Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry. By Anthony Hecht. Johns Hopkins University Press. $24.95.
Recently the mail brought a subscription form for The Formalist, “A Journal of Metrical Poetry.” Among the handful of ratifying blurbs included on the form appears one attributed to Anthony Hecht, identified as “Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet”: “The Formalist is a very impressive assemblage of interesting and excellent work. May your journal, and all its contributors (including Horace and Catullus, Goethe and Petrarch), prosper.” These two sentences contain several characteristic features of Hecht’s writing, among them the gracious manner, the tasteful restraint that avoids overstatement and exclamation marks, and the unobtrusive invocation of Western literary tradition. But for someone who has read Melodies Unheard, his fourth book of criticism, the word “assemblage” may also echo.
Hecht likes this word enough to use it twice in his newest book, first in a review of Seamus Heaney’s volume of essays Finders Keepers (2002), which he describes as a “generous assemblage” of Heaney’s essays, and second in the essay “On Rhyme,” which he calls “no more than an assemblage of disorderly ideas about a topic that defies taxonomic treatment.” Although native speakers of American English would be more likely to use “gathering” or “collection” than “assemblage,” at least for the description of Heaney’s volume, Hecht’s choice of words is not intimidatingly obscure; however, in the second instance, the “assemblage of disorderly ideas,” the word begins to slide from its primary or secondary definition, depending on the dictionary, toward another meaning Hecht most certainly knows, a meaning associated with the French pronunciation of “assemblage,” which rhymes it with “barrage,” “mirage,” and “garage,” as most Americans pronounce it. Pronounced this way, “assemblage” summons the context of modern art and signifies “a sculptural technique of organizing or composing into a unified whole a group of unrelated and often fragmentary or discarded objects” (Random House Dictionary, second edition).
Although Melodies Unheard wears the subtitle Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, in which the word “essay” has enough elasticity to hug all the subgenres Hecht represents here (among them an introduction to an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, an introduction to a reading by Richard Wilbur, a previously unpublished lecture on Moby-Dick delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and numerous book reviews), each of the 18 pieces in this rewarding and praiseworthy volume is something of a critical assemblage, in the sculptural sense. To his credit, Hecht knows it. But when he modestly confesses in his introduction that he recognizes himself as “a poet first and only secondarily a critic,” no reader of that introduction should believe for a moment that Melodies Unheard lacks the “lively and original insights” Hecht values in the criticism he admires most. On the contrary, each page of each essay overflows with such insights. What each essay does not show—in fact, what no essay shows—is the kind of tightly organized, systematically reasoned argument that many people associate, rightly or wrongly, with professional literary criticism.
In a previously unpublished piece on Hopkins’s rich and difficult poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” Hecht calls his own comments a “set of localized observations.” To varying degrees this phrase describes nearly every one of the essays in Melodies Unheard, as does another phrase, which appears in a review of Charles Simic’s work: “a child’s box of jumbled treasures.” Hecht’s is hardly a child’s sensibility, but his critical procedure does involve moving among localized observations, informed by lively and original insights, and amassing treasures, some of extraordinary value, in wonderful jumbles. Far from constituting a flaw, this procedure provides a reader with some of the finest pleasures and benefits of Melodies Unheard, as its author, whose poetry for the last 50 years has set standards of precision, regularity, and order, discovers in his criticism the productive possibilities of a somewhat more relaxed disorderliness.
But disorderliness does not mean that the essays and the volume as a whole have no continuity or coherence. As an index would have shown (alas, there is none, but more on this absence later), names and topics recur throughout Melodies Unheard, and these recurrences shape the book and reveal much about its author. In one essay, Hecht quotes Auden quoting Ortega y Gasset: “”Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.”” To what does Anthony Hecht pay attention in this book and who is he? In the first of the three clusters into which he has grouped the essays, he pays attention to poets of the English Renaissance, as well as to two of the poetic forms they used so skillfully: “Shakespeare and the Sonnet,” “The Sonnet: Ruminations on Form, Sex, and History,” “Sidney and the Sestina,” “On Henry Noel’s “Gaze Not on Swans.”” The second cluster, which consists of ten essays, focuses on 20th-century poets, or poets, in the case of the first two, whose work mostly or all appeared in the 20th century: A. E. Housman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Yehuda Amichai, Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney. Finally, in the third cluster, the most jumbled of the treasure boxes, appear longer, more ambitious assemblages on Moby-Dick, Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, rhyme, and “The Music of Forms.”
As we work our way through this menu, we discover that the person responsible for it identifies himself as a teacher and thinks of his critical writing as a form of teaching. At least four times in the book, Hecht refers explicitly to the activity of teaching a particular text or to his long teaching career, and Melodies Unheard provides ample evidence that his lucky students enjoyed a rare privilege. On occasion the teacherliness of a particular essay produces odd effects, as when paragraphs on the differences between Petrarchan or Italian and Shakespearean or English sonnets, which are obviously necessary when introducing an edition undergraduates will use, might make someone wonder how many people drawn to a book of essays by Anthony Hecht do not know about sonnets or sestinas or iambic pentameter. But thankfully Hecht’s explanations of formal or technical matters such as these never become heavy-handed or pedantic.
Intimately linked to his sense of himself as teacher is Hecht’s distinction as a superlative close reader. At a moment when English departments are training young scholars and critics to focus primarily and theoretically on contexts—historical, political, social—one is most likely to hear the term “close reader” used pejoratively and dismissively. But to spend even a few minutes watching Hecht work through Sidney’s “Yee Gote-heard Gods” or Henry Noel’s “Gaze Not on Swans” or Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” is quickly to realize that close reading is not a method we have progressed beyond; it is an art we have all but lost. Hecht acknowledges at the outset his “New Critical apprenticeship,” and William Empson’s name appears more frequently in these pages than any other literary critic’s, but Hecht brings to his readings literary historical knowledge and aesthetic alertness uncommon even among New Critics. One of his footnotes contains a description of Roman Jakobson as “a sensitive and painstaking reader with responsible critical intelligence.” Accurate as this description is, it is just as accurate a self-description.
What Hecht pays attention to in Melodies Unheard shows him to be a teacher and a close reader, in addition to the poet we already know him to be. Much more surprising to many readers will be the discovery that this poet, teacher, and close reader is also a deeply earnest, deeply informed religious thinker. Very few essays in this book contain no references to the Bible, Judaism, Christianity, or religion in general, and one essay, a strong candidate for the most compelling in the volume, devotes itself entirely to Paul’s “repudiation of the Law of Moses” in his Epistle to the Galatians. In this essay, Hecht explains that because he is a Jew “keenly aware of anti-Semitism,” his “sensitivity on this point alone has invited a study of Christian doctrine.” Later in the same essay he adds this statement: “In any case, my profession as teacher has required or me, in pursuance of an understanding of the works I teach, that I understand the parti pris that may color or define them, and these are often religious positions and doctrinal stances.” This straightforward declaration certainly recommends the integrity of the person who makes it, but one can imagine someone else making it, and fulfilling the spirit behind it, without coming to anything like the religious insight Hecht brings to bear on discussions of Melville, Hopkins, Auden, or Heaney, for example. In his essay on Heaney, Hecht identifies in the Irish poet’s work “a moral tone and ethical dignity that has about it a nobility and sense of vocation that are not far from religious,” and once again this portrait of another can double as self-description.
It may seem ungrateful, even mean-spirited, to close a discussion of a book that affords as much unqualified delight and profound instruction as Melodies Unheard by pointing out something missing, especially when many readers, if they even notice it, will consider the shortcoming trivial. But the book should have an index, and to say so is not to scold the Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of overly fastidious scholarly rigidity; it is to celebrate Hecht and his book by saying that the operations of his mind, the breadth of his attention, and the depth of his knowledge deserve the kind of textual representation only an index can give. Literally, index means forefinger in Latin (we still speak of the index finger), and more figuratively it means something that points out or indicates. A good index can be to a work of nonfiction prose what the markings of a good scansion can be to a line of metrical verse: a simplified, accessible image of complex rhythms and patterns.
There are, of course, many compelling reasons to omit an index, chief among them the costs of preparing and printing one, and at one point Hecht refers to a “publisher’s anxiety that the book [he was writing at the time] not be so long as to drive its price out of the reach of most readers.” But if anyone in an editorial meeting argued that since Melodies Unheard consists of 18 separate essays of various sorts, the parts do not amount to the kind of whole that including an index would imply, it was not a strong argument.
For one thing, the absence of an index puts a casual reader or skimmer wholly at the mercy of Hecht’s table of contents, which most of the time employs transparently clear titles, such as “Technique in Housman,” “On Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,”” “Two Poems by Elizabeth Bishop,” and “Seamus Heaney’s Prose.” But there are two notable exceptions. The uncharacteristically flippant “Uncle Tom’s Shantih” turns out to name an essay on the first 18 lines of Eliot’s Waste Land, not one on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, and the uncharacteristically formidable “Paralipomena to The Hidden Law,” which combines the Greek word for “things omitted” with the title of Hecht’s 1993 book on Auden, and which hardly can be expected to whet the appetite of the average Barnes & Noble browser, names one of the more substantial and important essays in the second cluster. Someone eyeing the table of contents without already knowing Hecht’s literary criticism would have no idea that Melodies Unheard contained a word about Auden, who has been so crucial not only to Hecht but also to many other members of the luminous generation of American poets born in the 1920s. If there were an index of names, the entry for Auden would be among the longest ones in it, as Religion or the Bible would be in an index of topics. To treat the essays of Melodies Unheard as so many separate wells drilled in different places, each a vertical shaft unrelated to the others, is to forget that many wells, if they are drilled in roughly the same area, end up drawing from the same deep lakes and rivers, though we neither see nor hear their underground connections.