Monthly Archives: July 2016

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.

My friend Henry, on July 14, 1852, wrote in his journal:

A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as “humanitary,” which have a paralysis in their tails.

Here he expresses his belief in a falsehood, but a falsehood that is full of sustenance. The author’s hope is that the life of his words should give some evidence of the life that produced them, that a vigorous body will exude vigorous words, and a sluggish, sluggish. He expects that his words will carry a double load, not only their meaning but their history. They are to serve as a trace from which one can reconstruct their origin. The hope, in other words, is that communication will prove possible. Even if the contact is but glancing, tangential, still two minds may come in contact.

Henry writes (July 26, now):

Most poems, even epics, are like the wings come down to earth, while the poet whose adventurous flight they evidence has been snapped up by the ravenous vulture of this world.

He asks of a poem that it be not merely a window into that flight but the very agent of it, not life itself but the implement life used. The poem would then serve as a proof, maybe not conclusive, but as close as may be reasonably hoped, that such a flight occurred.

I said that Henry is expressing a falsehood, and I maintain it. Certainly I do not deny that from an author’s literary excretions we may reconstruct flights and other such journeys. But these are flights of fancy, our own fancy. The poem is not evidence. It is an arrangement of words, and many paths may lead to it. Honest transcript or clever fake—we can never access the information that would decide this. Thoreau—surprisingly, for him—underestimates our solitude.

But if the poem, or the literary work more generally, cannot serve as evidence in this way, then why these reconstructions? Why make such assessments of authenticity? The author, after all, does not stand to benefit: he flew, or faked, and must live with the fact, regardless of our verdict. He is immune to our judgments. But we are not. It is an operation we perform on ourselves, by means of the poem, this act of reconstruction. It is narcissistic as anything is. Not solipsistic—we leave our own deposits as material for the next generation—but self-centered. Of course, we must not delude ourselves that our authenticity, if we possess it, will be discovered.

Poem: Improvisation on ‘Warum ist uns das Licht gegeben?’
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: I can’t find the poem online, but here is Brahms’ motet

Twice previously, I have discussed Hill’s comparison of language to stone, his questioning of their relation. This is at issue once again in the final poem in Without Title, “Improvisation on ‘Warum ist uns das Licht gegeben?’” It begins:

Scored by folk-genius set to its lathe.
I also am a worker in iron.

Iron is not stone, quite, and the difference is important: we have learned to make iron malleable. Words are never stone: they are iron, hard, recalcitrant, stubborn, but fluid beneath the hands of the sensitive poet, he who knows how to work them and make them work.

Just as much as the first lines, the final lines of this poem can be taken as a reflection back on the collection as a whole, poetry as a whole:

Against survival something that endures:
win, lose, the paid-up quiet death.

Poetry endures, but is not survival. I am reminded of Emerson’s occasional comments on the immortality of the soul, how that immortality, whatever it might be, was not a personal survival. And indeed, the survival of one’s poetry is not the survival of oneself, but at best the survival of what I have called, in a poem I wrote commemorating Hill, one’s “casings.”

This reading has the implication that Hill regards poetry as a kind of “paid-up quiet death.” This seems apt enough, in my experience.

Poem: Luxe, Calme et Volupté
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books

The poem’s title traces back to a line from Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage.” That poem and many English translations thereof can be found here. Henri Matisse also used that line for the title of one of his paintings.

There all is order and beauty,
Luxury, peace, and pleasure.

These lines of Baudelaire present an ideal placidness that Hill will inevitably disrupt. He does so from the very first word of his poem: “Lost.” If Baudelaire’s ideal is going to enter this poem, it is only as something lost. Hill’s interest is to clarify the metaphysics of loss:

Lost is not vanished; nor is it finished;
more like a haunting from the ghost future
that was not ours and cannot now be called
through into being by too late consent.

The loss is not something possessed once but no longer, nor something begun but now finished (a cessation of activity). Rather, the loss is of an unattainable future, one we disdained to own until too late. Whether this is a general statement of a fact of life, how the materiality of the world always disrupts the perfect realization of ideas, or whether it is something more private, known only to Hill and to “PMH” (to whom the poem is dedicated), I cannot say.

The poem ends with “both of us here” (I presume Hill and PMH) “conjoined in epitaph / awaiting stone.” In the context of this poem alone, these lines do not take on their full resonance. But read in the light of “On the Sophoclean Moment in English Poetry” (see my discussion here), the likening of the words of the poem to stone takes on extra meaning. Hill in the earlier poem claimed that “words are never stone / except in their appearance.” Here, the shorter line “awaiting stone” gives this poem something of the appearance of an inverted tombstone. This suggests a send-up of the fixation implied in these lines: we are “awaiting stone,” perhaps, but not quite stone yet. Words, after all, are never stone…

Poem: The Storm
Poet: Geoffrey Hill


This poem is a “translation” of Eugenio Montale’s ‘La Bufera’. The English can be found side-by-side with the original at the very bottom of the document here (PDF link). Hill recites the poem himself here (though the recording cuts off the first few words).

I confess to not getting much from this poem. Right from the start I dislike the choice of ‘batters’. Hill, usually so judicious in his choice of words, here chooses a somewhat brusque and brutal word. The storm “batters” the leaves—why would someone so good at describing rain choose this? Likewise, ‘dure’, which apparently means ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ (I know no Italian), becomes “impermeable,” a strengthening of the word for which I don’t see the necessity. One more: an Italian phrase that (per Google translate) means something like, “the castanets, the thrill of tambourines,” becomes “bashing of castanets and tambourines.” Like “batters” earlier, “bashing” here seems needlessly strong, as if Hill himself is bashing me with the poem. To be clear, my objection is not that these lines are inaccurate as translation. I am happy for Hill to change the poem however he likes to make a new English original. My objection is that he has failed to do so in compelling ways.

This is not to say that no lines capture me. I like the following especially:

lightning that makes stark-white the trees,
the walls, suspending them—
interminable instant—marbled manna
and cataclysm—

It is fruitful to compare “interminable” here to “impermeable” earlier. Both suggest an absolute: the impenetrability of the leaves, the unendingness of the instant. But whereas the poetic work done by “impermeable” is lacking in comparison to the grandeur of the word, describing the instant of a lightning strike as “interminable” captures something real about the instant of it, namely the way lightning’s illumination “suspends” its objects, seeming to take them out of time. Following this, “marbled manna / and cataclysm” plays off the notion of suspension further (“marbled” suggesting both the “stark-white” color and the idea of a statue, which is a different kind of suspension). The contrast of manna and cataclysm captures well the sustenance and danger that commingle in the experience of lightning. Finally, it feeds into what is to follow: “deep in you sculpted…”

So, yes, there are well wrought lines as there will be in any Hill poem. On the whole, however, I cannot say the endeavor is well sounded.