Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare poem VI pt3.

So far I’ve been proceeding slowly through this poem in order to arrive at a judgement with regard to quality. Thus far things aren’t looking too promising but least I have a clear idea as to what he’s talking about. The subject here is the British defeat at Isandlwana (1879) during the Anglo-Zulu war. Here’s the first three verses:

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
Blood self-enthralling.

Assegais whish-washed in the fleshy Empire
Jelk you inside out like a dumdum bullet;
Death by numbers, one-shot Martini Henry
Redhot on target.

Before I proceed, I need to stress that all of my knowledge concerning the war and this battle is derived from Wikipedia which I know is occasionally quirky but contains more than enough information to deal with this material. ‘Jelk’ doesn’t occur in the OED although the Urban Dictionary has “an exercise to increase penis size naturally” as its definition for ‘jelq’ and a quick look around the web indicates that ‘jelk’ is an alternative spelling. I really don’t want to go into what’s involved in this particular exercise – suffice it to say that it’s unlikely that Hill is referring to it here. He does have a track record of making up words- ‘clavics’ being the most recent case in point.

My arduous research has led to the fact that the Zulu in 1879 were using two types of assegai. The traditional version was throwing spear and was thrown from some distance at the enemy as you would throw a javelin. The iklwa (so called for the sound it made when being pulled out of the body) had a shorter shaft (about two foot) with a one foot blade and this was used for stabbing at close quarters.

I have no idea whether or not either of these weapons pulled large amounts of flesh out of their victims, as is suggested here and I’m even less clear that the action of any kind of spear can be likened to that of a dumdum bullet. Even in the nineteenth century the use of such bullets was controversial because of the mess that they created in the body and they were banned by the Hague Convention of 1899. The British and the Americans were the only countries to object and I now have this wonderful piece of justification from Sir John Ardagh who pointed out that men could still run on even when wounded by ‘ordinary’ bullets-

“The civilized soldier when shot recognizes that he is wounded and knows that the sooner he is attended to the sooner he will recover. He lies down on his stretcher and is taken off the field to his ambulance, where he is dressed or bandaged. Your fanatical barbarian, similarly wounded, continues to rush on, spear or sword in hand; and before you have the time to represent to him that his conduct is in flagrant violation of the understanding relative to the proper course for the wounded man to follow – he may have cut off your head.”

This has to be one of the best examples of the imperial mind at work as in -it’s the fault of the savages who don’t understand (because they are savages and therefore incapable of understanding) the rules of the game that we are forced to use these barbaric weapons.

Of course, ever since there have been suspicions that troops have modified their own bullets to produce the same messy effect- a suspicion that was examined at the Saville Inquiry.

The other thing to note is that this particular war demonstrated that the use of the .577/450 bullet in the Martini-Henry rifle was a bit of a disaster in that it would jam as the barrel heated up. So ‘redhot on target’ seems a bit odd given that if the rifle was ‘redhot’ then it wouldn’t actually work. This particular rifle was a single-shot weapon which could (at best) fire 12 rounds per minute so it is unlikely that ‘redhot’ refers to the speed of fire.

In response to a previous post on this, one commentator suggested that Hill has more than a degree of guilt about the fact that he didn’t serve in combat and that his frequent references to the two world wars are a means of compensation for him. I have to confess that I was a bit sceptical about this at the time but this particular verse does have more than a smattering of Boys’ Own derring-do about it. We are taken from the whishery-washery of the spears in the body of the corpulent Brits through to the ‘death by numbers’ fiasco in the face of Ardagh’s ‘savage’.

The next verse alludes to the failures of the officer class in this particular debacle and ‘death by numbers’ does seem to encapsulate the way in which the troops were killed although it doesn’t really hold up if you think about it. The battle was more of a rout than a fair fight and if the British had done things ‘by numbers’, i.e. in their normally organised and ruthless way then they wouldn’t have been slaughtered so this particular phrase might refer to the intention rather than to what actually occurred.

It’s the word use that leads me to infer that Hill is excited about this stuff and wants us to be to. There’s an adolescent’s idea of machismo in ‘redhot’, ‘jelk you inside out’ and the whishery washery of the spears which is more than a little odd in one of our finest poets. Of course any combat soldier will tell you that there is lots of fear and very little excitement in the midst of battle but that doesn’t seem to bother Hill…

On the next occasion I’ll attempt to move from ballistics to the officer class….

14 responses to “Geoffrey Hill’s Odi Barbare poem VI pt3.

  1. Thanks for the lovely research. My guess is that Hill is using prosopopoeia, that the “we” is indirect, to pit it mildly. I spent many years reading and translating Horace and these poems have the feel oh Horatian irony. Not helpful perhaps but I will keep reading.

    • Tom,

      Thank you for being such an attentive reader. I guess I’m taking my time with this because the last verse appears to be such a complete disaster that I want to be sure of my ground, I’ll bear Horatian irony in mind because I really don’t want him to be as inept as he appears.

  2. I would want to connect my idea about Hill’s invocations of military history evincing a sort of survivor’s guilt with Hill’s interest in martyrdom.

    In order to feel that he’s living for something, Hill dedicates much of his poetry to people who died for something.

  3. I think the psychologizing is wasted. You are treating the “I” of the poem as autobiographical. It is of course to a degree, but not to a determinative degree.

  4. Is anything anything ‘to a determinative degree’?

  5. But I feel perfectly justified in treating the I of the poem as autobiographical

    • About this psychologiging, many moons ago when this blog was still an infant, Tom Day made the observation that Hill wants us to like him but then despises us for doing so. I don’t have a problem with this kind of speculation/analysis especially with poets that throw themselves (as leading protagonists) with such gusto into their work. I don’t however think that this kind of perspective will provide all of the answers.

  6. I think Tom Day is right about that.

    I’m eager to read his book on late Hill.

    (Hmm, I would revise what I said above to ‘Is anything in criticism anything ..’)

  7. He wants us to resist him (or to have made us resist him), and never to enjoy him, indeed he wants us to not enjoy him, but for him to know we’re resisting him, and not enjoying him, he has to know we’re paying him attention, and, partly because any kind of attention is a sort of failure to resist, the attention we’re paying never turns out to be the right kind.

  8. I guess I’m old hat to care more about the poem than the poet and seek the answers to questions about the poem in the language, the structures, etc. This is what comes from reading classics at Berkeley, I suppose. I find the level of chatter irritating, but I’m good as a wall flower and will keep my mouth shut, just observing. Don’t mind me.

    • Tom,

      I hope you know that your views and erudition are always welcome here, you certainly have enabled me to think through a number of tussles with this kind of material. I don’t have the benefit of a classical education but I think I agree with you about the focus on the poem but Hill has given us a lot of personal information in those poems, @the marriage that I destroyed’ and the references to the abused child spring to mind. As with many of his pronouncements, I don’t think that I entirely ‘buy’ his own explanation of his interest in martyrs. I also need to acknowledge that I have quite a complex response to Hill’s work that I probably need to think about. Hill as Skelton is currently occupying me more than it should.

    • If the poet puts himself in the poem — indeed the poem’s ‘language’ and ‘structures’ — in the way Hill does, caring about the poem is caring about the poet.

      As for, ‘I find the level of chatter irritating’, and the forlorn appeal to credentials (‘reading classics …), well

      • Nothing “forlorn” about an appeal to credentials. It’s a reflection on styles, habits of mind. Thanks to this blog, I’m reading Odi Barbare carefully and finding it worth the effort.

  9. A point you won’t have missed, but that I was surprised you didn’t comment on: “torpor” hooks into Wordsworth’s “an almost savage torpor” from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. (The key word in that phrase, which almost everyone omits, is “almost”…)

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