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Poem 66 from Geoffrey Hill's Al Tempo de' Tremuoti.

The above is the sixth of the Day Books which are dated 2007-12. This particular book made its first appearance in Hill's Broken Hierarchies Collected (2013) and consists of 95 poems, some of which are grouped together. Before we get to the poem, I think it's reasonable point out that some of us fans of all things Hill were disturbed by this seemingly sudden outburst of so much work in so short a time. This was deepened by the publication of Oraclau | Oracles which was quite disturbingly bad in all kinds of ways. It turns out that the rest of the books are not as bad but of variable quality in terms of both form and content.

The Books take up about three hundred of the Collected's 900 pages and I'm still working my way through although I have written about 4 of them in the past. This is the first time that I've paid reasonably close attention to anything from Tempo and I've chosen this because it seems in some ways representative of the whole:

Let your eye in | under the cello's bridge
Bow's early edgy Bomberg cubism
Acuity of pitch processing spasm
Desire's infinitude sheared at that edge:

Crafting - say weft - the soul in selving kind
And of remembrances to disencumber
The heart's final ineffectual chamber
Old age bewailing its lost wunderkind.

Music at last must die; such was our error
Angelus novus and the supernovae 
Rage like stars in a stiff silent movie:
Your hidden God still to be found in Torah.

Not that it finishes us, the violence
Of sudden death the arbitrary
Becoming freedom by eternal nature
One to one the torch of misalliance

Body-tagged spirit mutual disaffection
Fidelity's safe-keeping, whether or not
Judged by such evidence as we were brought
The prophets then walked free of miscorrection.

Before we start, the DNB tells me that David Bomberg attended the Slade School of Art 1911-1913. Incidentally, Bomberg's first acknowledged great painting (The Mud Bath) was based on the Schewzik Russian Vapour Baths in Brick Lane, Whitechapel. The other obscurities may be wunderkind which translates from German as 'wonder child', 'Angelus novus', unless it refers to the John Zorn album. is a drawing by Paul Klee which became important for the European Left after the much overrated Walter Benjamin wrote:

A Klee drawing named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The Torah is a term with several meanings but it is most commonly used to indicate the Pentateuch- the first five books of the Old Testament which contain the laws given by God to the Jews.

In addition to these, the poem presents difficulties from the start- the letting in of the eye is not a phrase that is normally used so, for the moment, I'm taking this to be enabling someone or thing to see. Hill is in the occasional habit of using | to indicate where a pause should occur in the line although, in this instance, the pause is reasonably obvious. Isn't it?

I'm going to ignore the 'rhymes' for the moment and try and concentrate on the content. It carries with it more than a few of Hill threads- old age (mortality), music, selving, remembrance, God etc. but in an odd kind of way as if our poet's in too much of a hurry to dwell on one item for long.

The opening phrase is an instruction but not one that's in everyday use. I'm taking it for the moment as 'allow yourself, or something that you have control over, to be seen'. In these dismal times this could refer to a human eye or a surveillance camera. We now begin to be baffled in trying to work out the cello bridge and the acuity of pitch have to do with Bomberg's early peak in 1914. Happily, it turns out that the London Group of artists (of which Bomberg was a member, show most of their work at the Cello Factory in Waterloo. So there might be some related 'sense' to be made and this leaves the acuity of pitch disconnected from the first two lines.

I'm taking the following to lines to refer to both music, as in 'pitch', and sex as in 'desire', particularly with regard to a musical resolution and ejaculation. The latter of these has become a more frequent motif in the later work. There is also this, from Gerald Manley Hopkins;

Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own....... Nothing can..exercise function and determination before it has a nature to 'function' and determine, to selve and instress, with.....I may treat the question from the side of my being, which is said to be compounded, selved-up, or identified with this universal mind.

What follows may be more lit crit than my usual meanderings but I want to use it as an example of how useful some knowledge of a poet's essays can be both in terms of elucidating his poetry but also in flagging up other poets that might be of readerly interest. Hill is an enormous fan of, and advocate for, Hopkins work and the OED says usage has been limited to 'only' Hopkins and give this v brief definition;

(To cause) to become and act as a unique self.

Unfortunately I haven't been able to track down a copy of the above quotes in full but it does give more than a few clues as to what might be going on. I originally thought that Hill's usage referred to 'inscaping' as in Hopkins' usage. This is Hill (from his Poetry and Value essay) on Coleridge;

....his immediate sense of language as mediator in the struggle toward a grasp of intrinsic natures (one of several ways in which he anticipates Hopkins's search for instress and inscape).

This is then followed by a lengthy and densely argued paragraph from which I'm going to lift;

Hopkins simultaneously clarifies and complicates these issues by his mastery of the essential techniques is such that he reduces to a bare minimum the distance between the mediate and the immediate characteristics of language; second, because, in his profoundest theological allegiance, he is committed to meditation.

So 'selving' as spiritual meditation which leads to an increased realisation of the 'unique being' within but also something about this writerly quest for the 'intrinsic natures' of ideas and things.

We die when the chambers of the heart lose their effect and mortality has become of increasing concern to Hill but there's also this political sense of the Commons and Lords as our chambers of Parliament and political power (control). I have a strange relationship with Hill's political views because most of them are eccentric whilst a few make perfect sense. He has recently expressed dismay, for example, at the sad fact that materialism is the driving force behind all our main political parties and this seems to 'fit' with this line as well. We now move into a brief piece of autobiography, this lament for a brilliant youth. In one of his poems somewhere I recall Hill referring to himself as something of a prodigy as a child but also quite insufferable because of it. His working class background would indicate some special brilliance in order to get into the incredibly elitist Oxford of the time. It may well be worthy of note that the verb is 'bewail' rather than any other because that carries connotations of Old Testament lamentation perhaps more than complaint or regret. I don't want to stretch this too far but might the late work (from Comus, say) contain this as a key activity?

This music dying business had me puzzled for a while and I'm still not sure but it could be about the Music of the Spheres, an idea which suggests a relationship between music and what was seen as the 'harmony' of the planets. According to the interweb this has been a concept popular with the more esoteric end of Christianity. This would seem then seem reasonably sensible to lead into the Angelus Novus which was once owned by Gershom Scholem, the 20th century's leading scholar on Jewish mysticism. The inclusion of the supernovae (exploding stars) may represent the scientific knowledge that has killed our belief in this particular harmony. I'm also reading the more obvious play on 'stars' (astral/celebrity) as something to do with the storm of the future that Benjamin refers to above. I think it's fair to suggest that Hill's view of progress is largely negative as he sees it as part of the increasingly materialist (in every sense of the word) and damaging trend brought about by all kinds of 20th century 'advances'.

The colon after 'movie': suggests that the last line me be either a summary of or conclusion to the preceding three. Jewish teaching says that God is incorporeal and therefore impossible to depict. This could explain 'hidden' along with the verbal descriptions of the Godhead are still present in the Torah. So, this might say something about the durability of faith even though the 'music' is dead and we live in an increasingly secular world. On the other hand, it might say something altogether else.

The final eight lines are are single sentence, punctuated only by a comma in the middle of line 6. so some concentration may be required. These seem to be concerned primarily with mortality and Judgement. Hill has said, in an interview with The Economist the the main concern underpinning his work is the fate of his soul after death. The equation of apparently abitrary death=freedom by means of the everlasting existence of the soul. I'm struck by the three 'negative' line endings in the last five lines which would seem to suggest something unbalanced, out of kilter but then again there's the problem of the identity of the 'we' in the penultimate line.

My small brain may be missing the point here but I can't help but feel (subjectively, tentatively) that these particular two stanzas are intended to sound more portentous than they are.I continue to be concerned that this seems to be a bit of a trend in all of the Day Books whereby there are flashes of strength and the fierce intelligence that we're accustomed to but these are very much in the minority. Of course, Hill can do whatever he wants in the knowledge that his reputation and stature will endure because of the quality of his previous work. However, I don't think the matching word endings and the full rhyme in the last stanza are an example of the constraints of form enhancing the text and can't help wondering if this use of form ( rhyme, metre, shape) have seriously diminished whatever the intention may have been in all of the Books. I'm also of the view that in this case being prolific has entailed a serious drop in quality, as some of us thought it might.

To conclude, all of the above is provisional and based on (probably) insufficient attention to the sequences as a whole but I continue to be disappointed by the absence of strength and serious thought therein.