Geoffrey Hill Hill, Geoffrey (Vol. 5) - Essay

Hill, Geoffrey (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hill, Geoffrey 1932–

Hill is a British poet.

Hill's use of language, and choice of words, has been noticed, often, one feels, to the detriment of his themes. One sympathises with the reviewers. The compressed language is intimately bound up with what it is conveying. This is true of many poets, but true to an unusual degree with Hill. It is true in another sense. The language itself is unlike most other writing current, and coupled with this is an unusually self-conscious pointing on the part of the poet to the language. This is not because he wishes to draw attention to it for its own sake, but because the language both posits his concerns, and is itself, in the way it is used, an instance of them. Moreover, his use of language is both itself an instance of his (moral) concerns, and the sensuous gesture that defines them. It is therefore difficult to speak of his themes without coming first into necessary contact with the language.

Hill's use of irony is ubiquitous, but is not, usually, of the non-participatory and mandarin sort. It articulates the collision of events, or brings them together out of concern, and for this a more or less regular and simple use of syntax is needed, and used. (p. 145)

In pointing to the importance of the Imagist movement as it has affected English and American poetry, one is of course considering how central the image has become both in the writing, and for the considering, of twentieth-century poetry…. The image becomes that point at which an ignition of all the elements of meaning and response takes place; that is, not only do the meanings and their impulses get expressed, but at that point are given their principal impetus. Even with the hard clear image calmly delivered this occurs. Hill has been both the innocent partaker and victim in this. He has used and been used. This is partly because of course the age as it were reeks of such practice. But with Hill one also feels that the choice has been made because he has come to recognise that the use of the image can properly communicate the intensity he wishes to express. Through it he can express the intensity, but fix it in such a way that it will evaluate the concerns of the poem it is embedded in without its intensity overruling the other parts. The intensity finds in its own kind of formality its own controlling expression. At the same time, the image as artefact has a perhaps satisfactory and not unmodest existence. It can be regarded, but it is also useful. Curiously enough, although the impression of imagery in Hill is, in my mind at least, strong, checking through the poetry, one is surprised at how controlled is the frequency of the kind of imagery I am thinking of. There are many instances of images used to represent objects, creatures, events. But it is as though the image whereby one object is enriched by the verbal presence of another, combined with it, and a third thing made—as though such a creation were recognised as so potentially powerful, and so open to abuse, that he was especially careful to use it sparingly. And he is, rightly, suspicious of offering confection to readers who enjoy the local richness without taking to them the full meaning of the poem, which is only susceptible to patience and a care for what it is as a whole thing. (pp. 147-48)

Hill has more recently been concerned to accumulate meaning and response in a more gradual way. But, in the earlier work especially, the intense evaluation, response, judgement—all are released at that sudden moment of expansion which is the moment of visualisation. Hill's poetry has more often consisted of, not continuous narrative, but a conjunction of imagistic impulsions. A conjunction of intensities, sometimes sensuously rich, and nearly always scrupulously evaluative. (p. 150)

[In his] longer poems, sequences and extended work that demand some correspondingly developed structure …, [Hill is fearful] of sacrificing the imagistic purity of his work, of sullying that compression, of impairing a dramatic enactment, or mimesis of psychological impulsions, [and so] prefers to accumulate intensities than involve them in accumulating and continuous action. This may partly be due to the preference Hill shows for writing that, by dramatic mimesis, introduces to the reader internal impulsions rather than dramatic action. (p. 152)

Jon Silkin, "The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill" (copyright © by Jon Silkin), in British Poetry Since 1960: A Critical Survey, edited by Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet, 1972, pp. 143-64.

Geoffery Hill, though not broken down, writes from a Christian sensibility bruised to blackness; he seems to harbor a relish for cruelty that violently repels him. In Mercian Hymns we catch a glimpse of a boy loving "the battle-anthems and the gregarious news" on the wartime wireless and "huddled with stories of dragon-tailed airships and warriors." Hill seems to be that boy grown up, still fascinated by terrible killers but with an equally terrible burden of guilt. Why else write thirty prose poems about the little-known eighth-century king Offa, envisaging him as charismatically callous? (p. 84)

Fragmentary, furiously reticent, these poems were not written to instruct: their life is as lustrously dark as your own face when you see it, no longer your own, looking back from a well. I distrust Hill's need, frigid as it is, to live imaginatively among murderous men.

Yet these poems, which give the eerie impression that contemporary West Midlands is twelve centuries deep, not only focus mesmerically the arbitrary violence and capricious human authority of the world today; for all their questionable fascination with self-possessed authority, they are themselves exquisitely self-possessed. They are new without the slightest uncertainty, masterfully chiseled…. The writing is at once austere and passionately sensuous, the two qualities coming together in a kind of menace. Hill's manner, if elegant, has the impersonal driving force of those frightening machines used to tighten nuts to bolts; his concision is formidably reticent. (pp. 84-5)

In Hill's two earlier volumes his reticence was as much a weakness as a strength. His poems often read like notes jotted down at some remarkable poetry reading, like the sweepings of the fine things. They were all in pieces, as if too fastidious for the vulgarity of connections. Tautly held back, Hill was like a panther crouched for a spring he was too cautious to take. Now he has sprung, and the surprise is that he stays air-borne for the entire volume: the poems lie in a suspenseful shadow, under a tameless intention that is forever impending. Not that Hill's method has much changed: the Hymns are like an antiquary's collection of exquisite shards. But the shards are convincing pieces of lost wholes and slightly larger than Hill used to offer. Then, too, he has applied his method more repeatedly to the same subject. One has time, as it were, to learn to see in his dark.

Oblique yet penetrating, Mercian Hymns is a severely wrought achievement of language and a successful experiment in a stark, disjunctive rendering of life. In the sustained spell of its fusion of Mercia with the modern Midlands, and of the legendary with reeking life, as in its excavatory method and curious reticent conviction, it is something new in English poetry and, I think, a substantial addition to it. (pp. 85-6)

Calvin Bedient, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1973.