In Broken Hierarchies: Precursor to a Variorum? I noticed major revisions to a poem in Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, which I argued amounted to a totally altered poem following a new and different philosophical development. Because the revisions in BH are widespread and significant, I suggested that critics writing on Hill are now and for the foreseeable future faced with a problem of the authoritativeness of different versions.
Some people have been cataloguing variant versions of poems in BH here and there, especially on the Facebook group Geoffrey Hill Exchange. Perhaps soon we will start seeing such analysis in the scholarly literature.
Yesterday, looking up something I had written before, I came across a small digression of mine in Defending Poetry, on two line breaks in Poem XI of Mercian Hymns. In a prose poem* like those of Mercian Hymns the line “ending”, if it is that, can appear more accidental, or incidental, than in a verse poem. The typesetting, the margins, etc., may be actively in control of the poet, or he may have relinquished that control. As I was writing on the poem chapter several years ago, I noticed a very small change in different editions of that poem, which nonetheless affected my reading.
The poem in the edition I was working with–Geoffrey Hill Collected Poems (GHCP – 1985)–had the first two verse paragraphs of the poem set like this:
Noting the two hyphenated “enjambments”, I wrote the following:
The word ‘muti-|lation’, illustrating its own dismemberment on the page, also calls attention to its special application to books or texts (OED3, n. 3), as well as its etymological Old French sense of a ‘partial destruction of a work of art’ (OED3, n. etym). Similarly, the visual deconstruction of ‘account‑|able’ leaves us with the three distinct sense units which the poem has joined together: ‘account’ as in the verb meaning ‘to reckon for moneys given or received’ (OED2, v. II.3), ‘able’ as in ‘showing … skill; talented, clever’ (OED2, a. 7), and ‘accountable’ as in ‘answerable, responsible’ (OED2, a. 1).
Defending Poetry, p. 164
But, because I had seen the poem in the recently published Penguin Selected, I entered this note to my reading:
 GHCP is faithful to the original lineation in Mercian Hymns, whereas the Penguin Selected Poems (2006) relineates the poem, doing away with the hyphenation. Whether this is an authorised change or another of the many defects of that edition will be confirmed on publication of Hill’s projected Collected Poems in 2012.
This is how the poem appeared in the 2006 Penguin Selected:
While I might have managed a similar account of the poem using that typesetting, I think it unlikely to have been anywhere near as persuasive. The hyphenation of the poem’s key words not only suggested the reading in the first place, they underwrote it.
Now that BH is out, on re-reading this note of mine it occurred to me to verify my intuition about the poem. Sure enough, we have the hyphenated words restored:
So that’s that. The 2006 Penguin is rubbish. But you will notice one change in the setting from the original. It’s the preposition “of” in the last line of the second paragraph, which in the original had been at the end of the previous line.
In a verse poem, this would have created an enjambment, the prepositional phrase divided over the line break, so that the relation announced by “of” (of what?) is delayed in time (real time and metrical time). In the verse-paragraph poem the effect is not as strong, but it is there.
Is this change significant? Will it alter readings? That depends on who is reading, of course. Nothing comes to mind right now in terms of critical treatments of prepositions at the end of the line in Mercian Hymns, but there may be something out there. Hill himself is wont to read at the end of the line. In a recent Oxford lecture [“A deep dynastic wound,” 30 April 2013], he says (of Paradise Lost):
What I’ve called the “animus” of these lines […] is an energy at once etymological and rhythmic, the rhythm achieved through the masterly enjambment of grammatical clauses across the line endings.
So, for now, here’s a little catalogue of changed line endings in the Mercian Hymns of Broken Hierarchies, vs. the original [forgetting, justly, the 2006 Penguin], for reference by future variorumists. All the other lines end exactly as they did before, including the frequent hyphenation of the kind displayed in XI.
|Poem Number||Ending in MC/GHCP||Ending in BH|
|III||where a | bonfire of beer-crates||where | a bonfire of beer-crates|
|V||Dreamy, smug-faced, | sick on outings||Dreamy, smug- | faced, sick on outings|
|XI||scrapers of | salt-pans||scrapers | of salt-pans|
|XIII||out of | England's well||out | of England's well.|
|XIV||and | a snail sugared||and a | snail sugared|
|XXI||by lakesides where | all might fancy||by lakesides | where all might fancy|
|XXV||Sparks had furred | its low roof.||Sparks had furred its | low roof.|
Now, perhaps you still think this small beans: a preposition here, an article there. For an illustration of the difference this can make, have a look at how the final poem of the collection fares in the 2006 Penguin (it is restored in BH):
Here is the original:
And here the mutilated, unmutilated Penguin typeset:
Could you make the same reading out of those two poems? Would you?
*[I am reminded by Tom Day’s article in PN Review that Hill calls these poems “versets of rhythmical prose”, and so not “prose poems” exactly].