Mathematics Considered as a Vice

By Anthony Hecht 1923–2004 Anthony Hecht
I would invoke that man
Who chipped for all posterity an ass
             (The one that Jesus rode)
Out of hard stone, and set its either wing
Among the wings of the most saintly clan
On Chartres Cathedral, and that it might sing
             The praise to all who pass
             Of its unearthly load,
Hung from its neck a harp-like instrument.
             I would invoke that man
             To aid my argument.

             The ass smiles on us all,
Being astonished that an ass might rise
             To such sure eminence
Not merely among asses but mankind,
Simpers, almost, upon the western wall
In praise of folly, who midst sow and kine,
             Saw with its foolish eyes
             Gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense
Enter the stable door, against all odds.
             The ass smiles on us all.
             Our butt at last is God’s.

             That man is but an ass—
More perfectly, that ass is but a man
             Who struggles to describe
Our rich, contingent and substantial world
In ideal signs: the dunged and pagan grass,
Misted in summer, or the mother-of-pearled
             Home of the bachelor-clam.
             A cold and toothless tribe
Has he for brothers, who would coldly think.
             That man is but an ass
             Who smells not his own stink.

             For all his abstract style
Speaks not to our humanity, and shows
             Neither the purity
Of heaven, nor the impurity beneath,
And cannot see the feasted crocodile
Ringed with St. Francis’ birds to pick its teeth,
             Nor can his thought disclose
             To normal intimacy,
Siamese twins, the double-beasted back,
             For all his abstract style
             Utters our chiefest lack.

             Despite his abstract style,
Pickerel will dawdle in their summer pools
             Lit by the flitterings
Of light dashing the gusty surfaces,
Or lie suspended among shades of bile
And lime in fluent shift, for all he says.
             And all the grey-haired mules,
             Simple and neuter things,
Will bray hosannas, blessing harp and wing.
             For all his abstract style,
             The ass will learn to sing.

Source: Poetry (September 2011).


This poem originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2011
 Anthony  Hecht


One of the leading voices of his generation, Anthony Hecht’s poetry is known for its masterful use of traditional forms and linguistic control. Extraordinarily erudite, Hecht’s verse often features allusions to French literature, Greek myth and tragedy, and English poets and poetry stretching from Wallace Stevens to John Donne. Hecht, who died in 2004, was often described as a “traditionalist.” George P. Elliott contended in the . . .

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SUBJECT Religion, Christianity, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza

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