104. (Geoffrey Hill)

In the late collections where Eugenio Montale is most present, in translation and as an interlocutor, Hill’s voice finds most relief from its gnarled self-doubts and thorny metaphysics. Montale stands at the center of Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti, in a series of six translations (Hill calls them “variants”) of “Il Gallo Cedrone,” from La Bufera e Altro.

Il Gallo Cedrone

Dove t’abbatti dopo il breve sparo

(la tua voce ribolle, rossonerio

salmi di cielo e terra a lento fuoco)

anch’io riparo, brucio anch’io nel fosso.


Chiede aiuto il singulto. Era piu dolce

vivere che afforndare in questo magma,

piu facile disfarsi al vente che

quu nel limo, incrostati sulla fiamma.


Sento nel petto la tua piaga, sotto

un grumo d’ala; il mio pesante volo

tenta un muro e di noi solo rimane

qualche piuma sull’ilice brinata.


Zuffe di rostri, amori, nidi d’uova

marmorate, divine! Ora la gemma

delle piante perenni, come il bruco,

luccica al buio, Guive e sotterrato.


Here is Montale’s own English translation, rendered casually in a letter to the critic Gianfranco Contini:
Where you after the brief shot lower

(your voice seethes, black-red

salmis of sky and earth at slow heat)

also I shelter, I too burn in the gutter.


Your sight asks for help. ‘Twas sweeter

to live than to sink into this jelly,

easier in the wind to undo than

here in the slime, crusted on the flame.


I feel in my chest your sore, beneath

the clot of a wing; my burdened flight

probes a wall and of us only some feathers

upon the hoary ilex remain.


Grapples of rostrums, loves, nests of eggs

marbled, divine! Now the jemmy sprout

of the perennial plants, like the grub

sparkles in the gloom, Jupiter is buried.


Montale’s best translator, William Arrowsmith, translates thus:


Where you went down after the shot was fired

(your voice comes boiling back up, black-red

salmi of earth and heaven, simmering),

there I too take shelter, I too burn in that ditch.


Pain cries for help. Living was sweeter

than sinking down in this magma,

simpler to dissolve in the wind than here

in this mud, scabbing over flame.


I feel your wound in my breast, beneath

a clot of wings; my lumbering flight

attempts a wall, and all that’s left of us

is a few feathers on the frosted holly.


Scuffles over nests, matings, nests

of marbled, heavenly eggs! Now,

in darkness, the perennials’ budded gem glitters

like the grub. Jove is underground.


And here are Hill’s “variants,” poems 43 (a) to 43 (f) in Al Tempo, each written in the stanza form that runs through the collection (happily coinciding with Montale’s quatrains, though the rhyme scheme differs) and set in italics, along with the other translations.


43 (a)


Snapshot—that—the snapped shot. You foundered,

Who had been ponderous; echo a travesty

Of a mating-call, that ‘guttural retching cry’.

Desperately sheltering, I too am plundered.


Caparcailzie—‘largest European grouse’—

Rare even in Andorra, to elitist taste.

We’re broken, though, to stew and sink as waste;

Or so I ponder, making Earth’s mulch my muse.


My wing-root’s a smashed bone; as slowly

As you attempt it my crippled flight

Flails blindly to the wall. Therefore, this sight—

Blood-feathered tatters on a frost-bound holly.


That stately fracas after the year’s turn;

Startling, those fragile eggs. The sticky-buds

Erupt like larvae; a god among his gods

Went down into the earth to be re-born.


43 (b)


Someone back there’s no crackshot: you have crashed

Though I still hear your voice come bubbling up

Out of the black-red mulch, the primal soup.

Well, I’m ditched with you, being scorched and mashed.


Pain cries to cliché. Simply, it would be better

To live at hazard, even with your wings’ traction—

Short ugly flight at most—an interjection—

Than feast these crusted flames’ abysmal matter.


I hug your death in closest metaphor.

My breast’s shot through beneath your clod of wings;

We break on stone in our blind staggerings;

Our strewn feathers, the ilex in its frore.


Erogenous magma!—see what you make of us:

The matings, nestlings, clutch of precious eggs;

The new life festered with the old year’s dregs,

The self-insemination dubbed as Jove’s.




Black-red engulfs you now, shot-stricken bulk;

I catch your cry, the tumbling-over-plume,

Earth swirling, or the cloud, to primal grume

Where I as much as you flail. Of your ilk,


I struggle to impact your pain. Although,

Like me, no great athlete, better gone

Vanishing on the wings that staunchly shone

Than plunge in this fire-and-water slough.


So much is repetition: by the end

How much evasive, self-illusory?

How much is mine, your last-ditch-heave to fly:

Stripped plumage on the holly’s icy rind?


An old year dies; its death will disappear

Birth-wet, cocoon-like breaking of the bud;

Grouse-eggs ground-laid, the scufflings near the brood:

Full of his jollities, our Jupiter.


43 (d)

After the shock, the outrage, you descend

(As we’d prefer, with injured dignity.

Afraid not; there’s f lap, you sprawl to die.)

I from my gutter miserably attend.


‘Aiuto!’—to interpret sigh or croak—

Rarer apotheosis, wind and sun,

Than here where your own body-sewers run,

Piled post-diluvian like other muck.


I’ve chest-pains—empathy’s been oversold—

Still I feel for you, that obtruded wing

Sore-travailed by its flail-and-spiggoting.

The ilex, its dark splendor, shuttered, cold,


Memorializes nothing that we are…

The new nests, their fresh-offered sacrifice;

Maggots’-milk tackiness, the very lice

Enraptured at the flesh that crowds to war.



After the spraddle of the shots you fell,

Spasm and rattle in the dulling body.

I had not thought death could be so untdy.

My indeterminate self your self at call.


Dying cries out: any old death preferred

To this corruption; wind and sun are sweet;

Or pray to be dissolved and to forget

The primal smegma that our blood is, charred.


I feel in my breast where the lethal flak,

Striking a wing-root, hurls your body round

As on a pivot, staggering to ground.

The frost-lit ilex does not lost a flake.


Spring-strut of victory; eggs that frailly hatch

Or spill an ichor; the perennials

Compound with horny buds your darkling spoils,

You are this buried god, who wake and stretch.


43 (f)

I shall now say: after the shot you screeched,

Your voice recoiled, rejected by the rich

Black and red ‘salmi’, procreative ditch,

Where I too crouch, in joint-distress, unscratched,


Deeper than empathy, knowing you—creature—

Your being of air. And now what magma

Swallows us at the kill, mud like phlegm

Plugged in the throat of the creator-fire


That, even so, does for us. Your hurt is mine

I shall insist, and my flesh-floundering plight

Your frantic one-winged beating to gain height.

Hoar-frost encrusts the holly leaves like brine.


Effective too the way the year comes round,

Matings, buddings, fatal shows of birth;

You, I, the dead, enlivening the dead earth,

A good new-roused, fecundity his wound.


The first question to ask is external to the translations: What is Hill doing here? And, with some dissatisfaction, the best way to answer the question is to quote still more: the two preceding poems in the series introduce Montale. In section 40, Hill has stumbled, in his imagined wandering through Florentine history, on the Gabinetto Vieusseux, the great Florentine library under the stewardship of Montale. In 41, he describes his fellow poet (addressing him as the pseudonymous Arsenio), contemplating his poetic rendering of Montale’s love, Irma Brandeis, transfigured in poetry, especially the war-time collection (WW2), La Bufera e Altro, as Clizia (for a fuller account):


The world-Serpant changes his skin: we live

On a scrap of the old skin–-Arsenio

To his lost Clizia. Cosi son io.

It’s just the way Italians survive,


A cynicism that’s not his but mine.

They have wrought resilience like stoics

Beyond the pull even of mock heroics–

Arsenio’s poems. Taken line by line


He might, with Feste, call the mind an opal;

But his is more an animus downplayed;

A sober opulence, a light delayed,

Comes iridescent between him and people.


Suppose that in the sun it scintillates,

Multi-faceted snakeskin; she might wear

Tokes to pledge what had befallen her:

The task of living at his vision’s gates.


Failure or not, a stillness of commotion

Seems to ordain it with authority:

A love dispersed into disparity,

Privacy subject to so much privation,


Endurance toleration of affect.

Of power, her attribute, the Muse was brought

Hardly to speak, as one too dearly bought;

Impassioned with him, strangely circumspect.


Here, in part, is an account of what it is to live at Montale’s “vision’s gates”; an account of what Montale made of Clizia, or did not make of her. It is also a description, apt and beautiful, of the quiet, resilient, corroded quality of the poems themselves: poems that record an experience of deep privacy made “subject to so much privation” on account of the war, that nonetheless achieve a “somber opulence, a light delayed.”

Clizia was one of many feminine “spirits” to whom Montale addresses his poems; in addressing each, Montale follows, or invents, a similar procedure, a style of indirect approach, glancing at what can be salvaged from memory; not reducing the women to icons but only finding access to the fantasy of them when he perceives them obliquely; they only exist in their transfigured forms out of the side of his eye or mind.

In section 42, Hill does what he can to recover her for himself, to recover for himself also the mode of perception a technique and style, thinking of both Clizia and also a more carnal, erotic counterpart, the Vixen:

Telling his stout lethargic recklessness

Flared by her jewels famously not rare

Amber and coral earrings–fringe attire–

Bracelets of silver, garnet necklaces


To which a vivid fable finds attached

(Plucked from a train window and last seen

A tracer-streak of red caught against green)

The Vixen’s trail, this, earthy and far-fetched


But of the legend with his solitudes,

That in the mind the redefining moment

Is for the poem what grace is to torment.

How to expound it in less glowing words?


That final question, I think, is answered by the series of translations that follow. But before turning to them, let’s consider the question itself and what prompted it. “Glowing words” is ambivalent: not because praise is unwarranted but because Hill’s expression, the way he has expounded it, is susceptible to so hackneyed a cliche as “glowing words.” We can hear Hill squirming with irritation against the phrase as he speaks it, propelling himself into the next section of his poem, where the challenge will be to expound Montale’s achievement, an achievement that Hill has already described in terms of the diffusion or capture of light, in terms that respond to it adequately. That challenge will be met with the translations.

Before looking at them, we can use Hill’s language in section 42, however inadequate he suggests it is, to orient ourselves towards understanding what “it” is that he would expound. In so doing, we can also find another way in which the Hill’s words in 42 are “glowing” unhappily.

The precedent for “it” is “the redefining moment”–the redefining moment in the mind is for the poem what grace is for torment. Half of what Hill says here feels to me perfectly apt: the end, or aim, of Montale’s poetry, and their mystery, is their arriving at a redefining moment….reality, memory, experience, by the selection of images, by the arrangement of sound and rhythm and line, are apprehended so as to be redefined, and so as to redefine what apprehension is, in itself, too. Where Hill’s words meet Montale’s achievement less easily is in what follows: as grace is to torment. These are too decidedly the terms of Hill’s own poetry to respond to Montale. They are glowing, but glowing with a theology that is not central to the Italian. Where they are nonetheless useful is in getting at what Hill suspects is a shared experience: the torment of poetic composition in an effort at bringing about a redefinition of mind and, if not grace itself, then at least an openness to its possibility (without weighing in on whether grace is resistible); and similarly, for a reader of Montale, the sheer difficulty of the verse that breaks forth in that instant of redefinition.

How to expound it in less glowing words? Translate them himself. And do so in a form of translation that does not presume to take direct hold of Montale any more than Montale’s poems can take direct hold of their objects—but to repeat the translation, each a different glance, a novel reconstitution of the memory and experience of encountering Montale’s verse.

Hill’s translations register an essential aspect of Montale’s verse: that the “redefining moment” does not come about because of a proliferation of meanings brought into a crystallized and harmonious pattern (no well-wrought urn); but instead, nearer to the French symbolists, further from rationalism than the English poets have been willing to go, the redefining moments come about as the words of the poems open out possibilities of significance that are cannot be confirmed, that are never realized, that thrust on the reader a faith in a private communion with the poet’s experience. (I do not mean that such a private communion is real or genuine, but that its possibility is a convention of the form). All poetry demands comfort with probabilities of sense and significance; Montale’s asks us to embrace possibilities, less sure than the probable, more open to misgivings.

Hill’s translations meet that demand by offering versions, renderings, each a response to a possibility of the original, each open to the correction offered by others, and none definitive.

“Snapshot–that–the snapped shot” opens the first, photography drawn into the violence of the gunshot. But the suggestion does not offer the clear capture of photography:it offers instead, its inadequacies: that the subject might move to fast, that the exposure might ruin the processing, that the lens might be misdirected or focus on what is less relevant: the haphazard speed of the photograph, its depending on human error, on contingency, on the temporality that surrounds it (as a painting does not, since the painter can arrest time as a photographer cannot). Here then, suggests Hill, is a poem figuring Clizia, but without her figure appearing at all; already a remove from the biographical Irma Brandeis, here Clizia is a grouse; the camera has wobbled, or it has come into focus but disfigured its object. Hill likewise, as a translator of the first line: he has added or shifted or adjusted the emphasis of Montale’s opening “shot,” but he has done so in act of faith.

Hill’s six translations do not so much broaden the field of semantic possibilities, as take the measure of the full extent of the field in the original poem; their pleasure lies in the revelations of how far it extends. Compare, for instance, the final lines as Hill has them:

a:          …a god among his gods

             Went down into the earth to be re-born.


b:         The new life festered with the old year’s dregs,

               The self-insemination dubbed as Jove’s.


c:         Grouse-eggs ground-laid, the scufflings near the brood:

              Full of his jollities, our Jupiter.


d:          Maggots’-milk tackiness, the very lice

            Enraptured at the flesh that crowds to war.


e:        Compound with horny buds your darkling spoils,

            You are this buried god, who wake and stretch.


f:          You, I, the dead, enlivening the dead earth,

             A god new-roused, fecundity his wound.


For an alternative point of reference, here is Arrowsmith:

           the perennials’ budded gem glitters

           like the grub. Jove is underground.

Arrowsmith in a note stubbornly refuses to endorse Montale’s own choice to translate the final word as “buried.” Hill, in his sacrifices and additions, aspires to get into the lines the sacred and the putrid, disgust and glorification, fertility and fatality, the erotic and the dispassionate, longing and resignation, the alien and the intimate; and muscular as the embrace of such distant poles of connotation and comprehension must be, Hill also works to find what is remarkable in Montale, and quite foreign to Hill’s common gnarled practice, the ease with which the image is dispensed; not a slackening of tone, but a stoic minimalism of feeling, angst or otherwise, and a disinclination from seeing profundities even where they gape:”Jove is underground,” or, in the Italian, “Guivve e sotterrato,” might be an observation about the weather.

Hill tries for it differently each time:

“Went down into the earth” (recalling Pound’s Cantos)

“festered with the new year’s dregs | The self-insemination dubbed as Jove’s” (where “dubbed” and “dregs” off-set “festered” and where “self-insemination” and where all four work against the majesty of “Jove”–though “Jove” is itself a reduction from the more august “Jupiter.”)

“Full of his jollities, our Jupiter” manages that august overtone by claiming it in the familiar (presumptuously) embrace of “our,” and jangling it in alliteration with “jollities”–the line strung together by a playful tripping of sounds: “all” to “oll” and “Joll” to “Jupe.”

“Enraptured at the flesh that crowds to war” strays furthest from Montale in both the sense and the tone; here is taut Hill, but it too, in its way, draws out an element of Montale’s canvas: the ominous, the fatalistic, and the war that is raging around the poem. The God is absent entirely; war rages in its place. Hill can risk the departure because of the other versions of the poem; we can see what he has displaced, and we can ask the reason for its displacement (has Jove’s place in Hill’s translation been buried, as it were, by the the war?)

“your darkling spoils” borrows from the Victorian; but then the next line’s “this buried god” takes familiarity, and “wake and stretch” is mundane against the grandeur of the assertion.

“You, I, the dead, enlivening the earth,” by eliminating the conjunction, flattens the line; and flatter yet is the limpness of “a god new-roused,” which declines to rouse itself from the page. The brevity of “Jove is underground” is matched by “Fecundity his wound”: but for Hill, perhaps because a British poet does not bear the same geographic (or cultural) nearness to the Classical world as an Italian, the shock of the line will not be in Jove. Instead, it is in a cinching of the poem by a tension upon which it is suspended: the fecundity of the wound that her absence has made, the fecundity of pain, the life that a wound affirms and contains.



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