Geoffrey Hill

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Hill, Geoffrey 1932–

Hill, a first-rate English poet, belongs to no particular "school" or movement. In some respects a traditionalist, Hill is preoccupied with eternal themes: war, death, and human suffering. He received the Gregory Award for Poetry in 1961. (See also CLC, Vols. 5 and 8.)

Merle Brown

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Within [Geoffrey] Hill's poetry is a passion much like the innermost passion of Eliot's poetry: a terror of death, of death as emptiness, as meaninglessness, as existence separated from the ultimate Good, from that central sun of certain value. Thus, like Eliot, Hill feels the need to expose unexamined experience from the past to the sun of ultimate value by way of poetry. That is, he would unearth "the trodden bone," "the common man of death," by means of his own "knack of tongues"; he would gild the dung, praise the bone. At the same time, he is uneasy about turning history into poetry. It is not at all certain that the Lazarus unearthed is really the same Lazarus as he who lay with the speechless dead. Unavoidably, poetry provides its own loam for whatever resurrected experience it contains; the unexamined experience it would expose may remain as it was, hidden within the earth where it was originally buried. There is a violent aspect to bringing something to light. The unearthing shovel often gouges the face of what it would expose…. A poem which articulates such an exhumation, [Hill's] "History As Poetry" seems to be suggesting, can be at one with ultimate Goodness only if it excoriates itself for doing what it does. On behalf of "the speechless dead," who, though unearthed, remain speechless, the poet must answer back by calling into question the laudation of the dead by way of his own "knack of tongues." Hill, then, is Eliot turned against himself; he retains the value of what he does by doubting and criticizing it; Hill's poetry has its sun, but it is a black sun.

Much like Eliot's poetry, Hill's is so difficult to discuss because its uniqueness is not voiced, only implicit in the critical way Hill listens to his words and rhythms. Ordinarily, the judgmental attentiveness of a poem is thought of as its universal aspect, whereas its individuality is felt to be in its voice or expressiveness. In Hill, the touch of uniqueness inheres in the peculiar way he hears and criticizes and judges the voiced expression. The contempt and sarcasm of "History As Poetry" springs out of Hill's inward listening.

Only after sharing what satisfied Hill in the way he listened to the poem can one feel the full and exact ferocity of words like "ashen," "blue," "mystified," "provided," "wagging," and "laudable." The "resurgence" may make the trodden bone laudable, but the beneficiary is the surgeon not the patient, as though psychoanalysis were, finally …, for the benefit of the psychiatrist. Undeniably, there is something morbid in Hill's unearthing the disease, the crumbly rot of the tar crusting the golden dung, of the poetic lauding of the trodden bone. "Til we be roten, Kan we nat be rype." The great English poet now is the one who most vividly realizes the ripeness of seeing through the rottenness of one's saving himself by "saving" others…. The question of the poem ["Three Baroque Meditations"] is

            Do words make up the majesty             Of man, and his justice             Between the stones and the void?

So a poet might think, but Hill's doubts are demonic and mock at the pretentiousness of such a thought. Men exalt themselves with words in order to hide from the likelihood that the nature and value of their lives are no...

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different from those of the wordless owl and mouse whose tryst in the sharp night acts out "the lithe/Paradigm Sleep-and-Kill." By turning against words, by unearthing the ironic way men use words to sustain a mouse-like ignorance of their mouse-like existence, Hill does indeed attain a certain bitter majesty.

So regularly are Hill's poems lined with such a doubting, demonic self-mockery that [Harold Bloom's claim in his introduction to Hill's Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom] that "there are no bad poems in Hill's three books" does seem true, at least to the extent that every one of his poems manifests his distinctive strength. But that strength can be a liability. Some of Hill's poems fail because his mockery chokes words emerging from remote regions of experience…. (pp. 66-7)

[If] its object lacks any substance to resist it, the mockery [turns] hollow. When this happens, the voice of the poem as it is listened to and criticized by Hill loses its characteristically rasping, grating tone and soars shrilly, on the verge of hysteria….

When a poem of Hill's works as a poem, the felt quality of what is being mocked is experientially manifest. Even so, it is almost never unequivocally manifest as Hill's own experience. The words—the very voice of the poem—come to him from elsewhere, seeming to belong to another, so that Hill's poetic identity is felt to be purely critical, that of a demonic mocker, inaudibly auditing. (p. 68)

The special sense in which Hill's poems are quintessentially "flesh of abnegation" may be most directly evident in "September Song," a miniature masterpiece in which the whole of Hill is set sharply against the whole of Eliot. The deep impulsion of the Four Quartets is a withdrawing from the flesh, the poetry mattering, but only as one says "the poetry does not matter." It is not a poem of withdrawal, because Eliot stays so close to the flesh of experience and of language; it is the experience of withdrawing which Eliot sustains with exquisite tact throughout the poem…. Although the greatness of the Quartets as a poem depends on Eliot's vivid realization of the flesh of words, images, rhythms, and experiences from which he is withdrawing, the thrust of the poem is undoubtedly toward a final disengagement from self and world, so that a fervent reader must find himself moved to commit himself to silence and solitude and sacrifice…. (p. 70)

Hill has accepted and lived through the Eliotic death to flesh, to self, and to world. As he reveals in "September Song," he could not himself survive, as a man of flesh and blood, the mass extermination of Jews during the Second World War. This elegy for a death camp victim is necessarily an elegy for himself: it shows how and why he died, it justifies that death and even bestows a certain majesty on it by insisting that it would have been monstrous not to have died. September experienced in this way is "more than enough" in the sense that it can be experienced by a human being aware of the death camps only if he is dead.

But "September Song" is not at all otherworldly. It is rather the worldliness of otherworldliness, the vital embodiment of death, or, in Hill's own explosive phrase, it is "flesh of abnegation." (pp. 70-1)

Eliot's conscience compels him to turn away from the flesh. Hill will not allow himself the comfort of such withdrawn hiddenness; out of the cloister he compels his craven spirit, his withdrawn defeatedness, to expose itself. Thus, the characteristic movement of Hill's poems is a withdrawal from and a return to the sensuous embodiment of poetry, a withdrawal from natural rhythms, from what Hill calls "the inertial drag of speech" in his fine essay on rhythm, "Redeeming The Time" …, and then, following upon a radical critique of those rhythms, a return to time embodied but redeemed, natural process transformed into dramatic act.

It is important that the overt signs of this profound revulsion turning upon itself not be isolated and thus trivialized as devices of the craft; and yet it is just as important that the depths of the poems not be left as mere depths, that the surfacing, the objectifying be recognized as what makes the poems incontrovertibly shareable. The turn, the crucial redemption of time in "September Song," may be glimpsed in

      Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented       terror, so many routine cries.

The power and anguish of the poem explode out of the simple elision of "just" before the second "so." One's first, the natural, way of reading "so many routine cries" is to sense the elided "just" as intended, so that what comes at one are "just so many routine cries." The parenthetical stanza that follows—"(I have made/an elegy for myself it/is true)"—is grounded and empowered by those two lines. The poet could not but die, hearing so many death cries which were being heard by others as "just so many routine cries." Within the parentheses, the "it" is put at the end of the second line for emphasis, so that "it is true" means that this elegy is a true elegy, that I did truly die when I heard so many cries and knew that human beings were treating those cries as "just so many routine cries." And yet, "it is true" also retains its concessive meaning; it is true that this elegy is for myself, not just or mainly for that Jew born in 1932 and deported in 1942. I was born in 1932 myself and like Margaret it is myself I am grieving for, I am that soft and self-indulgent and contemptible and certainly dismissable, my death negligible when compared with the enormity of the death that compelled it by sympathetic shock.

A radical, rhythmical disjuncture occurs between the first two stanzas and the parenthetical third stanza of the poem. In the first two stanzas, there is a certain archness, a rasping sarcasm, a doubleness saying "What else would you expect?" and at the same time "It is unbelievable that such cruelty could become expected, routine, and a single human being survive it." In the third stanza, though the dismissive casualness is there as latent, the overt tone is solemn and funereal. From having been "in stride" (after all, the attitude of the first two stanzas must be a common way in which people have come to terms with the death camps), Hill in the third stanza breaks "out of stride." That shift of stride signifies a transformation of natural process into the "drama of reason," of a grammatical into a moral copula. As Hill himself says of the comparable shift in Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode," from "Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!" to "O joy! that in our embers/Is something that doth live," "the poet immediately breaks continuity, thrusts against the arrangement, the settlement, with a fresh time-signature."… (pp. 71-3)

The shift in time signature is moral. Hill means by it to imply that the attitude, style, the expressed sarcasm of the first two stanzas are a deadness. The cleverness of the antithesis between "undesirable" and "untouchable," the humor of "at the proper time," the understatement of "as estimated" and "marched/sufficient," those are devices available only to dead men; no living man could use them. So Hill disowns and damns himself as a poet, taking his stand against abnegation by embodying it in a poetic flesh that is judged to be dead and rotting.

A new time signature also governs the last four lines. The rasping and the solemnity are both gone. The lines float out numbly, remotely, as autumn experienced by a man settled into his death…. The connection between these lines and the first three stanzas is numb, anaesthetized, a matter of mechanical bolting. The poem as a whole is self-repudiatory, its "flesh of abnegation" putrid and festering. Hill himself is alive in the way he listens to the song; it is the Hill and all the morally righteous, fat, and somnolent of England that sing the song, that are dead.

Hill's poems regularly fall somewhere between Croce's notion that, though poems may include judgments, the distinctively poetic quality of a poem is nonjudgmental, and Yvor Winters' conviction that poems are, in essence, judgmental statements. The uniqueness of Hill's poems inheres in those fiercely individual judgments which silently envelop the expressive line of the poem. The judgment which makes the "flesh of abnegation," the words "fatten" and "flake," fester is not explicit, but is recognized inferentially as incontrovertibly there. (p. 73)

Merle Brown, "'Flesh of Abnegation': The Poems of Geoffrey Hill" (copyright, 1979, by Merle Brown), in The Southern Review, Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 64-77.

Craig Raine

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[Geoffrey Hill's] poetry is full of high seriousness. You can't miss the noble application of scruples to life. The purged cadences, the bitter medicine of his syntax appeals to the puritan in us: even when the poetry is difficult, obscure and painful to read, we know it is doing us good. It makes no concessions to our intellectual and moral self-esteem. It administers a wonderful snub. Moreover, history [acts] … in a recherché way, as a transparency through which the glare of immediate experience is filtered. [Hill is also an academic poet.]…

[Mercian Hymns] showed just how good this kind of poetry can be. Using the historical, under-documented figure of King Offa, Hill was enabled to write about his unpoetical childhood self: 'Then, leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone, in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion.' In context, I find this nearly as moving as the end of Rimbaud's 'Le Bateau Ivre'…. Some of the hymns are marvellously funny, too. The epic mode appropriate to Offa nicely judges and places the seriousness of the only child. A diary full of grudges is comically transposed into this heroic paragraph:

It was there that he drew upon grievances from the people; attended to signatures and retributions; forgave the death-howls of his rival. And there he exchanged gifts with the Muse of History….

But if we take that phrase 'forgave the death-howls of his rival', we can see why it isn't. The historical structure of the sequence means that we are forced to take it seriously, as well as on the level of a child's brutal, self-aggrandisingly magnanimous fantasy. The same thing is true of the 'derelict sandlorry named Albion': the name chides us pedantically…. As the hymns progress, the structure becomes the subject and the hymns collapse under its weight: Hill's scrupulosity, his high seriousness gradually drive out the low, personal material.

Though the strict forms might make it seem a new departure after the free verse of Mercian Hymns, Tenebrae continues the trend. Broadly speaking, the poems are about Hill's passionate yet agnostic relationship to Christ. You might expect, therefore, a personal poetry of raw directness. Hill, however, has chosen to filter his dilemma through imitations of Robert Southwell's frigid religious poetry, anonymous Spanish ballads and Lope de Vega…. And the use of Spanish verse also marks a return to 'The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz' in King Log, described by Hill as 'the work of an apocryphal Spanish poet'. Hill also added, somewhat otiosely in my view, the warning that 'the Arrurruz poems contain no allusion to any actual person, living or dead'. Except for odd moments, no one reading the Songbook would dispute that for a minute. The woman lamented there is more than covered by Eliot's comment on Arnold's Marguerite: 'a shadowy figure, neither very passionately desired nor very closely observed, a mere pretext for lamentation.'

In 'The Pentecost Castle', Christ is equally shady, largely because Hill's method is to hitch a lift from anonymous Spanish profane poetry and one Lope de Vega lyric which he marginally improves. Given his agnosticism, the shadiness may be intentional. However, the epigraph from Yeats promises something more passionate: 'it is terrible to desire and not possess, and terrible to possess and not desire.' Promises, premises…. The profane remains profane in its anonymous way.

'Lachrimae' ends with another imitation of Lope de Vega, this time a direct address to God. Even with my derisory Spanish, it is clear that Hill hasn't equalled his original. (p. 19)

The Jesuit martyr-poet, Robert Southwell, is a more important influence than Lope de Vega in this sequence. 'Lachrimae' takes its epigraph from Southwell's prose work Mary Magdalens Funerall Teares, an Ignatian spiritual exercise that finally transcends its somewhat rigid formula. Southwell's subject is the Bible's economical account of Mary Magdalen's despair at finding the tomb empty and her subsequent error when she mistakes Christ for the gardener. Southwell's purpose is to make the bare text live and, after a wordy beginning, he succeeds brilliantly. Hill, however, takes none of the exemplary immediacy of Southwell. His interest is fatally limited to the idea of Mary Magdalen as a well-known sinner lamenting for an absent God, a predicament that matches his own case…. The manner is that of Southwell's poetry, with its oddly stilted English, though the content is Hill's. (pp. 19-20)

Perhaps it is unfair to set Southwell's vivid prose imaginings against Hill's poetry, since Hill's point is that he cannot effectively empathise with the image of the crucified Christ…. All the same, the traditional diction makes for glum reading. You can't wring much blood from an already well-wrung stone. Beside the terrible sonnets of Hopkins, the fastidious angst of Tenebrae looks archaeological, willed and impersonal in the wrong sense. (p. 20)

Craig Raine, "Promises, Premises," in New Statesman (© 1979 the Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2494, January 5, 1979, pp. 19-20.

Derek Stanford

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Who writes historical poetry today—by which I mean poetry whose theme is the past: a recovery or commentary on things over and done with? The nineteenth century had Sir Walter Scott, reflecting one of the many features of Romanticism; but, as regards what we have now, I can only answer, Geoffrey Hill.

His widely acclaimed Mercian Hymns (1971), a sequence of prose poems, was dominated by the 'presiding genius' of King Offa; and … Tenebrae reveals part of its nature in the titles and epigraphs to a number of the poems. 'An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England', supported by quotes from Coleridge and Disraeli, constitutes a sequence of thirteen sonnets, including a subsection of three called 'A Short History of the British in India'. Likewise, 'Lachrimae' is made up of seven sonnets headed by a passage from the Jesuit martyr-poet Robert Southwell: 'Passions I allow, and loves I suppose, onely I would wish that man would alter their subject and better their intent.' Elsewhere, old Spanish songs of sacred and profane love have provided the point of departure.

A great part of Mr Hill's impressive work raises the whole question of pastiche; namely, whether a poem which largely borrows the language-style and thought-modes of the past can be accepted as genuine art. Of course, I am distinguishing here between the inspired appreciation of the speech of the past and that tinsel-and-tawdry Wardour Street diction to which popular novelists have sometimes resorted. The answer, of course, depends upon the impact it makes upon the individual (we like a poem more for its personal appeal to us than for any objective merit we allow it). Thus, when Mr. Hill opens the first quatrain of his sonnet 'Lachrimae Amantis' with a burst of Elizabethan music, I can only stand by and applaud…. This gainsays the first proposition to modernism, ie that—as Rimbaud remarked—the poet should be essentially contemporary….

It has always seemed to me that one profitable future for time-honoured forms of poetry is, while maintaining the essence of the structure, to vary the rules governing it at one point at least. Thus Mr Hill favours the strict Petrarchan sonnet but allows himself the use of approximate rhymes: 'nakedness'—'kiss', 'foretold'—'child', 'fade'—'dread'—'blood', etc. By this means he combines constructional restraint and semantic freedom. In Mr Hill we have a poet whose skill is deft as his emotion is deep.

Derek Stanford, "New Poetry: 'Tenebrae'" (© copyright Derek Stanford 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 6, March, 1979, p. 34.

Alan Brownjohn

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It would be depressing if the work of Geoffrey Hill, who is unquestionably one of the best poets we have, remained the preserve of specialised criticism, however tenacious and revealing. This poetry does grip the attention, does appeal on a sensuous level, does reward the reader who is not dismayed by still not understanding after many readings.

Taking what is conceivably the "simplest" poem in Tenebrae,… "Florentines" has only five lines, and runs as follows:

        Horses, black-lidded mouths peeled back         to white: well-groomed these warriors ride,         their feuds forgotten, remembered, forgotten …         a cavalcade passing, night not far-off;         the stricken faces damnable and serene.

Starting (one might reasonably guess) from images of soldiers in a painting—the menace of the bared teeth of their horses caught his eye—Hill goes on to characterise not only the Florentine warriors in the picture but all immaculate and mercenary brutality riding towards the darkness of its own spiritual damnation. "Damnable", with its force on at least two levels (the men are damnable in themselves, and they may be damned), exemplifies Hill's astonishing capacity to contain within one word a variety of meanings which enlarge the range of a whole passage or even a whole poem. And in the other sense of that word, most of his poems are acts of containment: they grasp, and hold within themselves, huge themes which most poets could never cram into the kind of framework Hill chooses; they control them without reducing their power. At the same time, the tight structures which contain these subjects (including love sacred and profane, the persistence of history, the Jewish holocaust) tantalisingly seal them off.

How then to get at, obtain access to, the statements Hill is making in a volume like Tenebrae—which is probably less accessible, even, than any of his three previous books? One way to start is by forgetting, for the moment, the less helpful titles, the epigraphs and the notes, and going straight to the places where his forbidding power and eloquence immediately grip the attention. The thirteen-sonnet sequence called "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" is the heart of the book, but it's less about Christianity, or architecture, than about a certain distilled essence of Englishness, defined in different settings and times: "Platonic England" as Coleridge felt it…. On careful reading, a kind of ground plan of "Platonic England" unveils itself (like King Offa's Mercia in Mercian Hymns) in the imagery of the poems, even when its physical presence is lost under the ruins of the new estate, or locked in photo-albums, or crumbled into "disfigured shrines." Inside the series, and giving no particular problems of interpretation, are embedded a beautiful "Cavalier" lyric, "Damon's Lament for his Clorinda" in the bleak year of 1654 ("No sooner has the sun/swung clear above earth's rim than it is gone./We live like gleaners of its vestiges"); and a three-sonnet sequence called "A Short History of British India", which provides just that: from the time when "the rutting cannon" broke down forts and palaces (that one sexual image would have provided a whole poem for a lesser poet) to an age when all has gone, and only names remain…. This entire sequence is an amazingly rich and complex achievement. I find it more satisfying and rewarding than the pared-down and elegant "Pentecost Castle"; fine as its lucid effects are, they depend for their weight of meaning on a gravity and intricacy reflected from Hill's other work. Christopher Ricks has linked Hill with George Herbert; he is closer to Donne and Crashaw in his "Lachrimae" poems…. In Tenebrae, once again, Geoffrey Hill gives us a poetry that will only be fully explained by someone's closest attention and research. But it isn't necessary to read either long or laboriously to sense the impressiveness of a genuine and brilliant extension of a whole modern metaphysical tradition. (pp. 62-3)

Alan Brownjohn, "Fascination of What's Difficult," in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LLI, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 62-3.

Paul Breslin

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Geoffrey Hill has evolved [a] most unabashedly grand manner. Harold Bloom has called him "the strongest British poet now alive." He is impressive, though Mr. Bloom has overpraised him. In "Mercian Hymns" (1971), his sequence of prose poems, Mr. Hill often achieved a stark intensity of image and emotion that seldom emerges from the convolutions of his earlier, more formal poems. But now, in ["Tenebrae"], he has returned to the earlier mode. In its grip, he seems more intent on torturing his rhetoric into sublimity than on working out the stylistic implications of his material. "Tenebrae" deals with religious crisis; the difficulty of maintaining one's faith in a skeptical age. The poems treat this familiar post-Romantic theme with tremendous rhetorical energy, but without exceptional insight or subtlety. Consider "Martyrium," perhaps the best sonnet in the sequence "Lachrimae."… This poem is powerful, but a close reading uncovers more faults than further excellences. The vivid grotesquery of the first quatrain runs on one line too long. The imagery of the second quatrain is vague, and there are too many adjectives. The last two lines thunder excitingly, but less so after one looks up "vernicles."

I like Mr. Hill's work best when he does not make a direct run at the sublime but sticks to describing and telling…. When Mr. Hill attends to the discipline of perception as well as the discipline of traditional forms, he can be a wonderful poet. (pp. 19-20)

Paul Breslin, "Wary and Ironic," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1979, pp. 19-20.

Brian Oxley

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Whether one's faith is in the Word or words, God, man or the Muses, Tenebrae calls forth a troubled alleluia. For what is to be praised? God's Light, the lean luxury of human reason, or the festive brilliance of art? ["Tenebrae"] means shadows or darkness in Latin and in the Christian lexicon refers to the darkness at the crucifixion.] Is the darkness of the title our national apostasy, the shadows of middle-age, or obscurity that baffles understanding? If we receive the book as a choral celebration of sacred and profane Love, what are we to make of the character of such a Love in Hill's work as a violent and merciless assault? This book is Hill's most dreadful and abrupt commingling.

The book gathers-in and sharpens-up contradictions as if to make a sum of human disunity, revealing in such purposive concentration its formal design as a poetic way of the cross. It suffers the cross of disunity in order to become the integral substance that redeems and unifies. It comprises thorny contradictions. Is Christ, for example, a formal device created by human wit; or is he the Author of whose wit we are creatures, who ultimately brings all things into unity? the five sub-sequences of this sequence are open debates and open wounds; a formal stigmata.

Such apparent extravagance requires explanation. I should begin by making two points about King Log. In that book Hill sacrificed the notion of the poet as a visionary of Transcendent Form; the Blakean, and later the Yeatsian Formalism that underlay For the Unfallen. He committed himself to view the world existentially. But in dismissing the claim of poetry to know Transcendent Form, he left the way open to a 'purely formal' poetry making no claims to Transcendence. Secondly the title King Log points to a lack of a unifying centre. The book is like an incoherent democracy…. The spasmodic alternation of extremes reveals the need, if only in the realm of poetry, for a unity that can encompass the range of human contradictions.

These two ideas—the survival of the 'purely formal' and the need for coherence—come together in the Formal Engagement, the covenant under which he has worked since King Log. The phrase focuses into an area of mingled scepticism and mysticism his deepest concerns and uncertainties. It holds them in suspense between anticipation of what Yeats in A Vision called 'the marriage-bed', the 'love' that 'contains all Kant's antinomies'; and fear of a Victorian long engagement whose consummation is a figment of the imagination. On the one hand, in his engagement to form, the poet's only responsibility is to bring the exercise of technique, the creation of form, to the highest pitch. If the best form is religious, so be it: the poetry is to be a cold-blooded triumph of technique. On the other hand, if form is potentiality to be actualized, and since Christ's call is to a life of work in which he is made actual, the poet's cold-blooded exercise may be an obedient response to Christ's call in the sphere of poetry. Christ is the unifier, the breaker-down of barriers. In Christ—or the idea of Christ—the hermetically sealed and separated spheres (of poetry and criticism, art and society, speaker and audience) engage each other in a 'drama of reason'.

The distinctions (and the continuities) between the visionary formalism of For the Unfallen, the sacrifice of Transcendence of King Log and the Formal Engagement of Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae can be illustrated by changes in Hill's treatment of Time. In 'Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings' the co-presence of all time in the plan of God, the sea-rhythm of flood and ebb that governs history, and the chronological progress towards Judgement Day, are Transcendent Forms that the poet has 'seen' in the process of 'making' his poem. These forms are present in 'September Song' as inescapable associations, the smoke of a burnt-offering. One could, at least in part, reconstitute and construe from several clues—'Not forgotten', 'proper time', 'that end', 'vines', 'fires'—the religious poem that Hill chose not to write. The religious elements in the poem seem corruptions of language and perception, a part of our corruption, bad faith getting in the way of commitment to existence.

Mercian Hymns is committed to technique. The poem analyses and re-constitutes the linguistic forms of time which had been rejected in 'September Song' as unrealities not amenable to empirical application. They are still useful to the imagination in its creation of fantastic contexts. The poem makes the far, near and the near, far; it holds them in co-presence; it views history in terms of seasonal, cosmic and ecclesiastical recurrence, as well as in terms of historical and eschatological progress. As the poem super-imposes or weaves together different models of Time (synchronicity, rhythm, sequence) it dramatizes an open debate as to their status. There is a dual dichotomy between the 'purely formal' structure of Time and the contingency of temporal data; and between the cognitive function of these models of Time in giving knowledge of this world and the possibility that they give knowledge of Transcendence. This enrichment of Time is a triumph of a technique which is as thorough, logical and premeditated in many respects as that of a philosopher or a scientist. (pp. 285-88)

The trinitarian temporal architecture is a key to the formal unity of Tenebrae. The unity is three-fold. First, there is the unity of 'the return of the same', that recurrence of motifs and obsessions throughout the history of an art. Secondly there is the dramatic unity of a progress or quest, the development that transfigures what would otherwise be merely a series of repetitions and of metamorphoses into a history. Thirdly there is what Hill means by 'timeless colloquy', the return of history upon itself, the redemption of the wasted labour of the past. The serial voices of a chronological development join in a polyphonic chorus; timeless equals in a fantastic context which is itself the latest term in an historical series. Thus Tenebrae recreates an historical series of literary movements. It begins with a late-Mediaeval flowering of the Franciscan and Provençal traditions in Castile. Next it re-constructs the Catholic religious poetry of the Counter-Reformation. Turning to England it explores the maze of English religion from the dissolution of the monasteries to the present. The fourth section, the least structured of the book, reflects the splintering of modern Europe. The fifth section draws the sequence together, bringing the contradictions and transformations into the sharpest/closest disunity/unity. And in this section the history returns upon itself, goes back to its contradictory origins, in Section 7's echoes of the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi, and Section 8's use of classical allusion. (pp. 288-89)

Brian Oxley, "Geoffrey Hill's 'Christian Year'," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 29, No. 3, July, 1979, pp. 285-92.

Donald Hall

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Hill's poems are complex in syntax and lexicon, dense with allusion to literature of the past, to English history, to European history and religious thought. American poetry, over the twenty years of Hill's publication, has largely moved into simplicity of diction and grammar, and into discourse which has rid itself of allusion: a poetry largely without history, founded often on notions of historical discontinuity, sometimes on defiant ignorance. These purities have made a powerful American poetry, though it is possible that their utility has exhausted itself; but I do not contrast Hill with American practice in order to beat the one with the other. I call attention to the contrast because it is great enough to make Hill appear all but unreadable—pretentious, affected, impenetrable, reactionary—to Americans unfamiliar with, say, English religious poets of the seventeenth century.

Actually, American readers looking for a door into Hill need not go so far away; early influences on Hill were paradoxically American: Allen Tate, for instance—who went to school to the seventeenth century—and early Richard Eberhart. Geoffrey Hill even resembles the young Robert Lowell of Lord Weary's Castle, not because Hill learned from Lowell, but because both poets departed from Tate. Still most contemporary Americans will be put off by Hill when they first read him. We must approach him acknowledging that he is alien; we must remain undeceived by contemporaneity, or by the apparent similarity of English and American languages. Only by admitting his distance may we come close enough to Hill to love his poems and make use of them.

Hill's major subjects, out of which his poems weave a continuous cloth, are erotic and spiritual love, history as suffering, and the lives and deaths of the martyrs. His poetry is suffused with religion, but it is not a poetry of belief; it is a poetry of struggle and pain, obsessed with Christianity in which it takes no comfort or solace. History is England first, by means of various archaeologies from a half-mythical Mercia to nineteenth-century factories and twentieth century motorways. Through ecclesiastical history Hill's time recedes backward—as his language sometimes approaches Latin—as far as Calvary. Europe is Roman or Holy Roman, with local tribes speaking their Frankish and Anglish dialects. But Anglish indeed prevails: toward the end of the Mercian Hymns, he told us about a grandmother "whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in a nailer's darg."

Hill's martyrs begin with the Saints from Sebastian through Southwell, and continue to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They are not only Christian; the overwhelming event of modern history is Hitler's final solution; contemporary suffering and martyrdom center on Dachau and Belsen. And many martyrs elegized are the twentieth-century poet-victims of tyranny: Mandelstam, Desnos, Hernandez. This history is real, yet it fulfills some of the functions of myth. As C. H. Sisson says in an essay about Hill, both history and myth are "repositories of the common experience which gives meaning to what we feel as individuals." Although the poems are strongly emotional, they are general rather than confessional. When Hill doubts his martyrs, we understand that his scepticism is self-directed, but we do not hear details of his life.

If he doubts the motives of martyrs—that ecstasy of submission—or his own motives for lamentation, he doubts everything. Self-mistrust is the slogan on his shield, and he entertains no subject without suspecting his own entertainment…. If Hill takes poetry as seriously as anyone alive, he doubts in particular that part of himself that takes poetry seriously—"the tongue's atrocities." (pp. 102-03)

In mentioning Hill's concerns, I have left sexual love until last; it is strongest of all. Of course it is intertwined with suffering and suspicion and everything else, but this is a poetry of sensuality as well as sensuousness. The natural world in Hill's poems is fecund and thick with the blood of sex, wounds, and sexual wounds, both attractive and repellant, "an earth of sickly richness" Jeffrey Wainwright calls it. I am aware of no recent poetry which more belongs to the body, both in its texture of mouthy rhythm and in its imagery, yet it is also a poetry repelled by body.

In general, it is a system of such oppositions which creates Geoffrey Hill's poems. (pp. 103-04)

To read Hill you must immerse yourself in his actual language, because its quick alternations of tone, its sudden and frequent reverses, work to prevent paraphrase; no sooner do you think that you have accomplished paraphrase than you realize that you have allowed a qualification to escape notation; it is like trying to summarize a Beethoven quartet. I find myself considering music's kind of statement, when I read Geoffrey Hill—the way music in its articulated structure of pitch continually abolishes itself, sketching the way by traveling, rubbing itself out as it travels. Flailing about for analogies, I think also of a literary image from atomic physics: a billion particles in constant motion, like the desk I write on, find stasis in contradiction. If C. H. Sisson compares Hill to Crashaw in his fastidiousness—"a mind in search of artifices to protect itself against its own passions …"—I find Hill's passions perceivable in the mind's desperate artifice, and not beyond it. And if in the end he has contradicted everything that he has said, including his own contradictions, he has made an articulated structure, or representation, of the modern mind unable to find rest or resolution, defeated and beautiful in stillness. (p. 104)

Donald Hall, "Naming the Devils," in Poetry (© 1980 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXVI, No. 2, May, 1980, pp. 102-10.

Thomas H. Getz

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3212

Particularly to American readers, Geoffrey Hill's poetry may seem slightly anachronistic. Providing perspective on history, with perspective which is itself historical, the poems provide a striking contrast to much contemporary American poetry with its emphasis on the present moment or on the poet's past but only as far back as his own childhood. The poems are not about the world we already know but about some of what we should know—what we should remember—if we are to gain imaginative perspective on our contemporary situation. The poetry comes out of a sense of communal relationship—of the past and the present, of one human being and another, of a person and his God—and it is deeply ethical. The mark of Hill's integrity is his acceptance of the pain involved in examining the forces of historical process and of religious imagination that break apart the contingency of man and his world. For Hill, and for the reader who gives sufficient energy to the poems, the pain is in the act of creation itself, because Hill demonstrates allegiance to the elements of corruption and doubt which impede the flow of his creative impulse as well as to the elements of community and faith which encourage the flow. In this respect, Hill is an eminently modern poet. He does not back off from his own confusions or feelings of inner dividedness, but instead finds images for the causes of confusion and dissolution. He senses fully and writes out of an awareness of the nearness of creation and corruption; thus his energies are divided in his best poems between metaphors for man's ability to sustain a humane society and metaphors for the forces which work toward the dissolution of that society.

The painfulness of this kind of poetry, which comes from what the poet sees and from the reflective act itself of drawing that vision into poetry, is evident in two of Hill's most impressive poetic sequences: Mercian Hymns (1971) and Lachrimae (published in Tenebrae, 1978). Taken together the sequences demonstrate two completely different kinds of human suffering, and the demonstration is presented through two radically different languages. In Mercian Hymns, possibly because the manipulations that cause pain and degradation are a function of the distance between a despot and those people he controls, the mind creating the poems, the mind in the act of creating images of suffering, is not itself suffering. In writing the sequence, Hill found a language and a way of thinking that allowed him to blend medieval West Mercia and modern West Midlands with astonishing ease. In the poems he draws myth through his own sensibility, presents characters as though they were aspects of his own personality, feels physical nature as an extension of his body. His personality seems expansive enough to include radically different human and physical natures. There is no direct expression of revulsion. The evaluation of manipulation is there, but only implicitly. The poems in Lachrimae, in spite of their formal accomplishment, are much more immediately painful. They are essentially the fervent expression of a man exploring the darker regions of religious doubt. The formalism of the poems is an attempt to control chaos, but also, in its rigidity, a symptom of the depth of the confusion and the precariousness of the faith at the core of the vision. The act of writing the poems and the experience of religious doubt are virtually the same thing. (pp. 2-3)

All of Hill's poems are individual acts of perception and reflection expressed in the image and rhythm of a particular language. We can only read Mercian Hymns by learning the language from the poems themselves. The poems are most interesting when the reader attends to the quality of individualization and the quality of language, which is itself an almost physical act of archaeology, the creation of an idiom that digs out an imagery of the past and articulates it as contemporary.

It is possible at places in Mercian Hymns to distinguish clearly the language of medieval West Mercia from the language of the modern West Midlands. As Hill speaks it, eighth century alliterative verse sounds like this:

   Fortified in their front parlours, at Yuletide men      are the more murderous. Drunk, they defy battleaxes, bellow of whale-bone and dung….

The basis of this is the Old English four-stress line, given emphasis by alliteration. Here the alliteration crosses the enjambment: "men/are the more murderous"; and at times two patterns of alliteration cross each other: "Drunk, they defy battle-/axes, bellow of whale-bone and dung." It is without question the Old English pattern dominating the conversational voice of the contemporary poet. At times purely contemporary rhythms of conversation are also heard…. But usually a new idiom is formed. Hill utilizes a pattern of ordinary contemporary speech, but invests it with an unusual clarity and sensitivity and also a heavy physicality…. [This idiom] creates a language capable of evoking a thousand years of England's history. The cumulative effect of this style is that of coherence—the stress and alliteration almost completely smoothed over so that they remain merely as resonance—a subtle reminder that the English voice used to be a more muscular physical resource…. The physicality of the language of Mercian Hymns forms a nexus between Hill's subject and his attitude toward that subject, and is one of the unique achievements of the sequence. For example, when Hill simply names things and places,… one has a sense that the poet (as Hill said of Yeats) "is hearing words in depth and is therefore hearing, or sounding, history and morality in depth." Hill continues, "It is as though the very recalcitrance of language … stood for the primary objective world in one of its forms of cruelty and indifference; but also for the cultivation of that other objectivity, won through toil…." (pp. 3-5)

Violence is more easily performed from a distance, as modern technology makes clear, and the sense of distance and violence together dominates Mercian Hymns. Authoritarian distance, as in social manipulation, and personal distance, as in psychosis, have their roots in the pre-technical individual, and it is this sense of an actual human being that Hill dramatizes by participating in and also criticizing [the personality of Offa, medieval King of West Mercia]. Offa often displays the fascistic combination of impersonality and the urge to cause and witness violence….

Through most of Mercian Hymns Hill speaks, with Offa, in a language which pulls into itself the style of both medieval and contemporary England. The language and the attitude of which it is the articulation is both homogenous and ambiguous. It is homogenous because the disparate elements are not yoked violently together but felt, by Hill's protean but coherent sensibility, as coeval. The language is ambiguous because Hill's attitude toward Offa—particularly his criticism of Offa's violence—is not fully camouflaged by the language: his indignation reverberates in the silence which surrounds the speaking voice. In XXV the indignation rises to the surface and informs the rhythm and tone of the description. We are made explicitly aware of the consequences of authoritarianism for the modern world. (p. 9)

If the poems of Mercian Hymns stand as a warning of the tendency of authoritarianism to spread and to destroy the spirit of a people through economic manipulation and torture, they are also a demonstration and celebration of the rich resources of language and imagination, which if used with individual integrity, can shape a creative future out of the rich soil of the past. (p. 10)

In Hill's newest book, Tenebrae (1978), the difficulty of religious faith becomes a preoccupation. As in Hill's earlier religious poems, Christianity in the poems in Tenebrae—particularly the sequence of seven sonnets called Lachrimae—is associated with the crucifixion and acts of martyrdom, as though human sacrifice were a cynosure of the basic feeling of Christian belief. Possibly because the martyr (St. Robert Southwell in Lachrimae) attempts to renounce life on earth as a means of attaining oneness with God, Hill, trying on the persona of martyr, is encouraged to do the same. The sense of renunciation expands into the poetry itself. There is not the almost physical interaction of subject and object as in Mercian Hymns or some of the earlier social and historical poems. For Hill, faith can only engage the language as that which is longed for but not fully assented to. Whatever the language approaches "vanishes in the chaos of the dark."… The language of verbal incarnation falters and is replaced by a more formal language which establishes a sort of autonomy for the poet. The danger is that, with the finely shaped form of the sonnet and an imagery of balanced paradox, the poet will turn the problematical quality of his Christian faith into seven emblems of the difficulty of full belief—into seven "tears" ["lachrimae"], into syntactical figures of the poet's estrangement—whereas the ideal for the martyr would seem to be human formlessness, dissolution of the personality, oneness with God. These attempts to shape forms of doubt may be self-indulgent. Jeffrey Wainwright has noticed the relationship between self-concern and martyrdom. He points out that even as the martyr aspires to an indifference to earthly life, he "is making, composing his life, there is the ambush of contrivance of some sort, of design, which therefore partakes of earthly existence and its sophisticated ironies." The dilemma is that in writing the poems, Hill may be indulging in the very act of composition that will articulate his doubt but further enclose him in his own ego. There is an equally serious problem concerning the substance of the poetry. By focusing on the act of martyrdom or crucifixion—a self-denial that is human sacrifice—Hill sees Christianity in the most violent way imaginable. A lot of the interest of the poems comes from his struggle to attain a sensible, humane, personal relationship with Christianity while focusing on its least palatable feature. Hill's awareness of the difficulty of genuine self-abnegation of the contradictions involved in adopting a worshipful attitude toward human sacrifice makes these among the most painful poems he has written. (pp. 10-11)

The first sonnet is full of guilt, pain and confusion. Hill finds no ease as William Empson does in getting out from under the burden of the Son's crucifixion by criticizing the sadistic impulse of the Father—His neo-lithic appetite for human sacrifice. Hill's lack of faith leads to a feeling of torture. He senses that he should turn away from what he does, and there is some self-abnegation in "surrendering the joys that they condemn," but he does not quite know why he should turn away in Christian terms, which are the terms that obsess his imagination. Once the poet fully imagines the crucifixion, it is as though he is dominated by it even though he feels none of the benefits. He implicates himself in the idea that Christ is crucified as a result of the failure of men to let Christ dwell in them; such oneness would remove the need for the act of crucifixion. So the poet feels that he participates in the crucifixion historically and through making the poem: "This is your body twisted by our skill."

There are several images of the relationship between the poet and Christ, but each image subserves the ironic distortions in that relationship…. In his dreams the poet sympathetically joins Christ on the cross, but the setting is hell, and the shared feeling is that of "eternal loss" rather than redemption. His would be a martyrdom without hope…. [It] is precisely because of the poet's lack of faith that Christ, being the incarnation of God in man, must remain connected to man. Christ, unlike God, depends for his existence on man's sin. (pp. 12-13)

In the third poem Hill returns to the appeal of martyrdom. The image appears to be of one martyr (stanzas 1, 3, 4) listening to the cries of other martyrs (stanza 2)…. The sonnet is the fullest examination in the sequence of the religious meaning of "passion": Christ or a martyr allowing himself to be persecuted as a demonstration of incarnation and the desire to transcend incarnation to a oneness with God. But the poem itself judges the idea. The martyr is presented as sinking completely into himself en route to the sought-for oneness with God…. The indication is that he is "self-withdrawn" (a phrase Hill will use in the fourth sonnet), that his passion is merely his own (looking ahead to the fifth sonnet: "self-wounding martyrdom, what joys you have"). The martyr's attention is fixed on the sensual moment…. Although the martyr is being persecuted for love (of fellow men?) and although he has his scruple about making us more afraid than we already are by transmitting to us the martyr's cries (line 8), we realize with astonishment that he probably does not hear those cries—so completely has he lapsed into himself. Hill's image brilliantly performs the manner in which at the moment of death the martyr's senses of vision and sound fuse—"the hiss of shadows on the wheat." It is, in fact, this collapse into the immediacy of the moment which frees the final two lines to float off like a balloon. The final two lines are empty, bodiless, insubstanial…. "Vernicles" throws us back to "Jesus-faced," and it is at this point that we realize the full significance of the opening image. Remembering the imprint of Christ's face on St. Veronica's handkerchief, we realize that the martyr, in dying for Christianity, "takes on" Christ's face, in the act of giving up his own face. He becomes a sort of vernicle himself. As the vernicles rise in the summer air, the martyr fades out of himself just as he has faded among the "fading tapestries" in stanza 2. In spite of the horror of the execution which is suggested … the whole poem is faint and insubstantial, as though wafted by a breeze out of the poet's grasp. This is caused by the martyr's fear of betraying himself to our fear. He suffers his self-abnegation. (pp. 15-16)

The fifth sonnet is a morass of paradox. Expressing a core of bleak despair, the poem nullifies itself…. The poet finds himself in the void, the dark chaos; but instead of trying to articulate that void, he names the available forms: "ascetic," "opulence," "moveless," "dance," "silence," "sound." This is thought become stasis, active straining after belief nullified, a retreat…. There is a strange sense of wonder in "Pavana Dolorosa," but most of it comes from the stunned awe with which the poet himself realizes how much of a formalist he has become. Not able to remain facing the abyss of the preceding poem—"If I grasp nothing"—he becomes, through the stylistic balance of his phrasing and logical balance of his paradoxes, the very "hunter of forms" which he names. The self-directed sarcasm and sense of pain are strong here because the poet realizes that his hunting after form is "self-seeking" just as martyrdom is "self-wounding," even though the martyr appears to be "true-torn" in contrast to the poet's ease. This poem is the most dismal of the group, since there is at least genuine struggle in it. The poem is a "fictive consonance," but it is consonant because it excludes genuine feeling in favor of the form of formalism. In other words it is fictive—a surface display, a lie—rather than fictional—a manifestation of the poet's implication of his full self in his act of making the poem. Genuine martyrdom is out of reach for the poet. At this point it seems that his fate is to fade in the midst of paradox much as the Jesus-faced man "fades … among the fading tapestries." Each of the final four lines of the poem presents a paradox, each neatly balanced in the form of the line…. (pp. 17-18)

The sixth sonnet can be seen as a series of subtle preparations for the dismaying ironies of lines 11 and 14…. Since his crucifixion, the Lord has lived "unseen," and so, in a sense, has encouraged man to falsify himself in relation to him—"the judas-kiss/of our devotion"—and to pile up the gold in tribute…. The fault, then, can by a process of rationalization be attributed to Christ. The fact that penances can be foretold ensures that they will be used as a means of commercial exchange. And it is this same sense of materializations and commercialization which causes the icons—removed from the spiritual source of their beauty—to fade.

The central issue is the use to which dread can be put. Ironically, dread feeds triumphalism. In fact fear and dread are apt to contribute to any number of forms of misguided religious energy: judas kisses, golden calves, iconography. (pp. 19-20)

[The] irony is unrelenting. Through communion one dominates Christ, takes him into one's own body and blood, and also convinces oneself that one gains dominion over life.

There is a feeling of clarity, strength, and possible comfort in the final sonnet that is surprising until we realize that it was the feeling of being carefully attended to that has been the true substance behind the ironic negation of the preceding six poems…. Hill does feel that he is still the subject of Christ's love. It is evident in the straightforwardness of the first question and in his ability to imagine, with compassion, Christ's quest of him in the second question. The poet's compassion for Christ—stated simply as one man's concern for another—affects the sound and rhythm, pulls them completely away from the paradoxes built on tortuous doubt of the earlier poems. Up to this point Hill has held himself "religiously secure" in a way which has paralleled his image of the Lord as "unseen within that nakedness." The agnostic and the believer in Hill have tortured each other, both held on the rack of conscious doubt. Here for the first time, Hill turns genuinely away from himself, allows himself to be seen, even talked to, by an angel, while asleep.

The concern expressed in the octave becomes the "urgent comfort" of the sestet. The fact that the angel presents his message through a dream is completely appropriate: the heart is least "religiously secure" while asleep because least dominated by conscious mentality.

But "Lachrimae Amantis" is no pure culmination and resolution even though it is the most hopeful poem of the sequence. If there is "promise" in the poet's drowsy response to this minor annunciation in a dream, there is the "remorse" in the implicit awareness that if "tomorrow" ever comes, the dream and the wakeful reality may not interanimate each other…. This sort of balance in Hill, articulated in the paradox and formalism of these poems, is the troubling but, for Hill, necessary character of his religious poetry. His incomplete faith, dense with self-regard, does not show him God fully figured in Christ, and so his own language and imagery are half-given, drawn from the sixteenth century, continually baffling themselves with the sense of the "chaos of the dark" which is the one certainty for this poet. (pp. 20-1)

Thomas H. Getz, "Geoffrey Hill's 'Mercian Hymns' and 'Lachrimae': The Language of History and Faith," in Modern Poetry Studies (copyright 1980, by Media Study, Inc.), Vol. 10, No. 1, 1980, pp. 1-21.




Hill, Geoffrey (Vol. 5)