Jon Silkin on Hill's "September Song"

as cited in Christopher Ricks, Geoffrey Hill and "The Tongue's Atrocities"
(University College of Swansea, 1975)

(This is a model of sensitive close reading and as such should be useful to student writers. Jon Silkin is a contemporary English poet.)



	SEPTEMBER SONG

born 19.6.32 -- deported 24.9.42 

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.

(I have made 
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

 
A concentration camp victim. Even the "play" in the subtitle "born 19.6.32 -- deported 24.9.42" where the natural event of birth is placed, simply, beside the human and murderous "deported" as if the latter were of the same order and inevitability for the victim; which, in some senses, it was -- even here, the zeugmatic wit is fully employed. The irony of conjuncted meanings between "undesirable" (touching on both sexual desire and racism) and "untouchable", which exploits a similar ambiguity but reverses the emphases, is unusually dense and  simple. The confrontation is direct and unavoidable, and this directness is brought to bear on the reader not only by the vocabulary, but by the balancing directness of the syntax. This stanza contains one of Hill's dangerous words -- dangerous because of its too-frequent use, and because these words sometimes unleash (though not here) a too evident irony: "Not forgotten / or passed over at the proper time." "Proper" beings together the idea of bureaucratically correct "as calculated" by the logistics of the "final solution" and the particular camp's timetable; it also contrasts the idea of the mathematically "correct" with the morally intolerable. It touches, too, on the distinction between what is morally right, and what is conventionally acceptable, and incidentally brings to bear on the whole the way in which the conventionally acceptable is often used to cloak the morally unacceptable. One of Hill's grim jokes, deployed in such a way that the laughter is precisely proportionate to the needs of ironic exposure. It is when the irony is in excess of the situation that the wit becomes mannered. But here it does not. So the poem continues, remorselessly.
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
 
One feels the little quibbling movement in "As estimated, you died" as, without wishing to verbalize it, Hill points to the disturbing contrast between the well-functioning time-table and what it achieved. "Things marched" has the tread of pompous authority, immediately, in the next line, qualified by the painfully accurate recognition that just so much energy was needed, and released, for the extermination. "Sufficient" implies economy, but it also implies a conscious quantification of the heavy, pompous tread of authority. The quiet function of unpretentious machinery fulfilled its programme, perhaps more lethally. One also notices here how the lineation gauges, exactly, the flow and retraction of meaning and impulse, and how this exact rhythmical flow is so much a part of the sensuous delivery of response and evaluation. It is speech articulated, but the lineation provides, via the convention of verse line-ending, a formal control of rhythm, and of sense emphasis, by locking with, or breaking, the syntactical flow. Thus in the third stanza the syntax is broken by the lineation exactly at those parts at which the confession, as it were, of the poem's (partial) source is most painful:
(I have made 
an elegy for myself it
is true)
 
The slightly awkward break after "it" not only forces the reading speed down to a word-by-word pace, in itself an approximation to the pain of the confession, but emphasises the whole idea. By placing emphasis on the unspecifying pronoun, Hill is able to say two things: that the elegy was made for himself (at least, in part) since in mourning another one is also commiserating with one's own condition.
        When we chant
"Ora, ora pro nobis" it is not
Seraphs who descend to pity but ourselves.
                                    ("Funeral Music: 5")
 
But "it" may also refer to the whole event; I have made an elegy for myself, as we all do, but I have also made an elegy on a "true" event. True imaginatively, true in detailed fact; both for someone other than myself. Thus he is able to point to the difficulty of the poet, who wishes, for a variety of reasons, to approach the monstruousness of such events, but has compunction about doing so. He tactfully touches for instance on the overweening ambition of the poet who hitches his talent to this powerful subject, thereby giving his work an impetus it may  not be fully entitled to, since, only the victim, herself, would be entitled to derives this kind of "benefit". But he also modestly pleads, I think, with "it / is true" that whatever the reasons for his writing such an elegy, a proper regard for the victim, a true and unambitious feeling, was present an used.

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