The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill


Geoffrey Hill. The Orchards of Syon. Penguin Books. £9.99

After the publication of his last collection, Speech! Speech!, it was almost impossible to predict where Geoffrey Hill would turn next. That book, a polyphonic work crammed with the demotic lingo of a language debased by mass media, was an ethical satire that proved, once again, that Hill was more in the lineage of the high modernists than any of his contemporaries. By contrast, The Orchards of Syon is more meditational, the elegy of a poet in the autumn of his life. In a sense the poem is a memorial to a landscape, kindheitslandschaft, the landscape of his childhood – of Bromsgrove. Hill’s talent for evoking details of nature is superbly vivid, his rhetoric ‘both florid and threadbare’. He renders particulars of nature with visionary force. As he writes in an earlier poem, ‘Landscape is like revelation, it is both/singular crystal and the remotest things’. This is a contemplation of memory – a consistent concern in his work – but it is a different sort of poem to Eliot’s Four Quartets, for although the memories are often Hill’s own, he is engaged in the deeper question of addressing the collective memory of the nation; a nation, as he says in another poem, ‘with so many memorials but no memory’. The entire effort of Hill’s work might be said to be mnemonic (a word he plays on at the close of Speech! Speech!) and in a recent interview he has attested that ‘the cultivation of depths of memory I see as a civic duty as well as a private burden’. His self-appointed task, we are told in The Orchards of Syon, is to ‘bring/recollection forward, weeping with rage’. This latest book, more than any other, contains personal remembrances, which are sometimes very poignant.


      wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove

      was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards

      of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.

      But there we are: the heartland remains

      heartless – that’s the strange beauty of it.

‘Goldengrove’, the name given to the unleafing year in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Spring and Fall’, is evoked here and elsewhere by Hill in The Orchards of Syon, but in Hill’s poem it is transfigured by the light of memory into something which seems warm and golden, rather than with the cold smell of mortality. In ‘Spring and Fall’ the child that the lines are addressed to will one day see that the world is where ‘worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie’ – a line suggesting pale bodies rotting into the woodland floor – and is told that  ‘sorrows springs are the same’. An autumnal poem, the ‘spring’ in the title is that of the youthful child; it is also ‘sorrow’s spring’; ‘Fall’, apart from being a synonym for autumn, being the Fall of man.

Hill resurrects Goldengrove as being both earthly and etherial, ‘unchanging, through the change of seasons’, ‘resplendent with ancient sunlight’; it is ‘dead Goldengrove alive with mistletoe’, a ‘landscape of deep disquiet, calm in its forms’.

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. Among the poets mentioned in the book are Dante, Paul Celan, Shakespeare, Donne, Lawrence, Coleridge (invoked several times), and Hopkins himself. It is a sketch of Lawrence’s that adorns the cover of this first edition, depicting a rainbow over an industrial estate, and we are surely meant to remember from Speech! Speech! ‘the spectrum/rekindling; the rainbow still to be/fully wrought’, and the bright arch of it above the Salisbury meadows in Canaan, after Constable.

In a interview he gave in 1981 Hill said something that has proved to be a 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.’

This reminds me of Yeats’s desire ‘to hold in a single thought reality and justice’, and of a quote of Ezra Pound’s, which Hill himself has cited in his essay ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’: ‘The poet’s job is to define and yet again define till the detail of surface is in accord with the root in 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 an attempt to recover the unfallen language of Adam, the realization of which is tantamount to the crystalline conception of the unwritten poem itself. 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.’

It is my view that Hill has written some of the best poetry in the last half century: he has the ability to mint lines that are resonant and memorable as those of WB Yeats and Wallace Stevens. The accusation of ‘unearned magniloquence’ is erroneous. The Orchards of Syon, however, is not the best introduction to this poet’s work: sometimes reading it is like being blindfolded and led by somebody who doesn’t know where he’s going. Yet his poems yield to constant rereading, more so than any other living poet. The poetry does not proffer immediately attainable meanings; it is at first appealing on a sensual level: we comprehend it in our nerves.


Jim Newcombe, 2003