Anthony Hecht’s observation recalls a much-contested line by Philip Larkin: “What will survive of us is love.” I don’t believe that literally and neither did Larkin, a poet effortlessly misunderstood out of context and by readers insufficiently endowed with irony and what we might call dramatic imagination (See “Books are a load of crap”). Hecht’s final sentiment is an understandable solace, a life-jacket belief, and I can’t denigrate anyone convinced of its truth. For some, no doubt, it’s all that stands between them and abysmal despair. The line comes from a letter Hecht wrote fourteen years ago today to Francine du Plessix Gray (The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2013), responding to a meditation on mortality she had written. Hecht died four years later. Gray’s piece prompts him to write:
“It seems to me as I approach my seventy-eighth year that I have been acquainted with death from very early in my life; and by acquainted I mean intimately acquainted. I no longer have much fear as regards my own death, though I dread the possibility of preliminary pains that may precede it. I am much more distressed by the thought of the misery my death will give to my family. I feel none of the need for the comforts of the ritual grieving for others: there have been too many, beginning well before my front-line combat infantry service in WWII. I have felt no inclination to police my grief, or to formalize it through public acts of piety. But this does not mean any less respect for the rituals of mourning you so movingly describe.”
Hecht recalls Montaigne, who was much absorbed by thoughts of death as a youth. His thinking matured in his thirties. His great friend Etienne de La Boétie died of the plague in 1563. His father died of a kidney stone (a condition that would also plague Montaigne). His younger brother Arnaud suffered a fatal hemorrhage after being struck on the head by a tennis ball. And a fall from a horse knocked Montaigne unconscious and nearly killed him. This avalanche of death in a brief span would cripple some of us. Montaigne concluded that we ought to “rid [death] of its strangeness, come to know it, get used to it” [trans. Donald Frame, “That to philosophize is to learn to die”].
Hecht rightly dreads, along with “preliminary pains,” the impact of his death on loved ones more than his own demise – the mark of a loving and well-loved human being. He recounts for Gray the suffering of his friend the classicist Helen Bacon (1919-2007) with whom he translated Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (1973), and the recent death of another friend, novelist William Maxwell, who stopped eating after the death of his wife of fifty-four years, and died at age ninety-one. Hecht closes his letter with this: “No doubt after a certain age, the ambitions that sustain us in youth cease to play any role in our lives, and we have to fall back upon love. And when that is gone, we are truly bereft.”
See Hecht’s final poem, “Aubade,” published in the New York Review of Books, the issue dated Oct. 21, 2004, one day after his death.