Some types of ambiguity in Geoffrey Hill’s Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti. The opening section, followed by commentary:
A signal pre-election to free choice:
The mother’s face foresuffering, the child
Big, almost unmanageably held,
Such attestation in God’s passive voice.
The seraphs chime their wings of florid stance.
Things are as strange as need be, never rise
Up from this blur and cleave of centuries;
Grace condescending to things framed in chance.
Humility can afford the brutal
Splendiferousness of those Medici tombs.
Let the brain empty its own catacombs.
For love only one might hazard souls immortal.
Or in alert idleness build a tower
Of Fibonacci numbers where each term
Stands in its self-reflection as the sum
Of those two that precede it: the sunflower
Head is packed with them, and the pine cone,
Odd symmetries holding the mind at gaze
Unlike that solipsism of the maze
Circling the focus of self will alone.
In the time of tremors—a time of threat to the city-state, and civic stability, but also the sign of Christ’s birth, the apocryphal quake that shook the world: that was a sign, and the sign was understood eventually to be of God’s plan coming to fruition: that, says the myth, Christ would free men from sin, by his own choice; that men would, upon Christ’s sacrifice, be free to accept or deny him (if “Grace, condescending to things framed in chance” is resistible). At the time of the earthquake, the tremor, because God intervenes in the horizontal axis of human affairs with a break, a splitting of the temporal ground of our lives, from above. Paradox is unavoidable when describing or apprehending the divine plan: hence pre-election to free choice. The “pre-” carries much of the disorientating torque: the pre-election is an act in itself–the election itself already ordained, already enacted, an act before the act; we recede into a regression of Providential plans.
But what is Hill on about?—the colon impels us to seek an explanation in the lines that succeed. “The mother’s face foresuffering, the child.” He stands before the Donatello sculpture of mother and child, though we won’t know that it is Donatello till much later in the poem: the poem is a cycle of verses that cycles back on itself. “The” “mother because The Mother of us all; but also because of her immediacy before Hill. Her “face” suffers: either because her body does not, participating instead in another movement of feeling, or because the “face” is all that he can or would know of her; or because “face” concedes that the sculpture offers access only, by necessity, to something outwardly facing the viewer—and grants too that the face is accessible, a feat of the sculptor to bring it into immediate bearing and force.
It is a face, as is the face of any mother with a newborn whose life is uncertain, a face “for” suffering. But it is also a face “foresuffering,” setting her apart from the human temporal experience; she in some way already anticipates the plan of God, the passion. A comma asks that we don’t take “the child” as the object of “foresuffering”; but the line break after “the child” invites us to imagine the line as a sense, suspending the comma’s plea, so that what she foresuffers is the child, whose birth she’s already suffered, whose death she already knows. This birth is hard and bitter agony, like death.
“Big” for its understatement: the grandeur of Christ, the significance of the baby, reduced to the blunt word—but trailing still the sense it would have had in Middle English, at roughly the time when Donatello carved the sculpture: mighty. And so the collision and contrast between what the word can do for us now, and be for us now, and what it could be: perhaps like the event itself, the birth of Christ; for us, nowadays, the child does look, in the sculpture or relief, simply “big” as we know the term; the mightiness of its being is as distant from us as the mightiness of “big.”
And somewhere in the distance, “big with child.” The child of Mary who is big with the child of…future generations of men? of the man he will become, into whom God will descend? Christ as the bridegroom, already big with the salvation of man?
“Almost unmanageably held”: “held” not quite holding the rhyme with “child”; “almost unmanageably” but not unmanageably because the task, as great as it was for Mary, was not beyond her; “held” not only by Mary, but by the sculptor, by the work: the task of getting the infant Jesus into art being one that threatens to overwhelm the proper human proportions (in an era when those mattered more—even though the heritage of disproportionate figures, by matters of convention and suggestion, remained alive)—the question needs to be opened by the art: is this as big as the child would have been? is this the right size, the right significance? is the cosmic grandeur to overwhelm the human reality, when we ought to feel both at once? For Hill too, that question.
“Such attestation”: characteristic late Hill–where the “such” reaches out in admiration, or awe, but also vaguely: where is the attestation to be found? In the sculpture itself; in the face; in weird size of the infant? “God’s passive voice”—the sculpture as a passive voice because not spoken at all, but set in solid matter—the solid matter itself passive to the sculptor’s hand, to the word of God translated through his labors—the passive voice of an infant cry; the passive voice of God, as Christ, acted upon, passive in his creative and liberating act of self-sacrifice (the voice of God the active creator of the world, here reversed)… Not attestation “of” but “in”: the attestation is “of” free-choice. The infant Christ, then, attesting to the election to free choice that will come to pass. Or perhaps all of this, the sculpture, the artistic transfiguration of the Biblical text, was attested to in God’s passive voice, only coming into being now. And: God’s passive voice because it was by way of the incarnation and atonement that God could be made to act upon us, that we are acted on (here the voice is passive) through Christ, by God.
“The seraphs” chime their wings to and in the harmony of the spheres. “Florid stance”: perhaps because of the Donatello Hill has in mind.
“Things are as strange as they need be”: in the sculpture, or frieze, but also beyond—in life, and the reflection takes in however much it need. “Things…never rise”: Christ rose, but even if other things never do rise, there is no need for anything stranger. The strangeness from “this blur and cleave of centuries” is sufficient to reveal “Grace condescending to things framed in chance,” where those “things” are the same “things” that are strange as they need need be, and “where framed in chance” once again changes the pronoun from what is expected: “not framed by chance” but framed “in” chance. “Framed by chance” would have, perhaps, the unfortunate suggestion that chance is an agent, framing us: but chance does not do the framing: chance is instead one of the substances of the providential framing act. “Framed” most obviously recalls the work of art itself. If a frieze or relief, framed now in a museum’s confines (whether or not there is a square scaffolding around it). That too being framed in chance, because of the chance of its having been passed down or come into being in the first place. Grace does not inhere in the work of art, but descends into it, condescends to it; no work of art can be a source of its own value, though some might elicit value, divine or human, more readily than others; a successful work being, among other things, that: a successful solicitation and elicitation of valuation. Things need not rise, when Grace condescends to the strangeness of art–or when art is the subject of that strange condescension.
For Hill, the centuries do blur and cleave: his work so often does the blurring itself, so that the boundaries between his era and another’s are indistinct; but cleave might mean not only cleave together, but separate—the centuries do the act of cleaving, and Hill’s art in part an attempt to redress, in part an attempt to register, that act.
At a bit of a stretch, I’ll succumb to the temptation to remark on the contingency of rhyme, to the rhymes that, as by chance of sound, frame the stanza (a word that is hinted at in “stance”), and that achieve something akin to a reconciliation of chance with plan.
“Humility can afford the brutal”: to be humble means being able to weather what is brutal, and, in this case, brutally “splendiferousness”—that word crashing into the poem with the ostentation of Medician excess. In the subsequent section of the poem, a similar line: “Spirit affords matter; it is all one;” “Afford,” in the early twenty-first century, has become grafted to two associative clusters: the fiscal and the temporal, which are themselves, and this even before the dictum “time is money,” long intermingled (c.f. Shakespeare in the Sonnets, in Richard II). These are in the background here: the Medicis could afford so much. But Hill wrenches the word away, and sets it at work in a context of the virtues. To be humble means to yield aspirations to wealth, ambition and power: and yielding these, it is able to afford (to spare, to let go, to spend, to waste) the brutality that accompanies them. The art that is brutal not only upon the visitor, but brutal as an artifact of warring, battling, belitting city states (Pound’s Malatesta is not yet in Hill’s poem; but he will be).
The lines are poised between two extremes. At one extreme: “Humility can do without the brutal | Splendiferousness of those Medici tombs because it has instead the simpler and finer art of Donatello.” On the other extreme: “Humility has such strength that it can withstand the brutality inherent in those Medici tombs, instead remaining true to itself, manifest even within them–which might be strange, but that Grace condescends to the things of this world in peculiar ways.” I do not think we need to choose between them; Hill straddles the contradiction.
Rather than emptying the Medici tombs, “Let the brain empty its own catacombs.” “Its own” forcefully asks for a turn inwards, either in a tone of self-reproach or reproach: forget them, take care of yourself. “The brain” does not jar the poem, but it insists on the physical, the neurological seat of beliefs; it refuses to allow the poem to become too steered by the language of spirit. The brain is never far from Hill’s mind—especially in the late poems, where Hill on occasion nods to lithium—“Spirit affords matter.”
The “brain” suggests a fissure in the self: let the brain do this–whereas your spirit or will or soul do something else. I do not know where the possibility might go, except to say that the matters of the brain must be tended to by the brain; that the act must be a mental one, rather than a spiritual one. That there are limits to what the spiritual can accomplish. And this as the poem is about to shift to a mathematical, rather than sculptural, object. But not yet.
The most complex line of the poem so far: “For love only one might hazard souls immortal.”
“For” can be: “in exchange of” or “on behalf of.” “Hazard” can be “guess at, approximate” or else “gamble.” The possibilities explode:
“Only on behalf of love can you gamble with your immortal soul.” “Only in exchange for love can you gamble with your immortal soul.” “Love alone is all that you can hope to gain when you gamble with your immortal soul.” “Love alone is a motivation for gambling on your immortal soul.” “Only in exchange for love can you even come to believe in the possibility of your immortal soul.” “Only for the sake of love can you believe in the possibility of your immortal soul.”
But the possibilities can be expanded further still: “For love only one” might be “For love alone” or “one person alone (Christ)” can do this. In which case, the agent in each of the above can be shifted—along with the word “only”: Christ can do all of those things, and do them for love, for the sake of love, in exchange for love, out of love, on behalf of love, but not ONLY love: He chooses to do them for/in exchange for/on behalf of/out of love. That is His gift.
And with each of these possibilities, there is an additional question of how it might stand in relation to the line that has preceded. Without the full-stop in place, “For” might be taken as meaning “on the grounds that”–but the full-stop is in place and puts a halt to that reading. Instead, we are left either with an undefined causal relationship: Do the one and the other will (or can or should) follow; or else do the one and know the second is true–that alone is all that is needed in your mind.
“Or in alert idleness”: presumably governed by “Let the brain” : let the brain in alert idleness built a tower that is not the tower of Babel, but that is a tower of Fibonacci numbers. It might be also that “For love only one might in alert idleness.” I prefer the former possibility, but the second holds some appeal: For love only one might behold the creation’s symmetrical strangeness in such a way. Contemplation, however, seems the point: empty the catacombs, contemplate the instress of creation; the mathematical sequence comports well with “the brain,” as the two have come to be aligned, as philosophy has with mind.
“Where each term | Stands in its self-reflection as the sum| Of those two that precede it”: “Term” and “sum” stand without reflection, but “sunflower” takes from “sum” as well as “tower,” and the stanza shape does reflect in itself.
Fibonacci matters in and to this poem also because of it is inhabited by Italy: not a contemporary of Donatello, Fibonacci nevertheless reflects his achievements in the visual arts by his craft in the mathematical. The first section of the poem moves from contemplation of one model (sculptural) to another (mathematical), both descriptions of God’s strange Grace: an “odd symmetry” of the poem.
Let the brain empty its own catacombs–perhaps contemplation of other heads, of a sunflower, packed with Fibonacci numbers in the form of seeds, is the way for the brain to accomplish that act. But here “the mind” not “the brain”: something that exceeds, at least that is not necessarily bound to, the body.
In an “odd symmetry” of the poem: in the third line from the end, “holding”–against “held” in the third line from the start. A suggestion that the poem too is a patterned object to hold the mind at gaze.
The final lines of the poem announce its ambition and wariness: to hold the mind in gaze beyond itself, to detect symmetries, odd symmetries, across the patterns of time and history, to enter into these in contemplation; to evoke such symmetries, framed in chance, and even to draw forth the order and pattern that inheres, on behalf of the reader; but also on behalf of Hill, fearing “that solipsism of the maze | Circling the focus of self will alone.” “Alone” both in that the maze circles the “self will” and only the “self will” but also because the maze does so on its own, in isolation that Hill would overcome.
“Self will” is curiously not hyphenated. Perhaps because “self” retain a stronger adjectival sense of “selfish.” Perhaps so that “will” can function as a shadow verb: “the odd symmetries hold the mind at gaze more than the maze circling the self will do on its own.”—In that case, the line affirms that the maze circling the focus of the self will alone is not enough. The effort always to find the focus of oneself, the circling in on it, the end of the maze, is not enough to hold the mind at gaze in a meaningful contemplation. And so the poem will look out, even more than Hill’s poems often do—most pronouncedly in acts of translation and imitation.