Although he emigrated from Great Britain to the United States, Geoffrey Hill remains a poet whose roots and subject matter, with rare exceptions, are English. The Orchards of Syon consists of seventy-two twenty-four-line meditative internal monologues about dreams that become imperfect visions about the passage of time, impending death, memory, and religion. Hill, perhaps the least known of the major postmodern poets, works with a tradition associated with writers such as T. S. Eliot (1888- 1965), whose essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent” stresses the continuity of a dense, morally serious Christian poetry in English literature. Indeed, Hill’s poetry has always looked to the past and been tied to history, and his poems are permeated with allusions to past writers and events. Those images of the past are made contemporary in the course of the poems. In style, Hill resembles Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), another Christian poet, in his use of marked stressed syllables and breaks within the line and in his use of polysyllabic Latinate words. Other writers who figure prominently in the poems are William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Herman Melville (1819-1891), Thomas Mann (1875- 1955), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), John Donne (1572- 1631), Petrarch (1304-1374), Dante (1265-1321), Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), whose pen-and-wash drawing of the setting of his novel The Rainbow (1915) adorns the cover of Hill’s book. In that drawing Lawrence depicts the two worlds of his novel: in the foreground the organic world of the farm, and in the background the sordid, mechanistic world of factory and town.
In The Orchards of Syon, Hill features three mythic worlds. The world of Syon, reminiscent of the Mount Zion of the Bible, is unchanging and contains “tenebrous thresholds/ of illumination”: not final answers, but ways to them. The orchards represent the idealized world of the imagination. For Hill, the orchards of Syon are “burgeoning in that dream which is called vision/ and naming.” Hill, however, elsewhere speaks of these orchards being despoiled and suggests that they may no longer exist: “I/ wish greatly to believe . . . that the Orchards of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.” The first poem in the volume asks, “Tell me, is this the way/ to the Orchards of Syon/ where I left you thinking I would return?” In a sense, the poems are Hill’s attempted journey back to Syon, but as the last words in the volume suggest, the trip does not provide final answers: “Here are the Orchards of Syon, neither wisdom/ nor illusion of wisdom, not/ compensation, not recompense: the Orchards/ of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.” Neither the mythical orchards nor his book of verse provide illumination; readers must provide the “harvests,” their own individual readings or insights. Unlike his predecessors in the Christian tradition, Hill seems to lack their faith and seems intent on adjusting to the Western post-Christian world. Like the bird/poet of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” he ponders what to make of a “diminished thing.”
The other two mythical worlds are Goldengrove and Vallombrosa. Goldengrove (from Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall”), the second world in this book, is the “shuttered/ lantern of nature” and resembles the farm in Lawrence’s The Rainbow: Hill describes “the refueling/ autumns of Goldengrove.” At times the orchards of Syon and Goldengrove seem distinct; at other times they seem similar: “In the Orchards/ of Syon that are like Goldengrove/ season beyond season.” Vallombrosa, used before by both Dante and Milton, is associated with “shade/ and shadow places, valleys of dwale-drunk sorrows.” This is the modern world, figuratively the valley of the shadow of death of Psalm 23, a world linked to Lawrence’s factory town. In his seventy- first poem Hill depicts a “chequered” country with “her quiet ways of betrayal,” tourist’s souvenirs, and crowded skies.
Hill’s first poem serves as introduction to the volume....
(The entire section is 1676 words.)