A Fall

Anthony Hecht

Those desolate, brute, chilling sublimities,

Unchanging but as the light may chance to fall,

Deserts of snow, forlorn barrens of rock,

What could be more indifferent to man’s life

Than your average Alp, stripped to the blackened bone

Above the tree line, except where the iced rags,

Patches and sheets of winter cling yearlong?

The cowbell’s ludicrous music, the austere

Sobrieties of Calvin, precision watches,

A cheese or two, and that is all the Swiss

Have given the world, unless we were to cite

The questionable morals of their banks.

But how are people to live in dignity

When at two p.m. the first shadows of night,

Formed by the massive shoulder of some slope,

Cast, for the rest of the day, entire valleys—

Their window boxes of geraniums,

Their cobbles, pinecones, banners and coffee-cups—

Into increasing sinks and pools of dark?

And that is but half the story. The opposing slope

Keeps morning from its flaxen charities

Until, on midsummer days, eleven-thirty,

When fresh birdsong and cow dung rinse the air

And all outdoors still glistens with night-dew.

All this serves to promote a state of mind

Cheerless and without prospects. But yesterday

I let myself, in spite of dark misgivings,

Be talked into a strenuous excursion

Along one high ridge promising a view.

And suddenly, at a narrowing of the path,

The whole earth fell away, and dizzily

I beheld the most majestic torrent in Europe,

A pure cascade, over two hundred feet,

Falling straight down—it was like Rapunzel’s hair,

But white, as if ageing and disappointment

Left her bereft of suitors. Down it plunged,

Its great, continuous, unending weight

Toppling from above in a long shaft

Or carven stem that broke up at its base

Into enormous rhododendron blooms

Of spray, a dense array of shaken blossoms.

I teetered perilously, scared and dazed,

And slowly, careful of both hand and foot,

Made my painstaking way back down the trail.

That evening in my bedroom I recalled

The scene’s terror and grandeur, my vertigo

Mixed with a feeling little short of awe.

And I retraced my steps in the secure

Comfort of lamplight on a Baedeker.

That towering waterfall I just had viewed

At what had seemed the peril of my life

Was regarded locally with humorous

Contempt, and designated the Pisse-Vache.

Anthony Hecht was a twentieth-century American poet. His work includes the Pulitzer Prize winning The Hard Hours and Flight Among the Tombs.
Originally published:
July 1, 1998


Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
Catherine Nicholson

Fady Joudah

The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work
Aria Aber

You Might Also Like


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.