Two themes are interwoven in the text of “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings.” The first of these, a traditional motif, sic transit gloria mundi (“thus passes the glory of the world”), is a poignant recognition that all in the material world is subject to the depredations of time, which shows little mercy to man or his works. The Plantagenets lie “secure in the decay/ Of blood,” as the poet observes.
The plaint appears in the early doom-laden poetry of the Anglo-Saxons (The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Ruin, c. mid-eighth century) and continues as a familiar theme in English poetry. It is particularly suited to medieval sensitivities, since the bitter contrast of splendor and squalor, of dream and reality, the ideal and the base, was acutely painful. The juxtaposed images in the poem, for example, of the gross reality of war, as in “the sleeked groin, gored head,” and the grace of the “well-dressed alabaster” by which the Plantagenets were remembered, harmonize by a strange, subtle metamorphosis which time and art can also mercifully unfold. Geoffrey Hill suggests that the transmutation by art of raw experience preserves something of man and his work.
Inextricably linked with the first theme is an exploration into the paradoxical nature and meaning of history with which Hill struggles and returns to in his later works, King Log (1968) and Mercian Hymns (1971). Like other poets of the twentieth century, he has been compelled to accommodate to the findings of twentieth century physics, particularly the relationship of space and time and its unsettling implications for reading, writing, and understanding history. It is the tension created when the older views, traditional and religious, form a Gordian knot in “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings”; the ambiguity of Hill’s diction, unresolved and complex, mirrors not only his own, but twentieth century man’s bewilderment and uncertainty.
On the one hand, to paraphrase Heraclitus, if you cannot step into the same river twice—that is, you, like the river, are changing from moment to moment—then history can only be history of that moment; hence, the poem, with its simultaneity of presentation. The ultimate reality of the world is change. On the other hand, if humankind is the instrument of a greater transcendental will, it may be part of a larger design whose meaning is obscured in the divine. The question is, then, were the Plantagenets ministers or scourges of the divine will, or were they simply the flotsam and jetsam of the flux of time? Geoffrey Hill’s closing of the poem would suggest that only the end of time can possibly reveal the solution to the puzzle.