Geoffrey Hill’s poem “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings” is one of a series of lyrics in an elegiac mood which appears in an early group of poems ironically entitled For the Unfallen (1959). The requiem focuses on events and figures of the turbulent medieval period dominated by the formidable Plantagenet rulers of England, (1154-1399), and postulates a curious, paradoxical vision of them that questions the one-dimensional view given by history (which is concerned with cause and effect).
The ironic tone of the poem is immediately evident in the title, since the premise that these restless and energetic kings could ever rest in peace seems a contradiction in terms. A requiem (rest), the introit to the service for the burial of the dead, seems almost precipitant, since the Plantagenets’ influence extended far beyond their mortal lives.
Nevertheless, the poet does constrain them tightly and succinctly in a sonnet form, although varying the rhythm of the usual iambic pentameter and freely employing half-rhymes. The bonds are burst as well in the opening four-line stanza of general observation, usually reserved for the conclusion of a sonnet. Indeed, the lines might stand as a terse epitaph, but they lack the abstract elegance and formal diction usually associated with such a commemoration. There is no flattering summary of the Plantagenets’ lives and deeds as soldiers, lawgivers, or champions of justice; there is, instead, a suggestion of the wild, wasteful prodigality not only of their lives but also of the age in which all victories seemed Pyrrhic. Despite the “Ruinous arms” (line 2), the death, and the blood, there did emerge the concept of the just war (for good or ill) and the idea of an order, called the state, achieving constitutionality. If history is a book read backward and is the final judge, the first stanza suggests a temporal evaluation of the reigns. “Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood,” despite the traumas of life and the kinetic frenzy of the period.
The Plantagenets, often given to violent outbursts of temper and rash action, were determined to possess and keep their inherited lands on the continent, but the kings of France were equally determined that they should not. In a contest of wills, the legality of the Plantagenet claims became a spurious excuse for what was essentially a matter of pride, rapacious greed, and the joy of proved arms.
In the second and longer stanza, their temporal roles fulfilled and temporal judgment pronounced, they lie, entombed in the dust and decay of their mortal frames. “Relieved” now of their souls, they await yet another judgment. All the pride of arms and vitality has been translated into a panoply of past glory and the frozen beauty of Gothic chantries where men praise their lives and where monks—whose services have already been recompensed—pray in perpetuity for the repose of their souls. Only doomsday will render the higher judgment of their actions, when “the scouring fires of trial-day/ Alight on men.”
In a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet, Geoffrey Hill creates a web of diction whose complexity is very like that of William Shakespeare’s own. The irony, however, which gives an enigmatic quality to Hill’s work, is singularly his own.
Irony, “the act of dissembling,” is not intended in this poem to mislead or obscure but to subject the Plantagenets to a prismatic light that catches a fuller portrait than is afforded by a simple reading of historical events or a formal biography. Startling and oblique, the facets of the prism reveal not only a multitude of accepted views of their reigns but also the emotional, psychological, and...
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intellectual response of the poet, thus becoming fused in the experience which is the poem.
The prism is largely, and most frequently, a product of the exactness of the poet’s diction. This is not to say that only a single meaning can be read in it, but rather that its precision and compression—so that the ambiguity of the word refracts—allow many meanings to coalesce. In the first line of the poem, for example, the curious image, “the possessed sea,” presents not only the primary image of the sea but also the unexpected adjective, “possessed.” How so possessed, becomes the question that can be answered only in the hint of at least two diametrically opposed ideas. Certainly the poet means, on the one hand, that the Plantagenet kings thought of themselves as owning the English Channel, which stood between them and their French possessions; on the other hand, the kings were also peculiarly “possessed” by it, in the sense of being obsessed with their rights to the land often denied them. Furthermore, the term “sea” for the English Channel may allude to the Caesars, who thought of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum (“our sea”), thus suggesting their grandiose ambitions, even, perhaps, mastery; it may also, possibly, be a reference to the exalted opinions the Plantagenets had of themselves. The irony is most pointed when considered in context of the last lines of the poem, implying that the “sea,” after much carnage, really possesses them all—all who were venturous enough to seek to possess the other shore.
This intricate ambiguity of diction is matched only by the poet’s agility in the use of the metaphor (implied comparisons). It would seem the height of irony, for example, to refer to the “chantries” as “caved.” The very ornateness of the church architecture, however, so surprisingly compared to a cave, elicits the recognition that caves were the first burial chambers of primitive man. To compare them here, therefore, is to impose a dimension of humanity upon the otherwise formal distancing in the deaths of kings. Since the conclusion of the poem is decidedly Christian in tone, it should be remembered that the bloodied body of Christ was placed in something very like a cave; thus, the image links all humanity with the divine. The poem concludes, as it began, with the image of the sea, a traditional symbol of eternality into which the print of the “daubed rock” (blood?) tells of the Plantagenets’ passage in the flux of time.