September Song by Geoffrey Hill

Hill published ‘September Song’ in King Log in 1968. Within it, Hill taps into themes of memory, remembrance, and suffering while crafting an elegy that clearly comes from the heart. The tone and mood are both appropriately solemn and contemplative.

 

Summary of September Song

‘September Song’ by Geoffrey Hill is a complex, moving poem that taps into the losses suffered during the Holocaust through the life and death of one child. 

The poem is short, lasting for only fourteen lines, many of which are only two or three words. Within it, the speaker moves through depictions of loss, memory, and the terrible regulation of murder within Nazi Germany. The poet has interwoven within the text references to himself and what elegies There are allusions at the end of the poem to the possibilities of poetry and what it is and is not capable of. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of September Song

September Song’ by Geoffrey Hill is a fourteen-line poem that is separated into short stanzas of one to three lines in length. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This means Hill chose to write in what is known as free verse. 

It is quite important before reading this poem to take note of the epigraph. This brief line of text comes before the first stanza and reads as: 

born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42

Out of context, these dates don’t make a great deal of sense, especially the word “deported”. But, as one starts reading the poem it becomes clear that these are the birth and death dates of a child who was killed in 1942, at only ten years old. Although it is not explicitly stated, the euphemistic “deported” and the larger context of the poem suggest the child was killed in one of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. 

This poem is in the form of an elegy for the unnamed child (as well as anyone else, or everyone else, who died or suffered during this terrible period in history). The elegy, Hill states within parenthesis in the middle of the poem is for himself. This is a strange and unusual assertion considering Hill’s background and the general frowned upon appropriation of tragedy this phrase implies.

 

Poetic Techniques in September Song 

Hill makes use of several poetic techniques in September Song’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, allusion, enjambment, and apostrophe. The last of these, apostrophe, occurs in the very first line of the poem. Apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone, something, or creature, that does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. The exclamation, “Oh,” is often used at the beginning of the phrase. The person is spoken to as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words. In this case, the poet is addressing “you” the child whose death is noted in the epigraph.

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “passed” and “proper” in line three and “marched” and “much” in lines four and six. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this piece, with the addition of words like “zyklon” and the dates used in the epigraph, a reader should be able to understand that the poet is referring to a loss, and losses suffered during the Holocaust.

 

Analysis of September Song 

Lines 1-3 

In the first lines of ‘September Song,’ the speaker begins by describing the child referenced by the birth and death dates in the epigraph. This child, he states, was “Undesirable” in the eyes of the state. They fell into a group that was deemed as such by Nazi Germany. They were “Undesirable” as well as “untouchable”. There was nothing that stopped forces of the government from taking the child from his or her world and into one of horror. 

In contrast to the actions of the government, the speaker adds to this saying that the child was not “forgotten”. Despite the best efforts of those working for and with Nazi Germany, the child did not sink into history. They are remembered to this day. These lines also allude to Passover and the action or inaction of God. 

 

Lines 4-7 

In the next lines of ‘September Song,’ the speaker alludes to the numerical factors at play. The Nazis planned and schemed to find the easiest way to “deport” (murder) as many people as quickly as possible. As they “estimated,” the child died. It all went to plan, just as it was meant to. A reader should take note of the measured rhythm in these lines. The poem moves forward, one beat at a time, very regularly. 

There is a reference to Zyklon in the third line. This is clearly in connection to the Zyklon gas used in the gas chambers in concentration camps. Everything about this became “routine”. 

 

Lines 8-10

Lines eight through ten are within parenthesis. This creates an aside where the speaker, who is in this case Hill, is able to speak directly to the reader and/or acknowledge his personal thoughts. He notes that this poem has been created as an elegy for himself “it / is true”. This confirms what already seemed likely from the start, that the poet sees himself as this child. But, while he survived the child did not. It is interesting to note that the birthdate of the child noted in the epigraph is the day after Hill’s own birthday. Hill is obviously aware of this appropriation. He is also suggesting through the format of the poem and the statement that elegies are not for the dead but for the living. 

 

Lines 11-14 

In the final sections of the poem the speaker brings in natural imagery, they also emphasize what poetry can and cannot do. The last line states that this is “plenty” and “more than enough” when in reality it is very much not. There is nothing the poem can truly do to bring peace to the victims or change the past. 

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