Lover of Lost Causes

Canaan

by Geoffrey Hill
Mariner, 76 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove, a small market town in Worcestershire, on June 18, 1932. “If you stood at the top of the field opposite our house,” he has recalled, “you looked right across the Severn Valley to the Clee Hills and the Welsh hills very faint and far off behind them.”

Hill’s family was Baptist, to begin with, but soon joined the Church of England. (I gather that he considers himself estranged from the Church, though he is still occupied with it.) In 1950 he went to Keble College, Oxford, to read for a degree in English Language and Literature. After Oxford he taught English at Leeds University and at various universities in the US and West Africa. A few years later he held a fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Ten years ago, he moved to the US and took up an appointment at Boston University.

There seems never to have been a time when Hill was not writing poems. In 1952, when he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, Fantasy Press published a small selection of his work. His first major books of poetry were For the Unfallen (1959) and King Log (1968). For many years now, he has also been reading the literature, history, philosophy, and theology of England, concentrating on the period from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century—from Richard Rolle to Newman, Ruskin, and Hopkins. “Theology makes good bedside reading,” Hill jokes in “Fidelities,” a poem in Tenebrae (1978), but quandaries of belief and doctrine continue to tell upon his conscience in Canaan and The Triumph of Love. Two books, The Lords of Limit (1984) and The Enemy’s Country (1991), contain his most demanding essays on language, belief, and responsibility.

Hill has read everything, or so it seems: all the major English, European, and American poets, and many minor ones. I gather from his poems and essays that he is especially drawn to the Psalms, the Book of Daniel, Shakespeare, Robert Southwell, Donne, George Herbert—“Come back,/Donne, I forgive you; and lovely Herbert”—Vaughan, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Christopher Smart, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, and Pound. Most of these speak for an English tradition of moral and historical awareness, and Hill sees them setting examples of scruple and conscientiousness. The European writers Hill regularly turns to include Leopardi, Montale, Machado, St.-John Perse, Péguy—one of his most celebrated long poems is The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)—Aleksandr Blok, and Paul Celan. These impel Hill to apprehend the …

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