Poem: To Lucien Richard: On Suffering (link)
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
I read, yesterday, Stevens’ “Evening Without Angels” as a distraction from Hill’s “To Lucien Richard: On Suffering,” which was giving such interpretive troubles as Hill’s poems are wont to give. Fitting, then, that as I now return to Hill, I should find that he, too, is concerned with the presence or absence of angels:
So I said to them half-blinded which
of you is the angel? And which angel?
I did not think there were angels. The sea
light was visionary, as it sometimes is
to susceptible people.
Some context is wanted. The poet and Richard (a theologian whose work Hill apparently admires) are fishing off some beach, somewhere where “Sea-bass are plentiful.” This must put us in mind of the miraculous catch of fish (either, or both, of them), though the fishing that takes place in this poem is not an allegory. It is fishing, real, legally regulated fishing:
…………………………….Although the smallest
get thrown back—legal—they mostly die,
float for a short while, scales catching the sun.
This last line, I pause to note, is rhythmically quite beautiful. The poem is primarily in blank verse (or its near vicinity), but as I read it this is an anomalous, six beat line. I distribute the stresses as follows: float for a short while, scales catching the sun. The two halves of the line are perfect mirrors of each other, and give the sense of a gentle rocking motion, now up, now down.
The central action of the poem concerns fishing, but the path to this action is languid, “undulant.” The second stanza muses on lighthouses, which “resemble follies or summer homes / for checkerboard painters,” and on gulls, their “fine machinery of instinctual natures.”
Only with the third stanza does movement enter the poem. To be sure, there is movement of sorts in the first two stanzas—the small sea-bass being thrown back to the sea, the flying gulls—it is movement subsumed under setting, and feels static. But here there is action, a disruption of the tranquility of setting. Our poet, we are told, enjoyed it when…
the weighted line you cast tore from its rod,
bait and all, and flippered and was gone…
We have been primed by the first stanza for this fish to return to the sea, but whereas there the fish were small, returned by the fisher, and soon to die, here the fish is large, vigorous, and returns of its own volition and struggle. It is a burst of life across the poem, and it is this life that justifies the disruption of the movement. The poet enjoys it:
the timing perfect, perfect your chagrin-
charged resignation, mute expressive glare:
no chance to practice custody of the eyes.
What a marvelous line: “no chance to practice custody of the eyes.” A loss of self-control, however momentary, a flicker of feeling across a face that the poet catches and inquisites. For it is these eyes of whom the poet asks, “which / of you is the angel.” (Or is it of the fish? One of the perpetual difficulties of Hill’s poetry is his use of pronouns with unclear referents—unclear, at least, if we avail ourselves solely of the resources of grammar. But let me assume he is asking the eyes.) The poet’s enjoyment of this moment is conditioned by his mood, for he is “susceptible,” and this allows the sea light to give him this vision. (Perhaps he is one of Stevens’ “sad men.”)
The poem ends with Hill’s characteristic mixture of pathos and wry humor:
…………………………………..Dead or alive
we sojourn in the world’s refuge and abattoir.
Pity about the tackle. I could have wept.