Readers of Geoffrey Hill’s New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992 (1994; see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1995) might feel they can forgo purchase of Canaan, which consists partly of reprinted “new” poems from the former collection, itself an expansion of the earlier Collected Poems (1986; see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1987). It is somehow disheartening to see an aging poet eking out his production over so many volumes. The publisher’s book-jacket blurb makes matters even worse by touting Canaan as Hill’s “first book of poems in over a decade.”
Yet there are reasons to go out and buy Canaan. The most important is that the little volume can help readers, especially American readers, understand this very difficult poet, who is also touted as Britain’s best and brightest. Canaan does so by focusing a powerful prophetic quality that has been in Hill’s work all along. Here, Hill drops his reticence and coyness—his bellyaching that he cannot bring himself to believe in the religious imagery he spreads around so abundantly—and comes out as the religious crank he is. In Canaan, Hill shows up in full costume—carrying a long shepherd’s hook and wearing sackcloth, ashes, and a scowl.
Whether Hill’s more open prophetic stance is the product of advancing age, his move to the United States, or some combination of reasons is hard to say. Since 1988, Hill has lived in New England, where he teaches in the University Professors Program at Boston University. Readers might wonder why Hill, who is so obsessed with Britain in his poetry, would come to the United States in the first place. Canaan seems to have the answers. The volume makes clear that Hill is unhappy with the way things have gone in Britain, especially recently. Moreover, the volume shows that Hill derives poetic inspiration from the same tradition of religious nonconformity that moved the early New England pilgrims. This tradition has its origins in seventeenth century Britain, in the religious stew of Seekers, Ranters, Baptists, and other nonconforming sects that brought civil war to Britain and then repeated waves of settlers to America. The tradition has continued to the present, quietly in Britain (except for periodic eruptions, such as the Methodists) but prominently in the United States, where it has helped form the national character.
The influence of this nonconformist tradition can be traced through all four centuries in Hill’s Canaan. One source of Hill’s inspiration is the seventeenth century Puritan writer John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), whose name for England (“Dark- land”) supplies the title for three poems in Canaan. Another is “mad” Christopher Smart, the strikingly original eighteenth century poet with whom Samuel Johnson was not ashamed to bow in the streets and pray. Still another “mad” genius whose influence can be seen in Canaan is William Blake; Blake provides Hill with a couple of epigraphs and, more important, the best model of a nonconformist, visionary poet. Finally, another influence is the American Quaker Rufus M. Jones, whose work Mysticism and Democracy in the English Commonwealth (1932) gives the title “Mysticism and Democracy” to five separate poems in Canaan.
These, however, are only some of the names that can be picked out; a more pervasive influence on Canaan is the language of religious nonconformism, particularly the allusion to biblical parallels. In these parallels, evoked by the book’s title, long epigraph, and other biblical citations, Britain becomes Canaan, where the British whore after false deities, offer up their children as blood sacrifices, and provoke the moral wrath of God.
This judgment upon Britain can best be seen in the opening and closing poems, both titled “To the High Court of Parliament” and dated November, 1994. The short opening poem sets the ugly tone with its descriptions of Britain’s new nobility (“the slither-frisk/ to lordship of a kind/ as rats to a bird-table”) and of...
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