In the Valley of the Arrow

Poem: In the Valley of the Arrow
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


I

Four major themes emerge from the first section of Hill’s poem. First, the section consists entirely of landscape description, of crocus and gorse. The poem will later expand outward, but it remains rooted by Hill’s descriptions of its setting.

Second, we are confronted with worries about artificiality:

First flowers strike artificial at first sight,
the colours appear concocted, perhaps they are.

This shows itself in the crocus, which “soon looks pretty / much washed out.”

Third, hermeticism presents itself in the gorse, which is “real alchemy” and “hermetic at full display.” This suggests privacy and secretiveness, as well as the possibility of strange, magical transformations.

The fourth and final theme emerges out of the third, as Hill describes the alchemical gorse as a “spicy orator.” This attaches the hermetic theme to the operations of language. This is an apt maneuver in light of Hill’s poetry more generally (we have encountered strange linguistic transformations in other poems), though it remains to be seen how it will work itself out in this particular poem.

II

The second section begins apophatically, as is so common in Hill: “Not Bohemia, not Illyria.” I don’t fully grasp the resonances of these allusions: I suspect they are Shakespearian (Bohemia features in A Winter’s Tale, Illyria in Twelfth Night, neither of which have I read). Regardless, I read them as insisting on a poetry localized to England. Unlike Shakespeare, Hill will remain in his own land. We herein find reference to “rhetoric’s / vernacular flowers,” reinforcing the connection between flora and oration.

The remainder of the section consists of further (gorgeous) description of setting, apparently “for description’s sake.” A bit of motion starts to show itself. The crocus had presented only colors, and the gorse was a “spectator” whose only motion amounted to “bristling.” But here we have a stream with “singing iron footbridges” and “tense weirs / pebble-dashed with small foam.” A time element also enters, “as the year / ploughs on.”

The section ends by lifting us, for the first time, out of the setting: “beata l’alma,” blessed the soul. This will reappear later.

III

The reference to the soul ending the previous section hinted at subjectivity, which now enters the poem fully. Not in the form of a soul, however—rather shadow:

My shadow now resembles my father’s: cloth
cap flat-planted with its jutty neb
that prods the leaf-litter. Ineffectually.

The source of the resemblance between his shadow and his father’s is a shared bit of clothing. In principle it could have been described as a simple resemblance between Hill himself and his father. So why isn’t it? Couching the description at the level of shadows allows Hill to bring in a sense of effeteness: the shadow can appear to affect the world (“prod” is a causal verb), but its actions are “ineffectual.” And through the description this ineffectuality rebounds onto Hill (or the poetic voice more generally, if we do not associate it with Hill himself), though had he tried to prod the leaf-litter he no doubt would have successfully shuffled some leaves. This, by the by, is a form of poetic alchemy.

The only way I can read what follows is Hill having a laugh at his readers:

What do they think of while they think of nothing?
Thinks: check pulse-rate as last animus
jerks home—spit, spat—they of course being them.

I have noted before that Hill enjoys to use pronouns without specifying them (one of the features of his poetry that keeps it private, hermetic, sealed off). Well, here he specifies—with another pronoun. Since I must guess, I am assuming it is the dead who are here referenced, a plurality that, one would presume, by this point includes Hill’s father.

But the actual thought is the thought of one living, though approaching death, for the dead do not have a pulse. And this is inevitable, for the dead do not actually think. As Hill knows. The real question is about death-in-life, the processes of dying that become so apparent as the ageing body slowly disintegrates. About how this affects thought.

Hill summarizes well: “Dying’s no let-up, an atrocious / means of existence.”

IV

Shadows reappear in the form of a “Heart-stab memento giving a side-glimpse / of feared eternity.” This is likened to seeing the “shadow / of your attacker.” The earlier introduction of the poet and his father through shadows is here given further, retroactive justification: the memory of his father is not to be approached directly, but through shadows.

I catch a nod to Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” in these lines:

The wild geese racket and mute swans proceed
in formal agitation round the lake.

V

The privacy of the poem is brought home in the opening to the poem’s final section: “More than you know…” As a young man still (though on more than one occasion I have been called old), I submit to this gentle chiding. And what is it that I don’t know, or don’t know fully?

More than you know it’s like dead trees that stay
the same, winter and summer—odds
on how he tells it—sheathed in samurai
mail of black ivy.

Here the earlier motion, the landscape that changed “as the year / ploughs on,” is negated, replaced by dead trees that still stand but no longer change. Interestingly, though I don’t yet grasp the significance, “beata l’alma” appears again immediately after this negation—recall that its first appearance came immediately after what is now being negated.

The poem ends with its starkest image, which I present without comment:

Unzipped and found addressing the smeared walls
of an underpass, crying not my
address, no more unnamed accusers,

self-dubbed natural thespian enacts
age, incapacity—judge the witnesses—
brings himself off to video’d provocation.

Pardon my breathing.

Maybe one comment, merely to note my sorrow that this “self-dubbed natural thespian” has no more breaths to pardon.

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