Willard Spiegelman: On "A Hill"

"A Hill" begins offhandedly in the voice of a debonair skeptic who prepares us for, and simultaneously disavows, the surprises that follow: "In Italy, where this sort of thing can occur, / I had a vision once--though you understand / It was nothing at all like Dante's, or the visions of saints, / And perhaps not a vision at all." The figure of occupatio, the age-old rhetorical trick of having things two ways at once (of course we're now prepared to think of Dante and saints, to look for correspondences, even negative ones), opens to a morning scene in Rome when, for a moment, the speaker loses consciousness of his immediate environment, and a Wordsworthian spot of time returns, him to a winter's scene, in childhood, on a hill where he heard

 

What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;

At least I was not alone. But just after that

Came the soft and papery crash

Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth.

 

And that was all, except for the cold and silence

That promised to last forever, like the hill.

 

The understated horror perhaps owes something to comparable moments in Frost ("The Most of It," "An Old Man's Winter's Night "). One never learns what exactly happened there, nor of course can the adult decide why the scene should have held him in its grip both at the time and thereafter. Restored to his Italian setting (almost immediately, one infers), he is nevertheless haunted by what Wordsworth called "a dim and undetermined sense / Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts / There hung a darkness, call it solitude, / Or blank desertion" (The Prelude).

Hecht's poetry, whether deliberately spine-tingling, as here, or more graphically lurid, is permeated by Wordsworthian "visionary dreariness." Frightened, temporarily dazed, the adult speaker of "A Hill" extends the effect of his vision both forward (to a "today" ten years after the Roman shock) and backward (to the aftermath in childhood of the original event):

 

                                for more than a week

I was scared by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.

All this happened about ten years ago,

And it hasn't troubled me since, but at last, today,

I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left

Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy

I stood before it for hours in wintertime.

 

Such easy five-stressed lines, covering an unspecified depth of horror, set the stage for the more grimly sadistic poems that follow. Like Wordsworth, Hecht is bent upon the preservation of spots of time and upon a demonstration of the tricks and sleights of memory; his didactic program also involves nothing less than an exploration of the inherent evil in humans. He gives Wordsworth's themes but through characters who would be at home in Browning, and in the technique and language of modern America.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Willard Spiegelman: On "A Hill" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Willard Spiegelman Criticism Target Anthony Hecht
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry
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