Tuesday, August 02, 2016

`Cold Eye and Primitive Beak and Callused Foot'

A friend finds reassurance in Anthony Hecht’s “Rara Avis in Terris” (The Light and the Darkness, 2001). This late poem, he says, “affirm[s] the almost forgotten sweetness of life, the elegance of the `monogamous songbirds.’” This will surprise some. Hecht isn’t shy about taking on grim subject matter, including the Holocaust, grimmest of all. Nor is he, in this poem and elsewhere, happy with the drift of Western culture, the breakdown of values and contempt for our inheritance. “Rara Avis in Terris” seems particularly pertinent during this presidential season:

“Ruffling with all the pride
of testosteronic felons,
They storm the airwaves with implied
Threats and theatrical aplomb
Or cruise the sky with delta stealth and gelid
Chestsful of combat-decorative fruit salad.”

Hecht takes the title of his poem, first published in the New Republic in 1997, from the best-known of Juvenal’s Satires, VI, also the source of the Roman’s most-quoted line, “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” This customarily is translated as “But who guards the guards?” Hecht adapts from “Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno”; that is, “a bird as rare upon the earth as a black swan.” The speaker hopes to dissuade Postumus from marriage, and his indictment of Roman women is certain to offend today’s delicate sensibilities. Keep in mind that Juvenal is describing the perfect wife, and that Hecht dedicates the poem “to Helen,” his wife, and in his final liner he refers to “A quarter-century of faultless love.” Inevitably, Hecht, a longtime university instructor, takes on the squalor of contemporary education:

“It’s the same in the shady groves of academe:
Cold eye and primitive beak and callused foot
Conjunctive to destroy
all things of high repute,
Whole epics, Campion’s songs, Tolstoy,
Euclid and logic’s enthymeme,
As each man bares his scalpel, whets his saber,
As though enjoined to deconstruct his neighbor.”

Jonathan Post in A Thickness of Particulars: The Poetry of Anthony Hecht (2015) says Hecht in “Rara Avis in Terris” borrows “a topic and a stanzaic form” from Richard Wilbur’s “All These Birds.” I see this, though Wilbur is gentle –“Come, stranger, sister, dove: / Put on the reins of love,” – and Hecht more harshly satirical:

“. . . there are the Bacchae,
The ladies’ auxiliary of the raptor clan
With their bright cutlery,
sororal to a man.
And feeling peckish, they foresee
An avian banquet in the sky,
Feasting off dead white European male,
Or local living ones, if all else fails.”

Now I see what, Bruce, my friend, a retired English teacher, is getting at. Hecht died in 2004, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to see what he, a highly civilized man, would make of Clinton, Trump & Co.? Hecht, Bruce says, “possesses a magisterial quietude, an unfrenzied but zealous defense of excellence in art, defending the genius mediocre minds attack, feasting off their envy of the dead white males, some cretin telling a class they are morally superior to Tolstoy. It’s a cliché, of course, but I have pretty much decided to abandon institutions, most of them rotten to their core, and hide away and listen to men like Hecht.”

No comments: