Two themes are interwoven in the text of “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings.” The first of these, a traditional motif, sic transit gloria mundi (“thus passes the glory of the world”), is a poignant recognition that all in the material world is subject to the depredations of time, which shows little mercy to man or his works. The Plantagenets lie “secure in the decay/ Of blood,” as the poet observes.
The plaint appears in the early doom-laden poetry of the Anglo-Saxons (The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Ruin, c. mid-eighth century) and continues as a familiar theme in English poetry. It is particularly suited to medieval sensitivities, since the bitter contrast of splendor and squalor, of dream and reality, the ideal and the base, was acutely painful. The juxtaposed images in the poem, for example, of the gross reality of war, as in “the sleeked groin, gored head,” and the grace of the “well-dressed alabaster” by which the Plantagenets were remembered, harmonize by a strange, subtle metamorphosis which time and art can also mercifully unfold. Geoffrey Hill suggests that the transmutation by art of raw experience preserves something of man and his work.
Inextricably linked with the first theme is an exploration into the paradoxical nature and meaning of history with which Hill struggles and returns to in his later works, King Log (1968) and Mercian Hymns (1971). Like other poets of the...
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