Tuesday, November 15, 2016

`With What Blood and to What End, Shiloh?'

“I will consider the outnumbering dead . . .”

More of us were than are. Among them, we recall a handful, perhaps a hundred or two, faces and/or names, counting every grade-school teacher and grocery clerk. For the mnemonically gifted few, the number may be fractionally higher. Still, it’s a pittance, equivalent to the dwindling population of a soon-to-be ghost town. Geoffrey Hill won’t accept this. His is a poetry of remembrance, and he honors the obscure and celebrated. The line at the top is from “Merlin,” collected in Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen (1959), and now Hill is dead. Rowan Williams delivered the sermon at his funeral, held in the Chapel of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on July 25:  

“. . . if poetry cannot be either propagandist or exquisite, one thing it is singularly equipped for is doing justice to the past of words and speakers, giving voice in a multitude of ways to that always-present cloud of witness, about whose fate in one sense we can do nothing, yet whose life and voice is in some way in our hands. Writing for the fallen and the unfallen alike, you might say, writing for the dead so as to write for the survivors who may not even know what they have survived.”

Another reason for remembering the dead: “. . . so as to write for the survivors who may not even know what they have survived.” Hill remembers Mandelstam and the nameless girl at Theresienstadt in case we refuse out of ignorance or defiance . In a cycle of four poems, “Locust Songs,” devoted to American history in his second collection, King Log (1968), Hill gives us “Shiloh Church, 1862: Twenty-three Thousand”:

“O stamping-ground of the shod Word! So hard
On the heels of the damned red-man we came,
Geneva’s tribe, outlandish and abhorred—
Bland vistas milky with Jehovah’s calm—

“Who fell to feasting Nature, the glare
Of buzzards circling; cried to the grim sun
`Jehovah punish us!’; who went too far;
In deserts dropped the odd white turds of bone;

“Whose passion was to find out God in this
His natural filth, voyeur of sacrifice, a slow
Bloody unearthing of the God-in-us.
But with what blood and to what end, Shiloh?”

On April 6-7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee, Union and Confederate forces suffered more than 23,000 casualties. The Shiloh Meeting House was a one-room log cabin, briefly occupied by Confederate Gen. P.G. T.-Beauregard. Hill and the Americans of the Civil War era knew their Bible. Such suffering and loss defies language. Hill only obliquely recounts the battle. His interest is elsewhere. “The shod Word” is Christ in the New World. His first line recalls the second in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” “Geneva’s tribe” suggests the more fanatical, apocalyptically minded Protestants, John Brown among them. The poem ends with a question. Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says:

“It is true that poetry is not ‘about’ passive endurance; just as true that it is not ‘about’ inspiring readers to political action, even political violence.”

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