Monthly Archives: June 2016

Poem: Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Complete text of the poem can be found in this review

In researching this poem I discovered that the ‘epiphany’ in the title of this poem and the last is not the vernacular sense of “any sudden and important manifestation or realization,” not even the somewhat more religious sense of a specifically divine manifestation, but a particular Christian service, celebrated on January 6, that in the west represents the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles (in the form of the three wise men). This renders the question I asked of the previous poem (what was the content of the epiphany) somewhat impertinent—though not entirely. After all, if Hill’s is a living faith, the prospect of new epiphanies must remain open…

In any event, with this new understanding the two poems form a powerful contrast. The one locates epiphany in nature, with light from the sun. The other finds it in the city, not in the church just outside it, below, where “the Stour slovens / through its narrow cut,” beneath the “amber salt” of streetlamps. I confess I find more in the former, but perhaps only because the latter is a bit knottier, and I have not yet untied it.

I recommend, by the by, the review above (linked for the full text), which has helpful comments on both poems (though the author seems not to realize that the Epiphany is a particular holiday). I find in this sentence something like my interpretation of the epiphany of the prior poem: “this is an epiphany in which God communicates not through but simply as the scene, and so the mimetic recreation of the scene is also the nearest thing to a recreation of the epiphany.”

Poem: Epiphany at Hurcott
Poet: Geoffrey Hill

Like Offertorium: December 2002, Epiphany at Hurcott is a poem of place and mood. But while the title promises us an epiphany, we are nowhere told the content of this supposed mental revolution. Offertorium offers us some glimpse of the spiritual in its talk of distortion, departure, and restitution, but Epiphany at Hurcott gives us only the setting.

We start in “profoundly silent January,” immediately creating an expectation of a drab white or grey scene. It is surprising, then, to find out that it “shows up / clamant with colour.” Here it should be noted that ‘clamant’ opens the second line with a trochaic substitution that is in its own way a little surprise. The rest of the poem presents to us this clamant green and black and orange, the “luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole,” the “red earth, / dampened to umber,” the cliffs that “glitter like cut anthracite,” the reflection in a lake of the “tawny sky.”

What is the epiphany? We are not told. Perhaps the hope is that by describing the scene with sufficient vividness, we can be brought to share it. Perhaps the poet simply recognizes that what is internal resists expression, can only be brought out by indirections such as describing the location in which it was felt. Or perhaps the epiphany is merely this: the realization that this place could be described in this way.

Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Poem: Offertorium: December 2002
Link: this review contains a complete text of the poem

Perhaps the most beautiful poem thus far in Without Title, “Offertorium: December 2002” is simple in structure, rich in lyricism. Grammatically, it is not even a complete sentence, merely a collection of dependent clauses describing what Hill’s Offertorium prayer is for. It is for, first, the cloistral solitude of orchids hemmed in by yew trees. The mood of this poem is fixed to that place. It is important that the place first appears as a “stone holt of darkness,” only subsequently revealing itself as possessing a kind of light all its own, “claustral light.”

Once we are ensconced therein, things get more abstract. The Offertorium is also “for late distortions lodged by first mistakes,” a suggestion—if I read it correctly—of our distorted relation to the world that is a consequence of original sin. It is “for all departing, as our selves, from time,” that is, for death. And it is “for random justice held with things half-known,” a somewhat ominous picture of an order beyond our knowledge, that can only appear to us as random. This uneasiness only increases with the “retribution” of the final line and its weighty “if.”

Metrically, the poem is in blank verse. It does not wear its scansion on its face, but rather allows a number of choice points where the reader must choose either how to distribute stresses or whether or not to enunciate or slur a word. These decisions may lead to departures from the base pattern or may agree with it. As I read the poem, there is only one substitution: a trochaic substitution at the start of the third line, prepared by a feminine ending at the end of the second. I scan it as follows (stresses bolded):

stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light.

This is one of the choice points: either “stone” or “holt” could take a stress. Here “stone” calls for attention because it contrasts with the plant imagery that has thus far dominated, whereas “holt” continues that imagery. As the greater departure from expectation, “stone” takes, in my eyes, the line’s first stress. So decided, the substitution takes on special significance: it is a rhythmical hiccup that is immediately followed by admission of a semantic hiccup. The end of the line corrects the first half, replacing the darkness with “claustral light” which is perhaps distinguishable from darkness only to the trained eye, but which is distinct nonetheless.

Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Poem: Wild Clematis in Winter

This poem presents an image, and through it, a mood. The starkest details in this image come in the center of the poem:

the earth lying shotten, the sun shrouded off-white,
wet ferns ripped bare, flat as fishes’ backbones

The earth is ‘shotten’, a term normally used to describe herring that have ejected their spawn (which, it seems, decreases their value as food). It is a powerful choice of word, suggesting both the vigor of life (through the suggestion of spawning) and the disconnect of the speaker from this vigor: the speaker can see only the diminished value. This hint comes to full fruition in the next line, when the wet ferns lie on the ground looking like fishes’ backbones. Here the vigor of life has transmuted into death, more befitting the mood.

The poem does, in my view, contain a misstep. The first two lines establish that the scene is a roadside scene, a view from a speeding car leaving the country for the city. To capture this, Hill describes the view as “blurry detail.” This misses the mark. That the view is blurry I could surmise from the fact that the car is speeding, and ‘detail’ is a vague term (suggestive of the viewers’ inability to make out the details themselves), a third hammering home of the point. It is tiresome, and weakens the poem.

I take the phrase “inner rot” from a friend of mine, the one who recommended, wisely, that I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It is an apt phrase: there is something rotten, lethargic, about Castorp’s condition. Not the tuberculosis, which though within the bounds of the flesh is still external, but something even further inward, too deep to show on an x-ray. Not for nothing does the novel’s increasingly Settembrini-esque narrator describe Castorp’s sanatorium-bound existence as “hermetic.” He is sealed off from the world, never quite able to make contact with it. Something has unsuited him for the world and its industry, though no one can quite say what—ineffable rot.

And yet, it escapes all moralism. Settembrini and Naphta both try, to be sure, but their speeches slide off their target as if he were coated in oil. Oh, to be sure, a phrase here and an idea there will stick, but never the whole, never the intended point. He is immune. Moralism cannot save him, because his rottenness does not perceive itself as such. So it hears these moralistic judgments and transmutes them, until they have lost all of their original force, and taken on another. It is no accident that it is the outbreak of war that draws him back to the flatlands, war and nothing else. And is this salvation for him? Our narrator would like us to think so, but our narrator suffers from a certain rottenness of his own, that of the lightly mocking genius…