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.)
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 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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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.
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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...
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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...
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