Saturday, October 20, 2012

`The Butcher Began His Work'

By the time of Anthony Hecht’s death on this date in 2004, the year had already been an unforgiving one for our better poets. On April 25 we lost Thom Gunn; Aug. 6, Donald Justice; Aug. 14, Czesław Miłosz. A few months later, Guy Davenport and Saul Bellow joined them – a grim time, still the first half of a decade that had also claimed Edgar Bowers, William Maxwell, W.G. Sebald, R.S. Thomas, Penelope Fitzgerald, C.H. Sisson and D.J. Enright. For Hecht, a poet of poise and elegance, death was never an abstraction. He witnessed it first-hand as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, and as a member of the 97th division he helped liberate the death camp at Flossenbürg. Two weeks earlier, on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been hanged there. Hecht was assigned to interview the French prisoners, and decades later recalled: “The place, the suffering, the prisoners' accounts were beyond comprehension. For years after I would wake shrieking.” Here, from Hecht’s final collection of poems, The Darkness and the Light (2001), is “The Hanging Gardens of Tyburn”: 

“Mysteriously fed by the dying breath
Of felons, by the foul odor that melts
Down from their bodies hanging on the gallows,
The rank, limp flesh, the soft, pendulous guilts, 

“This solitary plant takes root at night,
Its tiny charnel blossoms the pale blue
Of Pluto’s ice pavilions; being dried,
Powdered and mixed with the cold morning dew 

“From the left hand of an executed man,
It confers untroubled sleep, and can prevent
Prenatal malformations if applied
To a woman’s swelling body, except in Lent. 

“Take care to clip only the little blossoms,
For the plant, uprooted, utters a cry of pain
So highly pitched as both to break the eardrum
And render the would-be harvester insane.” 

In a note to the poem, Hecht cites the ancient folk belief that mandrake, used as an opiate and love potion, grew under gallows from the dripping semen of hanged men. Donne memorably alludes to the plant and its folklore, and Shakespeare refers twice to mandrake (Romeo and Juliet: “Shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth”) and twice to mandragora, another of its common names. Hecht gives his poem a comically grotesque title, starting with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and combining it with Tyburn, the village in Middlesex, now part of London, where hangings were performed for six-hundred years starting late in the twelfth century.  Executions were holidays attended by thousands. Among those hanged at Tyburn – posthumously, after his body was disinterred from Westminster Abbey – was Oliver Cromwell. Samuel “Breakfast” Rogers, in Recollections of the Table-Talk (1856), recalls a pitiful scene: 

“I recollect seeing a whole cartload of young girls, in dresses of various colours, on their way to be executed at Tyburn. They had all been condemned, on one indictment, for having been concerned in (that is, perhaps, for having been spectators of) the burning of some houses during Lord George Gordon’s riots. It was quite horrible,--Greville was present at one of the trials consequent on those riots, and heard several boys sentenced, to their own amazement, to be hanged. `Never,’ said Greville with great naïveté, `did I see boys cry so.’” 

Hangings at Tyburn were abolished in 1783 and moved behind the walls of Newgate Prison. Samuel Johnson, one year before his death, objected to the sequestering of executions. Boswell reports him saying: 

“The age is running mad after innovation; and all the business of the world is to be done in a new way. Men are to be hanged in a new way; Tyburn itself is not safe from the fury of innovation…it is not an improvement; they object, that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the publick was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it.” 

Between 1535 and 1681, one-hundred five Roman Catholic martyrs were executed at Tyburn. Among them was the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, who was hanged, drawn and quartered with two other priests on Dec. 1, 1581. In Edmund Campion (1935), Evelyn Waugh writes: 

“The scene at Tyburn was tumultuous. Sir Thomas More had stepped out into the summer sunshine, to meet death quietly and politely at a single stroke of the axe. Every circumstance of Campion’s execution was vile and gross.” 

And this: 

“The cart was driven from under him, the eager crowd swayed forward, and Campion was left hanging, until, unconscious, perhaps already dead, he was cut down and the butcher began his work.”

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