The Orchards of Syon

by Geoffrey Hill
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1676

Although he emigrated from Great Britain to the United States, Geoffrey Hill remains a poet whose roots and subject matter, with rare exceptions, are English. The Orchards of Syon consists of seventy-two twenty-four-line meditative internal monologues about dreams that become imperfect visions about the passage of time, impending death, memory, and religion. Hill, perhaps the least known of the major postmodern poets, works with a tradition associated with writers such as T. S. Eliot (1888- 1965), whose essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent” stresses the continuity of a dense, morally serious Christian poetry in English literature. Indeed, Hill’s poetry has always looked to the past and been tied to history, and his poems are permeated with allusions to past writers and events. Those images of the past are made contemporary in the course of the poems. In style, Hill resembles Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), another Christian poet, in his use of marked stressed syllables and breaks within the line and in his use of polysyllabic Latinate words. Other writers who figure prominently in the poems are William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Herman Melville (1819-1891), Thomas Mann (1875- 1955), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), John Donne (1572- 1631), Petrarch (1304-1374), Dante (1265-1321), Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), whose pen-and-wash drawing of the setting of his novel The Rainbow (1915) adorns the cover of Hill’s book. In that drawing Lawrence depicts the two worlds of his novel: in the foreground the organic world of the farm, and in the background the sordid, mechanistic world of factory and town.

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In The Orchards of Syon, Hill features three mythic worlds. The world of Syon, reminiscent of the Mount Zion of the Bible, is unchanging and contains “tenebrous thresholds/ of illumination”: not final answers, but ways to them. The orchards represent the idealized world of the imagination. For Hill, the orchards of Syon are “burgeoning in that dream which is called vision/ and naming.” Hill, however, elsewhere speaks of these orchards being despoiled and suggests that they may no longer exist: “I/ wish greatly to believe . . . that the Orchards of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.” The first poem in the volume asks, “Tell me, is this the way/ to the Orchards of Syon/ where I left you thinking I would return?” In a sense, the poems are Hill’s attempted journey back to Syon, but as the last words in the volume suggest, the trip does not provide final answers: “Here are the Orchards of Syon, neither wisdom/ nor illusion of wisdom, not/ compensation, not recompense: the Orchards/ of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.” Neither the mythical orchards nor his book of verse provide illumination; readers must provide the “harvests,” their own individual readings or insights. Unlike his predecessors in the Christian tradition, Hill seems to lack their faith and seems intent on adjusting to the Western post-Christian world. Like the bird/poet of Robert Frost’s “The Oven Bird,” he ponders what to make of a “diminished thing.”

The other two mythical worlds are Goldengrove and Vallombrosa. Goldengrove (from Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall”), the second world in this book, is the “shuttered/ lantern of nature” and resembles the farm in Lawrence’s The Rainbow: Hill describes “the refueling/ autumns of Goldengrove.” At times the orchards of Syon and Goldengrove seem distinct; at other times they seem similar: “In the Orchards/ of Syon that are like Goldengrove/ season beyond season.” Vallombrosa, used before by both Dante and Milton, is associated with “shade/ and shadow places, valleys of dwale-drunk sorrows.” This is the modern world, figuratively the valley of the shadow of death of Psalm 23, a world linked to Lawrence’s factory town. In his seventy- first poem Hill depicts a “chequered” country with “her quiet ways of betrayal,” tourist’s souvenirs, and crowded skies.

Hill’s first poem serves as introduction to the volume. Although he may discuss mythical worlds, music, literary criticism, and past heroes, the volume is also about the writing of poetry: “You have sometimes said/ that I project a show more/ stressful than delightful.” This apt commentary on his poetry, that the “show” (his poetry) produces more stress and even bewilderment than it does “delight and entertainment,” cautions his readers. Using his hands, he can project representative shadows on a wall, but the references to “confabulat[ion]” (replacing fact with fancy) and “shadowed rhetoric” imply the presence of subtexts beneath the surface, both on the wall and in the poems. The link between shadow play and poetry is made by “this shutter/ play among words.” Asking the reader’s permission to proceed, the poet speaks of taking his “belief, of only through a process” to “divert with faith and fiction” to “ease” the journey through the next seventy-one poems. He is staging a dream/journey, “La vida es sueño,” and dreams and memories occupy much of the book. In fact, the poems seem dreamlike in their associative nature. Images follow images, sometimes without a discernible connection, as if Hill were unwilling to impose the kind of order (regular meter, rhymed stanzas) he used in poems written before 1998. Hill has himself explained that when he wrote his earlier poetry he was suffering from obsessive- compulsive phobias that made him a perfectionist intent on exercising rigid control over his material. To combat the chronic depression that accompanies perfectionism, he told an interviewer from The Paris Review, he has been taking Prozac. Readers of his verse must piece together (perhaps “harvest”) sentences, incomplete sentences, foreign expressions, syntax problems with modifiers, and a daunting vocabulary, including archaic and scientific terms. A dictionary will not suffice. What is needed are the notes and comments such as those Eliot made when he published The Waste Land (1922), notes similar to the ones Hill included in his earlierThe Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983).

The sixty-fourth poem illustrates the problem facing Hill’s readers. Hill begins, “This is my shoelace. That is bobbled clover.” These appear to be certainties, but the meaning of “bobbled” is not clear. Recourse to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) produces “adorned with woolly balls”; a modern meaning would be “botched.” Six lines later, he tells Memory, his companion, that what he sees is not “clover; even more tenacious,/ tight like plantar warts or splayed pseudopods/ that gardeners gouge and burn from lawns.” The relevance of the psueudopods, feet attached to larvae (OED), and plantar warts is not clear and seems unrelated to the reference to the “eximious” (labeled “now rare” and defined as choice or select in the 1933 OED) “STARRY VERE” of Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). Melville does not surface again until fifteen lines later, after Hill has castigated those who can hardly tell “prelude from postlude, postlude from intermezzo” and mentioned Coleridge, complete with Fancy and Imagination, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611). The last seven lines seem to be the focus of the poem—Melville’s susceptibility to his writing public and his frustrated writing ambitions—but even here there are problems: Melville has a “stupent heart.” “Stupent,” a word apparently coined by George Bernard Shaw, may mean amazed or dumbfounded, and if Hill is using it in this OED sense, then Melville is a pathetic, bewildered figure whose insights have been left for Nathaniel Hawthorne to “excogitate” (decipher). Hill concludes, “I’ll name/ my own late fanciesDream Children if not—/ just for the shine on it–Prospero’s Farewell.” What seems to emerge from these strands is a linking of Coleridge, Shakespeare, Melville, and Hill, writers whose works cannot be properly appreciated by most readers. The last lines also suggest that Hill facetiously considers alternate titles for The Orchard of Syon, his “late [recent] fancies [poems].” His poems are “dreams”; now that he has created, like Prospero (often seen as Shakespeare), a territory that he manipulates, he may, at seventy, be considering a poetic “farewell.”

Several poems in the book deal with aging, and the book as a whole is autumnal, if not wintry. In the twenty-ninth poem, Hill writes, “I tell you, ageing is weirder by far/ than dying; and vision loses out/ to wandering speculation.” The poem, set during the Christmas season, ends with a series of images that suggest the cheapening and commercialization of the nativity season: “chain-store tawdry profiles and all, les roismages[the Magi] presented as presenting.” Ten poems later Hill writes, “I repeat: ageing/ is weirder far than our dying.” He describes his life as “so nearly at an end,” and speculates about the future, which he sees as consisting of awarding book prizes while his own recognition is postponed. This mood continues in the forty-second poem, in which “I stand bemused/ by labours of flight.” Herons, gulls, and crows fly, but their flights are futile, retreating, or self-destructive, and the succeeding lines are replete with images of grief and death. Hill ends his twenty-third poem in a similar vein: “Last days, last things, loom on: I write/ to astonish myself. So much for all/ plain speaking. Enter/ sign undersignum, I should be so lucky,/ false cadence but an ending. Not there yet.” Here there is another reference not only to his writing, but to the dream journey and the volume of verse. As for the “plain speaking,” surely Hill is being facetious, or if his words apply only to why he writes, he is commenting on the inadequacy of “plain speaking.”

All of the poems in The Orchards of Syon challenge readers to exert themselves as Hill has, and many of them are worth the effort. Despite his substantial critical reputation, he remains unknown to the general public and to many literature teachers. His stature will undoubtedly increase as scholars provide the kinds of notes and explications necessary to an understanding of his work. Considering the resignation and ranting one finds in this volume, it will be interesting to see where his next volume goes.

Sources for Further Study

Commentary 113 (June, 2002): 56.

Library Journal 127 (February 15, 2002): 148.

The New Republic 226 (May 27, 2002): 30.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (April 14, 2002): 20.

Publishers Weekly 249 (January 21, 2002): 85.

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