A new post on temporality and the etymology of the word ‘tense’ at Ironical Coincidings got me reflecting again on time, which keeps finding its way back into in my thesis – which is really supposed to be about space. I wrote a paper a while back on time and Geoffrey Hill which is on academia.edu but here are some other musings about time in the opening and closing one line poems of Triumph of Love.
Triumph of Love is a fusion of personal reflection, observation, and meditation on the atrocities and failures of the twentieth century, particularly those associated with the period of Hill’s childhood, the Second World War. The book-length sequence consists of one hundred and fifty poems of variable line-length, equal to the number of Old Testament psalms, and resembling the long modernist poem. In this respect Triumph offers a stylistic and formal departure from Canaan (1996) and a return to the poetic terrain of Mercian Hymns (1971) and its landscape of childhood, a return that is perhaps all the more acute as a result of Hill’s academic expatriation from England – Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge – to Boston, Texas where he lived and taught from 1988 until 2004. Andrew Roberts and Jeffrey Wainwright both remark that is Hill’s most autobiographical poem since the mining of “a rich and desolate childhood” in Mercian Hymns, and while Triumph reveals more of the “Obstinate old man” and “senex sapiens”, than earlier work, it is no surprise to find that the landscape of the poem’s unfolding is again that of Hill’s childhood – Worcestershire and the West Midlands. The repeated opening and closing one line poems immediately locate and frame the sequence within the confined geography of Hill’s childhood, the district of Bromsgrove.
Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp. (I)
Sun-blazed, over Romsley, the livid rain-scarp. (CL)
The repeated return to Romsley in Triumph has a cumulative sedimentary effect such that fragments of place are eroded, transported and redeposited in the textual layers of the sequence. In this sense Triumph is a continuation of an “excavatory tendency” in Hill and poets such as Heaney who have been criticised for a “discourse of epistemological mastery”, adherence to the idea of poems as indexes of “the aura and authenticity of archaeological finds”. Geology and meteorology conjoin in the opening line to form the image of “rain-scarp”, a visual disturbance which recalls the evanescence of light on water and the solidity of rock. In the notebooks the stone that forms this image is a more tangible ironstone, a sedimentary rock found in abundance in the Midlands and mined for its iron content in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hill once brooded on his familial connection with this local industry in Mercian Hymns speaking “in memory of” his “grandmother, whose / childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the / nailer’s darg”. Here in early and often crossed-through drafts of the opening lines of Triumph the poet considers whether the geology of familiar places is at all recognisable in a post-industrial age, would the lyric persona know ironstone if he were to encounter it.  In Mercian Hymns Hill condemns in a Ruskinian manner the “quick forge” of industrial capitalism that alienated the nail-maker from the products of their labour, yet there is a sense here of nostalgia for a relationship to and knowledge of local landscape that such industries provided. Eric Falci suggests of Heaney and Montague’s work, that such a loss assumes that “landscape is readable: if we have lost the skill to read the landscape’s manuscript” then presumably “we once could”. For Hill things forgotten, as much as memories and histories converge in the earth and the sky “over Romsley”.
Michael Edwards’ suggests that the opening poem of TL proffers an “image at once visionary and real” reminiscent of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” although rather than the pure fusion of Imagist poetics, there is a disjunction in Hill’s image between sun, rain, and the “lividity” of “wounds” and “unhealthy flesh”. The conflict between the image of gentle rainfall and wounded flesh are borne out in Hill’s jottings for the opening line which appear to refer to a verse from psalm 72: “He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth”. In the psalm rainfall is a figure for the peaceful reign of Solomon and the later incarnation and passion of Christ; in Hill’s verse the image of “rain-scarp” repeated in the first and final lines frames the “moral landscape” of the poem “a terrain” where “particular grace, / individual love, decency, endurance, / are traceable across the faults”. Formed by movement along a fault line or the differential erosion of sedimentary rocks across time, scarp and its close-sounding alternative, scar, is particularly suggestive of the warring themes of “Guilt and Redemption”, and the scarred histories and landscapes that Hill offers in Triumph
Shifts in time and place are also signalled by the Hill’s substitution of commonplace determinants – “a” and “the” – in the repeated lines which echoes the move from indefinite to definite article in Pound’s Imagist poem. Whereas for Pound the two articles in the title/first line contract to produce the image of the metro-station which provides the spatial location for the following two lines, Hill’s “a” and “the” function as both the extension and the limit of the poem sequence, separated by the force and weight of “guilts [...] incurred”. The shift between indefinite “a” and definite “the” is barely perceptible to the eye, yet there is a linguistic force and momentum that lies between and proceeds from the two articles. Like Hill’s shimmering “rain-scarp” the relationship between the two articles is not stable or constant as they oscillate between singularity and universality constituting a field of potential meaning. At first glance each article fixes the meaning of the noun it precedes, “a” denotes something general or universal, whereas “the” is particular or singular. Yet either article can signify a move from the general to the particular; the use of “a” or “the” in conjunction with “livid rain-scarp” might be a general representation of English weather, a weather phenomenon particular to the West-Midlands, or a specific event witnessed by a lyric persona. Here it is the latter sense, whereby the vision of sheer rock face caused by the reflection of sun against rain functions as the objective correlative for a lyric voice who recalls an earlier “self-molestation of the child-soul” in the second poem of the sequence. Edwards suggests that the substitution of the definite for the indefinite article marks a “distancing” or taking “leave” of the poet’s “actual childhood in favor of contemplation of another’s martyrdom and of the deepening of a new and spiritual child-likeness of the ageing adult”. The difference between “a” and “the” here hinges on the distance between memory, history and the present moment of writing. The shift in expression between the two lines is temporal rather than qualitative; the definite article of the closing poem functions anaphorically, referring back to the image already introduced to the reader in the first line. This anaphoric affect produces a temporal nick in which different spans of time collide – the time of an individual life “child-soul” to “old man”, historical time “long before Domesday” to “the flash of Judgement”, secular time and eternity, and the time of the poem itself. The definite article can also function in a non-anaphoric sense, referring not to something introduced in the preceding discourse but to an absolute outside the text of which the audience is assumed to have prior knowledge. Eliot’s repeated use of the definite article often functions in this way, emphasising the abstraction and fixity of meaning of the noun. Hill is wary of the kind of absolutism that he sees in Eliot’s use of the definite article preferring the suggestiveness of the anaphoric repetition which, rather than positioning the reader in relation to an absolute meaning, encourages a retrospective readjustment and re-reading. Thus the motif of return in Triumph is embodied in the temporal structure of the sequence, the small shift from one article to another announcing the homecoming of the lyric I and necessary return of the reader to the opening image. The repetition and difference of the concluding line causes a movement to and fro across the text through various invocations of Romsley and its connection through myth and memory to other British and European locations. As Agamben claims of time and poetry: “The poem is an organism or temporal machine, that from the very start, strains towards its end. A kind of eschatology occurs within the poem itself. But for the more or less brief time that the poem lasts, it has a specific and unmistakeable temporality, it has its own time.” (The Time That Remains 79)
 Geoffrey Hill, “Mercian Hymns,” in Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems: 1952-1992 (Penguin, 2000), V.; Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love (London: Penguin, 1999), V.
 Geoffrey Hill, “A Poet’s Vision of His Local Roots” (Talk, Bromsgrove, February 13, 2004).
 Jeffrey Wainwright, Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 94.
 Hill, Triumph, VI; Hill, “A Poet’s Vision.”
 Hill, “A Poet’s Vision.”
 Hill, “Mercian Hymns,” II.
 Eric Falci, “Place, Space and Landscape,” in A Concise Companion to Postwar British and Irish Poetry, ed. Nigel Alderman and C. D. Blanton (Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 219; Brian McHale, “Archaeologies of Knowledge: Hill’s Middens, Heaney’s Bogs, Schwerner’s Tablets,” New Literary History 30, no. 1 (1999): 254; Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968-1978 (Faber and Faber, 1984), 41.
 Geoffrey Hill, “Notebook 42: Canaan / The Triumph of Love,” 1995, MS 20c Hill/2/1/42, Brotherton Collection, University of Leeds. Due to copyright I cannot cite archive material directly but only allude to the content.
 Hill, “Mercian Hymns,” XXV.
 Hill, “Notebook 42.”
 Falci, “Place, Space, and Landscape,” 209.
 Michael Edwards, “Quotidian Epic: Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 13, no. 1 (2000): 168.
 Hill, “Notebook 42.”; Psalm 72:6 KJV.
 Hill, Triumph, LI.
 Hill, Triumph, LXXXVI.
 Hill, Triumph, II.
 Edwards, “Quotidian Epic,” 173.