THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE is Geoffrey Hill’s eighth book of poetry. Like much of his earlier work, TRIUMPH takes great stylistic and intellectual risks, but is likely also to be criticized for its inaccessibility.
By all appearances, TRIUMPH, composed of 150 numbered stanzas, is modeled upon the 150 Psalms of David. Like the Psalms it is a deeply penitential work in the laus et vituperatio (praise and blame) tradition and must be read on two levels: as a prayerful, penitential, and sometimes accusatory meditation on the disaster of World War II and its aftermath; and as a parallel meditation upon the difficulty of finding a poetic voice somehow commensurate with the horrors of the age.
In the first third of TRIUMPH, Hill sifts restlessly through images of the moral decay and ethical rascality that led to the war. He makes no attempt to fall back on the familiar and comforting notion that World War II was the “good war.” Hill spreads the blame around evenly enough, and is especially concerned with the part that Great Britain played in preparing the ground for the unmitigated catastrophe which followed Chamberlain’s disgraceful bargaining with the Nazis. Images of the Shoah, of cities decimated by indiscriminate bombing by both sides are juxtaposed beside images of the period of reconstruction and its equally culpable delusions of a brave new rational order free of the taint of original sin. Above all, the poet speaks prophetically of our will...
At the age of sixty-six, English poet Geoffrey Hill is among the longest-lived of that select group of contemporary Anglo-American poets whose works will be studied and admired when the horrors of the twentieth century have been all but forgotten. Since the publication of his first book of poems, For the Unfallen (1959), Hill has garnered high praise from a phalanx of formidable critics, among them Harold Bloom, editor of the 1986 Chelsea House edition of critical essays on Hill, who regards the poet as the direct heir of William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and T. S. Eliot. However, in spite of the critical acclaim—especially for Mercian Hymns (1971)—the work generally held to be his “masterpiece,” Hill’s reputation remains shrouded in obscurity. One reason for this must certainly be the sheer difficulty of his poetry—highly allusive, thick with sometimes arcane historical references and contexts, elliptical, ambiguous, and always ironic. Another reason may be that Hill’s sometimes militant, if not altogether orthodox, Catholicism is everywhere evident in his work. One could hardly call his poetry “dogmatic,” but in an age avid for neo- pagan earth songs or paeans to the gods of multiculturalism, Hill’s agonized defense of the Christian tradition has done much to deprive him of popular recognition.
This state of affairs is not likely to be altered by the publication of The Triumph of Love, a poem of 150 numbered stanzas apparently modeled on the 150 Psalms of David. Like the Psalms, The Triumph of Love is a poem in the laus et vituperatio (praise and blame) tradition. Like the psalmist, Hill here assumes a combative yet penitential posture. An epigraph in four languages (Hebrew, Latin, German, and English), taken from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, provides a further clue to the poet’s intentions: “And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great worke, so that I can not come down: why should the worke cease, whilest I leave it, and come down to you?” This passage, rendered in the English (and spelling) of the original King James Version, hints in equal measures both of defiance and contempt. To his erstwhile critical accusers, those who have complained time and again of the intellectual difficulty of his work, Hill seems to reply with what might be called an arrogant refusal to accommodate those who find it too daunting of access. Yet The Triumph of Love is frequently punctuated by self-accusatory digression, as in the following from stanza XXXVII: “Shameless old man, bent on committing/ more public nuisance. Incontinent/ fury wetting the air. Impotently/ bereft satire. Charged with erudition,/ put up by the defense to be/ his own accuser.”
The context for the quotation from Nehemiah is complex. The “great worke” to which it alludes is not, strictly speaking, prophetic in the sense that Isaiah or Jeremiah are prophetic utterances. Nehemiah is not charged with calling the Hebrews to repentance but with rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, fallen to predators and neglect after the Jews are taken into captivity by the Babylonians. Yet the rebuilding of the wall is a sign of repentance and of the will to regain the favor of God. Like Nehemiah, Hill positions himself in a highly public fashion. The poetic “worke” upon which he is engaged is no purely private concern. Indeed, Hill conjures up no less a figure than John Milton as exemplar of the poet’s role—the Milton not of Paradise Lost (1667) but of the Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1650; In Defense of the English People). As in a number of his earlier works, particularly the Mercian Hymns, Hill is here deeply preoccupied with the historical fate of the British people. In The Triumph of Love, his temporal focus is the twentieth century, but more especially the years since 1932, Hill’s own date of birth. Those years include World War II and the reconstruction of a decimated European civilization; they include, as well, the horrors of the Holocaust and the bombing of civilian populations by both Allied and Axis powers. For Hill, World War II was not a “good” war, but an unmitigated catastrophe for Christian civilization. Great Britain, Hill suggests, must bear a good deal of the burden of guilt for that disgraceful abdication of the moral order: “Chamberlain’s compliant vanity, his pawn ticket/ saved from the antepenultimate ultimatum; their/ strict pudency, but not to national honor; callous/ discretion; their inwardness with things of the world;/ their hearing as a profound music/ the hollow lion-roar of the slammed vaults;/ the decent burials at the eleventh...
Bloom, Harold, ed. Geoffrey Hill: Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom declares that Hill is the strongest British poet active at the time.
McNees, Eleanor Jane. Eucharistic Poetry: The Search for Real Presence in John Donne, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1991. McNees’s exploration of the Christian notion of presence in Hill’s work, as compared with poets with whom he shares much in common.
Milne, W. S. An Introduction to Geoffrey Hill. Vol. 3. London: Agenda/Bellew, 1998. An introductory account of Hill’s work.
Roberts, Andrew Michael. Geoffrey Hill: Writers and Their Work. Tavistock, England: British Council & Northcote House Educational, 2004. This introductory account of Hill’s work combines close readings of poems with reviews of critical debates.