Geoffrey Hill’s poem “Of Commerce and Society: 4” has received critical attention from almost everyone (partial list: Sherry, Knottenbelt, O’Neill, Robinson, Wainwright, Hart, Bloom, Ricks, and me). So I was surprised recently when I had (what I think is) a brand new thought about it.
The poem opens like this:
Statesmen have known visions. And, not alone,
Artistic men prod dead men from their stone.
Some of us have heard the dead speak:
The dead are my obsession this week
But may be lifted away. […]
When I first came to a reading of these lines years ago, slightly odd-in-context ‘obsession’ struck me as performing a double function, tending simultaneously in the direction of ‘anxiety, intense preoccupation’ and ‘fetish, fad’, similarly to how Ricks had divided the connotative semantic range of ‘atrocity’ in ‘History as Poetry’:
For atrocity may get flattened down into the casually ‘atrocious,’ or it may get fattened up into that debased form of imagination which is prurience. So the general burden of the imagination’s self-scrutiny presses particularly upon all such art as contemplates (in both senses) atrocities.
Casual ‘atrocious’ may have been a vocabulary item at one time for the Ricks-Hill generation — I don’t think it has much currency any more, and can’t remember ever hearing it used this way outside the Mary Poppins song. But ‘obsessed’, ‘obsession’, ‘obsessing’ have exactly this range of valence today. In my reading, the object of obsession (the dead) lent the word the seriousness of ethical responsibility, while the specified duration (‘this week | But may be lifted away’) ironically suggested an ‘artistic man’ unanswerable to that responsibility, which went well with my overall sense of the poem.
Then last week I had one of those moments that I think all teacher-researchers must live for. I was discussing the poem with a student who wanted to write about it for a term paper. She had been thinking about tropes of distance and approach, of holding back and being held back, in the poem. We zeroed in on ‘obsession’, because this student wanted to write on Larkin’s ‘Aubade’ as well, which I suggested displays a very different kind of obsession with death. So it occurred to me to look up the etymology in OED:
Middle French, French obsession and its etymon classical Latin obsessiōn-, obsessiō the action of besieging, a siege < obsess- , past participial stem of obsidēre.
Of a sudden things started to rearrange themselves in my head, which has led me to revise my reading of the first stanza to account for a deeply embedded etymological pun, which not only strengthens certain relations within the passage, but also connects it to Hill’s preoccupation with (not obsession with, in either sense) the ‘active-passive divide’.
Knowing (can I get away with ‘remembering’ here? perhaps not) that ‘siege’ lies within ‘obsession’ gives second double function to the term in the poem. Actually ‘siege’ is a more coherent subject of ‘may be lifted away’, since it’s idiomatic to refer to the lifting of a siege, whereas it is not so idiomatic to talk of the lifting of an obsession. The idea of besiegement also echoes nicely the setting upon described in the line, ‘Artistic men prod dead men from their stone’.
These two confirming notes, however, require an inversion of subject and object of ‘my obsession’, once ‘besiegement’ has been activated as an etymological echo. The poet lays siege to the dead in their stone; the poet is himself besieged by the dead. Like ‘endurance’, ‘inure’, and ‘solution’, ‘obsession’ here might be ‘one of the great words that lie directly on the active-passive divide’, describing something that ‘suffers what it describes’. It may be another embodiment of the principle illustrated within the double nature of ‘inure’: that ‘We become used to that which uses us up’. But of course ‘obsession’ can only function this way if the etymology is actively a part of the semantic field, since, as currently employed, ‘my obsession’ can’t have an active sense.
I’m fairly sure no computer could have put these ideas together, however well taught.