Last week an editor I like and respect asked for edits to two of my poems to correct for a couple of minor blemishes. In both cases the eventual changes were small, but for one of them it transformed the poem. A few comfortable words got excised and I found some less comfortable ones to replace them. In the process, the tone of the whole thing shifted (for the better). Objectively this is unsurprising, but I still found it odd how a small tweak at the end projected back into the rest of the poem and altered the extant rest-of-it.
By chance I then stumbled across a more profound example of the same thing in Geoffrey Hill’s early poem “In Memory of Jane Fraser”. The poem itself is fabulously unsettling and can be read here.
I’ve been haunted by that last line, “Dead cones upon the alder shook”, for over twenty years. Rummaging around in Vincent Sherry’s The Uncommon Tongue I learned that the original published version had ended “And a few sprinkled leaves unshook” before Hill replaced it with that haunting final line in 1967. As Sherry argues:
More than a correction of the solecism “unshook”, the revision transforms the poem totally. The expectations building through the middle lines of the last stanza are frustrated by the dead cones rather than fulfilled by the freshened leaves.
I’d add that the revision also makes the rest of the poem click into place. Where “And a few sprinkled leaves unshook” is perfectly competent, “Dead cones upon the alder shook” is one of those priceless melodies that can communicate before it is understood.
Some of this can be unpicked technically: the metrical chiasmus of stresses on a monosyllable-disyllable-disyllable-monosyllable causes the rhythm to quicken then slow; the syntax is both straightforward (reading “dead cones upon the alder” as the phrasal subject of “shook”) and distorted (reading “upon the alder” as modifying “shook” rather than “cones”, so that the word order becomes a dislocation of “dead cones shook upon the alder”); the word “shook” itself comes trailing multiple associations; and so on.
But analysis can only explain so much. Ultimately we’re left with one of those rare lines that transmits itself directly to the nervous system with a shudder. I agree with Sherry that the line projects itself back and modifies the earlier parts of the poem, but for me this tugs in two directions: yes, the dead cones frustrate the quickening expectations of the brook and the “sun’s hair”, but equally they affirm it by reminding us that spring only has meaning in relation to winter (and, by extension, life only in relation to death) – precisely none of which need intrude on our conscious reading of the poem.
Six words out, six words in: the poem changed entirely.