formal-sounding ‘latrine’ – organically shaping its own winding course ‘through the nettles’, might point to a formal pliability that partially justifies the warping of the mould in Selected Poems. There are other moments which hint at a creative reciprocity between the two versions. In the previous hymn, in the lines ‘Exactness of design was to deter imitation; mutil- / ation if that failed’, the performative mangling of the line break seems very much part of the design. But this potentially gains an extra dimension from the paradoxical mutilation of ‘mutil- / ation’ in Selected Poems, the longer line re-fusing the severed particles. ‘Exactness of design was to deter imitation’, but it may be that the poem’s design invites imitation too (‘was to’, like ‘were paid to’, implies thwarted intention). ‘Seasons touched and retouch- / ed the soil’, Hill writes in the subsequent verset, and maybe this too is a sign that his hymns aren’t all that sacred, a recognition that it is natural for works of art to be ‘retouched’ (2006) over time.
Maybe, but Selected Poems remains vulnerable to imputations of casual editing. The author who, in his note to The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983), praises Péguy as ‘A man of the most exact and exacting probity, accurate practicality, in personal and business relations, a meticulous reader of proof’,2 and who projects onto Offa ‘a care for natural min- / utiae’ (XIV) which in many respects he shares, appears on this occasion to have been more than a little careless in his proof-reading. Or else complacent enough to have delegated the task to minions; or, out of contempt for the unashamedly commercial motives that a Selected Poems, like those Best of… albums, might entail, to have averted his foreign gaze from the whole enterprise (though the approving authorial stamp seems to have been put on the American edition of Selected Poems published by Yale University Press in 2009, judging by the full-size mugshot of him glaring out at nothing which adorns the front cover). Hill is, of course, capable of adopting self-parodic stances in these matters, most notably in The Triumph of Love (1998), in which the intrusions of an inept editor serve as a comic conceit. The ‘comic sub-plot’ of his seminal essay ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’, his contention that ‘an anxiety about faux pas, the perpetration of “howlers”, grammatical solecisms, misstatements of fact, misquotations, improper attributions’ is a form of guilt that writers write in order to atone for – and that, in this connection, ‘one of the indubitable signs of Simone Weil’s greatness as an ethical writer’ is ‘that she associates the act of writing not with a generalized awareness of sin but with specific crime, and proposes a system whereby “anybody, no matter who, discovering an avoidable error in a printed text or radio broadcast, would be entitled to bring an action before [special] courts”’ – , further positions Hill as a witness for his own prosecution.3 His notes to Mercian Hymns, which, in another editorial howler, Selected Poems has entirely dispensed with, accordingly evince a wry embarrassment at the errors of his exacting ways: ‘I seem’, he confesses of his use of the word ‘wire’ in hymn XXV, ‘not to have been strictly accurate’, with something of Eliot’s diffident scrupulosity in the spuriously scholarly ‘Notes on The Waste Land’ (‘I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards’; ‘I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken’). It would seem to be going too far, though, to see the not strictly accurate handling of the text’s lineation half a lifetime later as part of an elaborate self-deprecating joke by the poet. For one is crossing a line that distinguishes the textual from the paratextual, the conceit from contingent circumstance: comfortable fictions become unruly realities; ‘I seem’ suddenly shades into ‘I am’. Such boundary-blurring is very much the province of Mercian Hymns, which stages kinds of play that do go too far: ‘The children’ in hymn XIX who ‘shriek / and scavenge, play havoc. They incinerate boxes / rags and old tyres’; the Boy’s Own imagination of XXII ignited or incited by the wireless reports of actual war; Ceolred, ‘sniggering / with fright’ as Offa lures him ‘down to the old quarries, and flay[s] / him’ (VII); the ‘laugh’ juxtaposed with ‘a cough’ in II, the latter perhaps a cover for the faux pas of the former. Yet if the erroneous republication of Mercian Hymns is meant to be a private joke several degrees subtler, realer, and more perfectly imperfect than The Triumph of Love, then any laughter it elicits would have to be nervous indeed, since it would suppose Hill in possession of a level of creative foresight (one might think of it also as flaw-sight) that is, to remember Offa’s self-estimation in hymn XXIX, staggering. And it’s that same supposition, oddly, that confounds the element of joking, Offa’s enormous self-estimation no longer a caricaturish exaggeration of Hill’s own in thinking himself capable of alchemising gradual slippage in poetic form into formal sin – at once an enormous estimation of the reader who is to attend to such slow-burning sleight of hand.
Notes 1 John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden
(London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 76–99 (p. 93). 2 Geoffrey Hill, Collected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), p.
206. 3 Geoffrey Hill, ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’, in Collected
Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 3–20 (pp. 15, 9, 9–10).
PN Review 202 J EAN-PAUL DE DADELSEN
Three Poems Translated by Marilyn Hacker
The Great Ledger
They’ll tell you that sunshine will follow the rain; they’ll tell you That a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Don’t believe it. It is good that after the rain comes the deluge; it is excellent That a bird in the hand brings two wolves out of the bushes; it is necessary That for not having gone often enough to the well
The pitcher be broken.
Erase and start again. They’ll tell you that after two 9s there’s often a 36 And that last summer at Evian zero came up three times in a row.
It’s true A colonel who’d gone to the Ecole Polytechnique played the limit three times on zero; Five hundred thousand francs; thank you from the employees, thank you sir from The accountants of the great ledger where your military service record has always
Been noted down.
Campaigns under Charles known as the Wise, under Pyrrhus, under Ramses II, Under Hamurabi; nine wounds; two dead on the scaffold;
A suicide; A life wasted as a magistrate’s wife. As decorations A child raised to hate everyone, a word kept despite common sense, Three defeats by stubbornness against all evidence,
Dishonour and fidelity.
He says to her: So you stayed with him? Well, yes, she Stayed with him; got laid three times, of which the first
Was spoiled for her And the third spoiled by him. But who knows on what grounds. That was part of her own service record. And by what right Did he feel himself so magnanimous, so generous, for having forgiven her?
She belongs to no one.
I don’t belong to myself. I don’t know where I come from, I don’t know What is marked down in my favour or against me
In the great account book. I am not my forgetfulness I am not my laziness and am not My sluggishness. But from the depths of my memory I am ashamed I am ashamed I did not cry out against you
The Eternal is within me and watching me, more useless Than a breeze’s evening breath over water, calm
And memoryless. He watches from deepest within me my thoughts my graven images, My puerile need for a God who has a given name My demented desire for a woman who will love
The woman is wise. She never loves except across us, loves The idiot, the pig and the coward hidden in us, loves only
Jean-Paul de Dadelsen: Three Poems