In the introduction to an earlier collection of Geoffrey Hill’s poems, Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom (1975), the critic Harold Bloom described Hill as “the strongest British poet now alive.” This is a considerable accolade. One may, however, wonder slightly about the adjective “British.” Hill is in many respects a cosmopolitan poet, writing with increasing frequency about France, drawing on Spanish and German poetry, and clearly influenced by several American poets as well. For all that, he seems very much less “British” (a term which includes Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Island) than “English.” Many of Hill’s qualities are those central to the English tradition. His writing seems often to be “under glass,” produced by an intelligence of extreme detachment and self-consciousness. Social embarrassment is a common theme, as is self-distrust. Hill has a trick of building up to a major assertion, a gesture of passion, but then catching himself in the act, withdrawing. Yet he is at the same time a “strong” poet, as Bloom observes, capable of assuming an authoritative or, even, quasiprophetic voice, and of writing with a mythic intensity. Other recurrent themes of his include the major public events of the twentieth century and of previous centuries, among them war and genocide. His poetry is often one of strong and direct sensuality; he is a great evocator of the natural world.
If there is an overriding feeling within Hill’s poems, however—it is too evasive to be called a theme—it must be the feeling of loss. In his 1978 collection Tenebrae (reprinted in this volume, along with all the other poems to be mentioned), he heads one poem with the German epigraph Es ist ein Land Verloren, translatable literally as “There is a lost land.” That is not how Hill translates it, but the notion of a lost country, or, more precisely, of an unattainable country within the mind, colors much of his poetry. Very often this country is that of his own memories of childhood: Mercian Hymns (1971) is set in “Mercia,” at once the old Latin term for the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of King Offa in the eighth century and Hill’s private term for the rural Worcestershire of his own boyhood. The most obvious feature of that collection is its anachronism. Hill brings together an archaic language of the far past, of rune stones, wergilds, and fire dragons, with a studied colloquialism sometimes ironically vulgar, sometimes childish. The result is characteristically ambiguous. In one way, Hill appears to be pointing to ways in which England has declined, dwindled—the great victories of the Anglo-Saxon conquerors now remembered only as names for small, suburban houses. In another way, he indicates direct continuity and achievement. The coins of King Offa still preserve his face and power; his name is still familiar (from “Offa’s Dyke,” the long earthwork that divides much of England from Wales); there is a sense of pride lurking in Hill’s memories of a boyhood in wartime as fierce as anything from the remotest past. Nevertheless, both the recent past of childhood and the far past of Mercia have receded, gone back to the same country, the land indeed “called Lost.”
What besides the inevitable passing of time motivates Hill’s feelings of loss? To this there must be many answers. One is a loss of political innocence. Mercian Hymns is prefaced by an epigraph on “the conduct of government,” which laments the way in which public morality has become a thing apart from private morality. More nostalgically, the sequence of thirteen sonnets in Tenebrae titled “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England” contains three sonnets described as “A Short History of British India.” They are once more “spectator-poems,” in which Hill looks on at a historical process as if at a pageant or spectacle, yet their overall point is that a certain simplicity, a certain directness of rule, has gone from the world,...
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