On the last occasion I had an extended struggle with the first verse of this poem. I’m now going to try to make further progress with the rest. Here are the first two verses together:
I can hack most laureates' roster-homage,
Make a pranged voice nasal through ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it. This astounding people (Disraeli), their spears
Beating shield-hides, murmuring high a basso,
Hive-like, buzzing rage become torpor almost
When dealing with the first verse I speculated that Hill might be using ‘laureate’ in the sense that John Skelton used it to describe himself. I now feel a little vindicated as I’ve just come across this from Poem 95 of ‘Speech! Speech!- “…………..Skelton Laureate / was a right rapper: outdance you with your shades / any day…..” I’ll skim gracefully over the image that this conveys and just note that Hill has used the word in its older sense before and it might be useful to bear in mind that Skelton and Hill received recognition from Oxford University.
There now needs to be a slight digression with regard to beating spears. The British cultural landscape is littered with many things, in particular with many attempts to cling to our noble and imperial past. Within that landscape there is a film called ‘Zulu’ which makes great use of the spear beating on shields covered in hide motif. To those of a certain age (me) this is a Significant Childhood Memory because it was very very scary and underlined how strange and difficult some of our imperial subjects could be. And I know that ‘Zulu’ is about Rourke’s Drift and that the later ‘Zulu Dawn’ was about the Battle of Isandlwana which is the subject of this poem.
It will be appreciated that the second verse is much more accessible than the first but probably more troubling because of what it appears to say. Incidentally I can’t tie Disraeli into the italicised quote and the DNB informs me that he was prime minister at the time (1879) but had oaid little attention to African affairs until this defeat and that his primary concern about the defeat was the detrimental effect it had on the nation’s credibility.
I was going to confidently assert that Hill makes no other mention of the Anglo-Zulu War but then I noticed this in Poem 6 of ‘Speech! Speech!’:
.................But surely that's
not all? Rourke's Drift, the great-furnaced
ships off Jutland? They have their own
grandeur, those formal impromptus played
on instruments of the period (speech! speech!)
Incidentally, obtaining a copy of Ann Hassan’s recent and very detailed commentary on ‘Speech!’ has led me to a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding re-reading of the poem. What I think I need to do here is note a similar use of musical terms.
Hill’s feelings about Empire are more complex than simple nostalgia, it’s fair to suggest that he views the ‘loss’ of Empire after 1945 as a Bad Thing but also harbours few illusions as to its many and varied barbarities. Whilst this Little Englander aspect of Hill’s politics is now hopelessly out of touch, it should be remembered that the British Empire was a very real entity during his childhood and there are many of his generation (my father included) who find it difficult to reconcile fighting and winning the Second World War only to ‘lose’ our imperial possessions.
We now come to the bee-analogy, that the (iconic) beating of the shields makes a murmuring noise and then builds to be like the buzzing of swarming and angry bees. From memory, the filmic shield beating was more percussive than murmuring although one of the other lasting themes is the sheer number of warriors and how these did seem to ‘swarm’ into battle. For this reason I’m not entirely clear whether this is Hill’s imagination or a synopsis of the movie.
The end of the verse is odd and probably sounds better than it should. It’s not clear whether it is the troops or their adversaries who are overcome by torpor although it is much more likely to refer to the troops. The battle was a fiasco, Wikipedia tells me that “while all the officers and NCOs carried rifles, only one in 10 in the ranks was armed with a muzzle-loading musket with limited ammunition and many of them started to leave the battlefield at this point” which would seem to indicate paralysis as a result of incompetence rather than an the beating of shields. I rarely argue with Hill with regard to word choice but isn’t torpid better than the noun? Doesn’t torpor signal some degree of poetic affectation?
Neither is it abundantly clear what ‘almost’ refers to – should we read ‘almost become torpor’ or ‘almost blood self-enthralling? Or are we meant to read it both ways? This problem would be helped enormously if I fully understood the last line. ‘Self’ is a very big word for Hill who has borrowed the idea/principle of ‘selving’ from Hopkins and it is never used lightly- it usually signals that there’s something deep or profound going on. Turning to ‘entrhalling’, the OED has these definitions for ‘enthrall’;
- to reduce to the condition of a thrall; to hold in thrall; to enslave, bring into bondage;
- to ‘enslave’ mentally or morally. Now chiefly, to captivate, hold spellbound, by pleasing qualities.
So, the troops could be said to be held spellbound and torpid by the noise of the shields or it is their blood that is enslaved. This doesn’t work because of ‘self’ which might suggest the soldiers and their officers being lulled into a false sense of superiority. The historical record doesn’t suggest that there was a lot of torpor on either side, the British were both outnumbered and out-manoeuvred prior to being slaughtered- which is the subject of the next three verses.
So does ‘self-enthrall’ make sense? It could be argued that we might need to consider all of the poem before a judgement can be made but this verse is a sentence and even poetic sentences should carry some meaning. I have tried to explore the possibilities and to take into account the importance of ‘self’ but it does seem that this particular line sounds much better than it is.
One final question- is it really okay (even if you are a knight of the realm) to equate black African warriors with insects?