Because of yesterday’s being the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, I had been led to consider how the life of Elijah compared to that of John, and so spent some time afterward thinking about the numinous wilderness that both men spent so much time in. This in turn reminded me of a favourite poem of mine, which I would like to share today – God’s Little Mountain, by Geoffrey Hill. Whilst (as with a lot of Hill’s poetry) I am uncertain as to the meaning of some of its lines, it does provide an incredible overall sense of man stood before the uncompromising majesty of nature, and of God being vitally present, in and behind everything, with the constant possibility of His creative life bursting through the veil.
The animalisation of inanimate forces and objects in the landscape adds to this dramatic sense, and I can’t help feeling when reading this poem that this is something like what John and Elijah experienced out in the wild – the vertiginous feeling of being surrounded by divine activity and presence, so much so that the very solidity of rocks and mountains force themselves upon the individual with an overwhelming realness. This feeling is compounded when Hill explicitly mentions supernatural activity, so that the ‘region of pure force’ becomes accompanied by an extra layer of potent reality.
Whether this is what Elijah and the Baptist (as well as Moses, with his experience on Mount Sinai, which I feel Hill more likely had in mind when writing the poem) felt during their sojourns in the wilderness I do not know, but I like to think they would know something of what I’m trying to describe, and what Hill so beautifully depicts here:
Below, the river scrambled like a goat
Dislodging stones. The mountain stamped its foot,
Shaking, as from a trance. And I was shut
With wads of sound into a sudden quiet.
I thought the thunder had unsettled heaven;
All was so still. And yet the sky was cloven
By flame that left the air cold and engraven.
I waited for the word that was not given,
Pent up into a region of pure force,
Made subject to the pressure of the stars;
I saw the angels lifted like pale straws;
I could not stand before those winnowing eyes
And fell, until I found the world again.
Now I lack grace to tell what I have seen;
For though the head frames words the tongue has none.
And who will prove the surgeon to this stone?