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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.”1 The vista may have been splendid, but the house cannot have been grand: his father was a police constable. On his mother’s side, he is descended from artisans in the cottage industry of nail-making: his grandmother suffered a disfiguring accident that Hill refers to in a prose poem in Mercian Hymns (1971): “It is one thing to celebrate the ‘quick forge,’ another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.”2

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 density and the pain of European experience, culminating in the Holocaust. Eng-land can’t tell the whole story. Among the American poets, especially during his formative years, Hill learned much from Richard Eberhart, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom. Hill’s “The Turtle Dove” seems to me a tribute to Ransom’s “The Equilibrists.” Among his English contemporaries and el-ders, he is particularly attentive to the poems of Keith Douglas, David Jones, Sidney Keyes, Jon Silkin, Charles Causley, C.H. Sisson, and William Empson. He shares with Sisson especially the responsibility of a long historical perspective and the scruple of rejecting—it is Sisson’s phrase—“whatever appears with the face of familiarity.”3

Hill has spoken of having been particularly moved, as a young man, by a poem of Isaac Rosenberg’s:

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome:
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm,
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy betrothal sung
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.4

Shadowless,” I assume, because the worm is internal to the organism it destroys: it doesn’t cast a shadow, as an external enemy would. Like this poem, Hill’s early poems—“Merlin” for instance—make large statements about the decline of civilization, but only within the limits imposed by a chosen image or figure. They don’t go outside the image, or beyond the figure.

Hill is a literary poet, in the sense that much of his poetic experience has been provoked by other poems. “Two Chorale-Preludes” in Tenebrae are variations upon themes of Paul Celan. Some of his poems allude to English music: “Lachrimae” finds its motif if not its tears in a suite by John Dowland. Hill’s imagination accepts such gifts, to begin with, and then submits them to his own forms and ceremonies. But his most acute poetic experiences have come from the English weather of his time, the public events he could not have avoided knowing. He was too young to fight in the war, but old enough to hear talk of it at home and on the radio, the BBC nine-o’clock news and other sustaining lores. Many of the poems in The Triumph of Love are autobiographical, notebooks of night, outbreaks of “a wounded and wounding/introspection” beset by local occasions and their correlatives in English and European history. Several of them invoke the months before war was declared, Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler—“Chamberlain’s compliant vanity, his pawn ticket saved/from the antepenultimate ultimatum”—the war itself, the bombing of Coventry, evacuation from Dunkirk, D-Day—

…where on D-Day men
drowned by the gross, in surf-dreck, still harnessed
to their lethal impedimenta.

—Britain’s “narrow/miracle of survival,” and, in Canaan, “Churchill’s Funeral”—“what verdict, what people?”—a poem in five careworn parts. In Canaan Hill, thinking of “the spiritual, Platonic old England”—Coleridge’s phrase—and of the works of Milton, Constable, Blake, and Cobbett, speaks of the English as

a spectral people
raking among the ash;
its freedom a lost haul
of entailed riches.

Even in his youth, a child “of the Thirties, the sour dissipation,” Hill was gifted in the imagination of catastrophes at a distance, as in newsreels and newspaper photographs of the death camps:

A centrally-placed small round window, closed
under a pediment, caught and stared back my fear
centuries before I opened The Franchise
Affair. I am not unusually
sensitive to atmosphere, but one or two
fiery dreams of houses held
mid-day séance through my seventh year.
Photo-negatives I now accept
as the originals of this peculiar dread:
black façades, gap-windowed with solid-
glare flame, and with stark
figures caught in some unhuman
intimate torment I could not grasp
until I came to stills of the burning ghetto.

The third section of the title poem in Canaan reads:

Iniquity passes
and rectitude.
They do not spare
the sucking child nor are they
sparing with trumpets.
Now it is
Moloch his ovens
and the dropped babes naked
swung by an arm
or a leg like flails.

These poems engage Hill’s most urgent issues—pain, courage, cruelty, man’s inhumanity to men, women, and children. These press upon—to make a short list—“The Distant Fury of Battle,” “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings,” “Two Formal Elegies (For the Jews in Europe),” “Canticle for Good Friday,” “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” “Ovid in the Third Reich,” “Shiloh Church, 1862: Twenty-Three Thousand,” “Lachrimae,” “September Song,” most of Mercian Hymns, and “Funeral Music”—

Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.

Hill has other urgent themes: power and justice, “the tongue’s atrocities,” the discrepancy between sacred and profane love, history as the ruins of time, “flesh and blood and the blood’s pain,” the decline of England, the moral fall of France, “Jehovah’s touchy methods.” A motto for Hill’s poems might well be a line from “History as Poetry”: “The lily rears its gouged face/From the provided loam.” Images of the death camps constantly recur, even though Hill is alert to “the remoteness of words from suffering,” and recognizes that Auschwitz, too, declines into a mere theme after much talk of it. In The Lords of Limit he quotes an abrupt entry in Coleridge’s 1796 notebook: “Poetry—excites us to artificial feeling—makes us callous to real ones.” There is no help for that, he seems resigned to think, except to keep it in mind and heart.

Hill’s new poems draw on a certain tradition of Roman oratory, that of laus et vituperatio, praise and blame, or salutation and censure. Cicero often brought the two words together. So did Quintilian, as in Book III, Chapter 7, of the Institutio Oratoria. In “‘Christmas Trees,”’ one of the most powerful poems of Tenebrae, Hill speaks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer restoring “the broken themes of praise.” Poem XXIII of The Triumph of Love refers to “Laus/et vituperatio, the worst/remembered, least understood, of the modes.” In Poem XXVI Hill explains why he insists on it:

Laus et vituperatio, public, forensic,
yet with a vehement
private ambition for the people’s
greater good—Joannis
Miltoni, Angli, pro Populo Anglic-
ano Defensio: this and other tracts,
day-laboured-at, under great imposition:
as powers, far-radiant, inspiring
a broadly conceded European fame.
Laus et vituperatio, lost, rediscovered,
Renewed on few occasions this century:
Guernica perhaps; or Prague itself,
the Charles Bridge with Hrad-cany, keeping watch,
in Kokoschka’s sixty-year-old triple portrait,
beside Komensky and TomᚠMasaryk.

It follows that Hill is a moralist, and a severe one. He is not much given to metaphysics, or interrogations of Nature. He deals with the world on the understanding that it has already taken certain social and cultural forms, good and more often bad. Laus et vituperatio are civic acts, moral and political: they take the world otherwise for granted, it is what it appears to be, given, primary, objective. The question now is: How to live, what to do? What is a writer’s obligation?

Some writers maintain—Allen Tate, for instance—that a writer’s sole responsibility is to language, to make it a better means of intelligence, imagination, and memory. Hill thinks of some of his poems as bearing witness to “the lost kingdom of innocence and original justice,” a phrase he found in Father Christopher Devlin’s introduction to his edition of Hopkins’s Sermons and Devotional Writings. Original justice is, according to Devlin, “a gift conferring immunity from sin and concupiscence,” as in Adam before the Fall.5 Hill sometimes tries to imagine such innocence, such justice, as in the poem “That Man as a Rational Animal Desires the Knowledge Which Is His Perfection” in Canaan:

I imagine singing I imagine

getting it right—the knowledge
of sensuous intelligence
entering into the work—
spontaneous happiness as it was once
given our sleeping nature to awake by
and know
innocence of first inscription.

But more often the “bleak skill” of Hill’s mind is concentrated on the Fall and its consequences: he rarely visits Eden. “The history of the creation and the debasement of words,” he says, “is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice.”

  1. 1

    Geoffrey Hill in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 79.

  2. 2

    Geoffrey Hill, Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 129.

  3. 3

    C.H. Sisson, In the Trojan Ditch: Collected Poems and Selected Translations (Dufour, 1975), p. 13.

  4. 4

    The Collected Poems of Isaac Rosenberg, edited by Gordon Bottomley and Denys Harding (Schocken, 1949), p. 74. For Hill’s reference to this poem, see Viewpoints, p. 79.

  5. 5

    Christopher Devlin, editor, The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 280.

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