In Ipsley Church Lane I

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.

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