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.