Odi Barbare Poem VI for the fourth and final time.

Most of you will be delighted to know that I’ve decided to accelerate the reading of this piece of oddness, mainly because I want to get to the last verse in order to ask a few questions. So far we’ve established that:

  • writing seven poems a week is not the same as writing seven good poems;
  • Hill’s interest in things military may stem from his guilt that he never took part in combat;
  • writing bad lines is not made any better by acknowledging this in a poem;
  • over the last few years Hill has gone from being the bad boy of British poetry to its darling at the very time when his work is not at it’s best;
  • pattern poems (usually) aren’t very good.
  • Sir Geoffrey Hill can (of course) write whatever he wants because he is Sir Geoffrey Hill and has already written several of the finest poems in the language.

This is all of Poem VI:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage,
Make a pranged voice nasal through ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

This astounding people (Disraeli), their spears
Beating shield-hides, murmuring high a basso,
Hive-like, buzzing rage become torpor almost
Blood self-enthralling.

Assegais whish-washed in the fleshy Empire
Jelk you inside out like a dumdum bullet;
Death by numbers, one-shot Martini Henry
Redhot on target.

Errant Chelmsford, yet if slow Pulleine then had
Ordered form square, he could have saved their breakfast,
Might have subscribed that long-abandoned letter
Dead on the table.

Stand-to you viewers. Mark how Chard and Bromhead
There with plucked Hook posthumously ill-fictioned
And a Welsh Jew - Land of My Fathers bless them -
Staggered the impi.

Though your own sapped psyche so courts retraction
Soldiery's grand comedy plays to curtains.
Who denies this I would expect the Queen to
Rise up and smite him.

Let’s start by getting the proper nouns out of the way, Lord Chelmsford was in charge of British forces during the Anglo-Zulu war and is blamed by many for not returning with his troops to Isandlwana when he was told that it was under attack. Subsequently Chelmsford tried to blame Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine for the disaster because he had been left in charge of the camp. It does seem (from this completely amateur point of view) that neither did very well although Pulleine’s failure to ‘form square’ may not have been his major sin. Chard, Bromhead and Hook were all heroes of Rorkes Drift- a battle that occurred at about the same time and in which we repelled (staggered) the Zulu forces. The Queen is likely to be our own current monarch but could also be Queen Victoria who met and was won round by Chelmsford after the war even though no-one else was. I am assuming that the ill-fictioned Welsh Jew is one of the characters in the film ‘Zulu’ that I have referred to before. It is unlikely to refer to Hook who was born in Gloucester although the majority of soldiers at Rorke’s Drift do appear to have been Welsh.

I have no idea what that long-abandoned letter refers to nor do I know how to find out.

So, Isandlwana overrun due to upper class English incompetence / cowardice etc whereas Rorkes Drift defended by herioc Welsh squaddies singing ‘Land of My Fathers’ in the process (bless them).

I’m trying really hard to ignore the fact that ‘then had / ordered form square’ is so obviously bad and has no part in any kind of poem. It doesn’t work on any level, if poetry is supposed to be ‘heightened’ language then this is surely language demeaned – isn’t it? This isn’t ‘wrong’ in the sense that Keston Sutherland has described, it’s just unimaginative, weak and (dare this be said?) lazy. It doesn’t even have the excuse of ‘dissonance’ all acknowledged in Poem 13 of the ‘Clavics’ sequence, it’s just bad.

Readers of the disappointing ‘Oraclau’ sequence will not be surprised to note that Hill’s recently discovered Welsh ancestry continues to influence his world-view. This may be quaintly idiosyncratic or merely self-indulgent, depending on your taste.

Films have been made about both these encounters as Hill would seem to acknowledge by addressing his audience as viewers although ‘Mark how’ is more theatrical than cinematic – I don’t know of any plays depicting either battle.

The last verse is the reason for paying so much attention to this poem because I don’t know what to make of it and would like some assistance with the following:

  • whose psyche is being described?
  • why is this psyche said to be sapped?
  • what does having a sapped psyche mean or indicate?
  • why would a sapped psyche court or woo (ie ask for) a retraction?
  • is this retraction a denial of a previous assertion or the action of pulling an object back?
  • is it altogether reasonable / sensible to equate the horrors involved in soldiery with theatrical performance and death with ‘curtains’?
  • why should people wish to deny that soldiers sometimes get killed?
  • isn’t it extremely unlikely for either monarch to take any heed of what Hill expects?
  • which of the 26 main definitions of the verb ‘smite’ is being used on the last line?
  • would it be worth my while to try and work this out?

So, we have the derring-do of the buzzing rage and the whishery washery of the insect like savage, the well-known incompetence of the British officer classand the unabashed heroism of the Welsh squaddie. We also have the fact that the British were using dum-dum bullets counterbalanced by the savages’ entirely unreasonable use of the spear whilst omitting to mention the appalling rationale the British had for using such atrocious devices against spears and daggers. We have some bad lines, some lines that sound better than they are and more than a few syntactical tics.

Up until the last verse it is reasonably clear what’s going on but the last four lines are either deliberate and self-indulgent obfuscation beyond my ken or they don’t make any kind of sense, even for a ‘hierarchical Tory’.

I now find that I’ve come out of this reading in a more negative mood than when I started which might say more about me than the poem but it’s not an exercise that I intend to repeat with this sequence any time soon primarily because I don’t have to and life really is too short.

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8 responses to “Odi Barbare Poem VI for the fourth and final time.

  1. I see no one’s taken you up on this

  2. I like the way you’ve brusquely simplified the idea about Hill which I tried to put delicately

    I think it deserved to have that happen to it

  3. I agree that this poem is pretty near worthless, and that the second stanza is a bit offensive. Indeed, the more I try to understand it, the less it seems to be worth.

    You can just imagine Hill sitting down in front of the telly after a large Sunday lunch, happening to catch a showing of Zulu, and combining his response to it with some half-remembered history and whatever he’d read in the Telegraph that morning to make his seventh or dozenth poem of the week.

    Could the ‘sapped psyche’ be that of ‘you viewers’? To connect the ‘you’ of ‘you viewers’ with the ‘you’ of ‘your own’ is the only way I can understand the poem. Standing-to is exactly what we viewers are not or are not likely to be doing. But it’s also what Hill isn’t doing in writing the poem (even if he is trying to atone for that), so, to the same extent that Hill could be included among ‘you viewers’, ‘your own’ could be a form of self-address.

    The paraphrasable meaning of each line isn’t as important as the tone it serves. In fact, I think a certain vagueness *contributes* to the tone. And the tone is familiar: too familiar to readers of Hill. It’s the tone of sad indignation which is either indignation on others’ behalf or indignation (I’m sensing a better word here: disenfranchisement? hmm) on Hill’s behalf but never specifically *one* of those because the object of the indignation is never specific. This is why ‘courts retraction’ can be vague: it sounds right for the tone. It sounds like the kind of bad, terminally unserious thing a sapped psyche unable to honour the fact that soldiers die futilely for their country would do. If I was pressed to literalise it, though, I would say ‘retraction’ might mean suicide. Some sort of trivial civilian decision, some failure to stand to.

    I think the last two lines are the hardest in the poem to understand, even though they’re easy to paraphrase. I can’t fix the tone: how seriously are they to be taken? Perhaps it that Hill wants desperately to be patriotic, but he doesn’t want to seem to be uninterestingly or unambiguously so. He therefore voices a patriotism which is parodic (ghost of Queen Victoria?) because it wants to be self-parodic (like ‘I can hack …’), and saves a little ironic distance which he’s done nothing to earn.

    Hill wants to answer the question: How can I be an institutional or even establishment poet with genuine urgent feelings of patriotism, and still be interesting? And he fails to, here.

  4. “Sapped” conceivably a passing reference to “Sapper”, who gave us Bulldog Drummond. I say “us” – I was born in 1974, and haven’t read “King Solomon’s Mines” either.

    I get from the opening stanza the import that “this is the sort of thing that, if one were Laureate, one would occasionally be expected to come out with”. Except he can’t (or won’t) do it without it coming out curdled. I think it’s quite funny in its own sour way.

  5. Hill’s reference to the ‘long-abandoned letter’ most likely refers to the last letter Col.Pulleine was writing to his wife as the Battle of Isandlwana was drawing to a close. According to the script writers of ‘Zulu Dawn’, he was sat at his table in his tent writing to her before death stayed is hand, hence ‘unsubscribed’.

  6. Have just seen this and have to comment. “He ordered form square” makes total sense if you have any military training! “Form square” is the order given to do exactly that. Soldiers from a square with rifles pointing outward, making them a small but very concentrated opposition. It is used when there are few troops defending a relatively small area -exactly the situation at Rorkes Drift.

    • I am grateful for your clarification, I have no military training/knowledge whatsoever- I’ll amend this accordingly.

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