Trying again with Geoffrey Hill: 1

On my bookshelves, I have a row of books by Geoffrey Hill, half-read and less than half understood. Every five years or so, I read the reviews and buy another, thinking I will have another go, but every time I fail again. I first encountered Geoffrey Hill at a poetry reading in the late sixties when I was a student. I was struck by the ‘passionate intensity’ with which he read, I think mainly from King Log, when he gave the impression that he was ready and expectant himself to be carried off to martyrdom. Ever since then I have believed that he was a serious poet, albeit one I could not get on terms with. My failures have felt the more shaming because of the almost universal praise he received, even as his work became (for me) ever more obscure and inaccessible. The most recent blow was reading two reviews of The Book of Baruch in the current issue of PN Review.[1] I have held back from rushing out to buy this admittedly incomplete work, which I know I will find incomprehensible. Instead, I have resolved to make another attempt to read the poet’s work. My starting point will be the Selected Poems of 2006. I will post my efforts in chunks, as I can see this project may take a long time.

 

Now, having read the selections from the first two books, For the Unfallen and King Log[2], and surveyed a number of exegetical commentaries, I continue to be frustrated. Those who write about Hill tend to be apologists for his work and their arguments are often as convoluted as the poems they discuss. Also, they exercise the critic’s privilege of only explicating the bits of poems they think they understand. To my mind, much of the writing in For the Unfallen, although accomplished, is overblown and burdened by the influence of predecessors and contemporaries against whom the young (ish) poet was trying to establish himself. In King Log the voice is still assertive, still cross-grained but the dense texture of the language is becoming less orotund and more individual. From the outset, Hill’s work has been difficult; in fact, he espouses difficulty as the appropriate way to respond to a difficult world. However, his constant use of irony, his frequent shifts in register and tone, his many puns and his adoption of a variety of often inimical personas leave the reader at a loss while exonerating him from the responsibility of having actually said anything.

 

The poems in For the Unfallen and King Log explore history and morality in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, the period of Hill’s youth and young manhood. I want to consider in detail the texts of three very well-known poems from these two volumes where Hill treats the fate of the Jews in Europe: ‘Two Formal Elegies’ from For the Unfallen and ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’ and ‘September Song’ from King Log. Although I have read interpretations of these poems, I shall attempt to go back to the text in order to arrive at my own response.

 

The two formal elegies are written as sonnets and from the outset, alternative or even multiple readings are in conflict. The title and epigraph immediately make the reader uneasy. The elegies are ‘formal’ in that they are both sonnets, an observation of dignified tradition that might indicate respect; on the other hand, they may be merely exercises in form, ‘formal’ in the sense of unreal, or insincere. We wonder at the arrogance of the writer in supposing that two fourteen line poems could be adequate as elegies ‘for the Jews of Europe’; we wonder also how this writer , non-Jewish, non-combatant, can take it upon himself to write elegies ‘for the Jews (all of them, undifferentiated) of Europe’.

The first line of the first sonnet starts with a strangely confident present participle:

Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed:

The reader will assume, without indications to the contrary, that this ‘knowing’ is first person and attached to the ‘we’ in line 5. It is only later that we suspect that Hill has created a first person persona or avatar whom the poem will turn on in contempt, allowing the poet to evade criticism. At this point we merely question how the speaker can ‘know the dead’ and what is meant by ‘some are disposed’; it could mean that he knows where the bodies are and this is what the next two lines suggest; however, some have suggested that ‘disposed’ refers to attitudes and may imply the ambivalent attitudes towards Jews still held by many, even after the Holocaust. The next three lines also open with an ambiguous participle:

Subdued under rubble, water, in sand graves,

In clenched cinders not yielding their abused

Bodies and bonds to those whom war’s chance saves

Without the law:

The different burial places mentioned here could refer to all the war dead; only the ‘clenched cinders’ have immediate connotations of the slaughter of Jews. “Subdued’ stands in apposition to ‘disposed’ and half rhymes with the later ‘abused’. Is ‘subdued’ a way of saying ‘controlled’ by being killed and buried or does it suggest that all these bodies are out of sight and therefore out of our minds? It is unclear whether it is the dead or the ‘clenched cinders’ who do not yield their ‘abused bodies and bonds’ . The adjective ‘clenched’ produces a horrific onomatopoeic echo of ‘crunched’ but it also suggests ‘held on to’ or ‘withheld’. The phrase ‘bodies and bonds’ creates a sonorous alliteration but is so elliptic that it dodges interpretation. I do not understand what is meant by ‘abused bonds’ whilst ‘abused bodies’’ seems to operate at a much more obvious level. ‘Those whom war’s chance saves’ are presumably survivors, but we are not told what ‘law’ they are ‘outside’; it could be the law of Moses, so that the reference is to non-Jews, or it could be Nazi rule, in which case he might be referring to those who did not live in occupied territories or in the period of Fascism. The ponderous and inflected final three monosyllabic stresses in line four create a gnomic gravity which topples without explanation into line five.

 

Finally, half-way through this line, we come to the main clause:

 

we grasp, roughly, the song.

‘We’ should be the subject of the first five lines, with this half line as the conclusion of an elaborate periodic sentence. This reading is unsettled by the placing of a colon where we might expect a comma. ‘We’ might seem to declare an affinity between the voice of the poem and its audience, but as ‘we’ comes under attack, the perspective of the poet seems to disappear, hidden by the smokescreen of an apparent first-person statement. The reader has been cozened into identifying with the ‘we’ who may or may not be ‘those whom war’s chance saves’ but who seems increasingly unworthy of admiration. Nearly all the words in this line are ambiguous: ‘grasp’ can mean ‘seize’ or ‘take hold of’, or it can simply mean ‘understand’; ‘roughly’ is in parenthetical commas which leaves the reader dithering between the notion that ‘we’ only ‘roughly’ or ‘approximately’ understand the song or that ‘we’ with great insensitivity have seized hold of the song.

 

The sentence, which moves over the next three lines, is a further example of the evasion of meaning and responsibility:

Arrogant acceptance from which song derives

Is bedded with their blood, makes flourish young

Roots in ashes.

 

‘Song’, which may be a synonym for poetry, or even these poems, depends on ‘arrogant acceptance’, presumably acceptance of what has happened. After all, you cannot write an elegy without death. ‘Arrogant’ suggests the appropriation of something to which one is not entitled. The verb ‘is bedded’ seems to be an agricultural metaphor as it develops through ‘flourish’ and ‘young roots’. Blood and ash are both known fertilizers. However, ‘is bedded’ has sexual connotations and the grammatical analysis of the sentence suggests that it is the coupling of ‘arrogant acceptance’ with ‘blood’ which gives rise to poetry. The tone is baffling; we cannot make out if the writer is blaming those who dare to write poetry after the Holocaust or whether this is savage self-criticism. The way in which sex, death and blood sacrifice hover over the poem, and indeed the entire collection, is discomfiting for the queasy reader.

 

Lines eight and nine, straddling the volta, and double-spaced indicate that there is a turn:

The wilderness revives,

 

Deceives with sweetness harshness.

I feel this must be a reference to Samson’s riddle in Judges 14,xiv: ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness’. Samson refers to a lion which he slew and in whose carcase honeybees made their nest. Not only is this a metaphor for poetry arising out of war and slaughter, the context of the riddle is the bloody conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines. In the first poem of For the Unfallen , Hill announces his commitment to blood:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,

To ravage and redeem the world:

‘Genesis’

 

Differently phrased, this may be the message of the sestet:

 

Still beneath

Live skin stone breathes, about which fires but play

Fierce heart that is the iced brain’s to command

To judgement –studied reflex, contained breath-

Their best of worlds since, on the ordained day,

The world came spinning from Jehovah’s hand.

 

We can pick up the references to hot and cold-blooded behaviour –‘fires’ and ‘fierce heart’ opposed to ‘stone’ and ‘iced brain’. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘iced brain’ is ruthlessly in control in lines which could as much be about poetic composition –‘studied reflex, contained breath’ as any historical event. The phrase ‘best of worlds’ should be ironic but in conjunction with Jehovah and ‘ordained day’, it is not clear that this is so; even less clear is who ‘their’ refers to. It could be the Jews, or it could be all of us as the poet abandons any pretence at first person involvement. There is a possible interpretation of this poem where the Holocaust is seen as necessary, the harshness from which sweetness can grow. Through the ambiguity of his language, Hill prevents us from discarding this reading. The final line of the poem is highly rhetorical but still mysterious; it calls to mind the early Robert Lowell and the final line of ‘A Graveyard in Nantucket’, ‘The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.’ What Lowell meant was fairly obvious; Hill’s line is more oblique. There is a suggestion of loss of control on the part of Jehovah together with a disconcerting undertone of the language of cricket.. The command to judgement may allude to the Day of Judgement but it is far from clear who is going to do the judging.

 

The second sonnet is more transparent (slightly). It seems to deal with the aftermath to the War and the process of judgement, earthly this time.

For all that must be gone through, their long death

Documented and safe, we have enough

Witnesses (our world being witness-proof).

This seems to be a reference to the Nuremberg trials; again the dead are absent, ‘subdued’, this time being ‘documented and safe’. The notion of witnesses is used ironically as the poem goes on to recall what was ‘witnessed and not seen’ (l.10). ‘We’ is used almost impersonally here, in opposition to ‘they’ the guilty ones. Hill goes on to describe these ordinary people, in tones of dislike bordering on disgust. They are ‘pushing midlanders’, ‘men,brawny with life, /Women who expect life’; they have ‘thickening bodies’ they ‘relieve’ themselves on ‘scraped sand’. People are reduced to their physical needs and appetites. At the same time, there is an extended metaphor to do with sea and fire running through the octave which is not present in the sestet: ‘The sea flickers, roars, in its wide hearth.’ “Flicker’ and ‘roar ‘ seem to be opposites but may refer to different or successive aspects. ‘Hearth’ is surprising but introduces us to the idea that this may be a sea of fire, at which ‘yearly, the pushing midlanders stand/To warm themselves’. It could be that these midlanders, a word suggesting average citizens, are being confronted annually with the hell fires of the Holocaust which they succeeded in ignoring. On the other hand, ‘warming oneself’ is a pleasant experience. Could Hill be suggesting some sort of schadenfreude, where the survivors actually take pleasure in being reminded of what has happened? In the sestet, he appears to question the practice of confronting people with their past:

Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen,

Of what they have witnessed and not seen?

In the last three lines the poem drops the division of us and them as it discusses the process of formal memorialisation:

To put up stones ensures some sacrifice.

Sufficient men confer, carry their weight.

(At whose door does the sacrifice does the sacrifice stand or start?)

Erecting a memorial will cost something and will involve an appropriate number of people who will endure some sort of discomfort or inconvenience in the process. This is one reading; however, the ambiguity of the words in line 11 makes it very uncertain: ‘sufficient’ may mean enough men, or men of adequate quality to ‘carry their weight’, which might mean strong enough to carry the stones or might again be referring to the quality of the men and their fitness to be the creators of the memorial. The breakdown of certainty in the last line is shown by its question form, the brackets and the final, struggling half-rhyme as the distinction between ‘we’, including the poet, and ‘they’, the silent midlanders,[3] dissolves into ‘whose’.

 

Hill’s second book, King Log was published in 1968 although many of the poems date from much earlier. It opens with ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, a disconcerting poem even after you accept that it is written in the persona of Ovid in an imaginary scenario where he is transplanted to Hitler’s Germany. The voice is that of one of those who ‘have not seen’ and here the not-seeing is presented as a deliberate choice:

I have learned one thing: not to look down

This line is typical of the way Hill exploits the tension between poetic line and the sentence. Here, the opening lines of the second stanza continue thus:

So much upon the damned

allowing the poet to capitalise on the two meanings of ‘look down’. At first, he seems to be sustaining his life of comfort and complaisance by deliberately failing to see what is going on around him in a kind of mental high-wire act; as the stanza continues we realise that he is postulating the necessity of evil, and of evil-doers as part of the divine scheme of things. ‘They, in their sphere,/Harmonize strangely with the Divine/Love’. No wonder ‘God/ Is distant, difficult.’ In the first stanza ordinary human love is presented as a lower-case verb: ‘I love my work and my children.’ This contrasts with the abstract noun Divine Love with its dramatic capitalisation. The speaker, Ovid, seems to suggest that he is playing his part in creating the harmonies of the divine plan by ‘celebrating the love-choir’ in his own ‘sphere’, implicitly that of the saved. Such a mealy-mouthed excuse is a response to the half-confessed awareness of guilt in the first stanza:

Too near the ancient troughs of blood

Innocence is no earthly weapon.

Even leaving aside the inverted syntax, these lines are puzzling, particularly because of the choice of adjectives. Why are the troughs ‘ancient’ when the crimes of the Third Reich are contemporary? Perhaps this suggests that there are always ‘troughs of blood’ and that this kind of violence is inevitable. Why ‘earthly’? Are we supposed to think that ‘innocence’ can be a heavenly weapon even though the very idea of innocence has been compromised by the epigraph which opens the poem and which suggests that guilt only comes into play if the sinner is discovered or admits to his guilt? Perhaps the suggestion is that the persona is ‘too near’ the ‘troughs of blood’ to be able to deny guilt, despite the helpless impotence of the second line: ‘Things happen.’ Hill leaves us to struggle with the moral ambivalence of this poem, while removing himself from the scene. If we choose to condemn ‘Ovid’ for focusing on his own concerns, his family and his poetry, then we seem to be condemning any production of poetry during or after the Third Reich which does not confront that evil, which is not directly and suicidally political, and Hill seems to be condemning his own project. If, on the other hand, we go along with ‘Ovid’s rationalisation which accepts the existence of the ‘sphere of the damned’ and his own ‘love-choir’ as part of the Divine harmony we find ourselves condoning a view which may or may not be that of the poet but which is very hard to swallow. Certainly, Hill’s presentation of Divine Love is never less than uncomfortable.

 

‘September Song’ is probably Hill’s best-known Holocaust poem. Like the others, it is a relatively tiny piece that relies for its effect on its own inadequacy, indicated in the last of fourteen short lines where the writer seems to rebuke himself for straying into the area of the unspeakable:

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

 

This poem differs from those discussed previously in that Hill places himself at its centre in the awkward parenthetical admission of the third stanza:

(I have made

an elegy for myself it

is true)

Much has been made of the fact that Hill’s own birth was only a couple of days different from that of the unnamed Jewish child but I think it would be shallow to interpret these lines as empathetic identification with the victim. Surely Hill is rather saying that the poet always writes out of his own needs and for his own gratification, no matter how much he may seem to refer to what is beyond himself.[4] The poem is one of contained horror but also of a frighteningly implicit determinism. The child is not ‘passed over’, a grim even offensive allusion to the Jewish Passover, because it is ‘the proper time’, ‘Things marched,/Sufficient to that end.” The ‘things’ here may remind us of the ‘things’ which ‘happened’ in ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’; there may also be an echo of Matthew VI, 34: ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof’. In any case, the sorrow in the poem is marked by acceptance rather than protest and the penultimate, very beautiful, stanza reflects a survivor’s guilt but no sense that the events could have been or could be other.

September fattens on vines. Roses

flake from the wall. The smoke

of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.[5]

 

In what I have written so far, it will be clear that I do not particularly like or enjoy Hill’s poetry or his perspective but that I am intrigued and challenged by his work. As I move on to later volumes as represented in the Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006), I hope my understanding of his work will deepen though I doubt I will come to share his point of view.

[1] Articles by Jeffrey Wainwright and Jon Glover in PN Review 249

[2] Very helpful for these early volumes: English Association Bookmarks Number 75

The Early Work of Geoffrey Hill Part 1: For the Unfallen by
J.D. Hughes , https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/publications/bookmarks/75Hill.pdf

 

[3] As Hill was born in the Midlands, this word could be self-referential.

[4] I use the masculine pronoun, because I am discussing a male poet.

[5] It is interesting that the greater directness and less traditional shape of this poem is accompanied by a decision not to capitalise line beginnings unless they also begin a sentence.

 

One thought on “Trying again with Geoffrey Hill: 1”

  1. Sean O’Brien wrote, of his mostly Tenebrae pieces? that he inhabits an England where no one actually lives. I admit to find this quite astute, but wonder whether it just gives me an excuse for not doing the work you do here.
    I go back constantly to those earlier books (after Orchards if Sion I am lost completely, and greatly put off) and find much to admire there in his facility with words. There is some ridiculous writing – that decapitation, in King Log – but it is the sense of struggle for forms of expression that do justice to their subject matter I find quite honourable. He is very historicist in his exploration of time’s changes to our awareness of events, how current veneers and interpretations angle our contemporary comprehension.
    No other writer that I am aware of tackles this – perhaps J H Prynne..

    Like

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