Tag Archives: unobliterate

Poem: Offertorium: Suffolk, July 2003
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books

A bit of etymology to begin. The hinge word of the poem is the first of the last line: ‘unobliterate.’ A combination of the prefix ‘un’ and the adjective ‘obliterate’. The prefix signals negation. ‘Obliterate’ means ‘blotted out; obliterated’ (OED). That last word might not be a helpful explication, so here is the OED on ‘obliterated’: “1. Completely get rid of from the mind; do away with, destroy” (the second definition is a version of ‘blotted out’; the third is a technical term probably irrelevant to the poem, though I may be wrong).

The verb ‘to obliterate’ comes from the Latin ‘oblit(t)erare’, to strike out. This is itself a combination of a prefix ‘ob’ (“denoting opposition or confrontation”) and a noun ‘lit(t)era’, letter. So to obliterate is to cancel the letter, from which it is only a small step to ‘to strike out’ or ‘to blot out’.

Thus ‘unobliterate’ is a double negative, suggesting the undoing of a canceling of the letter. Now let us see it in context:

…………………………………………….Abundant hazards,
being and non-being, every fleck through which
………………………………..this time affords
unobliterate certainties hidden in light.

Being and non-being are “hazards,” but ineluctable hazards, and we “fleck through” them. “Fleck” itself suggests a kind of marking, and thus we have marks transitioning from being to non-being and back, obliterate, then unobliterated. “Certainties” is a resonant word, here, as the object that takes the predicate “unobliterate.” The suggestion is that knowledge must first be canceled before it can be regained as a certainty, which is consistent with Hill’s general apophatic methodology.

I have, perhaps cheaply, taken the easy way out and discussed only the “moral” of the poem, the generality that emerges from the very close depiction of particulars earlier in the poem, but that will have to do for now.