Friday, 1 February 2019

'the earth lying shotten...'

This dank, dripping day – incessant cold drizzle after an early dusting of snow – naturally put me in mind of Geoffrey Hill, a poet whose element is rain and whose season is winter. Here is a short (and accessible) winter poem from Without Title

Wild Clematis in Winter

Old traveller's joy appears like naked thorn blossom
as we speed citywards through blurry detail –
wild clematis' springing false bloom of seed pods,
the earth lying shotten, the sun shrouded off-white,
wet ferns ripped bare, flat as fishes' backbones,
with the embankment grass frost-hacked and hackled,
wastage, seepage, showing up everywhere,
in this blanched apparition.

['Shotten' is an archaic adjective applied to fish, particularly herring, that have spawned. By extension, spent, done for, worn out. Fish imagery recurs in the following line, which suggests the discarded backbones of herrings.]


  1. Yes, on this occasion accessible, and, yes, interesting archaism and usage in ‘shotten’ and ‘hackled.’ I think I apprehend and appreciate Hill’s virtues just as you do, Nige, but I can’t help thinking this is what great poetry would look like, on paper, if one set out to manufacture it. I think I have an irresistible reaction to him, though, because I feel his monstrous erudition and crushing seriousness exercise a kind of displacing hegemony over the literary landscape which blots out the sun. A brutal didacticism, backed up by slightly unnerving claims of real prophethood make his poetry an uncomfortable presence. Different horses I guess.....

  2. Yes I do know what you mean, Guy – it's just that I actually enjoy surrendering to those mighty crashing waves of obscure prophetic utterance., and you clearly don't. I think in the final analysis (is there such a thing?), his earlier, shorter works are his best, but I do regard The Triumph of Love and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy as true masterpieces...