Geoffrey Hill Essay - Hill, Geoffrey (Vol. 8)

Hill, Geoffrey (Vol. 8)

Hill, Geoffrey 1932–

Winner of the Gregory Award for Poetry in 1961, Hill, a first-rate English poet, belongs to no particular "school" or movement. In some respects a traditionalist, Hill's preoccupation has been with eternal themes: war, death, and human suffering. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)

Hill is, in the judgment of some of us, the best poet now writing in England (and I am not sure that I should except Philip Larkin). "Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom" comprises his three books, "For the Unfallen" (1959), "King Log" (1968) and "Mercian Hymns" (1971), a sequence of extraordinary prose-poems, humorous and ursine, which burgeon from the imaginative meeting of the legendary King Offa from the 8th century with a 20th century childhood. Many of Hill's poems are deep and bitter doubtings as to whether the imaginative life can't too easily become an indulgence in factitious high concern. There are "Ovid in the Third Reich" and "September Song," with their poignant rebuke to glib evocations of death-camp compassion. And there is the love-sequence "The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz," a fictitious Spanish poet whose first name cries out for the arrows of martyrdom which are then supplied by his second name. Hill's poetry is a rooted herb, culinary and medicinal, as strange as arrowroot, the tubers of which were used to absorb poison from wounds, especially those made by poisoned arrows. But then so perhaps is all poetry; not the wound and the bow, but the wound and the arrow and the arrowroot. (p. 6)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1976.

Geoffrey Hill … is easy to consider in American terms because he reflects the influence of American poets. Hill refers directly to Ransom and Tate. So one is not surprised that his early poems have something in common with those of the young Robert Lowell. Unlike Oppen, Hill finds no contradiction between witty writing and authentic emotion; and he desires richness of style. Like Yeats and Lowell, he seizes on intimate, private experience and tries to endow it with public meanings. Like Swift he possesses a deep sense of tradition and community which is (as Hill has wisely observed of Swift) "challenged by a strong feeling for the anarchic and the predatory."

In most of his poems Hill tries to convey extreme emotions by opposing the restraint of established form to the violence of his insight or judgment. He uses savage puns, heavy irony, and repeated oxymorons. He uses bold, archetypal images and religious symbols while complaining of their inefficacy. He deals with violent public events…. Appalled by the moral discontinuities of human behavior, he is also shaken by his own response to them, which mingles revulsion with fascination….

Hill dismisses the way of transcendence and the way of withdrawal from the world: he will not blame the devil for our villainy or look to the realm of pure spirit for salvation. Integrity is meaningless for him apart from experience, and experience must involve him in the corruption he loathes. Ideally he would be a priest-king-poet, one who could order the chaos, sanctify the routines of communal life, and celebrate the goods of the natural world….

Hill tries to stir the reader up with strong rhythms, a mingling of coarse and sublime particulars, and a tone of ridicule pierced by sorrow. He strains to be compact and explosive, gnarled and bruising. The effect is not fortunate. One gets the impression of muffled outcries rather than furious eloquence. (p. 4)

Nobody who reads [Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom: Poems 1952–1971] will doubt that he has the attributes of an excellent poet. But his desire to produce stormy emotions with a few calculated gestures seems wrong for his technical resources; the quasi-sublime rhetoric does not move one, and the poet probably knows it. I suspect that his anger and self-mockery are due as much as anything to the frustration he feels over his lack of an authentic voice.

Geoffrey Hill thoroughly understands the dialectic of good and evil within the self, and its relation to the moral ambiguities of history and society. He is well on the way to a moving poetic style—less powerful, I think, than he would like it to be, but strong enough for his purposes. "Mercian Hymns" probably brings him to the edge of his best work, which is still to come. (p. 6)

Irvin Ehrenpreis, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), January 22, 1976.

[Hill] exhibits a kind of literacy and comprehensive imagination…. He is in command of a profound moral sophistication and maturity rare among poets writing in the language anywhere.

On first reading any of Hill's poems one is struck by his fresh and functional use of forms, and by the almost incredibly dense connotative textures. There is little that is obvious in either his best rhymes or his meaning. Beginning Somewhere is Such a Kingdom, his collected poems through 1971 and the first trade edition of any of his books available in America, the surprise is how early he achieved his style…. [The first poem, "Genesis,"] is a haunting poem ("There is no bloodless myth will hold."), and the last few lines present the kind of charged ambiguity, the grim paradox sensually posed, that Hill so much delights in…. It is this early work which contains the grain of truth leading [Harold] Bloom to assert erroneously in the introduction that "Hill has been the most Blakean of modern poets." This would be accurate had he written nothing but "Genesis," but almost immediately, as we shall see, he became another kind of poet entirely.

In this early work Hill is obsessed with the metaphor of the drowned, of the sea giving up its dead at the Resurrection…. Not only does Hill have an unromantic distrust of nature and "generative process," he seems suspicious, even ashamed, of art which cultivates and feeds on the violence, waste, and suffering of human experience. At the same time he keeps returning to the gesture of calling out of time and drowning and decay into the permanence of form and language. The poem seems for him a kind of verbal garden where the expulsion is reversed by hard-won saying. Though he is not sure how far he should trust it, the gesture is made again and again, is a deep structure he finds wherever he turns, as he will later make of the concentration camps of World War II an inverted Eden.

The other major theme of the early poems is marriage, closely related to the drowning image and perhaps as complex. In at least one poem, if I read it correctly, "Asmodeus," the demon from the Apocrypha, is recognized as the true Cupid who cannot be expelled or tamed into a hearth deity without destroying the marriage. "The Turtle Dove" could be an eloquent and concise telling of Dylan and Caitlin Thomas' most stormy years. In Hill's poetry there is always a "distant fury of battle," the title of a poem here and a phrase he uses later in a note for one of his most important sequences. Wherever he looks the battle, the same battle, is being fought, in history, theology, love, politics, nature, art. (pp. 31-4)

A motif that begins to emerge more and more clearly in the later poems of For the Unfallen is a sharp-edged ambiguity about art, including the art of words. This could best be described as a suspicion, with at once reverence and contempt. It appears in the carefully selected phrase "artistic men" which appears twice, first describing the Magi in "Picture of a Nativity" and later in "Of Commerce and Society." What the poet has begun to suspect is that art, no matter how well executed, begins to betray what it would uphold. The prime example of this for him, both here and in the later poems, is language's and a culture's, inability to prevent, even comprehend, the atrocities of Nazi Germany…. There is the fear that art, even when trying most conscientiously, evades and subverts, because of its very nature. Realizing the full impossibility of Milton's stated task (and hence his or any poet's), he offers the poem as apology rather than as justification. In fact he becomes so unbearably conscious of the limits and falsifications of poetry in the actual world that he feels guilty for his own gift to make art, but only art, of the agony of others. (p. 35)

Hill is not just a stoic, he is a fallen stoic, and his salvation, which is his formidable power as a maker, throws him always back into the tragedy of the actual world, which language must amplify…. The poems from King Log, Hill's second book, are at once some of his finest and most infuriatingly obscure…. Contrary to Bloom's statement in the introduction to this Collected Poems, what we find in King Log could be called unromantic, unBlakean, and certainly un-apocalyptic. Not only has Hill taken over the tortured, overloaded line from Tate, he has been deeply stirred by his ideals and strictures. Perhaps the word is not influence but a recognition of kinship. I suspect that Hill used Tate's ideas at an important time to clarify his own, and what he made of that agonizingly conscientious line and allegiance to form, the guilt of history, the sad failure of American progressivism, and his love of the "Mediterranean," the catholic, the lucid, and controlled, is something very much his own, and unique in modern poetry. We would have to go back to Baudelaire and maybe classical antiquity to find the precision, depth, and ease of surface this all leads to in "The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz." (pp. 36-7)

The title of King Log comes from Aesop, the fable where the frogs are given a log for king. When they complain to Zeus that their monarch is unresponsive to their needs, he gives them a stork for king instead, which eats them. It is a brilliant choice of title for Hill at this point because it expresses his skepticism of social and religious progress, and idealistic reformation in general. History is the correlative of guilt and reformers at best fail to comprehend its burden, at worst aggravate and fuel its cruelty. Yet, in such a world, no bystander is innocent, and "innocence" is a liability, even at times a threat. In these poems Hill is a master of clear and two-edged irony. "Ovid In the Third Reich," a confession of helplessness to alleviate or even understand evil, self-justifying, must be read as accusation. Hill plays on the disarming sophistry of the modern intellectual, the use of irony to avoid responsibility, self-incrimination. In the poem "Annunciations," when the Word returns from abroad "with a tanned look" we know that any "announcing" can be taken ironically, and that the "announcer" will plead seriousness or jest, depending on the accusation, and beyond that will plead the times, and the world which tends to corrupt what it hears. (p. 37)

["Locust Songs"] show as much as any poems here the impact of Tate and his revulsion for Emerson, Whitman and populist rhetoric. Going back to Jonathan Edwards and forward through the Transcendentalists and Whitman we find an obsession in the New World with discovering divinity in everything, from the most commonplace and humble to the continent itself and the destiny of the new nation. To Tate and Hill this is a manifestation of insanity, or at best a crippling heresy, the leveling of all being so the mud and detritus of the riverbank and sewer are infused with deity same as the rituals of the Church; and the miracles are denied any special significance or efficacy, given no greater importance than the annual resurgence of the grass or the copulation of birds. To Tate the refusal to recognize the fallen tragic condition of man deepens suffering and invites madness. (p. 38)

One of the best marks of Hill's greatness as a poet is his attention to the conscience of and for history. His confessions are not confessional poetry in any personal sense only, but speak for the race and species. What seems to alarm him most is looking into the fallen world and seeing people pretend not to know they are fallen, though he grants they may be helpless to act on that knowledge. At one extreme is self-righteous preaching and at the other a satisfied surrender to corruption. The concentration camp is the world itself, an island of the condemned. To pretend the sentence has not been passed is the gravest blasphemy.

But the martyrdom to nihilism, the particular sainthood of the modern intellectual, is equally offensive. Of what use is intoxication with one's insight into nothingness, the celebration of negative triumph?… The visionary void is no more authentic than the visionary plenitude of Whitman, and it is that emptiness, Hill would say, on which the transcendentalists of the Twentieth Century have built their gospel, as confused and misled as the romantics of the century before. To seize on the void as the unifying metaphor is, in Hill's mind, to evade the whole question. The nothingness is certainly there, but will not suffice now any more than four thousand years ago.

In the tradition of Yeats' "The Scholars" and Roethke's "Academic" Hill gives us "The Humanist," lest anyone think he is advocating that failed movement. The humor here arises from the scholar's blindness to the carnality, carnage, even cannibalism, of his surgical enterprise. The schoolman by the tedium of his manner, the sense of superiority to his subject, denies the full-fleshed reality of what he examines. He denies by his rhetoric and gesture that he shares the common clay. (pp. 39-40)

The first of the two great sequences of King Log is "Funeral Music." In a short essay appended to the collection he describes the group as attempting "a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks."… These blank verse sonnets are an homage to the reign of King Stork. The language wallows and revels in violence, intrigue, betrayal, gore. Passages anger by their very complexity and obscurity. Others are among the best Hill has ever written. Some remind me of Hopkins' bitter sonnets, and of Dickinson's indictments of God. A priest at the scene of a beheading prays, his "voice fragrant with mannered humility." A participant, perhaps one of the condemned, meditates, "we are dying/To satisfy fat Caritas, those/Wiped jaws of stone." Soldiers dying in each other's filth on the battlefield—and the image seems to include us all in the mortal combat of conscience with experience—"Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping, 'Jesus.'" Tup means to come into heat, and to copulate, and the Christian connotations of "marriageblood" are clear.

Among this brutality and meaningless conflict the speaker turns with wrenching nostalgia toward the Platonic world of Mind as the exclusive reality. But he cannot believe it, though, as always, it is the nonbeliever who can apprehend the full glory of what he rejects. (pp. 41-2)

A key entry in King Log is the short lyric "History as Poetry." More than any modern poet in English Hill feels a deep responsibility to address the reality of history. Where most of his contemporaries stay with their personal experience for subject matter, or play with fantastic and vague textures, practicing an emotional nominalism, Hill works with the biography of state and race, language, the neuroses of empire, the actuality of wars. His title here reverses the well known equation of the Marxists and phenomenologists, that all relevant literature participates in and clarifies history. "History as Poetry" says something entirely different, bringing collective events sharply into the foreground of his text. We already know of Hill's awe of his own and others' gifts, how the imagination through "the knack of tongues" will always salute and celebrate, perhaps can only praise and celebrate, no matter what the case, the suffering and waste. As the world of experience is pathetically undeserving of praise and salutation, so the human spirit may be unfit for the "resurgence," the turnings over and renewals out of the carnage of history. Poetry with its love of the dramatic, the violent paradox, may be the truest image of history, and "the tongue's atrocities." Hill is baffled by the practice of his own art. Even when attempting the opposite, trying to present truth, indictment, not praise, the craft subverts the intentions. (pp. 42-3)

The second sequence, and the crowning work of King Log, bears the unlikely title, "The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz," and purports to be a translation from the work of a Spanish poet of that name, dates 1868–1922. It is with this group that Hill came to his full powers as a poet, shedding the labored obscurities of many of the early poems. Whereas before his lines were often clogged and tangled in both syntax and meaning, were loaded so heavily with ironies they sometimes collapsed, he now writes with a classic simplicity of surface. According to some of the reviewers of the original volume in 1968 the name "Sebastian Arrurruz" is meant to suggest first the martyrdom of St. Sebastian and then the arrows that kill him, as well as arrowroot, which is an herb for drawing out poison from wounds made, for instance, by venomed arrows. Playing that game further I would say that "Arrurruz" embodies the hum of the released bow string and the whisper and thud of the arrow going home. But I believe it far more worthwhile to go immediately to the poems themselves, and the martyred lover who is their speaker and subject. In the group of eleven poems he meditates on his loss of a mistress to someone else a few years before. As the title implies he is still receiving and trying to heal his wounds. This may sound sentimental when summarized, but the sequence reads dry as rioja, and crisp as a cool sea wind on glaring rocks. They could be the finest erotic poems since antiquity.

One of the things I have admired most about British poets such as Larkin and Hill is their ability to choose the inspired adjective. This genius is used to better advantage than ever in the "Songbook." The choices are always startling, always accurate, "refreshed trivia," "glandular bloom." This is one of the reasons that Hill can write at such a high level of generalization and connotation. His statements are sensuous, his images significant, often because of a happy modification…. I don't want to leave the sequence without quoting the final tercet from "A Song from Armenia."

      Why do I have to relive, even now,
      Your mouth, and your hand running over me
      Deft as a lizard, like a sinew of water?

Here all of Hill's best talents come together at once, with none of his worst. His tendency toward the tropical and sensuous is controlled by astringent wit, like a dry desert wind across the Mediterranean. There is a wholeness to the imagination here, a luminous classic quality, catholic in the best sense, a demonstration of what Tate had in mind all along but had not realized in poetry. The sequence reads like a short novella, distal yet vivid. The poems remind me a little of Machado, but no one has ever translated anything like this into English. This is the original.

The last section of this volume is Mercian Hymns, originally published in 1971 and Hill's most accessible book. It is the one that is making him widely known, even popular. Luckily it also contains some of his best poetry. It could be described as a fantastic autobiography, a revery of historic scope…. The "hymns" are in a kind of dense, clear prose, colored with unexpected humor and astonishing juxtapositions in terms of time, superimposing the present on medieval landscape, creating a deep texture of history and language. There is lightness, and thickness with regard to reference and association. The ambience created is at once modern, medieval, and timeless. You could say the sequence redacts something of The Anathèmata in thirty sharply etched miniatures, but that would not be completely fair to either David Jones or Hill. The distances of history melt inside the powerful field of Hill's linguistic energy. Like many of the early works, the diction, the substitutions, the modifications, are stunning and masterful. But it is the overall effect, incorporating comic relief, that is most memorable, and is not found in the earlier grim poems. Though there is no narrative there is a sense of sweep, of leaping into obscure corners of history and the psyche and discovering crucial documents. The poems thrill, not with patriotism exactly, but with a loving knowledge of the physical, linguistic, cultural hearth on which we live. Both the peripheral and direct vision are coordinated and focused. Mercian Hymns is a sign that Hill has at least partially won his struggle with his own talent and hypersensitivity to experience. His field of vision is amazingly wide and these poems consolidate the fullness of his talent realized in the "Songbook."

Again the fabric here is woven of brutality and beauty twisted tightly together, but remaining distinct. Though at one point the speaker seems to feel that the poems are a kind of grave-robbing of language and psyche, Hill has learned better to live with his ugly fascinations and obsessions. I think a better analogy here would be archaeology or numismatics. There is a digging out and cleaning into definition of objects such as coins from old wells, from the mould and bone-heaps. Hill successfully rejuvenates the cliché of "coining," by striking from the ancient but permanent substance both new and ancient features. In fact, Hymn XIII is about examining old "coins" from Offa's time. "Draw, one by one, rare coins to the light. Ringed by its own lustre, the masterful head emerges, kempt and jutting, out of England's well."

If there is a central image to the book it is grubbing into the compost and refuse, among "night-soil, tetanus," plowing, grave-digging, archaeology of flues from Roman times, root systems, tearing out stumps, shoveling into the detritus of empire and church. "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." And after the great ceremonies of state, what is left on the land? "Wine, urine, and ashes."

There is a wonderful honoring of craftsmanship, the anonymous artisan, "this master-mason as I envisage him, intent to pester upon tympanum and chancel arch his moody testament, confusing warrior with lion, dragon-coils, tendrils of the stony vine." This is followed directly by one of the masterpieces of the group, an attack upon the industrial parody of craftsmanship. Here again Hill makes the historical personal, summoning to the forefront fragments of modern ugliness. (pp. 43-7)

Hill is one of the two or three best poets writing in English and he seems to be getting better. The poems I have seen in magazines since Mercian Hymns seem original even for him. This is especially true of the group of sonnets published in Agenda called collectively "Lacrimae." (p. 47)

Robert Morgan, "The Reign of King Stork," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1976, pp. 31-48.

Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom collects Geoffrey Hill's three books of poetry—For the Unfallen (1959), King Log (1968), and Mercian Hymns (1971)—for an American audience…. He is one of the three or four most important English poets of the past twenty years—an anomaly of recent literary history, a direct heir to a religious and visionary tradition that runs from Donne's Holy Sonnets through Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" and Tate's "Sonnets at Christmas." His fierce angular lyrics, decidedly angry and compressed, recall the sensibility of an Eberhart crossed with the passionate Christianity of an early Lowell. Yet Hill's voice is all his own—violent, sexual, lacking indulgence for art. He is a craftsman of the first order, continually telescoping his vision through a short rhyming stanza which resembles a high-intensity lamp. The clenched line and clotted syntax of his poetry are the perfect analogues of a staunch and difficult voice…. [To] my knowledge he is the only poet of a presiding Christian imagination still writing poems of the first order.

Though I suspect that Hill has little patience for religion as such, he is compelled by the sacrifice of Christ, and continually he witnesses the reenactment of that blood submission in the atrocities of war…. And the apparent meaninglessness of sacrifice, the abandonment of those who suffer, the erosion of the logos, in fact the impotence and impossibility of speech in the face of wholesale destruction seem to undercut the very possibility of poetry. (pp. xcvi-xcvii)

The relentless paradox at the center of Hill's work is the sense of a linguistic responsibility to a reality which evades language. Speech may be impotent and bereft of meaning, but it is the only weapon that the poet-as-bewildered-survivor can rely on. And so he is left with the irony of his own helplessness, the promethean task of reinfusing the shod Word. It is a task which Hill faces squarely, questioning his own enterprise but mustering great strength.

What truly distinguishes Hill's poetry is not his subject but the intensities of that subject brought under the energetic light of a "bleak skill." His chafing at the restraints of speech is infused with the strength of his impacted line, the formal way he assaults the subject of atrocity and language…. Hill's imagination does owe something to the exotic influence of the southern Fugitives—their poems, their religious preoccupation, their study of the metaphysical poets.

Mercian Hymns is a stylistic departure from his earlier work and is his most ambitious book to date. It is a syntactically varied sequence of thirty prose poems, intermittently colloquial and archaic, which relies heavily on a schoolboy's (and poet's) historical reveries. As the voices merge and subdivide, the poem combines and plays off the legendary exploits of Offa, eighth-century king and "the presiding genius of the West Midlands," against the reality of a West Midlands childhood. Most of Hill's familiar deities are present, but they are generally emptied of religious impulse: the inexplicable necessity of pain and suffering, the longing for heroic sacrifice, the distance between event and document, the passion required to bridge that gulf. One dimension of Mercian Hymns is the attempt to confront the necessity of an early suffering. Another is the poetic opportunity of expanding the line and image of the first two books. Although I prefer the rigors of his formal lyric, Hill's prose poems do have a music and range not found in his earlier work. (pp. xcvii-xcviii)

Edward Hirsch, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1976 by The University of the South), Summer, 1976.