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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1885

What are readers to make of the tortured, vatic utterances of this most laconic of contemporary poets? Some of the difficulty in Geoffrey Hill’s work has to do with an ambivalent attitude toward readers, his sense of being “in the enemy’s country” or in the “steam of beasts” when it comes to writing for even an intelligent, well-educated audience. Understanding Hill’s poetry often depends on the reader’s willingness to explore the arcana woven into the terse fabric of his verses. The new poems in this collection make reference to very obscure facts of English, Polish, and Russian history, as well as such documents as John Colet’s marginalia to Marsilio Ficino’s Epistolae or somewhat better known works as Grotius’De Jure Belli ac Pacis. This is not to say that moments in the fine-hammered lines do not achieve the status of immediately powerfulmelopoeia or develop something of their own mythos. The involuted stanzas and sometimes beautiful lines still may not quite be worth all the trouble to the reader that they obviously were to their learned and skilled author.

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Another aspect of the difficulty Hill presents to the reader has to do with his confrontation of the important problem of the relationship of poetry to religious experience. Hill has described this relation in his own poetry as “a heretic’s dream of salvation expressed in images of orthodoxy from which he is excommunicate.” Thus Hill gives readers the form of Christian religious poetry with a highly ironic and tortured relation to the content. In this respect, he is like many modern poets who want to be religious but are embarrassed or troubled about it because of something such as original sin, self-irony, or a desire to be original. He loves the old icons, the older and more obscure the better, because they have not been vulgarized. This could be seen or heard in Hill’s first and famous poem “Genesis,” which imitates in its meters Christopher Smart’s magnificentSong to David. Hill, however, measures the distance between himself and Smart’s ability to merge the political, poetic, and religious in the heroic figure of King David. Instead readers find the modern poet “Crying the miracles of God,” instead of praising Him and his anointed psalmist. Does “crying” mean proclaiming (or, perhaps, inventing) or does it meaning lamenting or even screaming about the “flesh and blood and the blood’s pain,” and realizing that “no bloodless myth will hold.” Hill always points to Christ’s blood and suffering as the way to freedom, even as he also seems tortured by the ideal of martyrdom as well as religious commitment to church or state. Ultimately, poetry is a limited form of sacrifice that becomes a dangerous illusion if taken too seriously, and is at best a slight and brittle monument to the vast metamorphoses and suffering in history.

The thirteen new poems in this volume that he has added to hisCollected Poems focus on the sacrifice of public existence and the irony of placing the hope of futurity and sacrifice in state or nation. This is not a new theme in Hill, whose poems, particularly the Mercian Hymns, have addressed the relationship of the individual to the nation’s, specifically England’s, history and an uneasy tension between worldly kingdoms and the Kingdom of God.

The most striking of the new poems is a four-part piece entitled “Churchill’s Funeral.” The poem is not really an elegy for Winston Churchill, but a meditation on the price ordinary men pay for service to a state ruled by a heroic warrior. It begins with a meditation on the longing for the kind of noble music suited to a great nation. Instead, its five parts focus on the wounded of World War II, “the men hefting/ their accoutrements/ of webbed tin, many/ in bandages.” The real antecedent to this poem has to do with another Churchill, John Churchill, Lord Marlborough, the seventeenth century English general who was so successful in the campaigns against Louis XIV, and about whom Sir Winston wrote a multivolume biography. Hill recalls Jonathan Swift’s biting poem, “A Satirical Elegy on the Death of a Late Famous General,” an attack on John Churchill, Lord Marlborough. Swift considers how many, particularly Irish, had to die to fulfill Lord Marlborough’s military and political ambition:

Behold his funeral appears,
Nor widow’s sighs, nor orphan’s tears,
Wont at such times each heart to pierce,
Attend the progress of this hearse.
And what of that, his friends may say,
He had those honors in his day.
True to his profit and his pride,
He made them weep before he died.

Hill has fewer reasons to be contemptuous of Churchill than Swift did Marlborough, but there is some sense of irony about the sacrifices the common man makes for the state as well as the disintegration of the empire’s power after World War II. Hill’s meditation focuses more on the way the state becomes the temple of sacrifice of human life, and he seems to question whether that sacrifice for res publica has anything to do with the immortality of the human soul. The question returns to Blake, to whom Hill alludes, and the tension between Jerusalem and Albion, the heavenly and worldly states and their dangerous confusion.

In “Canaan,” England’s defeat of Germany in World War I is given the somewhat parodic and grotesque character of the onward march of Christian soldiers: “They marched at God’s/ pleasure through Flanders/ with machine pistols, chorales, cannon/ of obese bronze,/ with groping pushcarts,/ to topple Baal.” What seems to be the Allied triumph in the first part is balanced in the second part of the poem by the cruel recoil of Nazi Germany’s atrocities of World War II: “Now it is/ Moloch his ovens/ and the dropped babes naked/ swung by an arm/ or a leg like flails.” Hill’s language moves suddenly between the mythic and the immediate detail to create a chilling image of history’s horrors. “Canaan” is followed by the complex lyric “Respublica,” a meditation on the recurring power of the idea of the state. It begins, as does the Churchill poem, with music as the metaphor for the state: “The strident high/ civic trumpeting/ of misrule./ It is what we stand for.” The final phrase is typical of Hill’s best ambiguity—is the state something humans put up with, or merely represent, or literally stand up for, like school children before an anthem? The “destroyed hope” of Respublica “is brought with triumph/ back from the dead.” The “trumpeting” and recalled archaic laws and hymnody are the nostalgia upon which public life and nationalism are founded, often as a dangerous substitute for Christian faith and belief in the resurrection of the dead.

Hill has been better on national nostalgia and history in earlier poems, most particularly his eight meditations “Funeral Music” from King Log(1968). Focused on victims of the War of the Roses, it is filled with horrifying images of England’s cycles of bloodletting: “Once/ every five hundred years a comet’s/ Over-riding stillness might reveal men/ In such array, livid and featureless,/ With England crouched beastwise beneath it all.” He describes the demonized frenzy of a nation beheading three of its own “ ‘In honorem Trinitas’”: “Fire/ Flares in the pit, ghosting upon stone/ Creatures of such rampant state, vacuous/ Ceremony of possession, restless/ Habitation, no man’s dwelling place.” In “Churchill’s Funeral,” the great church monuments are set in contrast to the burnt offerings of lives during the London bombings: “Stone Pieta/ for which the city/ offers up incense/ and ashes, blitzed// firecrews, martyrs/ crying to the Lord,/ their mangled voices within the flame. . . .” Within many of the new poems, there are images of renewal if not resurrection in the rebirth of flowers at the scenes of war or in the breaking apart of monuments and statues into ruins. In the final poem, “Sorrel,” which Hill lets us know is associated with what is common and also with sorrow, this “perpetual ivy burrowed by weak light,/ makes carved shapes crumble: the ill-weathering stone/ salvation’s troth-plight, plumed, of the elect.” Is this an ironic statement about the fantasies of nations as elect entities being broken apart by the course of nature, or does it promise glimpses of salvation in an empire’s ruins?

As always in Hill there is some uneasy, ironic attitude toward the possibility of “beatitude,” “salvation,” and “resurrection,” in that Christianity is always a painful impossibility in a world governed by warfare and destruction. “Scenes with Harlequins,” another of the new poems, recalls Hill’s depiction of history in “The Mystery and Charity of Charles Peguy” as a murderous clown, rehearsing new scenes. One section is a hymn or justification to a statue of the “Beautiful Lady,” presumably the Virgin Mary, but concludes that the world veers between the Lucretian secular gods of creation and destruction: “Now it is gleeting Venus/ who so decrees and now it is parched Mars,/ Beautiful Lady.” The fact that humans still have a desire for eternity in the transformations of worldly existence strikes Hill as a worthy mystery but one that, at best, resides not in language but in silence. The palimpsest of history should be left behind, just as the old language of religious debate often led only to bloodshed: “Of Rumor, of Clamor,/ I shall be silent;/ I will not deal in the vatic exchanges/ between committees,/ mysticism by the book./ History is aglow with bookish fires.” This section of “Scenes with Harlequins,” concludes by pointing to a deeper silence associated with resurrection (“arisen”) which has been rumored to be real, paradoxically, “heard of”: “Exegetes may come/ to speak to the silence/ that has arisen. It is/ not unheard of.” From the suffering described at the beginning of “Churchill’s Funeral” comes a silent music: “nobilmente it/ rises from silence,/ the grand tune, and goes/ something like this.” Yet “the grand tune” must be something just outside of the poem, which “ghost’s” toward its fulfillment but never formulates in fixed meters on the page.

The hope that Hill conveys in these new poems is that in transience, the passing away of life and its creation, in the cycles of history and of nature, there are moments or interludes when one has glimpses of immortality, beatitude, or resurrection. So there is in Hill the continuing alternation of “praise and lament/ praise and lament” in the poem “Cycles,” in memory of the great classicist and translator William Arrowsmith. In “Sobieski’s Shield,” there is “purple garish-brown/ aster chrysanthemum/ signally restored/ to a subsistence of slant light/ as one would venture/ Justice Equity/ or Sobieski’s Shield even/ the names/ and what they have about them dark to dark.” Sobieski, the Polish-Lithuanian general who led Poland to her one brief moment of ascendancy in modern history, becomes—along with his imaginary shield, not unlike Achilles’ in The Iliad—a metaphor for a momentary world of glory and restoration between the violence and tyranny of history’s recurring darkness.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXVIII, November 1, 1993, p. 97.

Poetry. CLXV, December, 1994, p. 165.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, January 17, 1994, p. 428.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, March 27, 1994, p. 1.

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