Picture of a Nativity
Sea-preserved, heaped with sea-spoils,
Ribs, keels, coral sores,
Detached faces, ephemeral oils,
Discharged on the world's outer shores,
A dumb child-king
Arrives at his right place; rests,
Undisturbed, among slack serpents; beasts
With claws flesh-buttered. In the gathering
Of bestial and common hardship
Artistic men appear to worship
And fall down; to recognize
Familiar tokens; believe their own eyes.
Above the marvel, each rigid head,
Angels, their unnatural wings displayed,
Freeze into an attitude
Recalling the dead.
Geoffrey Hill died just a few days ago, on 30 June, at age 84, so this in in tribute to him, though I have to admit I have not yet read much of his work (I've had Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 - 2012 on my wishlist for so long I should just buy it for myself). A couple of years ago I printed out this poem from the Poetry Foundation site and after I heard about Hill's death I dug it out from the mess on my desk for another look. It displays many of the qualities generally attributed to Hill: lines that are dense, muscular, musical, with a gorgeous surface over shifting elusive depths. Take a phrase like Artistic men appear to worship / And fall down: appear could mean that they show up to worship and fall down could mean they fall to their knees or even prone before the worshiped one, or appear to worship could suggest that they seem to be worshiping, but are not really, and that is the sense in which they fall down (fail).
The title (as well as much of the imagery in the poem) suggests one of those image- and therefore symbol-crammed paintings of the birth of Jesus. Yet we begin not in a stable in Bethlehem but in an unidentified seaside, or possibly in the sea itself, but a sea that seems filled not by nature but by humanity's leavings, often in broken form: in the very first line, we have sea-preserved balanced by sea-spoils: spoils can mean plunder or loot but can also suggest something damaged or ruined – spoiled. So we start off with a suggestion that the same source, the sea, preserves but also destroys, but those destroyed objects might turn into treasures for us. Is the sea just the great elemental mother here? Or a place not quite hospitable to ordinary human lives? The listed sea-spoils include smashed-up ships (their keels, their ribs – though perhaps the ribs are those of drowned sailors?); even a natural element like coral is described as a coral sore – presumably this refers to the twisting, gash-like shapes coral can take, though it might also refer to the dangerous ulcerating cuts that coral can inflict – so along with ribs, this could be read as a submerged reference to drowned bodies; detached faces is a less submerged reference, but might also suggest the sort of crowds or groupings that form sort of a bouquet of faces in some paintings of particular sacred scenes (like the nativity or the crucifixion). Ephemeral oils might suggest the fragility of a painting, as well as the shimmering oil slicks that shipwrecks would leave in the water.
This conglomeration of strange and broken elements resumes at the end of the second stanza, with the odd slack serpents and destructive-sounding beasts whose claws are flesh-buttered (a wonderful phrase, suggesting the reduction of flesh to something edible and spreadable, caught on the deadly claws). Centered between these two jammed elements is the calm figure of the dumb child-king (I assume that dumb here means only mute, though it's not made clear if the silence is because the child-king is a new born, or because he will never speak to us). He occupies his own line. The next line tells us that he has arrived at his right place. He rests, with the word rests set on its own at the end of the line, isolated by the preceding semicolon that ends the stanza's first clause. Then with undisturbed on the next line we begin to see the child-king amid this writhing world (how can you be undisturbed unless there is something there that potentially could disturb you?). Slack serpents is musically appealing, with its alliteration, but unexpected: the serpents are not coiled or tense, but slack: are they made so by the presence of the child-king? The serpent of course is a traditional Christian symbol of the devil, particularly in reference to the fall of humanity, so their lack of energy here might be related to the presence of the child-king, if you read him as the infant Jesus. Perhaps the serpents are merely resting.
Into this world of broken, threatening, but strangely beautiful elements (this world of bestial and common hardship) appear the artistic men whose ambiguous actions we looked at earlier. Artistic men of course suggests artists, or at least the aesthetically inclined, but the phrase also puts me in mind of the elaborate robes and dazzling ornaments of the magi traditionally shown worshiping the infant Jesus. There are further hints that their worship here is not quite succeeding: in the presence of the new, the mute child-king, they recognize familiar signs and symbols and believe their own eyes (a suggestion of what is called confirmation bias, that is, the tendency to see new evidence as confirmation of your old beliefs). Perhaps this is not quite a failure on the part of the artistic men; perhaps they are doing the best they can, pursuing the paths they have been following. The human damage that has filled the ocean, the strange beasts, the possibly misled worshipers, and in the midst of all this, the still silent center of the child-king: each of these exists next to and responds to the others, suspended in a mysterious communion, as ultimately unknowable as the depths of the sea. Perhaps the only common element is the sense of human failure (which can only come after human trials and efforts, of course) and human persistence.
The marvel referred to in the first line of the final stanza – is it the child-king, or the whole scene? Are the rigid heads those of the artistic men, or a reference back to the detached faces of the first stanza, or those of the beasts, or of the hovering angels, with their unnatural wings? (Wings occur in nature, but not attached to angel heads; I picture here those cherubs that are only heads with wings that appear in some early modern paintings of sacred scenes – the wings are unnatural in that they are a human construction, an artistic attempt to symbolize celestial beings (ones which are possibly also human, artistic inventions).) The ambiguity of reference behind the rigid heads lends richness to the final two lines, in which they Freeze into an attitude / Recalling the dead. As the heads (the artistic men? the detached faces? the beasts? the angels?) freeze into place (held in place, preserved, as in a painting), a sense of finality settles over the ambiguous, restless scene. Something has clearly happened – a revelation has occurred – even if we can't quite tie it up in words. It is a sense, perhaps, more than an articulated thought. The final line continues the ambiguity of the poem: the heads freeze into an attitude / Recalling the dead: recalling can mean bringing back to memory, so that the frozen attitude of the heads reminds us of the stiff unmoving dead; but recalling can also mean to call someone back, to order someone to return, to bring someone out of a state of inattention or reverie, which suggests that at the end of this mystery the dead are actually being recalled back into life: a suggestion of resurrection behind the tumult and death.