Struggling with Geoffrey Hill

I’ve been paying some attention to ‘Odi Barbare’ and I’m having problems and this isn’t due to the obscurity of the references but more to do with working out what is being said. This doesn’t normally occur with Hill’s work because I can usually find a point of entry that leads to the rest of the poem. I readily accept that I may be having an ‘off’ week but I don’t think this is the case because I’m reading other ‘difficult’ stuff without too many problems.

This is odd because I do want to like this collection and the few poems that I can grasp are very good. I’m also minded of Hill’s interview with The Economist where he responded to the charge of difficulty by saying that he often doesn’t understand the poems either as well as his view that poems should be both technically efficient and beautiful.

In order to show where I’m having problems, I’m going to use individual stanzas from a range of poems rather than one whole poem because this obduracy does seem to run through the sequence. The first is the third stanza from Poem III:


Something scarce-caught: instance we have abiding,
As with first love there are other windows;
Infinite starlight yet a key to purpose
Stark beyond hazard.

Of course it can be argued that I’ve ripped this out of context but the rest of the poem doesn’t help much. My point here is that this is a single sentence and that we ought to be able to grasp what it might be saying. The first line refers to something that is not often caught and the one that has been caught is waiting for something or lingering over something. The second line is deeply unhelpful – what are these windows and how do the relate to first love? The third line seems to jump into things celestial although starlight isn’t ‘infinite’ and I don’t know how this can be said to unlock or open a purpose which is hard or severe and therefore beyond either being a danger or being threatened by danger.

Context in this instance is even more confusing, the preceding stanza refers to Munchausen Syndrome and the next starts with Tacitus. It’s not a problem of tortured syntax either, the clauses in themselves, as I think I’ve shown, do follow the rules of language but don’t appear to make sense. The windows might be windows to the soul which might be thought of as being exposed during the experience of first love. This love might be romantic love but it might also be love of Christ but this can only be speculation and I still can’t get it to tally with the rest of the sentence.

The next shows Hill in self-referential mode with a degree of arrogance that isn’t particularly attractive. This is the second stanza from Poem XXXVIII:

Mating an absence to a warring presence.
Should have been far otherwise cuts a ragged
Tranche from the zeitgeist - you can quote me on this
Mute attribution.

I’ve come to accept over the years Hill’s penchant for obscurity, mainly because most references in the past have been attributed. In ‘Odi Barbare’ some quotes and references are explained but others are just left, as above, in italics. The only exact match for the above is referring to poor church attendance and as an admiring reader I do find the closing comment unnecessary and not very witty. I like the ‘ragged tranche’ image but I have no idea how it might relate to the quote. The first line is a run on from the previous stanza which contains a brief quote attributed to ‘Clarendon’ which I assume refers to one of Edward Hyde’s histories. I may be overly-sensitive in this regard but there’s something unpleasant about the ‘you can quote me quip. This again is odd because I’m not usually offended when Hill seems intent on being offensive.

I’ll finish with the third stanza from Poem LI:

Finally said, mine is the entertainment.
Charge you maintain justice not meretricious.
If we meet each other in Hell it's not hell.
You here means him though.

I think I need to point out that I’m of the view that bafflement is a good thing, that we can appreciate poetry without having a complete grasp on meaning and/or authorial intent. I also think that arguments about obscurity and readability aren’t useful when thinking about this kind of material that requires several attentive readings. I am however very wary of stuff that appears to be cleverer or more profound than it is. The third sentence with the upper and lower case ‘h’ might fall into this category whilst the last is simply beyond me.

All of this I’d be happy to overlook if I could get some purchase on more than three or four (there are 52) but then again it may be that I’m not giving this sequence the right kind of attention. I do hope so.

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2 responses to “Struggling with Geoffrey Hill

  1. Thanks for sharing your thinking. It’s really interesting and instructive to see how you approach this work, even if it’s not leading to honey in this instance. Generous, thanks.

    • I’m pleased that you like it. I haven’t given up on this particular sequence just yet but the early signs aren’t very promising.

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