Two Formal Elegies

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Poems by Geoffrey Hill, 1959

The dedication of Geoffrey Hill's "Two Formal Elegies" reads "For the Jews in Europe." These paired sonnets, published in his first volume of poetry, For the Unfallen (1959), signal Hill's deep concern with the relationship between morality and aesthetics. One of the central questions throughout his life's work has been how one might use art in an act of atonement that gives voice to the victims of the Holocaust and witnesses to other atrocities of history in a world that has become "witness-proof." As a martyrologist, Hill has written many elegiac poems in various forms. His use here of the sonnet form, with the discipline it requires as well as the questioning and reversal its eight-line/six-line division enables, makes perfect sense in these poems about modern culture's evasions of horrific truths by containing the memories through artifice. We have kept the dead "subdued"; the Germans "disposed" of the Jews, but we who avoid remembering them ensure that they remain buried.

In the first sonnet, which is the most tightly constructed and formal (Shakespearean), Hill uses language to set up a series of double meanings, giving the poem a tension built from the struggle between opposed forces: the dead as restive and threatening; aesthetic fires that merely "play," unlike the crematorium fires; "[f]ierce heart" commanded by "iced brain." Those who died in the Holocaust demand to be remembered. Of course, we cannot "know" these dead; all we can do is "grasp, roughly, the song"—the song being any form of aesthetic atonement that enables the dead to serve as witnesses. Hill offers no ringing endorsement of the power of art to bear witness, however. First of all, we grasp the song imperfectly. Furthermore, the song's effect is ambiguous: "The wilderness revives,/Deceives with sweetness harshness." The phrase "Their best of worlds" alludes to Voltaire's Pangloss, a figure representing misguided optimism in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. The only way to believe that all things happen for the best in a world set in motion by "Jehovah's hand" (an exacting and vengeful God) is to be guided by the dead's witnessing of the truth as a foundation for future judgment. In a world "[w]ithout the law," a culture bereft of the law of Moses, Hill wonders whether sacrifice and atonement can ever be adequate. Although the song is our last best chance to know the dead and learn from atrocities such as the Holocaust, Hill agonizes over the equivocation of language and the seductive power of poetry to deceive by sweetness and, thus, keep the sins of history buried under cliché and false sentiment.

The second sonnet begins ironically, with the use of ambiguous language. The phrase "For all that must be gone through" can mean both the painful remembering that must be endured and the endless task of exhaustive documentation of the Holocaust. Similarly, "Their long death/Documented and safe" can be interpreted as the historical witnessing that keeps the victims' memory alive or as the kind of documentation that results in a dusty archive or inert museum collection. Hill asks what difference the documentation can make in a world that is "witness-proof." Recalling T.S. Eliot's use of the sea as a symbol of destructive power in "The Dry Salvages," Hill's sea "flickers, roars, in its wide hearth"—an all-consuming fire. His "midlanders" (he is from the English Midlands), who are "brawny with life," warm themselves on seaside holidays at the shores of destruction. The image resonates with the sense of "the fires that [merely] play" in the first sonnet. The midlanders live, love, and "settle on scraped sand," which is the surface of the "sand graves" in the other sonnet.

In the last six lines the poet asks whether it is "good to remind them, on a brief screen,/Of what they have witnessed and not seen?" This question, which emerges repeatedly in Hill's poetry, is never answered; instead, it is the question that drives his self-conscious, fiercely moral project. He concludes "Two Formal Elegies" by again pondering the worth and actual nature of sacrifice. The erecting of historical monuments to the Holocaust "ensures some sacrifice" by "[s]ufficient men [who] carry their weight," but the words "some" and "sufficient" vibrate with doubt. The reader is left with a final question in parentheses, a form of punctuation that Hill has used frequently to brilliant effect for signaling changes of tone and direct addresses to his audience. If Geoffrey Hill's poetry is to reinstill a sense of history in a lost, troubled world, his readers must be pricked by the urgency of this question: "(At whose door does the sacrifice stand or start?)."

—Molly Abel Travis