Poem: To the Teller of Fortunes
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
What follows below are the sequence of my thoughts as I tried to interpret the poem—I started without any definite interpretation. We shall see where I end up: at the time of writing this introduction I have not finished the main text of this post.
At his most difficult, Hill’s poems seem unconnected from sentence to sentence. Take the first stanza of his “To the Teller of Fortunes”:
Spread sand not straw. Salt useless here although
useful elsewhere. Stresses count in a line,
help weld and wield. Take me to task—or worse—
for misappropriation. Pontoon’s not
bridge: I understand that by reproof.
Plain speaking still an order I believe.
To which now add: the omens
blood-fuddled and in other ways befouled.
The first sentence is easy enough: the fortune teller is to use sand and not straw for the reading. I was able to find a bit online about sand-reading practices, though not about straw-reading. The next sentence tells us some about the proper locations for using salt. One might have expected some explanation of “sand not straw,” but at least there is a connection: sand, not straw or salt.
Then we are told about stresses, that is, poetic meter (the first two lines are both pentameter). Regular patterns of stresses help hold the poem’s materials together and help the poet to wield them. (Right now, it seems like the form of the poem is all that holds it together, without help from sense!) The thought is not obviously connected to the point about materials, but perhaps the suggestion is that the poem is a kind of fortune told from various omens.
But no sooner have I won that connection than I am immediately thrust back into uncertainty, for the next line does not obviously build on it. What is the misappropriation? The most pertinent sense of ‘appropriation’ appears to be the taking of something external and making it one’s own. Is it the appropriation of fortune-telling into his poem that is earning him ire (whose? the fortune-teller’s?)? And what is he expecting “worse” than being taken to task?
And now we are yanked elsewhere yet again, to the world of card games. There is perhaps a pun here: pontoon and bridge are both card games, but a pontoon and a bridge are both means for crossing rivers. Hill learns the difference by “reproof,” so perhaps here is the taking to task, though I’m not sure how a failure to distinguish is an appropriation.
The next sentence—“Plain speaking still an order I believe”—is a taunt, since what has come before is anything but. Perhaps what follows is an apology for the patent failure to follow this order: the omens are “blood-fuddled and in other ways befouled.” But I’m not convinced: the problem is not with the omens in themselves (if what has come before in the poem are the omens), but in their connection. The promise of stress-counting to “weld” them has not been upheld. Sounds good, I suppose—not that I have any idea who says that.
It is possible that this jumbled array of the first stanza is only set up. Perhaps it will make retroactive sense. I won’t go through the rest of the poem in as much detail, but I’ll see what I can make of it. The second stanza of the poem immediately frustrates with—what is a common technique of Hill’s—unspecified pronouns, in this case ‘he’ and ‘they’. Maybe ‘they’ are the spirits and ‘he’ is the fortune-teller. I couldn’t tell you. The daggers in the air suggest to me Macbeth. “Let the children cross” in the last line reinforces the pun I detected in the previous stanza. I have no idea what to do with the flail-tank and the tyrannicide.
The third stanza gives us Tiberius, a Roman emperor perhaps the victim of the tyrannicide. His emerald, it seems, contained a carving of the likeness of Jesus. There is a “feast of infamy” at which another unspecified pronoun (“your”) observes.
In the sixth stanza, Hill writes, “Reviewing language / I am wrought still by how patient it is.” I must confess that it is more patient than I am. I will have to make another pass at this poem some other time. Certainly I will not deny that it has its logic. Only I cannot find it, and thus cannot enjoy it.