Ex Propertio

Poem: Ex Propertio
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google books

After my struggles with “To the Teller of Fortunes,” it is pleasing to read a poem that not only is less opaque but may even reflect back on the previous poem. Divination is again the theme, this time explicitly in connection with the Roman poet Propertius, a contemporary of Virgil and Ovid noted for writing elegies for Cynthia, his love. A few stray clues lead me to suspect that Propertius is at issue in the previous poem as well—if I ever read Propertius perhaps I will have better luck there.

For now, however, my concern is solely with “Ex Propertio.” Propertius is described as a “glib-tongued haruspex” who encourages Hill to “practise divination”—apparently a violation of the code of soothsayers, who “hold their skills inviolate.” This is a gorgeous way of capturing the relation between poet and poet: from the glibness of one is born the next, as if a secret were given away that let an outsider penetrate mysteries not reserved for him.

“Incited” by this “renegade conjurer,” Hill “bowelled [his] loyalties to law and love,” connects again to divination: he is disemboweling his loyalties in order to read the future in the entrails. I take this to capture the manner in which the poet ransacks his experience to make a poem, which is never (if it is any good) just a record of that experience. Here I suspect the love is Hill’s love for Propertius, a love that like a necromancer “re-infiltrates the dead” and makes it live again, as Propertius lives again this poem. (I am not quite sure, yet, what to do with law, which is twice over placed beside love.)

But, as is common in Hill’s poetry, there is some failure. The act of love surpasses eloquence, and we are left with only “a shadow there of Amor in his stride.” The materials of poetry, its “studs and hooks” and “cauterizing brand,” are insufficient to “recover divination’s charm.” I understand the failure as the failure to recapture, out of Propertius’ poetry, the love that sparked it.

Nor can I, from Hill’s poem, recapture his love of Propertius. But it is still open to me to find my own.



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