Poem: On the Sophoclean Moment in English Poetry
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books
………………………………….Words are never stone
except in their appearance.
This is the key to the poem: we are to recognize in its words, their apparent fixity, some underlying fluidity. They are plain things, “but not basics precisely.” They are little slippery, a little reticent to be grasped.
The critical question is what constitutes the Sophoclean moment. I have not found any consistent usage the phrase outside this poem. I have found it used to mean the moment a hero faces his fate, a moment of direct confrontation, and a moment of desiring never to have been born (this one three times). Then there is also Hill’s own contribution: “Try again.”
In the context of the poem, I suspect that it is the last—the moment of desiring never to have been born—that is at issue. Here is how it is described:
A serene draw, the Sophoclean Moment
if only for a moment, issues thence
into the unforestalled or, failing that,
The serenity of it suggests to me a private desire, however awful it may be. It lasts only a moment, then proceeds into inexperience, whether that inexperience is “unforestalled” or “experienced.” This is tricky to interpret. My best guess is that the inexperience is the natural state, and that experience forestalls it, without somehow eradicating it. But that is not quite sensible, and I do not know how to pin it down. The words simply do not quite slot together neatly. They are not bricks.
The wish never to have been born is naturally counterbalanced with death, and this makes its appearance toward the end of the poem:
Answer for what I am? No time to answer,
a nerve of ageing touched upon and primed:
as when the jittery leaf snags, is a mouse:
one stop from Sophocles to Sepulchre.
There is no time for an answer to the question “what am I,” for the poet, too, is not stone, is not sufficiently fixed to admit of an answer. And yet this reasoning, suggesting by so much in the poem, is not the reason given. Rather, there is a lack of time. He can feel himself ageing, can see how swiftly one may move from Sophocles to Sepulchre.
This last line is rich, with multiple layers of contradictory meanings. In addition to the surface meaning of moving from the living fluidity thus far addressed in the poem to the morbid repose of the sepulchre, there is also the concrete instantiation of the principle that words are not stone, as ‘Sophocles’ is transformed to ‘Sepulchre.’ But this fluidity, which counteracts the repose, is itself counteracted by the fact that sepulchre is a tomb carved into rock. The very fluidity of words has brought them to stiffness.