On the Reality of the Symbol

Title: On the Reality of the Symbol
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

My brain has grappled with Hill’s “On the Reality of the Symbol” several times now, losing each bout – yet each was more evenly matched. What follows are the scattered insights I have gained from being each time rebuffed, not yet integrated into any whole.

1. To produce a psalm is like pissing blood, not yet painful but a sign of pain to come. The first symbol, translated into sharp bodily reality. Yet this poem is not a psalm. It is a translation, merely a symbol of the original. For this the mouth will suffice. Pain need not be feared.

2. Breath and pipes return, the breath now numbed, the pipes scoured, a purification. Old age. The breakdown of the body. Symbol interweaves with all too real decay, the “remote / cry of the blood sugars” heard over the “terminal welter of the flood.”

3. A bourgeois drama, a strange acting in life, life as a symbol of itself. And a bad joke: “late scaffold-humour.”

4. Here Hill plays with a tautology: “Everything mortal has to give from life.” The poetic turn is to make this something more than an analytic truth: “mortal” comes to represent a category that only accidentally “has to give from life,” that gives from life because it is subject to exhaustion “by ill-willing, the fictions of our joys.”

5. To be forgotten after death, yet to know you are numbered, as the stars. But beyond this I can make out little in the gleaming black.

6. The last line an indication that somehow in all that came before he has not said what he meant to say, that he has tried to express grief over his meaning. I wonder if this meaning is the same ghost he raped before – if the female ghost is a symbol of his meaning, or ‘meaning’ a symbol of the woman.



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