Poem: Pindaric 3
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books
Alexander Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” frequently mimicked in meter what he described in words. His dazzling technical proficiency in doing so is one of the poem’s greatest attractions. Here is my favorite instance:
A needless alexandrine ends the song
That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
An alexandrine is a line of iambic hexameter. Pope is here satirizing poets who used forms that involved concluding a stanza otherwise entirely in iambic pentameter with a single alexandrine. The trouble was that the alexandrine threatened to slow down the flow of the poem too much, which Pope illustrates with a brilliant alexandrine of his own. The cluster of stresses in the middle—wounded snake, drags its slow length—brings the line nearly to a halt, as if it itself were the wounded snake described. (Note for fellow pedants: in scanning the line, “drags its slow length” would most likely be read as a trochaic substitution—drags its—followed by a normal iamb—slow length—but this just illustrates how impoverished scansion is when it comes to capturing the full rhythm of a line.)
Geoffrey Hill, in the third poem in his sequence of “Pindarics,” draws from this Papish well. Here are the poem’s final four lines:
Power’s not every place that virtue is,
and anarchy by files deploys to order
as if through modes of conduct or of weight:
dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.
It is the last line I want to focus on. Here is how it scans:
Dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.
The rest of the poem is in blank verse (though with Hill’s usual interspersing of the occasional clipped line), so most lines have five beats and are in the vicinity of ten syllables. This line, however, opens in dactylic meter. Because dactyls (stress, unstress, unstress) have three syllables, while iambs (unstress, stress) have only two, this creates a tension between the two measures of line length: is this line going to be a five-beat line (thus stretching out to an unwieldy fifteen syllables), or will it stick to ten syllables or thereabouts (at the cost of falling short of the full five beats)?
Neither is an ideal solution. Hill solves the problem with, as the line tells us, a “contrived rest.” After three perfect dactyls, the “-trived” in “contrived” should be the start of the fourth. But instead of continuing on, Hill grinds to a halt on the stressed “rest,” thus bringing the line up to five beats (in only eleven syllables). This rest is doubly contrived precisely because it follows the word ‘contrived,’ a disyllabic word with the stress on the second syllable. While the “rules” of meter in some circumstances permit two stressed syllables to appear back-to-back (as in the mid-line trochaic substitution in Pope’s alexandrine), they generally forbid it when the first stress falls on the second syllable of a disyllabic word. Read Hill’s line aloud and you will hear why: the line gets caught up there. “Contrived” really wants to be followed by an unstressed syllable. Hill denies it this satisfaction.
Hill’s line thus consists in a line of dactyls advancing against a contrived rest.
At this point, having described the metrical perfection of the line, I would like to go on to say something insightful about how it enhances the meaning of the poem as a whole. Unfortunately, I find the poem as a whole basically incomprehensible right now. So I shall have to stop here.