Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare

Some of us have been worried about Geoffrey Hill, his ‘Oraclau’ was really very bad for all kinds of reasons whilst his pattern poems in ‘Clavics’ caused different kinds of concerns which were more about form than content. His new found productivity (seven poems per week) has also led me to be worried about a consequent drop in quality. This new collection (available from Clutag for £15) is a sequence that uses the ‘Sapphic’ verse form throughout which isn’t as constraining as the George Herbert imitations in ‘Clavics’ or whatever was going on in ‘Oraclau’.

What follows is a set of initial impressions which are not properly thought through and I reserve the right to change my mind at a later stage. The first thing to say is that this is dense material, this is not the stuff of one-off, drive-by readings. Even if you are a polymath and familiar with the full range of references then you will nevertheless be pulled up by some of the phrasing and trains of thought.

There are a number of new developments and one or two themes/issues are given another airing but in more complex ways- the reader is given less help with what is being alluded to, Hill’s critics make a reappearance but in a different way, there is concern about the fate of the soul which Hill informed the Economist recently has been an ongoing theme throughout his long career. Obscure characters are used without further elaboration and quotes are signalled (mostly) by italics but not referenced.

Time to get to some specifics- set out below is what I see as the salient features and one that is simply odd:


He makes many appearances by name and by adjective, the Symposium and the cave are also featured. I can’t recall Hill using a philosopher so frequently in any previous collection. The references aren’t what I would describe as crystal-clear this is the last verse from the second poem-

Virgil loves bees by the way as Plato
In the (em)Symposium on immortal being
What price this verdict to regrouping nature's
Plenary sessions?

And this is the second verse from Poem VII:

Far-fetched, high-priced, ever-dissembling Plato
Daring unloved truth by design Socratic;
Thing about caves, powers, inebriations:
Man, who ya tellin?

I’ll leave the use of the demotic until later but would wish to point out that access isn’t helped by ‘this verdict to regrouping’ and is ‘design Socratic’ anything more than poetic pretension?


There are fifty two poems in the sequence (if it is a sequence) and each poem consists of six verses in the Sapphic form which has three longer lines followed by one of just 5 syllables. The majority of these verses are single sentences, there are very few that run on to the next. The effect of this is at times that of reading stand-alone maxims in the manner of the later Wittgenstein but without the intellectual strength/depth. I’m sure that this isn’t the intention but this is how I’m beginning to read. Clutag provides a paragraph on the format, the first part of which is- “In the present sequence Hill uses the ‘Sapphic’ verse-form – ‘re-cadencing’ the example of Sir Philip Sydney”- one of the collection’s two epigraphs is taken from Cleophila’s song in ‘The Old Arcadia’. The other is from ‘The Aenid’.

Word choice

Every poet has unusual or obscure words that are frequently deployed across a number of poems and Hill is no exception, here we have a number of old favourites-

  • limbeck;
  • flamen;
  • ejaculations (in the spiritual/mystical sense);
  • rhetor;
  • self as a prefix (self-gathered, self-hounding, unself-stabilising etc).
  • maugre;

There are on this occasion a number of unusual words that I don’t think have been used before:

  • anacolutha;
  • aggro;
  • untasered;
  • occultation;
  • prank, prankdom;
  • shade-wrangled;
  • clarimote;
  • sunfleck;
  • apatheia;
  • threnos;
  • spavined;
  • comb-rhombing;

These are taken from the first twenty nine poems and probably aren’t entirely correct being simply a list of words that I haven’t consciously come across in Hill’s work before. I’ve omitted some words from the first list that I’d need to check- ‘grimpen’ for example which feels like it should be a Hill word but may not be. The point is that the sequence contains a high number of unusual words that he hasn’t used before. I accept that ‘shade-wrangled’ may be the sort of conceit that poets do but the rest seem to indicate that any concessions to his readership have diminished.

A shortish note on meaning.

I’ve noticed that a couple of blogs have taken the plunge and started to identify themes and meanings, this is useful for the rest of us but I’m going to refrain from that kind of analysis or quest for meaning for the moment because I want to become more familiar with what’s being said and I also mindful of the statement in the Economist that he has difficulty understanding what it is that he’s trying to say. My initial reaction is that there might not be too much sequence going on in that there doesn’t seem to be a connecting thread but this could be down to insufficient attention thus far on my part but it does seem to jump about a lot.

A longer note on difficulty.

As with the latest Prynne, I can see that this is going to take up a lot of time and that this will be immensely enjoyable. In fact, I’ll venture to suggest at this early stage that this may be one of Hill’s finest collections because of the way that language is put to use and the absence of concessions or compromise. Perhaps this is an entirely personal foible but I’m beginning to make a case for less compromise leading to higher quality with the greater degree of difficulty being the price to pay. The proviso that I’d need to insert is that the skill of the poet really does need to be up to the task.

People and events

Apart from Plato, Ezra Pound gets several mentions in different guises as do Virgil, Horace and a range of ‘lesser’ characters from antiquity. God isn’t such an obvious presence but the Old Testament and OT stories are. There’s a poem about the Zulu War and a lot of nods towards all things Tudor with less emphasis on the English Civil War (or whatever the latest phrase for it is). There’s also moments of tenderness addressed to a lover and fitting reflections on his career. Hannah Arendt gets four lines and the horrors of the 20th century are never far away. The usual suspects, Goldengrove, Yeats, Ruskin, Bradley all get glances but not much more as far as I can tell. McTaggart also makes a comeback- see below.


Poem XXXI has this as the second verse:

Google my old blind of Platonics with Mc-
Taggart's mystic corpulence deemed endearing.
Sentiment grown wholly at one with logic,
Durance feints passes.

I first read this a few days ago and immediately blushed because I have been known to deem Hill’s bad-tempered grumpiness as ‘endearing’. I’ve now googled every single possible permutation on Hill, his response to McTaggart et al in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and the ‘e’ word and have come to the reluctant and quite disturbing notion that this endearing is a bebrowed endearing. Given the above I have to say that the last line is beyond me but I think that the grumpiness and the bad temper referred to was also in the context of Hill’s politics and his scathing anger at what passes for contemporary political discourse. As I’m not comfortable with this, I’d be very grateful if readers could point me to other web use of the e word in this context….


12 responses to “Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare

  1. “Grimpen” is a classic — a mire in The Hound of the Baskervilles, then used as a word for a mire in Four Quartets (also punned on somewhere in Nabokov). By Hill’s standards, a broad wink.

  2. I knew I’d read it somewhere -in the Elio t- thanks for jogging the memory, now all I need to worry about is embusque- with an accent on the last e

  3. Hard to read “Google” and not hear C. Ricks, alerting us to the instruction there to “go ogle.” Thank you, BB, for sharing your initial thoughts.

    • Very good, even though C Ricks is still guilty of writing one of the most pointless books in recent years (and not usually funny)

  4. Did you know that Google modifies search results based on the search history of a given IP address? It may be nigh-impossible to crack that one.

    “Durance feints passes” I’d say relates to the phrase “durance vile” meaning an long/difficult imprisonment. Feints is related to a nearly obsolete version fo the word meaning “a sham attack.” Thus, perhaps, “durance feints” translates out of Hill to “sham imprisonment,” presumably exonerated by the “sentiment grown wholly at one with logic.”

    Or not. Damned if every reading of Hill doesn’t need to end with, “or not.”

    • The inner workings of the Google monster are far too complex for me so I’m going to stop fretting.
      ‘Durance’ was also used in ‘Orchards of Syon’ and I still don’t understand that line either. There are other McTaggart references in the sequence so that might put a bit more flesh on your argument. Or not. This is going to need very many or nots. Perhaps I’m getting complacent but Mercian Hymns and Triumph seem to be needing fewer whereas Peguy needs more.

  5. Grimpen | that could be grim pen, but isn’t.

  6. The book is perplexing. The Italian element seems to follow on from Hill’s essay on Dante’s Monarchia –the search for unity– set against his earlier essay on Swift’s anarchy. I’m not sure however that going outside the ‘sequence’ like this for clues always helps. The title is surely ambiguous: I hate barbarians, sing the barbarians (see the opening to the Iliad), barbarian odes,– the cover to the book suggests cocking a snoop at the world of the philstine, or the philistine equally disdaining the poor scholar-poet; I don’t see it as being in the line of Da Vinci’s grotesques. The poems conjure culture and raw energy feeding off each other, sometimes abruptly, sometimes violently,sometimes gently — there is no clear moralitas in the writing. The artist is as damned, as fallen, as corrupt as anybody else (perhaps more so). The hatred of bankers is very intense,

    • I still haven’t made much progress – think this is because it resists the way that I read the rest of his stuff. The hatred of bankers is also in ‘The Triumph of Love’ and is part and parcel of his red/hierarchical tory -poltics. I think the ‘cocking a snook’ is also aimed at the reader who is given far fewer clues to the allusions and references in this sequence.

  7. Sam Milne again: i meant cock-a-snook!

  8. Pingback: Geoffrey Hill, Modern Thamus? | Poetry & Contingency

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s