Chromatic Tunes

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:

……………………………………Otherwise
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”…

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Parry

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