Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2720
Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom allows American readers to follow, in one volume, the complete poetic work of an earnest, important young Englishman who is at once immersed in the tradition of English poetry and wholly original. Hill’s three works, all of them slight in bulk, have earned for him critical acclaim, and election, at age forty, as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The earliest poems here date back to the poet’s twentieth year, and the most recent represent his work on the brink of forty.
For the Unfallen, originally published in 1959, contains twenty-nine poems, several of them long ones. King Log (1968) offers only seventeen poems, and Mercian Hymns (1971) consists of thirty one-page poems. Whatever poetic virtues Hill has, he is not prolific. His earning such high critical regard on the basis of so few poems suggests that precision and compactness are among his chief virtues.
No matter where one begins to read Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom—beginning at the first page is a good idea—these poems will terrify and delight. They are strong fare, not recommended for the reader who seeks easy answers or uplift. A strong vein of Christian orthodoxy informs them all, but even Hill’s orthodoxy is calculated to disrupt the merely normative Christian circle. His gods are gods of blood, and the Mysteries of the Faith keep coming back to disturbingly real, disquietingly bloody events. His view of things is strictly Augustinian and unlikely to appear Christian at all to a world caught up in a soft blur of distinctions.
Hill’s poems are anything but occasional or topical. One welcomes the collection of poems lacking confessionals, poems written on a friend’s birthday, or poems vaguely revealing the poet’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with public events. The eighty-six poems here tell us practically nothing about Hill; nor do they tell us the circumstances and daily tedium of the years of his life. One gets no sense, for instance, of the dissolution of the British Empire during Hill’s lifetime. Nor does one hear of the comings and goings of the Royalty, the Prime Ministers, or the various social/political leaders who have affected the national destiny. One hears nothing of Gandhi, nothing of the Beatles.
The earliest poems in Hill’s book were written in 1952. The poet was twenty; World War II had been over for seven years. Nevertheless, Auschwitz looms large in Hill’s work; human suffering matters to him. Missing are those social observations a Stevie Smith delights in, those recollections of times past dear to John Betjeman. A Donald Davies, older and perhaps wiser, takes time to look at manners and morals, but Hill’s concerns take in all times. In Hill’s poems, even Auschwitz lacks grandeur; it is not unique, merely recent. Other poems cite Auschwitz’ equals in horror, though their action occurred at early, relatively unprogressive periods of our collective history. “Funeral Music” in King Log celebrates multiple beheadings and shows us “reddish ice” tinging the reeds. “Then tell me, love,” says Hill, “How that should comfort us—or anyone/ Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,/ Crying to the end ’I have not finished.’”
For Hill, man is at once the “connoisseur of blood” and “the smitten man.” History tells it all, and Hill is too objective to claim special suffering for himself and his contemporaries. The personal intrudes into Hill’s work scarcely at all, though one must finally judge him a very private poet. Privacy, however, suggests neither self-indulgence nor obscurity. Hill’s privacy arises from concern with internal quests, self-imposed riddles. He shares his preoccupations with writers and philosophers of many ages, and his work at once confirms the urgency of his quest and its futility. Hill takes his epigraph from the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician speaks of man’s mind running “from place to place, and time to time” seeking “what he hath lost.” Hill recognizes that he, and modern man, have lost something; his poems document his effort to isolate “where and when” that special something was lost.
Above all else, Hill’s poetry achieves the degree of generalization possible for the writer steeped in experience. He achieves his generalization not by denying the local and immediate, but by placing it next to the exotic and antique. Though Harold Bloom chooses to compare Hill and his work to Blake, one could as well demand comparison with the great Augustans, those writers likely to admire Shakespeare not for creating Romans but for reminding them of men. Hill shares other qualities with the Augustans. He delights in language precisely and sparely used, and he delights in wit—though never at the expense of meaning.
Such precision as Hill’s ends up baffling. Where nothing is left over, nothing is extra, the very elegance of utterance suggests something more, something not grasped. The something is mystery. The hint of mystery sends the reader back to the lines, the words, the images. The words and images in Hill’s first two books seem so tightly controlled as to be impacted; the lines operate within so rigorous a logic that they seem frozen, static. One marvels at their subtle interlockings, but recognizes that they might as well be carved in stone. Their elegance tends to close the reader out, but exclusion still allows emotional response.
In his early books, For the Unfallen and King Log, images startle because their language strains plausibility, and they seem, at once, wholly arbitrary and devastatingly innocent. A poem in For the Unfallen, for instance, concludes with a section called “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” in which the martyr is described as “naked, as if for swimming.” This circumstantially wrongheaded observation lends pathos to the death, which the saint catches “in a little flutter/ Of plain arrows.” The notion of the sufferer “catching” his death throws the reader wholly off guard. The adjectives “little” and “plain” hint at death’s dimunition because of the homeliness of the agents. Such perceptions remind one of the traditional rendering of Sebastian’s martyrdom, while expressing everything in oddly childlike terms. The event becomes, at once, familiar and strange.
The longish poem, “Of Commerce and Society,” contains “Variations of a Theme,” of which Sebastian’s death is a part. In the poem’s structure, Hill charts things to come in his latest, most distinctive, and most difficult work—Mercian Hymns. The earlier poem forces the reader to abandon his normally linear time and accept a world of all-at-once. The title of the first section of the early poem achieves the kind of anachronism Hill attempts to “explain” in the 1971 book; the title is “The Apostles: Versailles, 1919.” In the same section, he introduces the poem’s unifying motif—the sea—replete with contemporary and mythic implications. The last line speaks of the sea creaking “with worked vessels,” thus allowing recall of the Gospel’s fishermen as well as the commercial ships of the present.
Recurring sea imagery unifies “Of Commerce and Society,” but Hill’s time-frame will not be still. One section is called “The Death of Shelley”; the next alludes to Auschwitz; and the next is about the sinking of the Titanic and alludes to Babel. The final section, introducing Sebastian “naked as if for swimming,” bears two subtitles: “Homage to Henry James” and the biblical quotation “But then face to face.” The poem convinces that time need not be sequential and linear.
Time’s persistence and pervasiveness account for much that initially confuses in Mercian Hymns. What the poet knows or imagines is present, and in Mercian Hymns Hill chooses to imagine England’s West Midlands as they were in the eighth century and as they are now; presiding over the short, direct-discourse prose poems is King Offa, who—as Hill tells us—reigned over Mercia from 757 to 796. In what seems an explicit comment, Hill identifies Offa with the “presiding genius of the West Midlands.” The long poem may appear a hodge-podge of then and now, but the poet’s sense of economy insures inclusion of elements from both times likely to endure in the imagination. In some very real ways, Hill is Offa, and the poem contains his most personal statements to date. His obvious research, accompanied by notes to the poem, provides needed distance.
A boy growing up lives in these poems, and he lives simultaneously with the man the boy becomes and the questing poet the man becomes. Offa never quite lives in the poem, but he emerges as an important presence. The poems shift from third-person to first-person and back again; their terse narrative gathers authority from poem to poem, and Offa seems indeed a spirit, a presiding genius, through whom somebody speaks. The poem’s landscape shifts, too; sometimes, the medieval is all we see, then the schoolyard and cloakrooms intrude and the bonfires made of beer crates. These intrusions remind one that the poem’s consciousness is a poet who has grown up with the twentieth century. Legendary elements (yew and holly), archaic words and names demonstrate how the past persists in the boy/poet’s imagination.
In Mercian Hymns, Hill continues the questions raised in his earlier works, but for all his distancing, he has come a step closer to the immediate and has affirmed anew the truth of the imagination. In his Introduction to Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom, Harold Bloom predicts that the poet will return in later verse to “the tighter mode” of his earlier volumes.
Such a turning back seems unlikely, for Geoffrey Hill has found the Kingdom announced in his book title. Mercian Hymns, as Bloom recognizes, is about the poet and what he knows, either from tradition or direct experience. What Bloom regards as the “tighter mode” of the earlier books demands of the poet a discursiveness, an object-orientation which seems downright didactic compared to the accomplishment of the most recent book.
Bloom’s Introduction dismisses Hill’s “mostly American” influences as “merely extrinsic,” prefering to regard Hill as a poet “wrestling with the mighty dead.” Nevertheless, those American influences are there in number; Hill acknowledges them freely. His book title comes from John Crowe Ransom, and his long poem “Of Commerce and Society” opens with six lines quoted from Allen Tate. How extrinsic these influences are remains open to debate; influences upon idiom, diction, and syntax, and upon one’s sense of the medium itself, tend to shape one’s poetic sensibility too. Poems are not ideas; treating them as such is Bloom’s heresy.
Bloom’s list of the “mighty dead,” though clearly those poets continue to shape poetic utterances, seems exclusive for all the wrong reasons. Why is it better that a twentieth century writer show Blake’s influence than, say, Ransom’s or Tate’s? Bloom also detects “visionary intensities” in Hill and attributes them to Richard Eberhart’s influence; those intensities might well be Hill’s own, though Hill’s subject matter and versification sometimes allow glimpses of poets as different as Hopkins and Auden. Invoking these poets scarcely aids appreciation or comprehension of Hill’s work; neither does Bloom’s reiteration of Blake as the starting-point for practically everything. Bloom’s Introduction may reveal more of the critic’s preoccupations than the poet’s.
Bloom’s Introduction will not help Hill secure the widespread audience his work deserves. Despite his importance, Hill is unlikely, at least during his lifetime, to be more than a poet’s poet, or a classroom poet—and that mostly on his side of the Atlantic. Bloom, moreover, has obfuscated Hill’s importance by thrusting him, prematurely, into a largely academic range of meaning. The poet’s struggle with tradition represents the poet’s problem, not the reader’s. What Bloom regards as central to Hill’s technique and meaning produces a yawn among undergraduates.
Hill’s true strength arises from his commitment, both obvious and poignant, to life and the living. What Bloom calls his “strong poetry” serves to express Hill’s pity and fear for the human race in its march through horror after horror. Not for a moment does Hill suggest that suffering and death are the worst man may suffer, but, like the greatest of his predecessors, he hurts with humanity and seeks to discover that pain and death may mean something.
In his first book and first poem, “Genesis,” Hill recites the six days of Creation. On the fifth day, God turned again “To flesh and blood and the blood’s pain,” for, as Hill writes, “There is no bloodless myth will stand.” In “God’s Little Mountain,” he is unable to stand the “winnowing eyes” of angels and falls and finds the world again. Finally, though a poem named “Holy Thursday” clearly intends an allusion to Blake, Hill’s poem allows the discovery that “our constant myth and terror” becomes gentle when we risk enough.
King Log opens with a poem called “Ovid in the Third Reich,” yet another reference to the horrors of 1939-1945. Significantly, “God/Is distant, difficult” and the poet has learned one thing: “not to look down/So much upon the damned.” He recognizes that they “harmonize strangely with the divine/Love.” One of Hill’s longest poems in that book (“Funeral Music,” ostensibly for three noblemen beheaded in the fifteenth century) affirms belief in “Abandonment, since it is what I have.” The poem’s final section asks how the sameness of human experience (“all echoes are the same/In such eternity”) should comfort us.
From the beginning, Hill’s poems have suggested the “consumption” of poetry as the consumption of sacrificial flesh (“Annunciations,” for instance, in King Log). Another of the fine poems in that book, “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz,” ends with the protagonist caressing propriety “with odd words,” enjoying abstinence “in a vocation/Of now-almost-meaningless despair.” Here, then, are others of Hill’s genuine horrors—the Word unspoken, the life half-lived.
Hill’s American publishers have done him and their readers a disservice in printing Mercian Hymns without the epigraph which appeared in the original British edition of the poem. Perhaps Hill withdrew the epigraph himself, or approved its withdrawal, but that seems unlikely from a poet as punctilious about his work’s printed form as Hill seems to be. (Hill appended a note to King Log in which he expressed active dislike for one of his earlier poems and described publication of the revised poem as “a necessary penitential exercise.”)
Harold Bloom’s Introduction to Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom alludes to the epigraph of Mercian Hymns and its significance, without observing that the book he is introducing omits that epigraph. The omission—which saved a page—weakens the book, though perhaps it does not damage the poem as a poem. Bloom writes that the epigraph “analogizes” Hill’s conduct “as private person” and Offa’s “conduct of government.” The epigraph does more and less than Bloom says.
The epigraph is attributed to C.H. Sisson, poet and essayist. The single paragraph places the conduct of government and of private persons on the same foundation, but distinguishes between government’s methods as having all the difference of a “man acting on behalf of himself” from one “acting on behalf of many.” The present publicly recognizes only the method, thus evading “the more difficult part of the subject, which relates to ends.” Inclusion of Sisson’s statement calls attention to a difficulty “no less ours than it was our ancestors’.” It also suggests that contemporary concern with procedures and methods may blind the individual or the society to the ends those methods serve.
The last four poems in Mercian Hymns treat “The Death of Offa,” though none dramatizes, or narrates, that death explicitly. The last poem tells us that he appeared “to walk toward us,” then vanished, leaving behind “coins for his lodging, and traces of/ red mud.” Geoffrey Hill, Offa, and Everyman still must pay their dues, rendering unto Caesar, but they leave behind progeny, artifacts, and humus. As in the early poems, Hill still tries to “demonstrate Jehovah’s touchy methods”; he and Offa are connoisseurs of blood, the smitten men, and he knows still that “At times it seems not common to explain.”
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 38
Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, February 11, 1976, p. 23.
Nation. CCXXI, December 6, 1975, p. 600.
New Republic. CLXXIII, November 29, 1975, p. 25.
New York Review of Books. XXII, January 22, 1976, p. 3.
Poetry. CXXVIII, July, 1976, p. 232.
Sewanee Review. LXXXIV, July, 1976, p. R96.
Yale Review. LXV, March, 1976, p. 425.
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