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September Song


Poem by Geoffrey Hill, 1968

Geoffrey Hill's "September Song," which appeared in his second volume of poetry, King Log (1968), is a brief elegy written for a concentration camp victim. The poem revisits the subject of earlier poems such as "Two Formal Elegies." Characteristic of Hill's method, it exhibits the compression of layers of meaning in deceivingly simple words, irony (including irony directed at his own aesthetic motives), and a complex switch in tone that results in ambivalence sufficient to elicit markedly different interpretations.

The first lines of the poem, "Undesirable you may have been, untouchable/you were not. Not forgotten/or passed over at the proper time," convey irony in the balance between "undesirable" and "untouchable" and the "not. Not …" In the third line "passed over" alludes to the Passover, but in this case there is a bitterly ironic reversal. Implicit in the reversal is a recurring theme in Hill's work about the mystery of God's ways. God's plague on the Egyptians resulted in the slaughter of the innocent as well as the guilty. Three instances of mass slaughter converge in these lines: the Egyptian plagues, Herod's killing of the innocents, and the Holocaust.

As a martyrologist, Hill focuses on victims and victimizers throughout history. Many commentators on his work, beginning with Christopher Ricks, have remarked that Hill does not restrict his use of the word "holocaust" to Jews only. He recognizes the danger in treating the Nazi slaughter as an aberration that is beyond the reach of understanding, a one-ofa-kind atrocity that will never be repeated. Ever wary of sophistic reasoning and the evasion of hard truths, Hill understands that the Nazis' Final Solution was not beyond reason but was a form of reason taken to hideous extremes, an instrumental reason in which human beings can be annihilated and the natural world destroyed as a means to a scientifically, rationally planned end.

The next several lines of the poem contain numerous words and phrases that convey a measured, marching rhythm and that reflect the transformation of human beings into things in a dehumanized, mechanized process of extermination by a Nazi machine:

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

Efficient, patented, routine—things marched. Estimated, suf-ficient, just so much—the mathematics of mass murder was practiced.

Suddenly Hill interrupts the poem with a self-conscious aside in parentheses: "(I have made/an elegy for myself it/is true)." Coming after the seven tightly controlled and dense lines delivered in an apostrophe to the concentration camp victim ("you"), these three parenthetical lines deliver a jolt. They are obviously confessional and are delivered in a short, halting fashion, causing the reader to stutter and dwell with the poet in a self-conscious moment as he examines his relationship to the victim. The epigraph tells us that the victim was "born 19.6.32"—one day after Hill's birthday. Some readers have asked what Hill is up to in terms of his identification with the camp deportee, especially considering the fact that he is a professed Anglican. One is reminded of Sylvia Plath's controversially ironic assumption of Jewishness as a figure for the suffering of her persona in such poems as "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus." The difference lies, arguably, in the two poets' uses of irony, with Hill's being much more self-conscious. He is knowingly traversing dangerous poetic ground to demonstrate the risk of appropriating the tragedy of someone else as the stuff of counterfeit elegy. Such appropriation and trivializing, which he has called "atrocities of the tongue," produce a literature of cliché and bathos. Hill never forgets the risk in taking Zyklon gas and crematorium smoke and making lyrical poetry of them. Although readers hear a confession, "I have made/an elegy for myself it/is true," the final three words also suggest that the elegy—despite being written for himself—is true, as witness to the historical truth of the horror of the Holocaust. The poem makes clear that elegies are always meant for the living.

Many readers have commented on the ambivalence of the last line, "This is plenty. This is more than enough." The line follows logically from the parenthetical confession, however, for Hill evokes the recognition that an elegy is always and inevitably inadequate as a commemoration. It can never bring back the dead, can never release the victim, because the dead are gone, and we are caught up in the present fullness and plenty of a September day. Therein lies the limit of poetry as witness and as an antidote to historical forgetting.

—Molly Abel Travis

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