Robert Hillyer Essay - Critical Essays


Considered post-Romantic in an age when Romanticism seemed naïve and dangerously optimistic, Robert Hillyer clung to his genteel sense of hope with a fortitude that most twentieth century poets and critics found misguided. Instead of emphasizing the loss of innocence, Hillyer focused on a return to the bliss of boyhood, reversing the Romantic cycle, so that those caught up in the power struggle of “getting and spending” are led by Hillyer’s idylls back to the shepherd’s peaceable kingdom.

Some critics have dismissed Hillyer’s sonnets and pastoral meditations as simple, light verse; others have argued quite the opposite. The Times Literary Supplement once hailed the harmony extant in Hillyer’s lyrics as the guiding, divine memory of the past “amid the distraction and estrangement of this world.” Such harmony is complicated further by a sense of the sublime rooted in the earth.

In this duality of spiritual and natural inspiration, the twenty-first century reader may find a more relevant poet in Hillyer than in many of his contemporaries. Hope and nature are the driving themes behind the ecological movement in literature, chronicled by poets like Wendell Berry, W. S. Merwin, and Mary Oliver. As poets are constantly lost and found, Hillyer’s pastoral intellect re-emerges in the post-Pound era as a mediator between the people and the planet that sustains them.

The Seventh Hill

Noted by Louis Untermeyer as one of Hillyer’s best books and by Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska (A History of American Poetry, 1900-1940, 1946) as an example of Hillyer’s lyrical “mastery,” The Seventh Hill showcases two of Hillyer’s strongest forms: the sonnet and the pastoral.

The influence of classical literature saturates the poems in this book. The title of the collection alludes to the seven hills on which Rome was founded. Also, the poem “When I Say For Ever I Think of the Temple of Zeus” follows the theme of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Hillyer later distances himself from Grecian platitudes. It is in the “Pastorals” section of The Seventh Hill that Hillyer’s clarity and resonance as a poet who “shares” himself with nature can be experienced without heavy allusion. In the first poem in that section, he writes: “The final music is not yet;/ But when it shakes eternal skies/ I would not have you forget/ The music of the mortal dream/ We shared in joy, though not for long.”

As the quote above suggests, music is key to Hillyer’s vision and defense of poetry. What many critics regard as singsong in terms of rhyme and meter, Hillyer deliberately incorporates for richer “overtones of meaning.” Music gives body to the sublime, as Hillyer states in First Principles of Verse (1950): “It is essential that the poet run...

(The entire section is 1179 words.)