The proper role of criticism [is] as a musical obbligato; that is, a counterpart that must constantly strive to move in strict harmony with and intellectual counterpoint to its subject, and remain always subordinate to the text upon which it presumes to comment."" In his preface, Hecht sets forth the manifesto of this graceful group of essays, implicitly chiding today's academic metacritics who apply theories to texts (not, as Hecht would wish, placing the text at the center). Hecht is particularly elegant and eloquent on contemporary American poetry, from the tension between truth and fiction in Robert Lowell's autobiographical lyrics to the ""musicianship"" of Richard Wilbur. Hecht's best essay evokes the unique poetic voice of Elizabeth Bishop: ""Hers is a poetry, though in no obvious way, of isolation and loneliness, without either the stoicism and desolation of Hardy or the wistfulness and self-mockery of Philip Larkin. Instead, there is an infinitely touching valor. . ."" He is equally perspicacious on Frost, Auden and Dickinson, and the writing throughout is a model of form suiting function--the lucid exposition of well-chosen ideas. Hecht is less convincing in his two essays on Shakespearean drama (Othello and The Merchant of Venice, plays whose manifold ambiguities have been much discussed), perhaps because he poses central problems (tone in Othello; characterization in Merchant) that require a wider approach than his single tool of sympathetic close reading can afford. Hecht's ""new-critical"" method works well, however, in an extended essay on Marvell's ""The Garden"" and Keats' ""Ode to a Nightingale""--an unusual comparative reading that captures the energies and langours of both poems. All in all, literary essays of rare quality.