Within this poem, readers can interpret allusions to the poet’s service as a rifleman in the US Army during World War II. He alludes to the atrocities committed by Nazis, specifically at Buchenwald (which he witnessed for himself). This poem was published in The Hard Hours, Hecht’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection released in 1967.
The title is also of interest. Within the collection, the title is delivered within quotation marks. This informs readers that the author took the line from another source. Specifically, the words are sourced from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who is said to have spoken them on his deathbed. Goethe is referenced towards the end of the poem, as are his final words.
The poem is dedicated to Heinrich Blücher and Hannah Arendt. The latter was a political philosopher known for Origins of Totalitarianism and other works about evil and fascism. The former, Heinrich Blücher, was a German philosopher and husband to Arendt.
Explore More Light! More Light!
‘More Light! More Light!’ by Anthony Hecht is a haunting poem that depicts death using memorable images of light and dark.
The poem begins with a description of a condemned man’s testament to his innocence in 16th century England. The poet goes on, to describe the man’s execution (by burning at the stake). It is depicted in all of its horrific details. The poet states that although his death was unimaginable, the man was able to maintain his dignity. The same cannot be said for the deaths described in the rest of the poem. The speaker takes readers to Nazi Germany, specifically within a German forest outside the concentration camp Buchenwald. Here, three prisoners lose their lives.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘More Light! More Light!’ by Anthony Hecht is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. For example, in the first stanza, “time” and “crime” rhyme, and “execution” and “thus” do not. The lines remain consistent throughout the poem, creating a measured and formal poem that addresses a dark subject that, in the past, some have suggested should not serve as the subject of literary or visual arts.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: throughout, the poet alludes to the horrors committed by the Nazi regime during World War II.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example “blistered” and “black” in line three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: one of the most important literary devices in ‘More Light! More Light!’ It occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions that are easy to imagine that require readers use their senses. For example, “Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill / Nor light from heaven appeared.”
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the fifth stanza as well as lines three and four of the sixth stanza.
Composed in the Tower before his execution
These moving verses, and being brought at that time
Painfully to the stake, submitted, declaring thus:
“I implore my God to witness that I have made no crime.”
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker begins by referencing the “Tower.” The surprising beginning sets the reader within 16th century England and within the Tower of London. A prisoner is waiting to be executed. To fill the moments before his death, he’s writing poetry. In the fourth line of the stanza, he declares that “God to witness that I have made no crime.” Here, he is suggesting that despite soon losing his life, he is being accused unjustly. He submits his poem to the readers and his statement to God.
It’s also noted, in the third line, the man is going to be burned at the “stake.” The tone is direct and clear-headed in these lines, despite the terrible events that are about to take place.
The dark beginning of the poem (which is further emphasized through the allusion to Goethe’s death in the title) sets the scene for what’s to come.
Nor was he forsaken of courage, but the death was horrible,
Bubbled and burst as he howled for the Kindly Light.
While it is one thing to be courageous in the moments leading up to death, it is another thing to maintain that courage as one is meeting their death. Hecht emphasizes this fact in the second stanza when he writes that the man was not “forsaken of courage.”
His death “was horrible.” This is a very simple and direct way of describing what occurred within the Tower. His horrible death is further illustrated in the following lines when the speaker describes how the gun powder (which was hung around the man’s neck to quicken his death) did not ignite. Instead, the man’s legs caught fire and he was slowly burnt to death. This is a metaphor in which the speaker compares the man’s legs to “blistered sticks.”
The last line contains a clear allusion to God seen through the phrase “Kindly Light.” These capitalized words call to mind a vision of what the speaker sees as being on the other side of this dark, and terrible death. The “light” is juxtaposed against the gun powder, the “black sap,” and the man’s screams.
And that was but one, and by no means one of the worst;
That shall judge all men, for his soul’s tranquillity.
In the third stanza, the speaker alludes to the fact that this man’s death, although horrible, was not the worst. The man was “at least” permitted his “pitiful dignity.” Here, without providing readers with specific details, the writer asks readers to consider what could possibly be worse than what happened to the unnamed man in the Tower. He suggests that other deaths were without dignity and were far more torturous.
The “dignity” that the speaker describes in the second line is described further in the following two lines. The man was allowed to say a prayer to his God before he died. He attested to his innocence and readied himself.
We move now to outside a German wood.
Three men are there commanded to dig a hole
In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down
And be buried alive by the third, who is a Pole.
It’s in the fourth stanza that the speaker moves away from 16th century England and into the bulk of the poem— Nazi Germany and the death camps. The narrative poem continues in a German forest (“German wood) where three men are commanded to dig a hole. Within the hole, “two Jews” are told to lie down. These two were then buried alive by the third, a Polish man. As with the rest of the poem, these lines are delivered in clear language that is easy to understand. There’s a little emotion, something that makes the scene all the more horrible to imagine.
The speaker is describing one of many horrors that occurred in Germany, and the surrounding countries, during the reign of Adolf Hitler. Interpreting these lines is quite easy due to the poet’s use of language. Throughout, readers are likely to experience feelings of dread, revulsion, and shame in regard to what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
Not light from the shrine at Weimar beyond the hill
Nor light from heaven appeared. But he did refuse.
A Lüger settled back deeply in its glove.
He was ordered to change places with the Jews.
In this stanza, readers can find another allusion to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (in addition to the title). The speaker describes a “shrine at Weimar.” This refers to a museum dedicated to Goethe that was not a “light” in the darkness of the horrors of WWII. There was no “light,” literal or metaphorical, from the shrine nor did a light from “heaven” appear.
Within the second line, readers can find an example of caesura. This occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line, usually seen through an example of punctuation or a natural pause in the metrical pattern. This is one of the only examples within ‘More Light! More Light!’ and is, therefore, all the more effective. The line brings in more information about the Polish man, who is only referred to as “he.”
The man refuses to participate in the deaths of the Jews so he is ordered to switch places with them. He has to lie down in the grave and await death.
Also in these lines, the poet uses an example of synecdoche or a figure of speech in which a “part” of something is used to represent its “whole.” In this case, the German soldier’s “Lüger” is used to identify him.
Much casual death had drained away their souls.
To dig him out again and to get back in.
The Jews leave their grave and switch places with a Polish man. He lays down, bravely, not unlike the man from the first stanzas who was preparing for his death by burning. The man is “quivering” but, he accepts his fate bravely. He is willing to die in order to save the lives of, or at least not be responsible for, the deaths of the two Jewish men.
Things soon change once more. The man is buried up to his chin but, when only his head was exposed, the Polish man is ordered out of the grave and the two Jewish men are ordered back in. There is remarkable cruelty in this reversal of roles. Life and death hang on the whim of one German soldier who remains nameless throughout the poem.
No light, no light in the blue Polish eye.
He was shot in the belly and in three hours bled to death.
The first lines of the seventh stanza are a reflection of the title. Here, the speaker describes how there was “no light “in the “blue Polish eye.” He has been forced to bury these two men alive and the “light” that may have once been in his eyes has been extinguished. This is, at this point, metaphorical. He is dead within his soul but, moments later he is shot “in the belly” and bleeds to death three hours later. He suffers a slow and agonizing death, which is made worse by the fact that he has lost his dignity. (This death should be compared with the death of the man in the first stanzas.)
No prayers or incense rose up in those hours
And settled upon his eyes in a black soot.
There were no prayers said for this man’s death, nor the deaths of many of those who perished within the concentration camps and death camps of Nazi Germany. The years of suffering were quiet with “no… incense” rising up in those “hours” or “years.”
The ovens (a reference to the crematoriums used in the death camps) contained “mute / Ghosts” who had no say in their fate, no dignity prior to their deaths, and had no one praying for them for a long time. The speaker brings the poem back around to the image of the Polish man. The “black soot” that represents the cremated bodies of the millions slaughtered by the Nazi regime, settles “upon his eyes.” This horrifying image concludes the poem with yet another reference to darkness and the ability to see.
While death is the primary theme of this poem, lightness, and darkness, as well as the ability to see, metaphorically and literally, or also important themes. The poet continually returns to contrasting lightness and darkness, such as is seen in the title and through the deceased Polish man’s soot-covered eyes at the end of the poem.
This poem is set in 16th century England for the first few stanzas and then transfers to the concentration camp Buchenwald in Nazi Germany during World War II for the bulk of the poem. Specifically, the poet describes a “German word,” or Forest, in which three prisoners are executed.
The message is that throughout time, human beings have suffered terrible deaths at the hands of their fellow men and women. But, some of these deaths are made less horrible through the preservation of dignity. The speaker compares two situations, one in 16th century England and one in Nazi Germany.
The tone is dark and direct. Despite the terrible subject matter discussed within the eight stanzas of the poem, the speaker’s tone remains clear and decisive. The lines may evoke emotion but, the poet does not use specifically emotional language.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘The Survivor’ by Primo Levi – a powerful and heart-wrenching poem that depicts the poet’s guilt after surviving the Holocaust.
- ‘On the Beach’ by Anne Ranasinghe – a dark and disturbing poem in which the poet explores sadism through the narrative of a dog’s fate at the beach.
- ‘A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto’ by Czeslaw Milosz provides a vivid description of the Warsaw Ghetto demolished by Germans in May 1943.