Geoffrey Hill's poetry makes me itch after footnotes, for it is obscure and each reference caught is gathered to the reader's chest jubilantly, to be sewn on one's sleeve like a merit badge for Humanists. When I excerpted from his most recent volume before on this blog, I tried to add some footnotes of my own, but gave up after three. This is the web, after all, and you can Google as easily as I can.
This allusive obscurity invites the kind of intellectual scavengering of an archivist, yet the language, the pure control of words, makes the obscurity less crucial to the experience of the poem. It makes that experience somehow less daunting, even as the very smoothness of its diction offers no cracks of context to pry an allusion loose and guess at its meaning or significance. The curious pleasure of reading Geoffrey Hill is not remotely close to those offered by any other contemporary poet.
To dispense, with justice; or, to dispense
with justice. Thus the catholic god of France,
with honours all even, honours all, even
the damned in the brazen Invalides of Heaven.
Here there should be a section without words
for military band alone: "Sambre et Meuse,"
the "Sidi Brahim" or "Le Roi s'Amuse";
white gloves and monocles and polished swords
and Dreyfus with his buttons off, chalk-faced
but standing to attention, the school prig
caught in some act and properly disgraced.
A puffy satrap prances on one leg
to snap the traitor's sword, his ordered rage
bursting with "cran et gloire" and gouts of rage.
The chargers click and shiver. There is no stir
in the drawn ranks, among the hosts of the air,
all draped and gathered by the weird storm-light
cheap wood-engravings cast on those who fought
at Mars-la-Tour, Sedan; or on the men
in the world-famous stories of Jules Verne
or nailed at Golgotha. Drumrap and fife
hit the right note: "A mort le Juif! Le Juif
à la lanterne!" Serenely the mob howls,
its silent mouthings hammered into scrolls
torn from Apocalypse. No wonder why
we fall to violence out of apathy,
redeemed by falling and restored to grace
beyond the dreams of mystic avarice.
But who are "we," since history is law,
clad in our skins of silver, steel and hide,
or in our rags, with rotten teeth askew,
heroes or knaves as Clio shall decide?
"We" are crucified Pilate, Caiaphas
in his thin soutane and Judas with the face
of a man who has drunk wormwood. We come
back empty-handed from Jerusalem
counting our blessings, honestly admire
the wrath of the peacemakers, for example
Christ driving the money-changers from the temple,
applaud the Roman steadiness under fire.
We are the occasional just men who sit
in gaunt self-judgment on their self-defeat,
the élite hermits, secret orators
of an old faith devoted to new wars.
We are "embusqués," having no wounds to show
save from the thorns, ecstatic at such pain,
Once more the truth advances; and again
the metaphors of blood begin to flow.