Monthly Archives: March 2016

Title: The Jumping Boy
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

Language, it is true, must be interpreted in context, yet equally it must be interpreted out of context, if its true meaning is to be deciphered. Context may resolve an ambiguity of meaning, but it may be the act of resolution and not the meaning settled upon that is the real locus of semantic action. But this is all very abstract, and bears illustration.

In Geoffrey Hill’s “The Jumping Boy,” the ambiguous sentence is comes in the third stanza: “I / could do that.” In the first two stanzas, the poetic voice has presented the jumping boy, “the boy / who jumps as I speak.” These stanzas are rich, and it is for lack of time, not material, that I do not analyze them here.

It is this jumping, now described as (possibly) “levitation,” that earns the comment, “I / could do that.” But here we must choose between two readings: (1) “I could do that if I tried.” (2) “I could do that once (but no more).” With hindsight we may see that the first two stanzas hint at a resolution, but it is not firmly provided until the next sentence: “Give my remembrance / to his new body.”

With this, the very sentence sags, as the possibility, however remote, of the first reading’s braggadocio gives way to the ineluctability of the second reading’s weariness. It is as if, in this moment of resolution, we heard the old bones creak. The mismatch of remembrance and body, the incompleteness both of vigorous but unmemoried youth and nostalgiac but effete old age, is brought to the reader’s consciousness by forcing him to experience a sentence that, out of context, could be a youthful boast, but, in context, is clearly revealed as a nostalgic wisp.

We thus return to our opening thought: language must be interpreted out of context if its true meaning is to be deciphered. We must look at the possibilities excluded by its resolution into actuality.

Title: In Ipsley Church Lane I
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

“In Ipsley Church Lane I” is a tangle, metrically speaking, a blank verse poem with, by my count, a total of four lines in perfect iambic pentameter. Yet there is no sense of chaos. Rather of deliberate control. A few of the variations are exhilarating, and deserve comment.

Clogged thorn-blossom sticks, like burnt cauliflower,
to the festered hedge-rim.

As I read these lines, the stresses fall on the bolded syllables. On this reading, the first line is entirely in falling meter, with two double trochees separated by a regular trochee. Fitting such an extreme departure into the poem could be difficult, but Hill manages it ably, ending the prior line with a feminine ending that creates some space, some breathing room prior to the abrupt and heavy “Clogged thorn-blossoms.”

The effect of this variation is dazzling. The stresses fall on words that, for lack of a more apt description, I can only call thick: ‘clogged’, ‘thorn’, ‘sticks’, ‘burnt’. This leaves ‘blossom’ and ‘flower’ unstressed, calling attention to the ugliness of the image. The “clogging” of the stresses, tied up as so many of them are in double trochees, only enhances this ugliness.

The next line, which I have only partially quoted, returns to pentameter, but with an opening anapestic substitution (and another later in the line). This completes the effect, creating a space of four consecutive unstressed syllables (enabled by the heavy pause due to the end-stoppage of the previous line) that only heightens the effect of the previous line’s clumping of stresses.

The final two lines of the poem contain less drastic but equally potent variations:

Where the quick spider mummifies its dead
rage shall move somnolent yet unappeased.

Here there are only two substitutions (or three, depending on how you count): a double iamb in the first line, and a line-opening trochee in the second. Yet the effect is tremendous. Whereas the double trochees above clogged the rhythm, here the first line skates by. The slight clustering of stresses in “quick spider,” rather than slow down the line’s movement, instead feels like two quick, darting jabs. Introduced as they are by the very light, completely unstressed “where the,” the first five syllables of the line pass in a flash. The rest of the line continues this quick movement: “mummifies” flows easily, and thus we don’t slow down at all until “dead,” by which time we get a much deserved rest.

But then the next line kicks in with its opening stress: “rage.” This is a classic substitution, one of if not the most common, the line-opening trochee. Frequently such substitutions involve a verb, an action that starts the line with a jolt, but here the noun “rage” serves just as well in this capacity. Immediately, however – and this is where the rhythmic variation switches from “effective” to “genius” – the line slows down. Though neither in fact takes a stress, both “shall” and “move,” could do so in other contexts. They are only unstressed relative to their surroundings, making the opening four syllables incredibly heavy. “Somnolent” continues this plodding. Contrast it with “mummifies.” Where the three syllables of the latter all slur together, each syllable of “somnolent” stands distinctly apart. A harsh “m/n” replaces the smooth “m/m,” and a similarly sharp break occurs with the second syllable break (compare “no/lent” with “pol/len”). “Unappeased” contains similarly discrete syllables, and so moves with similar lethargy.

The promise of rage with which the line begins thus soon becomes mired in somnolence, in contrast to the quick jabs of the spider in the line above. Here the discrepancy between the lines is primarily created not by a heavy use of substitutions (though the two substitutions aid the effect), but by a careful attention to the rhythmic variations possible even within pure iambs.

Such is a taste of the rhythmic mastery of this poem. Many more rewards await the attentive reader.

Title: Chromatic Tunes
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

I do not pretend to be able to put together the four pieces of this poem – five if one in­cludes the title. Thus I shall focus on but one part. Perhaps articulating some small observation will bring its companions in tow. Perhaps not. We shall see. This suffices for an apology.

Here are the lines under consideration:

featureless idling strews the wintry strands;
woods bare their clutter; sea birds appear
to boister with the waves, to wrench themselves
windborne. The soughing moon-tide’s hulkingness,
massive passivity, works its gnarls of light.

What stands out from these lines – aside from their utter shift in content from the rest of the poem – is a certain paradoxical quality. This is most obvious in the lines about the “soughing moon-tide.” This is described as a “massive passivity,” and yet immediately we see it as it “works its gnarls of light” – that is, we see it active. And now alert for this, we see it elsewhere. “featureless idling,” another sort of passivity, nonetheless is joined to a quite active verb: “strews.” And the woods, which cannot act at all, nonetheless “bare their clutter.” The description of the seabirds is trickier. ‘Boisterous’ implies rough, turbulent behavior – but especially conjoined to wind and weather. Hill’s “boister with the waves” thus suggests that it is the waves that are actively boisterous, while the birds merely follow. And yet they “wrench themselves / windborne.” Each of the four images thus creates an expectation of passivity, only to show activity in it after all.

Does this relate to the rest of the poem? It must, but I can only conjecture as to how. The opening lines describe erotic dreams, but insist that the speaker does not “spend desire / that things should be so.” Here perhaps is passivity, of sorts, and yet it is the speaker who “conclude[s] erotic dreams” – activity. And at the end the question is whether to go (active) or stay (passive). But perhaps these are simply forced associations, for I do not yet see the central organizing principle of the poem.

I have reached the end of my powers; “Further I cannot judge”…

Title: Without Title
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

This is an essay in the truest sense, an attempt, an endeavor at interpretation, but cer­tainly nothing final. It takes, in my experience (n=2) an hour to read a poem by Geoffrey Hill, an hour before the words begin to, if not quite speak, at least suggest in unison. On a first and even a tenth pass, suggestions abound, but in clamorous, quarrelsome voices. But on the eleventh…

‘Pheromones’, the first word of “Without Title,” is a misdirection, and not for the reason explicitly given: “something other / bemuses mourning.” It suggests a sexual attraction, and thus we expect the poem to have a woman as its subject. The later mention to “vows unmade / shared life aborted” only furthers this sense. Yet it later it is “my fellow townsman” who appears to be gone, as we watch the poetic voice “culling the bay bowers to which he [the townsman] / cannot return.” And it is “his” sign (“a bloom-struck cherry bough”) that is contrasted with “ours.”

The death in question, then, is of the townsman. The poem queries the possibility of a “restitution” of the relationship, concluding, “no restitution but with wired laurels.” These laurels are the key: the plant is symbolic of poetry, and forces on me the conclusion that the relationship between the poetic voice and the dead man was a poetic one, perhaps akin to that between the voice of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the beautiful youth. Of course this need not mean it is not sexual, in one form or another.

Even if this should be entirely wrong, I may still appreciate the recollection of this relationship as resting on “a genius / for misconception” – indeed I may hope that such genius may characterize my own reading.

Thus far, and no further, have I made it through this thicket.

Title: Improvisation on ‘O Welt ich muss dich lassen’
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

When Geoffrey Hill says, in the middle of Improvisation on ‘O Welt ich muss dich lassen’, “I had a dream in which this all is real,” what he means is not what the clause first suggests. What is real is not what has just been described – the cheap comedians, a goose rehearsing its honk, a longing Bacchantic immortality. This show, and the longing that it should never end, or at least that it should have an after-party, rather, is precisely what is unreal.

What is real, rather, is the end of the show, “where we rip off our masks” and accept that we must leave the world. What is real is a world where “Dead friends are no remoter than in life,” where “I can tell / limbo-dancers from wizards.” Here, where one can distinguish the genuine from the performative, is reality.

But just as our poet can insist upon this, “It’s curtains”—not merely a return to the show but a return to it just at its end. The dream ends: he awakens to the end of this unreal dream.