LYRIC COMPANION Geoffrey Hill “The Orchards of Syon, LXIX”

Heavy, post-cloudburst, slow drops, earthing, make / dibble-holes under the crouched evergreens. / So far I’m with you, conglomerate roots / of words. I wish I could say more. Even / this much praise is hard going. … / Nonetheless it’s here: sodden, glaucous / evanescence; ridged ‘impasto.’ I sense / revelation strike obliquely in, / thwartways, to our need.

Dig the—mostly uncouth—language of grace.

FRAME OF REFERENCE The [Kantian schema of the imagination] somehow partakes of both the understanding and the sensuous, and it is neither one or the other. If we fixate on these two, and if we fix them, we fail to realize that more important is the power that passes between them. This has something to do with imagination. This is a threshold power that is not a self-determining power—it is an endowed power, an enabling that itself is secretly enabled by a source it cannot enable through itself alone. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 77

Hill’s later poetry includes passages of description that invoke, in passing, a mix of Romantic and religious influences. They pour through the gaps between the often garrulous argument. The voice—the mask—is often inseparable from an irritable, self-justifying flaneur in the China-shop of criticism. We wince to hear the whine and miss what’s at stake.

I’ve given only the beginning and very end of this text. The middle deserves close attention to the dialectics. One of the sources of difficulty in these poems is the dialectical noise and how it may overwhelm the structure. I give the last brilliantly complex line in earnest of a fuller commentary.

What I give of the opening plus shows the situation and reflections of the equivocities of the middle. The intensities of the word choices, reflected in the heavily stressed mix of description and personal discourse, moves the reader swiftly from the equivocal (“conglomerate roots/ of words”) into. the dialectic.
We need to slow down to appreciate the given. (In Hill’s poetry, there’s a tendency for the given to be reconfigured as gift.) The setting is both specific and charged with extreme values (“earthing”). The description is indeed hard going because it is moved by the desire not just to describe but to praise. We see in the omitted dialectics just how contested the urge to praise is.

In the FRAME OF REFERENCE I’ve referenced (horrible fashionable word) the philosophical problem Hill wrestles with, the problem of the imagination. It is an endowed not constructed power surging between mind and flesh. This “metaxical” notion of the between is suggested by Hill’s description of the plurivocity, the thick impasto, “sodden, glaucous/evanescence.” All is passage in the metaxical imagination. But the lyric mask of Hill’s eracible, embattled voyant rises to the emergent occasion. “I sense / revelation strike obliquely in/thwartways, to our need.” The swerve of that sentence from discursive to dramatic and profound inscribed the lyric narrative from outer to inner, from lower to higher, in Augustine’s version of the chiasmus of the finitude of flesh. The imagination flares in the rare if not original “thwartways.”

As for the last line—“Dig the—mostly uncouth—language of grace”— the voice of the poem doubles back on the poet’s contested and contesting voice with an acknowledgment of the unearthly play of the endowed imagination. I’m so glad Hill raised and risked the ambiguity of uncouth “dig.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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