Selected Poems by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill: Selected Poems. $18.00/£8.99

No serious estimate of poetry written during the last fifty years can afford to ignore the work of Geoffrey Hill. He has garnered critical praise from such eminent thinkers as Harold Bloom, George Steiner and former Bishop of Ely, Reverend Peter Walker. His first volume of poetry came out in 1959, and when I went to see him recite chronologically from his entire oeuvre at Leeds University in 2006, he remarked with an element of self-surprise that almost half of his entire output had been written since the turn of the century. The early work was spare, wrought, compacted, “pent up into a region of pure force”, rising out of what seemed to be resentment in making any kind of utterance at all. Between his first book and his second, nine years elapsed. Since the publication of Canaan in 1996, he has written six volumes of verse, including the soon to be published A Treatise of Civil Power. From early on in his career, the tone was austere, the ambition large: “Words clawed at my mind as though they had smelt / Revelation’s flesh.”

King Log, his second book, opens with a poem whose very title could be given to in-depth interpretation (‘Ovid in the Third Reich’) and contains a poem whose cautionary dictum admonishes you to “strive / to recognize the damned among your friends”. The book contains the darkly terrible and magnificent sequence called ‘Funeral Music’ which takes the Battle of Towton as its oblique theme, in which he attempted an “ornate heartlessness,” “a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks.”

The early 1970s saw the publication of three important volumes of modern poetry: Ted Hughes’s Crow, Seamus Heaney’s North, and Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, the latter a sequence written in what he demurred to call prose-poems, preferring rather “versets of rhythmical prose” with psalm-like cadences; a prose as pristinely baroque as anything in English since Nabokov:

Their spades grafted through the variably-resistant

soil. They clove to the hoard. They ransacked

epiphanies, vertebrae of the chimera, armour of

wild bees’ larvae. They struck the fire-dragon’s

faceted skin.

The men were paid to caulk water-pipes. They brewed

and pissed amid splendour; their latrine seethed

its estuary through nettles. They are scattered

to your collations, moldywarp.

It is autumn. Chestnut-boughs clash their inflamed

leaves. The garden festers for attention: telluric

cultures enriched with shards, corms, nodules, the

sunk solids of gravity. I have raked up a golden

and stinking blaze.

The hero of the sequence, the historical King Offa, reigned over Mercia in the years 757-96. “During early medieval times,” Hill tells us, “he was already becoming a creature of legend. The Offa who figures in this sequence might perhaps most usefully be regarded as the presiding genius of the West Midlands, his dominion enduring from the middle of the eighth century until the middle of the twentieth (and possibly beyond).” T.S. Eliot, in his essay on Ulysses, spoke of Joyce’s new method of “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” and it is this confounding of historical fact with autobiography which is evidenced in the Mercian Hymns. When I heard the poet recite this sequence recently on ‘The Poetry and Voice of Geoffrey Hill’ in a sound-booth at the British Library, I was surprised at how curious, speedy and humorous the rendition was, how embedded in irony; not savoured or precious as one might anticipate. The protagonist of Mercian Hymns is at times an Edwardian country magistrate. At other times it is a small boy in 1930s Worcestershire: in other words, Hill himself.

The book which followed, Tenebrae, was a return to more traditional forms, containing devotional sonnets of Metaphysical intensity in ‘Lachrimae’, and an extraordinary limpid sequence called ‘The Pentecost Castle’. Even the shorter, less ambitious pieces in the volume possess unforgettable lines: “There is a land called Lost / at peace inside our heads”, “BE FAITHFUL grows upon the mind / as lichen glimmers on the wood.”

These first four books were contained in his first Selected Poems published in 1985, with a couple of extra poems, including ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’, surely one of the most accomplished verse-narratives in the last half-century. In 1988 Hill moved to America. Scant biographical details reveal that prior to this move he suffered from chronic anxiety and an obsessive compulsive disorder (he looked like he had been “raped by God”, said a Cambridge contemporary). He was treated with Lithium and the drug seems to have lifted his depression and acted as a partial contributor to a dramatic stylistic change in his work and, after previously taking years between books, there is now a profuse and prolific outpouring. Whereas beforehand the poetry had an inevitable cubic economy about it, it now seems to have slackened its reign, to have opted for loose metres and more open and discursive meditations.

In his essay “Englands of the Mind”, Seamus Heaney characterized Hill’s obsession with verbal accuracy as a ‘morose delectation’, and in section LXXV of The Triumph of Love, Hill, venting spleen for his not having “drawn blood from bloodless Stockholm”, speculates as to the reasons why he could not be a candidate for the coveted prize, and in doing so takes a bitter swipe at Heaney the Nobel Laureate:

            Mea culpa,

I am too much moved by hate –

pardon, ma’am? – add greed, self-pity, sick

scrupulosity, frequent fetal regression, and

a twisted libido? Oh yes – much

better out than in. Morosa

delectatio was his expression, that Irish

professor of rhetoric – forget his name.

Forget my own name next in hac

lacrimarum valle. But, to continue –

In evidence throughout this work is the poet’s rasping anger, a sensibility that feeds on insult and abnegation. The theme of the work is a civic obligation to the cultivation of national consciousness and a severe forensic analysis of recent European history. The Triumph of Love is, in my estimation, the greatest single poem of the last century. Reading parts of it is like being sucked into a psychological maelstrom, but the obstinate and tender release of its closing sections brings tears. The compact cadences of this book had the power, when I first read it, of both cleaving and healing my mind.

The book which followed, Speech! Speech!, was one of the most bizarre in the history of poetry, as opaque as Blake’s Jerusalem or Ezra Pound’s Cantos. In a brief essay in the Guardian, which he wrote to commemorate his turning 70, Hill wrote: “For creating to take place (as it does from time to time) words have to be accepted as heirs of their forbears, as we are of ours. As in each case, what exists is often only a bankrupt inheritance; or the hinterlands of the unspoken. In my childhood the word ‘cancer’ could not be said aloud; it had to be mouthed silently. In my own approach to language, that aspect of fraught mime is as significant to me as are the history and contexts of etymology.” The language that Hill parodies in Speech! Speech! is the bankrupt inheritance of English (sometimes American English) as it has been debased and abused by tabloid propaganda. He has suggested that the work should be read through speedily, and not with lingering attention as though one were working out a crossword puzzle, although references to crossword puzzles, wordplay and code-breakers abound. Through the polyphony and densities of claque harangue and crackling interference, the poet’s own caustic obliquities sometimes open into clearings of beautifully rendered natural observation or, at times, into irruptions of ironical egotism: “IS THIS CANONICAL? / COULD IT BE EPOCH-MAKING?” Speech! Speech! is a disorientating and testing work, but it rewards attention and rereading. It is like a lover who spurns and lures you at the same time.

As is often the case with Hill, the poem is intertextual, hermetic, the reader occasionally confounded by inkhornisms, elliptical allusions and non-sequiturs, yet despite the elitist erudition, which some consider “inaccessible”, there is a compelling complexity of surface, a baroque aesthetic, muscular and terse, punctuated by Hopkinsian indentations and neo-Shakespearian wordplay

The Orchards of Syon attempts to move towards patterns of reconciliation, but is frequently beset by the anarchic and allusive temper of the previous book. Once more Hill wrestles with a language whose “grammar reminds us of our fall”. Hill acknowledges that with grammar, as the ancient scholars attested, we are at one with corruption, and that the fall of man into rationality is realized. In an interview he gave in 1981 Hill said something that has proved to be key to concerns which are central to his recent works: “I think there’s a real sense in which every fine and moving poem bears witness to the lost kingdom of innocence and original justice. In handling the English language the poet makes an act of recognition that etymology is history. The history of the creation and the debasement of words is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice.” There is in Hill’s recent work a strong sense of the fall of language, of language itself being implicated in the Fall and the loss of Eden, as though – like the collapse of the Tower of Babel – a confusion of heckling and incoherent tongues had beset us. The act of writing a poem is for Hill (as with Traherne, Blake and Roethke) an attempt to recover the unfallen language of Adam, the realization of which is tantamount to the crystalline conception of the unwritten poem itself (which is what Keats meant by his enigmatic paradox, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter”). In his essay ‘Redeeming the Time’, Hill recognizes that “the formal creative faculty must awaken the minds of men to their lost heritage, not of possession but of perception”.

Hill’s most recent collection, Without Title, has perhaps been over-praised. The danger of belated adulation for a writer’s achievements is the temptation to laud his creations invariably. The work is still at times convoluted and abstruse, but a writer’s reputation is finally determined by his greatest accomplishments, and these are very considerable. There is now scant use of the Hopkinsian indentation, which was employed throughout Speech! Speech! Many would, no doubt, have regarded this device as superficial fussiness or mere gimmickry, but it is, one suspects, Hill’s attempt at imbuing poetry with the tonal effects of music. There is here, as always in Hill, an attempt to capture and exploit what Hopkins called “the naked thew and sinew of the English language”. What Hill is after is an almost Shakespearian super-sensitivity towards the entire connotations of any given word, or words collated in a surprising lexical context: a shadow language of complex and subtle nuances. What Michael Schmidt says of Milton in his superb book ‘Lives of the Poets’ is pertinent: “Each sentence, every image, every word, has a number of functions to perform on literal and moral levels. Latinate syntax and diction allow flexibility and through echo and etymology create complex harmonies inaccessible in a simpler style”.

Hill has often been termed “inaccessible” – a distinction which he is uneasy with (he has always been fond of Milton’s saying that poetry should be “simple, sensuous and passionate”).  But Hill’s poetry is rarely ever simple, and he has defended the essentially democratic belief that he is doing his readership a service by treating them as intelligent and complex beings themselves. The imputation of “unearned grandiloquence” is erroneous: the style may offer few concessions, but it is always suitable to its subject. Moreover, it evolves from book to book, possessing more technique than his contemporaries, who by comparison often seem parochial, anecdotal and homogeneous. There is nothing wrong, either, with being elitist. If he is difficult, he is difficult because the themes he addresses are intrinsically complex, and does not want to condescend to what he regards as the “demeaning and profitable simplifications imposed by the maestros of the world”. He has implied that where legitimate complexity is required, such simplifications – or the demand for them – are tyrannical. “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care,” wrote William Blake, and one can be certain that the sentiment would be echoed by Geoffrey Hill.

Jim Newcombe, 2006