Section 1: The close reading
Entering a poem is a matter of prudence, in the classical sense. Prudence is the virtue of balancing wisdom and courage. Too much wisdom, and we would not act. Too much courage, and we would not survive our actions.
Once a poem is cast in the mold of the first line, the rest of it bears a mark that cannot be erased.
The first section of “The Triumph of Love” consists of a single line. The line itself is grammatically puzzling: do we read it as a complete sentence or as a fragment with closing punctuation? If we read the line as a “normal” English construction, it seems like a fragment; if “sun-blazed” is functioning as an adjective describing the “livid rain-scarp”, there is no verb.
But there is another way to read the line. Hill was an erudite reader and translator of Latin, which does not follow “normal” English word order. In Latin and various other of the many languages Hill read, word order is more flexible than in English. When we approach the sentence with a more “romance” or Latinate understanding of word order, a possibility for a complete sentence emerges, in which the “livid rain-scarp” is the subject and the verb is the glorious “sun-blazed”. Rendered in “normal” English, where word order dictates meaning, one possibility for the opening line is this:
“A livid rain-scarp sun-blazed over Romsley.”
Obviously, the first line as written in the poem is far superior to this normalized version. While both lines (my made-up one and Hill’s real one) are in iambic pentameter, Hill’s staggers a little, a masterful misstep that gives the line breathing room. Perfect iambs would impose a sense of order on this line, order that the scene and the themes do not permit. Hill’s line is more musical than my normal English rendering, with the two caesuras from the commas. In addition, the Latinized construction allows the speaker to open his song with the word “sun”—a choice that we cannot take lightly.
Before we consider that opening word, however, one final thought about the difficult construction of this opening line: from the beginning, the poem has established ambiguity. It is hard to read this first line: do we read it as a complete thought (a sentence) or as a fragment? Is this thing we behold a whole, or is it a part? Immediately we are unsure of the grammatical rules of the world we have entered—and for Hill, grammar and morality are intrinsically linked.
The ambiguity of this opening line is balanced by piercing precision of language. We know exactly what we are witnessing: the little English town of Romsley in the instant where the sun flares out in the midst of a squall. This is a lesson for all poets who strive for transcendence through their work, as Hill does. Specificity of language is the midwife of transcendence. The universal in poetry depends on the particular. Here at the beginning of what will be a fifty-page epic leading us through time, space, history, morality, through obscure allusions and myriad illusions of creed and conscience, we are grounded in sharp, vivid language in a very specific time and a very specific place: Romsley, in the instant when a startling blaze of sunlight tears out from a squall.
This moment is poetic in itself, having that blend of shock and inevitability. The sun comes out after every storm, and yet when it does, we gasp. In this first line we have the dynamism of existence, the interplay of light and dark, calm and storm, sun and rain, along with all the meaning these dichotomies have accrued over millennia of poetry—joy and sorrow, good and evil, life and death, hope and despair, all gathered around Romsley in violent, beautiful dance.
So with this opening line, Hill has ushered us into the troubling, wrenching, baffling, devastating dance that dominates our existence. As in our own lives, the poem is not clear about which is at bottom: the sun or the storm? Which is essential to life: Joy or despair? And which is ancillary? Which, in other words, is eternal, and which is passing? The poem gives us no clues but this: when we read the opening line carefully, we must ask ourselves what exactly is “sun-blazed” or “sun-blazing”? The sun itself does not enter the poem—only its rays. And here there is no ambiguity. The rain-scarp itself is aflame. The storm itself is luminous. From the heart of the darkness flares the light. We find illumination in the clouds.
All this can be discerned by a careful reader who has no prior knowledge of the poet (even the Latinate possibilities in the opening line, though a little background in classics would certainly help), with no help from Google or even a dictionary. Some readers might wish to find the exact definition of “scarp” upon first reading the poem, but this is a matter of preference. A careful study of the more familiar words will make the meaning clear through context.
Now we proceed to a bit more annotation, where some research and outside knowledge lets us dig more into the poem.
In this first line, there is not too much annotation necessary.
“Scarp” is indeed a splendid word choice. It is a geological word referring to a low line of cliffs, either cliffs made naturally through erosion or fortifications raised at the base of a castle or fortress. Some synonyms are “palisade” and “precipice.” This choice, beyond its lovely musicality with the preceding “rain”, gives a martial feeling to the atmosphere. This is no gentle land of rolling hills; here there be edifices to scale and, presumably, enemies battering us from on high.
The other term that merits some unpacking is “Romsley.” This small town smack in the middle of England is the home of St. Kenelm, an Anglo-Saxon saint. St. Kenelm was, significantly, the victim of political scheming. Legend says that after becoming king of the ancient British kingdom of Mercia at a very young age, Kenelm was murdered by order of his sister, who wanted to rule Mercia herself. St. Kenelm was venerated through medieval England, with many miracles of plenty (crops and food in droughts, etc.) and healing ascribed to him. He is mentioned in The Canterbury Tales, in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” (so if you haven’t read this piece, I recommend reading it before we go on with the poem!).
The manner of entry is paramount. It is the poet’s first opportunity to wield a truly poetic vision: musical, deliberate and spontaneous, that dynamic balance of surprise and inevitability that is at the heart of all art. In the first line of “The Triumph of Love”, we enter a world of blaze and shadows, a world where the sun itself is hiding but its rays are all about, a world where darkness and storm is the vehicle for light. We stand on mundane ground where legend says a political murder made a saint.
And with that, we are ready to advance to Section II.