Offertorium: December 2002

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.

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