The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 493 words.)