Saturday, March 20, 2010

`A Stunned Repose'

With my lunch on Friday I packed Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems 1952-1992, intending to read it sequentially starting with his first collection, For the Unfallen (1959). Hill, like Eliot, J.V. Cunningham and a few other modern poets, I reread frequently, always rewarded, never tired of the familiar words. Among the most straightforward and least tortured of Hill’s poems, though it deals with a grotesque death, is “In Memory of Jane Fraser”:

“When snow like sheep lay in the fold
And wind went begging at each door,
And the far hills were blue with cold,
And a cloud shroud lay on the moor,

“She kept the siege. And every day
We watched her brooding over death
Like a strong bird above its prey.
The room filled with the kettle's breath.

“Damp curtains glued against the pane
Sealed time away. Her body froze
As if to freeze us all, and chain
Creation to a stunned repose.”

“She died before the world could stir.
In March the ice unloosed the brook
And water ruffled the sun's hair.
Dead cones upon the alder shook.”

For me, Jane Fraser’s death always seems Christ-like, a sacrifice: “Her body froze / As if to freeze us all, and chain / Creation to a stunned repose.” “Stunned” implies there’s an involuntary component in her death, as though it came as a surprise like a blow to the head. “Repose” connotes rest, but rest with dignity, not sloppy or vulgar, the look undertakers seek to lend to the faces and bodies of their subjects. “Stunned repose” suggests the dual nature of mortality – thoroughly expected yet unimaginable.

What do I find when I come home after school? Stephen Pentz’s post on poems by R.S. Thomas and James Reeves, both citing “repose.” Like me, Stephen likes the word and the idea, both rare today. The kids I work with seldom know repose. They are most of the time agitated, distracted or in pain, but so are most of the otherwise healthy people I know. Repose is not a medicated state. Nor is it purely willed. Rather – and I experience repose only occasionally, though I recognize it in others – it suggests an indirect achievement, a byproduct of right living and grace, certainly a clean conscience. Samuel Johnson suggests as much in “London” (1738):

“Grant me, kind Heaven, to find some happier Place,
Where Honesty and Sense are no Disgrace;
Some pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play,
Some peaceful Vale with Nature's Paintings gay;
Where once the harass'd Briton found Repose,
And safe in Poverty defy'd his Foes;
Some secret Cell, ye Pow'rs, indulgent give.”

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

I feel that you're right about grace--or, put another way, perhaps, good fortune--being essential to understanding repose. I tend to be able to find repose with relative frequency and ease, and while I'm willing to take some of the credit for that fact, I feel the majority should be shared out to my parents, my wife, and the simple good luck of health. And oh, am I grateful.