Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom
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,...
(The entire section is 2720 words.)