Alicia. "Millions of Strange Shadows: Anthony Hecht as Gentile and Jew." The Burdens of Formality: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht. Ed. Sydney Lea. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1989.

from The Explicator 54.2 (Winter 1996)

Joshua Charlson

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.

Copyright 2001 by Joshua Charlson

Return to Anthony Hecht