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Poem: Pindaric 4
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


A great deal occurs in the opening lines of Hill’s fourth Pindaric (a series of poems in conversation with Cesare Pavese). Here are the lines:

Rattled emplacements, wind-garbled rookeries
of mistletoe; no traceable shiver
at the world’s heart: untouchably not
as we are, not everlasting.
Darkly a primed sun works to expose grand chill;
the nesh yellows of Spring acclimatize
against black soil in lee of the Fleam Dyke.

In unpacking these lines, it is easiest to start in the middle: “untouchably not / as we are, not everlasting.” As I have remarked in other commentaries on Hill’s poems, he is frequently apophatic, employing a method of negative definition. This emerges here as well: we are “untouchably not.” Here “we” could be all humanity, or simply Hill and Pavese. This negative aspect, this inability to describe directly, leads to the inability to touch, a sort of direct contact that is here ruled out of the question. And why should we be this way? Precisely because we are “not everlasting.” Corruptible and corrupted becoming is too much in flux to submit to description. It lacks Being.

Sparked by this kernel the rest of the lines unfold their meaning. Because we are subject to generation and hence degeneration, we require defense: thus the “rattled emplacements” with which the poem begins. This though returns later in the form of the Fleam Dyke, a 6th or 7th century construction used for defense by some ancient Saxon tribe. The very location of the poem thus speaks to our finitude. Further, because we become, we have a history. Fleam Dyke is itself a relic of history, no longer used—and the Saxon tribe that used it of course no longer exists.

Fleam Dyke implicates the ineluctability of time on the grand scale. The “nesh yellows of Spring” do so on the smaller scale, that of the change of seasons. “Nesh” here is a rich word with a variety of pertinent meanings. It can indicate a soft texture, timidity, a lack of energy, dampness, and—perhaps most pertinent here—susceptibility to cold. In a climate where “darkly a primed sun works to expose grand chill,” we can imagine that a nesh yellow is not long for this world, no matter how much they “acclimatize.” Meanwhile, the sun puts in mind Plato’s cave, where it exposes the shadows on the wall for the grand chill they are (think how we take to the shade to escape the sun’s heat).

In this setting, already imbued with so much thought, Hill demands of Pavese that he:

Bridge me your question from that other country
of speculation which you may enter

without leaving my side. And did I dream you?

Speculation, thought, is here another world—I suspect the eternal world of Being. At least, so it would be for Plato. But immediately we are back at Fleam Dyke:

Glazed wedges of furrow, tilting shield-angles,
prism a flash hail-squall; light cries now!

I get a sense of weary resignation as the poem continues, with Hill questioning the merits of our earthly say: “We did not need this / episodic fabric, this longevity.” But it is inescapable, and the poem ends grotesquely, as Hill himself admits:

…………………………….Grotesque as yours
my hid sex thrust like the mounted
head of a fox.

The genitals are emblematic of desire, and it is desire that characterizes becoming. Desire is a lack, implies incompletion, and that is only possible in fluxible becoming. It is incomprehensible that self-sufficient Being should desire. So we end with Hill’s “hid sex,” with the inescapability of desire. Yet Hill, as he is writing this, is old, becoming ever more decrepit, and so his “hid sex” takes on the aspect of a mounted hunting trophy.

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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.