Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings Analysis

Geoffrey Hill

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)