Saturday, July 13, 2013

`The Portents of Decline and Imperfection'

Among Anthony Hecht’s final poems is “Declensions,” published six weeks after his death in the Dec. 4, 2004, issue of The New York Review of Books. Hecht enclosed a copy of the poem in an Aug. 17, 2004, letter to the literary critic William Pritchard (p. 343-4, The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2013). After commiserating with Pritchard over Thomas Hardy’s verse, with digressions into Larkin, Yeats and Blake, Hecht writes: 

“I am glad to learn you are not planning to retire, and that this is with the approval of your doctors. I, on the other hand, retired long since, and my doctors are by no means so sanguine. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, and have already undergone the first of six sessions of chemotherapy that, when complete, will not only leave me shorn but carry me into late November [Hecht died Oct. 20]. I mention this partly to explain something about a poem of mine I enclose. It was not written with prophetic vision; it is merely the meditation of an eighty-one year old.” 

“Declensions” alludes to the thinning ranks of Civil War veterans, a countdown I dimly remember from childhood. The title word derives from the Latin verb meaning “to decline.” One thinks first of its grammatical meaning, especially in regard to Latin, but the usage closest to Hecht’s, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “gradual diminution, deterioration, or decay; falling off, decline.” In other words, sinking into death. Hecht’s poem and letter calmly acknowledge imminent mortality, while playfully denying “Declensions” was written with “prophetic vision.” It’s a familiar stance with Hecht, stoical and cool, whether the cause of death is cancer or genocide. In the final stanza, he regrets only the grief his death will cause his wife and son: 

“Eyesight and hearing fade:
Yet I do not greatly care
If the grim, scythe-wielding thief
Pursue his larcenous trade,
Though anguished by the grief
Two that I love must bear.” 

Hecht appends an epigraph borrowed from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII: “And every fair from fair sometime declines.” The sonnet is among the best known and loved in the sequence, a classic formulation of the immortality-through-verse theme. In the Cambridge University Press edition of the sonnets, published in 1996, editor G. Blakemore Evans glosses the line like this: “”the beauty (`fair’) of every beautiful thing or person (`fair’) decays sooner or later (`sometime declines’).” In his introduction to the Cambridge edition (collected in Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry, 2003), Hecht notes that a summer day is among the longest of the year, and then adds: 

“But that fact itself reminds us of a single day’s brevity, no matter how long it lasts by count of daylight hours. We are already made conscious of the portents of decline and imperfection that are inevitably to follow.”

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