The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419

“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.

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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 usLeaves of delight   murmur for usFreshet of ease   flow for us

Only a few lines of the poem closely echo the litany on which it is based. “Gate of birth” recalls “Gate of Heaven”; “Rose of darkness” may suggest “Mystical rose”; and “sway for us” is playfully close to “pray for us.” The poem’s main resemblance to the prayer is in its overall format.

“Hillmother” in the title is a suggestive term. It calls to mind the phrase “Hail, Mary” and the prayer of that name, reinforcing a reader’s sense of how this poem plays off another prayer for Mary. At one level, the hill should be understood literally: One can see and feel the flora (“Wood anemone,” “Blue harebell,” “Moist fern,” “Springy moss”), smell the “Odorous wood,” hear the “Secret waterfall” and the wind rustling “Leaves of delight.” At another level, however, the landscape is clearly anatomical (as in “Hidden cleft” and “Portal of delight”). The poem principally celebrates female anatomy, though “Branch of pleasure” seems undeniably male in its implications. The hillmother is mother Earth—or, perhaps more accurately, mother/lover Earth. The hill is evocative of the Venusberg in German legend and Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser (1845); it is most certainly the mons veneris.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

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 “For the Hillmother” leads back to its beginning. The “Gate of birth” turns on the “Hinge,” not of silence but creaking. If the poem were printed on a Möbius strip, it would be seamless; without beginning or end. The absence of punctuation, of termination points, underscores its seamlessness.

The mention of James Joyce is not arbitrary. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the young Stephen Dedalus wonders, “How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold?” Memory provides empirical evidence to answer half of this question: He remembers the cold, white hands of Eileen Vance and thinks, “That was ivory: a cold white thing. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory.” Montague, in his essay “The Figure in the Cave” (1989), recalls the “cathartic effect” that his first reading of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man had on him: “it was like a case study of my own little psyche.” Like that book’s Stephen Dedalus, but as a mature man and poet, he has translated the litany into secular, physical, and erotic terms.

In imitating and adapting the religious litany for secular use, Montague implies no disrespect for the sacred form. On the contrary, it enables him to reinforce the sense of reverence which his poem expresses for nature, for sexuality, and for procreation. There is even a kind of aptness to his secularization of the form, which bears a general resemblance to certain pagan invocations and which, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910), derives primarily “from popular medieval Latin poetry.” Montague’s adaptation of the litany for secular, poetic use, then, has brought it full circle.

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Themes