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On the Edge

Civil power is a strange choice of subject for a poet like Geoffrey Hill, who started writing in the early 1950s, the age of anxiety, a notoriously bad time for civil liberties and a good time for literature. Or more accurately, the times were good for literature because they were bad for civil liberties. With the cold war at its coldest and Senator McCarthy on the prowl in the United States, politics was a topic to avoid—tricky and prone to misinterpretation—and intellectuals generally were not to be trusted. In England, where the climate is milder and demagogues, like political passions, rarely thrive, the anxiety was no less but it came disguised as reticence, parochialism, and snobbery.

Either way, literature seemed a better, safer alternative, not as a continuation of politics by other means but because it concerned itself with values worth believing in and moral distinctions no one else seemed eager to discuss. A century earlier, in The Study of Poetry, Matthew Arnold had looked forward hopefully to a future when “most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” In lieu of viable alternatives, his predictions finally seemed to come true in the 1950s.

It was a time when literature really mattered. If you were young and clever and ambitious, there was no higher calling. And because the early Modernists—Eliot, Pound, Joyce—had set the standards high, there were few vocations more intellectually demanding or more worthy. Literature in general and poetry in particular were presumed to be difficult and the New Critics were there to show just how difficult and deep they were. Nowadays “elitist” has become a term of abuse, but back then, when fewer people went on to universities, higher education itself was elitist. Elitism, in fact, was something young people aspired to because it was measured by intelligence, not class.

By those standards, Hill was a natural. He was a bookish working-class teenager—his father and grandfather were village policemen—who fell in love with modern poetry in his teens and never recovered. Nothing unusual in that, of course. Falling in love with authors is what bookish teenagers do and serial infatuation is a necessary stage in every writer’s development. Hill was different only in the sophistication of his choice: he has said that he read Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” when he was sixteen and “it struck me like a bolt from heaven; overnight I became a modernist.”1 Modernism, however, was not part of the curriculum at Oxford when Hill went there, in 1950, to read English. The English Department was the fiefdom of J.R.R. Tolkien—at that time better known as a philologist than as a fantasist—and he controlled it as cunningly as Eisenhower thought the military-industrial complex controlled the United States: the syllabus started at Beowulf and ended around 1834, with the death of Coleridge; the study of Old English, Middle English, and modern philology was compulsory; contemporary writing was merely something you read, if at all, in your spare time.

Hill had arrived in Oxford with great intellectual expectations and he had no problem adjusting to the stern, scholarly regime, or to the pedantry. Adapting himself to student life at Oxford was more difficult. He was a shy, clumsy youth, deaf in one ear, socially awkward, and at first he felt painfully out of place in a student world still haunted by the ghost of Zuleika Dobson. But there was nothing awkward about his poems, and after a pamphlet of them appeared in a series edited by a fellow student, the American poet Donald Hall, his life became easier.

I was at Oxford at the same time as Hill and though I don’t recall meeting him, I vividly remember reading those first poems:

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God.
And first I brought the sea to bear
Upon the dead weight of the land;
And the waves flourished at my prayer,
The rivers spawned their sand.
And where the streams were salt and full
The tough pig-headed salmon strove,
Ramming the ebb, in the tide’s pull,
To reach the steady hills above.

That is the start of a poem called “Genesis,” and it has the same now-hear-this assurance as Ted Hughes’s “The Thought-Fox” and Thom Gunn’s “The Wound,” two of the poems with which, around the same time, they respectively announced their arrival on the scene. It also has the same appetite for life; witness those “tough pig-headed salmon…ramming the ebb.” Gunn and Hughes were then undergraduates at Cambridge, but we read their student magazines and they read ours, so some of their poems were already known to us and, though no one of course would admit it, they put us to shame. Hill’s poems had a similar authority; he was a figure to be reckoned with, his own man with his own voice, but he differed from the other two poets in his absorption in the literature he was studying.

It is hard now to remember how high-minded students were in the Fifties, or how serious, or how innocent, or how literary. Back then, before the pill and the sexual revolution and the rest of it, when practical experience was hard to come by, reading was a risk-free way of learning about life. And because the Modernist style was intensely bookish, reading was also the way into writing fashionable poetry: knowing allusions to classical myths and sly references to obscure sources made it easy to appear sophisticated, even if all you knew about almost anything came from the books you had read.

Hill was a thoroughly Modernist poet from the start, though never particularly experimental. He is an accomplished technician who learned his craft the hard way by producing sonnet sequences and long poems in quatrains, all of them rhymed and in traditional meters, but subtly moderated both rhythmically and by a cunning use of assonance so that, despite the formal framework, they sounded grimly colloquial. Even so, his sensibility, like the world he writes about, was and is literary and learned to an unusual degree; books are the lens through which he sees and feels and judges everything. This, for example, is one of Hill’s earliest poems:

I will consider the outnumbering dead:
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now, should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locusts’ covering tide.
Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone
Among the raftered galleries of bone.
By the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.

The poem’s title is “Merlin,” and presumably it is the wizard’s lament for his dead companions of the Round Table; hence the roll call of honored names and the measured cadence. Yet it is also a curiously personal homage to Thomas Malory, whose book Hill had studied for his degree. Those legendary, resonant names and images dense enough to touch—“the raftered galleries of bone” and “pinnacled corn”—are shot through with feeling, like a love poem, as though Malory’s account of King Arthur and his knights were as real for Hill, five centuries later, as their chivalric deeds had once been for Malory. For Hill, books and scholarship had the same imaginative charge as birds, beasts, and fish had for Ted Hughes.

Literally so: his love poems came disguised as translations from a Spanish poet (“Sebastian Arrurruz: 1868– 1922”) whom Hill invented for the occasion, and when he wrote about his Worcestershire childhood it was in tandem with the life of King Offa of Mercia, who ruled Britain in the eighth century. Mercian Hymns (1971) were prose poems but, like his other work, they were condensed, oblique, demanding. As Huck Finn said of Pilgrim’s Progress, “The statements was interesting, but tough.” Hill’s always were and they have become steadily tougher as he has grown older.

He is a perfectionist who, until quite recently, wrote with great difficulty and published very little. His first collection, For the Unfallen, appeared in 1959, seven years after his student debut, and he waited almost another decade before he brought out his second, King Log, in 1968. By then, Hill was an established academic with a heavy teaching load, a young family, and very little spare time to write. He was also a martyr to depression to whom nothing came easily: “I believed that I wrote very little because of the encroachments of duty,” he told an interviewer, “…but I don’t think it can have been that. I think the encroachments were encroachments of chronic anxiety, which also affected my ability to produce criticism and scholarship. I was simply afraid to put down the next sentence.”2

Despite his anxieties (or maybe because of them), Hill was a natural for academia: he is famously well-read in four languages and several disciplines—history, theology, philosophy as well as literature—and he has a scholarly taste for neglected minor figures that would have impressed even Tolkien. (Which other modern poet reads Robert Southwell for pleasure?) His university career duly flourished: a professorship at Leeds, a post at Cambridge, and finally a grand professorship at Boston University.

Academic life, however, is not necessarily the best or easiest way of making a living as a writer, certainly not in England fifty years ago when the rift between writers and scholars was absolute and creative writing was not an option offered by any British university. Hill, in fact, was the only one of his now famous contemporaries who stuck it out. Gunn and Plath tried it briefly, then quit; Hughes never even considered it. For the writer in a university, the problem is not the workload, it’s the subject itself. To spend your life teaching and writing about those great writers whom, as Eliot said, “one cannot hope to emulate”is at best discouraging, and for a perfectionist like Hill, who sometimes managed to squeeze out no more than one poem a year that satisfied him, the imaginary presence of Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Milton, and the rest peering continually over his shoulder when he wrote must have been intolerable.

Hill’s solution to the problem was to do what he had always done: change the focus, turn the scholarship itself into the stuff of poetry and use it not just as subject matter but as an emotional conduit, leading him to the place where his true inner life was led. This is not a risk-free process, nor are universities risk-free environments for the creative spirit. Academics take learning for granted—dispensing it is what they do—and the more distinguished the academic the more arcane the learning. At conferences and college high tables, the conversation is often peppered with the kind of crafty allusions that, to the uninitiated, seem to imply imaginary footnotes, or require real ones. It is a harmless form of wit, playful and competitive, like a soccer player bewildering an opponent, but Hill is a dour and solemn man, and a devout Christian—someone once described him as “walking round Cambridge as if he’d been raped by God”—and he has no taste for frivolity.

Nevertheless, he had come to poetry first by reading Allen Tate, author of the lines “You have no more chance than an infusorian/Lodged in a hollow molar of an eohippus,”3 and he remains steadfastly loyal to the Modernist ideal of the poet as an intellectual—someone for whom the life of the mind is emotionally important—writing for an audience as intellectual and well read as himself. “Difficult poetry is the most democratic,” he has said, “because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools.”

This is a fine ideal to aspire to, but hard to achieve even back then in the Fifties, when poets rarely performed in public and reading their work was still a private pleasure. The audience for difficult poetry of the kind Hill writes has always been small and now it seems scarcely to exist outside academia. He has what Denis Donoghue called a “cryptic force of mind,”4 powerful but not altogether penetrable; he sidles up to his subjects obliquely, leaving the reader to pick up the clues and fill in the gaps. Then, every so often, the fog lifts briefly and his voice clears; this, for example, is from his latest collection:

I hear an invisible
source of light skirling
off objects round about me—the granite portal,
women’s hair also, and a deer’s antlers.
In February a solitary oak leaf
dominates recognition. Are there
ancient coins wreathed with Medusa’s head?

The poem, which is called “Lyric Fragment,” is about the strangeness of perception, and how seemingly unrelated objects, tangled enigmatically together, are suddenly infused with significance and feeling, as in a dream.

The strangeness of lyric poetry is a subject Hill knows a great deal about, not least because his muse made him wait so long between visits when he was young. “I write/to astonish myself,” he wrote in The Orchards of Syon (2002) and when asked what the line meant, he said:

This self-astonishment is achieved when, by some process I can’t fathom, common words are moved, or move themselves, into clusters of meaning so intense that they seem to stand up from the page, three-dimensional almost.5

This is an interesting way of describing what is usually known as inspiration, those rare moments when a poem arrives whole and unbidden, seemingly without conscious intervention, almost despite the poet, like a melody plucked from the air; you can hear the rhythm before you know the words.

In Hill’s new collection there are occasional instants when words and images and feelings seamlessly fuse together with this kind of unpremeditated intensity. Sometimes belief is the spur:

one is as broken as the vows and tatters,
petitions with blood on them, the charred prayers
spiralling godwards on intense thermals.

And sometimes, when he looks up from his books, he sees the natural world with very clear eyes:

Not to skip detail, such as finches brisking
on stripped haw-bush;
the watered gold that February drains
out of the overcast; nomadic aconites
that in their trek recover beautifully
our sense of place,
the snowdrop fettled on its hinge, waxwings
sportif in the grimy air.

When he turns to human behavior, however, the lyric impulse changes into something altogether less sympathetic. This, for example, on the execution of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s disgraced chief minister, in 1540:

I think of the headsman balancing that
extraordinary axe for a long instant
without breaking the skin; then the engine
cuts its ascending outline on the air,
wharrs its velocity, dreadful, perhaps
merciful. And that moment of spreading
wide the arms as a signal. In fact it’s all

That spreading wide of the arms is not a signal, it’s the reflex of a decapitated body, and to turn it into a signal while distancing it aesthetically in this chilly, meticulous, admiring manner (the “ascending outline” of “that extraordinary axe”) is disconcertingly callous. Doubly so, since the execution was famously cruel, even by brutal Tudor standards: Henry VIII deliberately chose an inexperienced executioner who botched the job and took three blows to sever Cromwell’s head. Nothing merciful or uplifting about that.

As it happens, lyrics, grisly or otherwise, don’t figure prominently in this new book. Sometime during the Nineties, while he was in Boston, Hill began taking pills to alleviate his chronic depression and his style changed. His verse became looser, more garrulous and prolific, and also increasingly more oblique and bookish. The new collection contains poems on “The Minor Prophets” (Joel), Holbein, Wyatt’s translation of Plutarch, Ben Jonson’s Masques, both Cromwells (Oliver as well as Thomas), Alan Turing, Handel, Brahms, Aleksander Wat, the philosopher Gillian Rose, and Ernst Barlach, the German Expressionist sculptor. There are also several poems “On Reading” learned books: Milton and the English Revolution; Blake: Prophet Against Empire; Burke on Empire, Liberty, and Reform; the anthology Children of Albion; 50 Jahre im Bild: Bundesrepublik Deutschland; Bacon’s Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall; and Canetti’s Crowds and Power. The poems incorporate italicized quotes from the books, and the volume is prefaced with scholarly acknowledgments of his sources, such as:

Lines 7–8 of ‘In Memoriam: Ernst Barlach’ are from a letter by Barlach cited in Carl Dietrich Carls, Ernst Barlach (New York: Praeger, 1969), p. 55. Other quotations in this poem are from Kate Fletcher, The Old Testament in the Dialect of the Black Country, Part I, published by The Black Country Society, P.O. Box 71, Kingswinford, West Midlands DY6 9YN.

No doubt it is a reading list to be proud of, but it makes the book itself seem more like teaching notes for a graduate seminar than a collection of poems. And it is not “democratic” in any usual sense of the word, unless the democracy Hill has in mind is that of his fellow scholars, with or without tenure.

The reading list combined with the book’s title, A Treatise of Civil Power, seems to imply that Hill has something to say about society and civil behavior, some kind of vision of probity and justice. What that vision might be is less apparent in the obvious places—the poems about Bacon, Milton, Blake, Burke, or Canetti—than in a short and, for Hill, unusually intimate poem on Handel:

Monumentality and bidding: words
neither yours nor mine, but like his music.
Stalwart and tender by turns, the fugues
and larghettos, staid,
up to the wide gaunt leaps of invention.
Repetition of theme a reaffirming,
like figures in harmony with their right consorts,
with the world also, broadly understood;
each of itself a treatise of civil power,
every phrase instinct with deliberation
both upon power and towards civility.
At the rehearsing always I think of you
and fancy: with what concordance I
would thus steadily regale and regard her,
though to speak truth you are ever in my mind;
such is eros, such philia, their composure
these arias, predetermined, of our choice.

Like his vision of a decent society, the poem is harmonious and deliberate and right. Unfortunately, it is not typical of most of the other poems in the book. This, for example is the start of another poem on the same theme, “A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power”:

Could so have managed not to be flinging
down this challenge.
True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house.
Cogito a bare
threshold, as G. Marcel sagely declares,
of what’s valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated, and knock. Echo the answer
in bare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.
Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps not Gide’s
doctrine of the moment which passes
as verity
in veritable suffusion.
In passages like that—and they are many—the cryptic force of mind that Donoghue once admired has given way to something more turgid and fragmented, a kind of garbled professorial free association, profoundly self-absorbed, full of multilingual name-dropping and knowing references in the style of Ezra Pound, though without his sustaining rhythmical energy. As in Pound’s later and lesser cantos, many of Hill’s recent poems hover defiantly at the edge of meaning, as though challenging his readers not to understand, while secretly confident that no one in the closed world that is his audience would ever admit to being baffled, for fear of being thought stupid.

To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think,” Dr. Johnson said of the Metaphysicals, and reading and thinking was also essential to the original spirit of Modernism. Pound and Joyce drew comfort from the idea that misunderstanding was the price they had to pay for making it new, and they were confident, or arrogant, enough to believe that their obscurity would somehow guarantee their immortality, if only because it meant they had to be studied seriously. Joyce dreamed of readers who would devote their lives to deciphering Finnegans Wake and history duly obliged. Sixty years on, Modernism is like Romanticism, a flourishing branch of the academic industry, and the key works now come fully annotated and with all the necessary scholarly apparatus.

Hill, having spent his life in academia, seems to take for granted that he’ll be treated in the same way. “What lives is the arcane,” he writes, and he has staked his claim with a handful of arcane and occasionally beautiful lyric poems. He also says he “crave[s] ambiguity in plain speaking,” which is an honorable poetic ambition, but not quite what he serves up on the page, where his ambiguities often end up as mere wordplay and his obscurity is a stylistic tic, more muddled than arcane, and a long way from plain speaking. He writes, I mean, like a man who has indeed read and thought, and then has gone on reading and reading so obsessively that he ends up bemused by his own learning.

  1. 1

    Adam Kirsch, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (Norton, 2008), p. 56.

  2. 2

    Robert Potts, “The Praise Singer,” The Guardian, August 10, 2002.

  3. 3

    You have no more chance than a fly in a horse’s tooth.”

  4. 4

    The New York Review, May 20, 1999.

  5. 5

    The Guardian, September 21, 2002.

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