POETRY: Sacrifice, by Anthony Hecht

(“Sacrifice,” appears in Anthony Hecht’s last collection of poetry, The Darkness and the Light.  Hecht wrote poetry as a way of responding to his experience in World War II.)


Long years, and I found favor
In the sight of the Lord, who brought me out of Ur
To where his promise lay,
There with him to confer
On Justice and Mercy and the appointed day
Of Sodom’s ashen fate;
For me he closeted sweetness in the date,
And gave to salt its savor.

Three promises he gave,
Came like three kings or angels to my door:
His purposes concealed
In coiled and kerneled store
He planted as a seedling that would yield
In my enfeebled years
A miracle that would command my tears
With piercings of the grave.

“Old man, behold Creation,”
Said the Lord, “the leaping hills, the thousand-starred
Heavens and watery floor.
Is anything too hard
For the Lord, who shut all seas within their doors?”
And then, for his name’s sake
He led me, knowing where my heart would break,
Into temptation.

The whole of my long life
Pivoted on one terrible day at dawn.
Isaac, my son, and I
Were to Moriah gone.
There followed an hour in which I wished to die,
Being visited by these things:
My name called out, the beat of gigantic wings,
Faggots, and flame, and knife.


Youthful I was and trusting and strong of limb,
The fresh-split firewood roped tight to my back,
And I bore unknowing that morning my funeral pyre.
My father, face averted, carried the flame,
And, in its scabbard, the ritual blade he bore.
It seemed to me at the time a wearisome trek.

I thought of my mother, how, in her age, the Lord
Had blessed her among women, giving her me
As joke and token both, unlikelihood
Being his way. But where, where from our herd
Was the sacrifice, I asked my father. He,
In a spasm of agony, bound me hand and foot.

I thought, I am poured out like water, like wax
My heart is melted in the midst of my bowels.

Both were tear-blinded. Hate and love and fear
Wrestled to ruin us, savage us beyond cure.
And the fine blade gleamed with the fury of live coals
Where we had reared an altar among the rocks.

Peace be to us both, to father Abraham,
To me, elected the shorn stunned lamb of God—
We were sentenced, and reprieved by the same Voice—
And to all our seed, by this terror sanctified,
To be numbered even as the stars at the small price
Of an old scapegoated and thicket-baffled ram.


It was widely known that the army of occupation
Was in full retreat. The small provincial roads
Rumbled now every night with tanks and trucks,
Echoed with cries in German, much Mach schnell,
Zurück, ganz richtig, augenblicklich, jawolh,

Audible in the Normandy countryside.
So it had been for days, or, rather, nights,
The troops at first making their moves in darkness,
But pressures of haste toward the end of March
Left stragglers to make their single way alone,
At their own risk, and even in daylight hours.

Since the soldiers were commandeering anything
They needed—food, drink, vehicles of all sorts—
One rural family dismantled their bicycle,
Daubed the chrome parts—rims, sprocket, spokes—with mud,
And wired them carefully to the upper boughs
Of the orchard. And the inevitable came
In the shape of a young soldier, weighted down
With pack and bedroll, rifle, entrenching tools,
Steel helmet and heavy boots just after dawn.
The family was at breakfast. He ordered them out
In front of the house with abusive German words
They couldn’t understand, but gesture and rifle
Made his imperious wishes perfectly clear.
They stood in a huddled group, all nine of them.
And then he barked his furious command:
Fahrrad!They all looked blank. He shouted again:
FAHRRAD! FAHRRAD! FAHRRAD!, as though sheer volume
Joined with his anger would make his meaning plain.
The father of the family experimentally
Inquired, Manger? The soldier, furious,
At last dredged up an explosive Bicyclette,
Proud of himself, contemptuous of them.
To this the father in a small pantomime—
Shrugged shoulders, palms turned out, a helpless, long,
Slow shaking of the head, then the wide gesture
Of an arm, taking in all his property—
Conveyed Nous n’avons pas de bicyclettes
More clearly than his words. To the young soldier
This seemed unlikely. No one could live this far
From neighbors, on a poor untraveled road
That lacked phone lines, without the usual means
Of transport. There was no time to search
The house, the barn, cowsheds, coops, pens and grounds.
He looked at the frightened family huddled together,
And with the blunt nose of his rifle barrel
Judiciously singled out the eldest son,
A boy perhaps fourteen, but big for his years,
Obliging him to place himself alone
Against the whitewashed front wall of the house.
Then, at the infallible distance of ten feet,
With rifle pointed right at the boy’s chest,
The soldier shouted what was certainly meant
To be his terminal order: BICYCLETTE!

It was still early on a chilly morning.
The water in the tire-treads of the road
Lay clouded, polished pale and chalked with frost,
Like the paraffin-sealed coverings of preserves.
The very grass was a stiff lead-crystal gray,
Though splendidly prismatic where the sun
Made its slow way between the lingering shadows
Of nearby fence posts and more distant trees.
There was leisure enough to take full note of this
In the most minute detail as the soldier held
Steady his index finger on the trigger.

It wasn’t charity. Perhaps mere prudence,
Saving a valuable round of ammunition
For some more urgent crisis. Whatever it was,
The soldier reslung his rifle on his shoulder,
Turned wordlessly and walked on down the road
The departed German vehicles had taken.

There followed a long silence, a long silence.
For years they lived together in that house,
Through daily tasks, through all the family meals,
In agonized, unviolated silence.

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