Tag Archives: Battle of Isandlwana

Odi Barbare Poem VI for the fourth and final time.

Most of you will be delighted to know that I’ve decided to accelerate the reading of this piece of oddness, mainly because I want to get to the last verse in order to ask a few questions. So far we’ve established that:

  • writing seven poems a week is not the same as writing seven good poems;
  • Hill’s interest in things military may stem from his guilt that he never took part in combat;
  • writing bad lines is not made any better by acknowledging this in a poem;
  • over the last few years Hill has gone from being the bad boy of British poetry to its darling at the very time when his work is not at it’s best;
  • pattern poems (usually) aren’t very good.
  • Sir Geoffrey Hill can (of course) write whatever he wants because he is Sir Geoffrey Hill and has already written several of the finest poems in the language.

This is all of Poem VI:

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.

Errant Chelmsford, yet if slow Pulleine then had
Ordered form square, he could have saved their breakfast,
Might have subscribed that long-abandoned letter
Dead on the table.

Stand-to you viewers. Mark how Chard and Bromhead
There with plucked Hook posthumously ill-fictioned
And a Welsh Jew - Land of My Fathers bless them -
Staggered the impi.

Though your own sapped psyche so courts retraction
Soldiery's grand comedy plays to curtains.
Who denies this I would expect the Queen to
Rise up and smite him.

Let’s start by getting the proper nouns out of the way, Lord Chelmsford was in charge of British forces during the Anglo-Zulu war and is blamed by many for not returning with his troops to Isandlwana when he was told that it was under attack. Subsequently Chelmsford tried to blame Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine for the disaster because he had been left in charge of the camp. It does seem (from this completely amateur point of view) that neither did very well although Pulleine’s failure to ‘form square’ may not have been his major sin. Chard, Bromhead and Hook were all heroes of Rorkes Drift- a battle that occurred at about the same time and in which we repelled (staggered) the Zulu forces. The Queen is likely to be our own current monarch but could also be Queen Victoria who met and was won round by Chelmsford after the war even though no-one else was. I am assuming that the ill-fictioned Welsh Jew is one of the characters in the film ‘Zulu’ that I have referred to before. It is unlikely to refer to Hook who was born in Gloucester although the majority of soldiers at Rorke’s Drift do appear to have been Welsh.

I have no idea what that long-abandoned letter refers to nor do I know how to find out.

So, Isandlwana overrun due to upper class English incompetence / cowardice etc whereas Rorkes Drift defended by herioc Welsh squaddies singing ‘Land of My Fathers’ in the process (bless them).

I’m trying really hard to ignore the fact that ‘then had / ordered form square’ is so obviously bad and has no part in any kind of poem. It doesn’t work on any level, if poetry is supposed to be ‘heightened’ language then this is surely language demeaned – isn’t it? This isn’t ‘wrong’ in the sense that Keston Sutherland has described, it’s just unimaginative, weak and (dare this be said?) lazy. It doesn’t even have the excuse of ‘dissonance’ all acknowledged in Poem 13 of the ‘Clavics’ sequence, it’s just bad.

Readers of the disappointing ‘Oraclau’ sequence will not be surprised to note that Hill’s recently discovered Welsh ancestry continues to influence his world-view. This may be quaintly idiosyncratic or merely self-indulgent, depending on your taste.

Films have been made about both these encounters as Hill would seem to acknowledge by addressing his audience as viewers although ‘Mark how’ is more theatrical than cinematic – I don’t know of any plays depicting either battle.

The last verse is the reason for paying so much attention to this poem because I don’t know what to make of it and would like some assistance with the following:

  • whose psyche is being described?
  • why is this psyche said to be sapped?
  • what does having a sapped psyche mean or indicate?
  • why would a sapped psyche court or woo (ie ask for) a retraction?
  • is this retraction a denial of a previous assertion or the action of pulling an object back?
  • is it altogether reasonable / sensible to equate the horrors involved in soldiery with theatrical performance and death with ‘curtains’?
  • why should people wish to deny that soldiers sometimes get killed?
  • isn’t it extremely unlikely for either monarch to take any heed of what Hill expects?
  • which of the 26 main definitions of the verb ‘smite’ is being used on the last line?
  • would it be worth my while to try and work this out?

So, we have the derring-do of the buzzing rage and the whishery washery of the insect like savage, the well-known incompetence of the British officer classand the unabashed heroism of the Welsh squaddie. We also have the fact that the British were using dum-dum bullets counterbalanced by the savages’ entirely unreasonable use of the spear whilst omitting to mention the appalling rationale the British had for using such atrocious devices against spears and daggers. We have some bad lines, some lines that sound better than they are and more than a few syntactical tics.

Up until the last verse it is reasonably clear what’s going on but the last four lines are either deliberate and self-indulgent obfuscation beyond my ken or they don’t make any kind of sense, even for a ‘hierarchical Tory’.

I now find that I’ve come out of this reading in a more negative mood than when I started which might say more about me than the poem but it’s not an exercise that I intend to repeat with this sequence any time soon primarily because I don’t have to and life really is too short.

Odi Barbare Poem VI- a question (pt 1)

I’m still dithering about Hill’s latest collection. The nature of this dither relates to whether or not it’s any good. I know how I feel about ‘Oraclau’ (not very good at all) and about ‘Clavics’ (quite good as in better than ‘Without Title’ but some way below ‘Comus’). The ‘Odi’ sequence puzzles me and creates that kind of ‘am I missing something?’ readerly anxiety that I’ve written about in connection with Emily Dorman.

In yet another attempt to stop the dither, I’ve decided to pay careful attention to one poem from the sequence that I think I understand in order to try and identify the components of this particular problem.

Before we proceed, I’d like to say a few things about dissonance. Poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence begins with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince” which is a bit like saying that these poems contain some naff lines and phrases but that’s okay because I’m aware of this and am letting you know that I’m aware. I don’t have any kind of problem with dissonance providing that it isn’t accompanied by a drop in quality or a diminution of theme.

The other thing that I need to mention is the ‘Sapphic’ verse form which Hill is said in the blurb to use in order to ‘re-cadence’ the form as used by Sidney. This consists of verses with three long lines followed by one short. Each of the fifty two poems in this sequence contains six of these verses. Both ‘Oraclau’ and ‘Clavics’ also used a single but different form throughout. This may not be an entirely Good Thing.

This is the first verse of Poem VI:

I can hack most laureates' roster-homage
Make a pranged voice nasal through a ruptured matchbox;
Brief the act undangerously heroic;
We will survive it.

The first line might refer to poets laureate who are appointed by the crown and expected to write in honour of or (at least) about national events or it may refer to gifted poets in the way that Skelton would refer to himself. Given that verses 4 and 5 place us in or about the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 then the laureate may be Tennyson who might be said to have written a few ‘roster-homages’. This neat hypothesis gets a bit addled with William Caxton referring to Skelton as ‘late created poete laureate in the university of Oxford’ which might just match Hill’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at the same place. The OED defines ‘roster’ as- ‘ A list or plan showing the order of rotation of duties and service of individual soldiers or troops. Also (esp. U.S.): a simple list or register of soldiers, divisions of a regiment, etc., with various particulars relating to them’ which would seem to tie in with a poem to commemorate or pay homage to those soldiers that were slaughtered in the battle.

The use of ‘hack’ is also worthy of note. I’m now going to sound like Hill but the usually reliable OED has failed me on this occasion. In the British army to be able to hack something is to be able to withstand an ordeal- a meaning which is now commonly used, there is also the literary connotation of working as a hack which usually means reporting for the popular or provincial press. So, given the next line, we might have Hill acknowledging that he can withstand the onerous task of praising a list of the dead and that he recognises that this work might be a bit beneath a man of his talents.

Moving on to the second line, I’m claiming that Hill has used ‘prang’ before but I can’t recall exactly where. I’m taking it to mean crashed or damaged rather than having anything to do with Khmer temples (although….). It can be said that a voice is damaged if it sounds ‘nasal’, as if the speaker has a heavy cold or it could refer to that affected and deeply irritating intonation that is used by some poets when reading their own work. ‘Ruptured matchbox’ can be read as either meaningless or wonderful. Those in the meaningless camp would argue that it is used because it sounds good but actually means nothing and adds nothing to the poem. Those in the wonderful camp would staunchly defend the impossibility of the image because that’s what poets do and point out that a matchbox is both raspy and fragile (liable to break/rupture) at the same time which is reasonably similar to the voice when affected by a cold, we’d also point out that this kind of stuff is one of the reasons that we read and pay attention to Hill’s work.

With regard to ‘brief’ I again have to express some disappointment with the OED which defines the verb as to:

  • reduce to the form of a counsel’s brief;
  • put (instructions) into the form of a brief to a barrister;
  • give a brief to (a barrister), to instruct by brief; to retain as counsel in a suit;
  • give instructions or information to;
  • shorten, abbreviate, abridge.

None of these cover the way that politicians are prepared and given advice by civil servants prior to making an announcement nor in the sense of ‘briefing against’ something which is how we refer to the actions of lobbyists who want to cast doubt on a proposal. I’m still of the view that Hill is referring to the verb as in to advise (disparagingly or otherwise) that the act (fighting the battle) is undangerously heroic because the adjective doesn’t really make sense. There is of course the possibility that the’act’ is the act of poetic commemoration but that only works if Hill is being heavily ironic. Heroism is usually associated with danger, the heroic action is one that is performed in the face of danger so we could be talking about a false kind of heroism or this could be another case of Hill’s verbosity getting the better of him (see above) or an ironic or sarcastic comment on the faux-heroic pose struck by some poets.

The last line hovers around what exactly ‘it’ might refer to. Off the top of my head, the British empire survived the defeat at Isandlwana and went on to win the war even though the battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. So ‘we’ might refer to the British people or to the small minority of troops that did survive the battle. If we accept that this might be sarcastic then it could also refer to the fate of those who have the misfortune to listen to the ‘roster-homage’.

Hopefully some of these ambiguities will be resolved as I progress through the rest of the poem in subsequent posts and gradually make my way to the problematic final verse. On the next occasion I think we might need to address the iconic nature of certain British films, Welshness and a scratchy nostalgia for something that never was.