On "A Hill"
J. D. McClatchy
[McClatchys essay focuses on "A Hill" as a poem profoundly representative of all Hechts work; the essay returns to the poem as a base by which to understand later work.]
All of these anatomies of melancholy seem the most autobiographical of Hechts poems, even when they include the added displacement of characterized voices and plots. That might just make them the more identifiable as dreams. Like "Peripeteia," "A Hill" calls itsel a vision or dream. And it seems more of a private poem than a personal one. Its juxtaposition of images piazza and hill is evidently charged with private associations and meant to operate both within the poem and on the reader as dream-work will. The images are not superimposed, but displaced, the one by the other, the later by the earlier and both recalled, as if by an analysand, a decade later. The poem cannot be read as any simple alternation of manifest and latent meanings. The action here is the emergence of a suppressed memory. The poem itseld does not offer any elaboration or explanation. But the reader who remembers a bit of Hechts biography may have some clues. The Roman setting, for instance. During the Second World War, Hecht served in the Army, in both Europe and Japan, and returned home to a slow and difficult period of readjustment. "Like most others who saw any combat at all," he writes, "I experienced a very pronounced and fully conscious sense of guilt at surviving when others, including friends, had not." Then, in 1951, he was awarded the first Prix de Rome writing fellowship ever granted by the American Academy in Rome, and he returned to Europe. Rome, then, carried for the poet a sense of triumph and guilt. And it is not just the burden of history or of artistic tradition (mention of the Farnese Palace focuses that) that presses on the poet until, like Dante, he faints at the intensity of his own imagining but the fact that Rome is where he has been sent, as if in luxurious exile, that makes it appropriate as a scene of instruction.
And what of the hill, the infernal landscape? Poughkeepsie? Perhaps. A state of soul? More likely. And with its factory-wall and hunter, it is a landscape out of [W. H.] Auden as well. Let us say it is actual and literary, psychological and metaphysical. And with only slightly altered topography it recurs in several other poems [McClatchy cites portions of Hechts "Exile" and "The Short End."]
Such memories hover over the landscape of "A Hill." But for Hecht himself, though he rigorously excluded them from the poem, there are specific personal associations. In a letter to me, he once explained:
As for "A Hill," it is the nearest I was able to come in that early book to what [T. S.] Eliot somewhere describes as an obsessive image or symbol something from deep in our psychic life that carries a special burden of meaning and feeling for us. In my poem I am really writing about a pronounced feeling of loneliness and abandonment in childhood, which I associate with a cold and unpeopled landscape. My childhood was doubtless much better than that of many, but my brother was born epileptic when I was just over two, and from then on all attention was, very properly, focused on him. I have always felt that desolation, that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed in an uninhabited natural landscape at its bleakest.
[T]he poem then ends abruptly, even melodramatically, as if further to arrest the action of interpretation. The speaker reverts to childhood, and stands as, in a sense, the reader does too before the hill in winter, blank as a page. The clarification and connections we might expect to follow are omitted. But the point of the poem, what the reader is invited to contemplate, is not really the explication of personal experience, but an understanding of the forces of experience itself forces that are embodied in the poems contrasting styles. The poem ends with an image, not a moral. The tense of the last line could as well have been changed from the historical past to the present indicative "It is winter. I am standing, for hours, before it " to underscore the fact that he is describing a condition rather than an occurrence.
from J. D. McClatchy, "Anthony Hecht: Anatomies of Melancholy" in White Paper: On Contemporary Poetry (New York: Columbia U P, 1989), 337-338, 349.
"A Hill" begins offhandedly in the voice of a debonair skeptic who prepares us for, and simultaneously disavows, the surprises that follow: "In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur, / I had a vision once--though you understand / It was nothing at all like Dante's, or the visions of saints, / And perhaps not a vision at all." The figure of occupatio, the age-old rhetorical trick of having things two ways at once (of course we're now prepared to think of Dante and saints, to look for correspondences, even negative ones), opens to a morning scene in Rome when, for a moment, the speaker loses consciousness of his immediate environment, and a Wordsworthian spot of time returns, him to a winter's scene, in childhood, on a hill where he heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
The understated horror perhaps owes something to comparable moments in Frost ("The Most of It," "An Old Man's Winter's Night "). One never learns what exactly happened there, nor of course can the adult decide why the scene should have held him in its grip both at the time and thereafter. Restored to his Italian setting (almost immediately, one infers), he is nevertheless haunted by what Wordsworth called "a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts / There hung a darkness, call it solitude, / Or blank desertion" (The Prelude).
Hecht's poetry, whether deliberately spine-tingling, as here, or more graphically lurid, is permeated by Wordsworthian "visionary dreariness." Frightened, temporarily dazed, the adult speaker of "A Hill" extends the effect of his vision both forward (to a "today" ten years after the Roman shock) and backward (to the aftermath in childhood of the original event):
for more than a week
I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.
All this happened about ten years ago,
And it hasn't troubled me since, but at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
Such easy five-stressed lines, covering an unspecified depth of horror, set the stage for the more grimly sadistic poems that follow. Like Wordsworth, Hecht is bent upon the preservation of spots of time and upon a demonstration of the tricks and sleights of memory; his didactic program also involves nothing less than an exploration of the inherent evil in humans. He gives Wordsworth's themes but through characters who would be at home in Browning, and in the technique and language of modern America.
From The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Princeton University Press.
. . . The poem itself is about an involuntary return to a fearful kind of beginning, a scene of "plain bitterness" that has inscribed itself on the mind with something close to infernal insistence. What is interesting here is that this early scene disrupts not only the subsequent conscious mind but also the very network of coded phenomenafriendship, urban architecture, markets of exchange, the accumulations of conventional currencies and representationsthat we have come to associate with the bonds and matrices of the cultured self. Against this network, and at the very moment when the civilized scene appears to hold out "gestures of exultation" or intimations of "godliness" (for this poem, too, enacts a kind of fall), an even more compelling imperative forces itself upon the mind. The bonds of artifice or social life are thus disrupted by a yet more severe bondage to a scene of desolation encrypted so deeply in the psyche that its first surfacing is not even recognized as an actual recollection. If we have come to notice the dispossession associated with obedience to the forms of culture and society, "A Hill" portrays a far more frightening and antithetical dispossessiona seizure by the returning perception of a scene of such menacing blankness that it threatens to rip apart those very fabrics of consciousness, society, or art that might have been designed in part to cover its adversarial reality.
Yet the scene is eventually recognized, and it is given both its moment in the time of childhood and its geographical place. The mind also comes to repossess a portion of its own experience, however devastating. Furthermore, there is an undeniable empowerment in the very ability to sweep away the entire realm of Roman piazza and marble palace and to confront us so immediately with their drastic replacement. At the beginning of his book, the poet thus signals one of his powers as being that of making such radical substitutions or regressions, suggesting perhaps that his art will return to the unadorned grounds preceding those of art. Henceforth, no marble palaces will be allowed to exist without the eclipsing awareness of an unaccommodatingly bare hill. No social or aesthetic forms will be free from personal recognitions of desolation.
Reinaugurating an earlier threshold experience, the poem thus acts as a threshold itself: enter this book, recognize this bare hill, pass over the mental boundaries such a crossing implies. At the same time, the poem performs an act of apparent self-grounding (however abysmal), both in returning to a childhood scene and in establishing the hill as a landmark figure for the radically subversive and self-isolating powers of the poet's mind. That such an act should be involuntarily suffered as much as it is performed, and that the recognition of one's own powers of displacement should be bound up in obedience to a psychological imperativethis is of course the kind of paradox that Hecht is inviting us to explore.
Although the ritualistic elements of "A Hill" should already be clear, it may be worth pausing to emphasize their presence, however compressed and internalized. The most obvious, particularly for an opening poem, would be an initiatory rite of passage in which an individual is withdrawn from society, placed in an isolating (and often darkened) scene of instruction, and then "restored / To the sunlight and [his] friends." A society would thereby control a dangerously liminal phase of the individual's transition, while also allowing the initiate to learn certain truths that may otherwise be occulted by social life. Since this poem includes no ushering or supervision within the rite, no real sense of a reinvigorated relationship between individual and society, and only a ravaging scene of dubious and solitary instruction, we see at once that its ritual elements may be anti-types as much as types, although their presence certainly gives a formal gravity and a more than personal depth to the described experience.
Similarly, although there is again a terrifying elision of all that might otherwise graduate the procession, we might see elements of a ritual revisitation, by which an individual leaves his given surroundings in order to revisit a prior scene of crucial importance. Why this particular site holds such force is left implicit in the poemindeed the unassimilated and uninterpretable barrenness contributes most of the hill's power. This tremendous power of negation even tends to eclipse our speculations on the psychological properties of landscape, or on the tomblike quality of an isolated hill in whose presence this revisitation might distantly resemble the practice of returning to a burial site in order to erect or unveil a memorial. We are not certain of anyone or anything having been buried here, however metaphorically. Perhaps the hill marks the kind of obscured, unconscious loss that lies at the core of melancholy.
By the same negative token, if anything is being preserved or recognized it is the mind's ability to be confronted by plain bitterness, or by the abrupt force of its own displacementswhat, after all, assures us that the remembered boyhood self might not have been prey to yet another dissolving trance of involuntary memory while originally staring at the hill? In addition to figuring what we called the poet's radically subversive "powers" of replacement and self-isolation, the hill might thus mark something like an abyss, a capacity for infinite regression within a self that is discontinuously constructed (and possibly undone) by memory. We recall the textual echoes and translations from the "hard hours" back to the "harde stoundes" of an "Ubi Sunt."
One further ritual trace, related to those already mentioned, is the ceremonial "descent" to a scene of revelation, in which the initiate or adept would be confronted with various emblems, or would be induced to experience a moment of possession. Of course Hecht's scenario of possession offers no sacred tokens, no identification with some inspiring god or demon. And the ceremony is as much one of dispossession as of increased power. But his revealed scene does take on the visionary aspect of an eternal presence ("that promised to last forever"), however negative. And the "papery crash / of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth" does have the impact of an absolute, admonitory sign, referring not just to a fall but to a sudden amputative disjoining of branch from treeperhaps figuring that of the self from some larger matrix, or of part of the self from a more entire identity. Curiously, the gradual return from the revelatory scene to the sunlit market in the piazza is marked by the latter's own fragmentation ("Then prices came through, and fingers"), as if that fabric, like that of the self, can neither be perfectly restored nor regarded as anything but a fragile assemblage of discrete elements, a texture capable of being unraveled to such loose threads as "a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge."
The poem is thus deeply subversive on several fronts; and the power of its subversions is surely increased by the way it seems to have enacted various overlapping rites, almost all of them in a negative or dispossessing mode, despite the empowerments we already noticed. In this vein, the negated allusion to Dante ("It was nothing at all like Dante's") both summons a visionary model and disavows it, thereby pointing to the fact that Hecht's infernal vision is not assimilable to some graduated architecture of a spiritual world any more than to the Farnese Palace. Even to call it "infernal" assigns it the kind of interpreted location that it resists. The blank unassimilability of the memory is its pointalong with the utter lack of contexts that might have drawn the recollection into a schema of justice, hope, or guided instruction.
Similarly, any effort to compare the poem with, say, a Wordsworthian "spot of time" must chart its severe difference from even the grimmest of Wordsworth's memorial returns. The blank verse narrative is the same, even the structure whereby the recollecting imagination usurps "ordinary" consciousness. But Hecht offers no obvious recuperative admiration for a growing poetic power and no suggestion of how that power might positively engage the larger designs of nature and society. "A Hill" joins vision with an intransigently bleak anti-vision, certainly not like "the visions of saints, / And perhaps not a vision at all."
from The Burdens of Formaility: Essays on the Poetry of Anthony Hecht. Copyright © 1989 by The University of Georgia Press.
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