“Noble” is seldom used without a heavy dose of dismissive irony. The quality is rare and no longer valued. Among recent writers, the word might be fittingly applied to the work of Zbigniew Herbert and Geoffrey Hill, but the only American with a rightful claim to it is probably Anthony Hecht. All honor virtù without smirking, and possess great reserves of humor while embodying a certain Roman gravitas. In a 1996 interview I’ve just discovered, Hecht uses another adjective that, like “noble,” is overdue for retrofitting: gallant. My sense is that it survives as a sarcastic synonym for “chivalrous,” another linguistic and cultural fossil. As a noun it might refer to a man who daringly, and with many possible motives, holds the door for a woman. (See Hecht’s “Dilemma”: “Dark and amusing he is, this handsome gallant.”) The OED implies this when, in the word’s etymology section, it reports: “The early senses of the adjective in French are: `dashing, spirited, bold’ (obsolete in French, but the source of the prevailing sense in modern English).” Hecht uses gallant unexpectedly, in connection with the speaker in his great title poem in The Transparent Man (1990):
“Half of my imaginative model in that poem was Flannery O’Connor, whom I had known in Iowa and again in New York City after that. The speaker in `The Transparent Man’ dies of leukemia, not of lupus; and I went out of my way not to make this woman a southerner, a writer, or any of the things that Flannery so importantly was. But there was something about Flannery which was unbelievably gallant. It was that gallantry in her I admired and wanted to produce in my poem. It was the capacity to regard the imminence of your own death and feebleness with a kind of detachment which I thought was quite wonderful. This was what I was aiming for in that poem.”
The O’Connor connection never occurred to me. As in his Holocaust poems, Hecht in “The Transparent Man” chooses material inviting the sob-story treatment, and moves instinctively in the opposite direction. The dramatic monologue helps distance him from unearned emotion. The speaker never reduces herself to the disease that is killing her, and she understands the impact it has on others:
“Though they mean only good,
Families can become a sort of burden.
I’ve only got my father, and he won’t come,
Poor man, because it would be too much for him.
And for me, too, so it’s best the way it is.
He knows, you see, that I will predecease him,
Which is hard enough. It would take a callous man
To come and stand around and watch me failing.”
In a Feb. 11, 1958 letter to her friend Maryat Lee (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, 1979), O’Connor writes: “You didn’t know I had a DREAD DISEASE, didja? Well I got one. My father died of the same stuff at the age of 44 but the scientists hope to keep me here until I am 96. I owe my existence and cheerful countenance to the pituitary glands of thousands of pigs butchered daily in Chicago, Illinois at the Armour packing plant. If pigs wore garments I wouldn't be worthy to kiss the hems of them."
That’s gallantry, of a sort, though not to everyone’s taste. And so is this, later in the same letter: “I am bearing this with my usual magnificent fortitude.”