Poem Of The Week: 'In Memory Of Jane Fraser' By Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016)
In Memory of Jane Fraser
When snow like sheep lay in the fold
And winds went begging at each door,
And the far hills were blue with cold,
And a cold shroud lay on the moor,
She kept the siege. And every day
We watched her brooding over death
Like a strong bird above its prey.
The room filled with the kettle’s breath.
Damp curtains glued against the pane
Sealed time away. Her body froze
As if to freeze us all, and chain
Creation to a stunned repose.
She died before the world could stir.
In March the ice unloosed the brook
And water ruffled the sun’s hair,
And a few sprinkled leaves unshook.
I write this sitting on a garden chair in warm sunlight, an imaginative leap away from the frozen landscape of Geoffrey Hill’s poem of atmosphere and transfiguring cold. As intensely focused, and as torpid as a bell’s peal, ‘In Memory of Jane Fraser’ is an elegy whose formal measures yield the irony of emotional distance. The more or less strict tetrameter, restrained in self-contained rhyme and a languid rhythm, lend the quatrains a fixity of purpose which is stylized: in Hill’s astonishing rendering, the dying subject begins to take on the isolate, mentally-enchained appearance of Tennyson’s Mariana, in thrall to the shadows of the night. As evanescent as a wraith, the woman is bound indivisibly with the frozen terrain she inhabits and the immanence of Death; she is at once corporeal and transcending, yet utterly removed from the domestic humdrum of the kettle’s ‘breath’.
A symbolic vision as much as a representation of an unforgiving, ironclad natural world, Hill’s exquisite accretion of metaphor inscribes the relentlessness of winter. The shadowy figure’s ‘siege’ is interchangeable with the season’s own impenetrable barricade; her absorption in the mood and texture of the season as total as to be near invisible.
Reassigned to the service of natural continuity, Hill’s achingly beautiful use of metaphor in the final stanza returns the reader to considerations of Spring and a new world of hope, beyond the arctic recesses of reflection.
‘In Memory of Jane Fraser’ is taken from The New Poetry
, Selected and Introduced by A. Alvarez, and is published by Penguin Books.