Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, Geoffrey Hill’s work is defined by his working-class upbringing (his father and grandfather were police officers), his early memories of World War II, his views of European history, and his Christian vision of the world. Hill, who is deaf in one ear, was educated at Bromsgrove High School. He went on to attend Keble College, Oxford, where he studied English literature and first began to publish his poems. After graduating from Oxford, Hill taught at Leeds University for the better part of three decades. During this time, he also taught in Michigan and Nigeria. After leaving Leeds University, Hill taught at Emmanuel College and Boston University. He retired from Boston University in August, 2006, and assumed the title of professor emeritus. A revered poet, Hill has published numerous poetry collections, including The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) and Canaan (1996). The Triumph of Love is widely considered his finest work.
Hill is popularly considered an inaccessible poet, a poet whose work can be appreciated only by a chosen few. This speaks to a profound decline in cultural literacy, as readers are less and less willing to invest themselves wholly in a work of literature. Like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Hill is a poet who demands every bit of his readers’ attention. His work is littered with majestic and esoteric allusions and with foreign words and phrases. To the common reader, Hill’s unannotated work is murky, but to the curious and invested reader, his work is rich and rewarding.
The Triumph of Love is no exception to this rule. It seems to have divided readers and critics. A profound work (and a profoundly difficult one), The Triumph of Love is a book-length poem that spans 150 cantos and seeks to make sense of the explosive and violent twentieth century. It is a meditation on ruination and forgiveness, and Hill confronts the great questions in a dark and humorous way. Hill’s humor stands in direct contrast to the bleak subject matter, but he has chosen his sharp-tongued persona as a means of indicting all purveyors of wreckage, all enemies of love. As the poem builds in intensity, Hill’s speaker grows angrier and angrier, promising “thirty/ vicarious rounds of bare-knuckle.”
The poem is a great challenge, no doubt. Struck by the force of Hill’s language, the reader is immediately pressed into action. The epigraph from Nehemiah 6:3 introduces the notions of distance and separateness that inform the poem. The speaker is self-conscious and, at times, absurd. His reflections waver between manic glee, disturbed invective, and gentle questioning. Even the reader who is lost in Hill’s thick language, in the narrow maze that he has constructed, finds something to celebrate here: the sense of urgency and solemnity that inhabits these lines. In this poem, Hill calls on Petrarch, simultaneously paying homage to him and announcing that he is working in the same tradition. He writes:
Vergine bella, as youare well aware, I here followPetrarch, who was your follower,A sinner devoted to your service.
Yet the work is not solely indebted to Petrarch. The title itself calls to mind Edward Holmes’s 1902 sonnet sequence and H. B. Hoffman’s epic of the Great Northwest from 1923, both called The Triumph of Love. Still, Hill draws his greatest inspiration from Petrarch and from biblical writers such as Daniel and Ezekiel, and he also owes an obvious debt to Marivaux’s Le Triomphe de l’amour (pr., pb. 1732; The Triumph of Love, 1994), a work first performed in 1732. Like Marivaux, Hill dismisses lust for leisure and pleasure, slothfulness, and other sinful behavior, as he sets out to prove that love alone can tame brutish humanity and heal the world.
Hill’s triumph in this grandiose poem is his vision of the twentieth century as tragic, as the ultimate representation of the universe’s cyclical nature: Violence begets violence writ large. Modern war is enormous, atrocities inescapable, and forgiveness and redemption real. Hill looks to the time before our time for answers to the questions we no longer seem capable of answering: Why are we here? What is this function of poetry? Where and how can we see God’s hand at work in the world? Hill knows that the answers lay well in the past, in the ecstatic and genuine belief of our ancestors, our exemplary models of faith and endurance. The twentieth century, Hill writes, is a “fire-targeted century” that has spawned a new generation of ignorant and contemptuous victims. Indictments such as this do not leave us without hope, though. We are never far from understanding that there is solemn and serious work to be done, that there is something to atone for or someone to console.
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