The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“For the Hillmother” is a thirty-two-line invocation of nature and paean to fertile sexuality consisting of sixteen pairs of short lines. The first line in each pair calls upon an aspect of nature, and the second asks it to perform a particular beneficent action. The poem is a secular version of a litany, a traditional form of group prayer in which a leader and a congregation recite alternating lines. Standing immediately behind this poem is the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, sometimes called the Litany of Loreto, a prayer in use in the Roman Catholic church since the sixteenth century.

In the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, the priest addresses Mary forty-nine times, using names descriptive or symbolic of her virtues or her religious significance. Forty-nine times the congregation responds, “pray for us.” A number of the names are metaphorical, some colorfully so: “Mirror of justice,” “Vessel of honor,” “Mystical rose,” “Tower of David,” “Tower of ivory,” “House of gold,” “Ark of the covenant,” “Gate of Heaven,” “Morning star.”

It is these “poetical” names, which draw upon Old Testament prophetic imagery, that John Montague’s invocations to “the Hillmother” especially call to mind, but in the poem each of the responses is different:

Hinge of silence creak for us

(The entire section is 419 words.)

For the Hillmother Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is unrhymed (though the repeated “us” has an incantatory effect); but it is rich in sound effects, including alliteration: “unfold for,” “Blue harebell/ bend,” “fern/ unfurl for,” “Freshet . . ./ flow for.” (Notice in particular the accumulation of f and r sounds.)

The poem’s vocabulary is unusual. There are no articles or conjunctions. Of the poem’s eighty-six words, twenty-four are nouns, sixteen are verbs, and only eight are adjectives. This is a heady mixture, dense with strong nouns and verbs.

The poem also has a wealth of mouth-filling one-syllable words: “Hinge,” “creak,” “Branch,” “breathe,” “pearl,” “cleft,” “birth”—including an abundance of words with expansive s and z sounds: “Rose,” “moist,” “moss,” “Leaves,” “dews,” “ease.” On the tongue, the poem is profoundly sensuous: It is a pungently tactile experience.

“For the Hillmother” is completely without punctuation (which is unusual but not unprecedented among Montague’s poems). The poem illustrates what its author has called “the circular aesthetic” of Irish art. It begins with the “Hinge of silence”—silent because motionless; it ends up calling upon the “Gate of birth” to (swing) “open for us.” As with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), which begins and ends in mid-sentence (the same sentence), the ending of...

(The entire section is 486 words.)