The Jumping Boy

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.

  1. I see at least one more possibility. The poet’s apostrophe. “I could do that” meaning, yes, here, on the third look, I might call this jump levitation.

    The attenuation of each stanza is a movement towards the origin of the jump, more and more circumscribed. In the first strophe, the jump is ringed by the road, “broad contourings drawn out of sight.” In the second, by the girl’s gaze. Time too is dilated. In the first stanza, the gesture to time takes its broadest span: “everywhere given back/to the future of memory.” In the second, we can only reach the past through allusion. The third take us to his body, made new by the act, both the act of the poet (“give my remembrance”) and the boy’s (“This may be levitation”), simul et semel. Compare to the first stanza, where the land is given back to the “future of memory.” Here it is seen with a nostalgic eye, seen in light of remembrance rather than experience. In the third stanza, it is remembrance, rather than memory, that is given. Givign remembrance is an act of the present. The jump and it’s poetic remembrance is an episode, something that can be repeated. The final stanza ends with the origin — “go.” The identification of the poet with the boy’s body is complete, spanning two tenses: “the boy I was shouts go.”

    This is not the nostalgia of “So was I myself once a swinger of birches/And so I dream of going back to be.” Rather, the poet and the jumper are one. The poem is the running start to Rhodes. Finally: hic Rhodus, hic salta! And what is the poetic leap? This leap across time, the hypostasis in the adjacent actions (“was shouts”), is Pindar exorcising Wordsworth.


    • I like this (sorry about the slowness to reply). It’s not straightforwardly compatible with my reading, but I think they can coexist in a friendly antagonism, allowing the poem to oscillate between two quite distinct moods, both of which are part of Age’s experience of Youth. (Or so I assume. I am not old – yet.)


      • You are one of the oldest youths I have ever met. (Ernst Robert Curtius’ topos of choice, I may add!)


      • You are, as it happens, not the first to tell me this: Yujing insists that I am a Chinese old man. So long as I am not mistaken for a Stoic, I think it an accurate enough judgment.



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