What are readers to make of the tortured, vatic utterances of this most laconic of contemporary poets? Some of the difficulty in Geoffrey Hill’s work has to do with an ambivalent attitude toward readers, his sense of being “in the enemy’s country” or in the “steam of beasts” when it comes to writing for even an intelligent, well-educated audience. Understanding Hill’s poetry often depends on the reader’s willingness to explore the arcana woven into the terse fabric of his verses. The new poems in this collection make reference to very obscure facts of English, Polish, and Russian history, as well as such documents as John Colet’s marginalia to Marsilio Ficino’s Epistolae or somewhat better known works as Grotius’De Jure Belli ac Pacis. This is not to say that moments in the fine-hammered lines do not achieve the status of immediately powerfulmelopoeia or develop something of their own mythos. The involuted stanzas and sometimes beautiful lines still may not quite be worth all the trouble to the reader that they obviously were to their learned and skilled author.
Another aspect of the difficulty Hill presents to the reader has to do with his confrontation of the important problem of the relationship of poetry to religious experience. Hill has described this relation in his own poetry as “a heretic’s dream of salvation expressed in images of orthodoxy from which he is excommunicate.” Thus Hill gives readers the form of Christian religious poetry with a highly ironic and tortured relation to the content. In this respect, he is like many modern poets who want to be religious but are embarrassed or troubled about it because of something such as original sin, self-irony, or a desire to be original. He loves the old icons, the older and more obscure the better, because they have not been vulgarized. This could be seen or heard in Hill’s first and famous poem “Genesis,” which imitates in its meters Christopher Smart’s magnificentSong to David. Hill, however, measures the distance between himself and Smart’s ability to merge the political, poetic, and religious in the heroic figure of King David. Instead readers find the modern poet “Crying the miracles of God,” instead of praising Him and his anointed psalmist. Does “crying” mean proclaiming (or, perhaps, inventing) or does it meaning lamenting or even screaming about the “flesh and blood and the blood’s pain,” and realizing that “no bloodless myth will hold.” Hill always points to Christ’s blood and suffering as the way to freedom, even as he also seems tortured by the ideal of martyrdom as well as religious commitment to church or state. Ultimately, poetry is a limited form of sacrifice that becomes a dangerous illusion if taken too seriously, and is at best a slight and brittle monument to the vast metamorphoses and suffering in history.
The thirteen new poems in this volume that he has added to hisCollected Poems focus on the sacrifice of public existence and the irony of placing the hope of futurity and sacrifice in state or nation. This is not a new theme in Hill, whose poems, particularly the Mercian Hymns, have addressed the relationship of the individual to the nation’s, specifically England’s, history and an uneasy tension between worldly kingdoms and the Kingdom of God.
The most striking of the new poems is a four-part piece entitled “Churchill’s Funeral.” The poem is not really an elegy for Winston Churchill, but a meditation on the price ordinary men pay for service to a state ruled by a heroic warrior. It begins with a meditation on the longing for the kind of noble music suited to a great nation. Instead, its five parts focus on the wounded of World War II, “the men hefting/ their accoutrements/ of webbed tin, many/ in bandages.” The real antecedent to this poem has to do with another Churchill, John Churchill, Lord Marlborough, the seventeenth century English general who was so successful in the campaigns against Louis XIV, and about whom Sir Winston wrote a multivolume biography. Hill recalls Jonathan Swift’s biting poem, “A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General,” an attack on John Churchill, Lord Marlborough. Swift considers how many, particularly Irish, had to die to fulfill Lord Marlborough’s military and political ambition:
Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow’s sighs, nor orphan’s tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of this hearse.
And what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honors...
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