The Triumph of Love

by Geoffrey Hill
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1359

First published: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998

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Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry; meditation and contemplation

Core issue(s): Faith; forgiveness; good vs. evil; love; memory; redemption

Overview

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.

Christian Themes

Though the fact is often overlooked, Hill is a Christian with a profound understanding of theological thought, and like Ernest Hemingway’s priest in A Farewell to Arms (1929), he knows that it is through suffering, through defeat, that humans become Christian and ultimately persevere as Christians. On that note, Hill’s primary function in The Triumph of Love is to promote human endurance, to declare (in a very mystical manner) that love always—even when the most bestial acts are being committed—conquers evil.

Hill is deeply concerned with exultation and mysticism, and he heartily identifies with writers such as Saint Augustine, John Milton, and William Blake, wildly exuberant and mystical figures who also confront notions of redemptive faith. Hill’s Christianity is evident in his understanding of justice, judgment, and forgiveness. He writes: “To know all/ is to forgive all.” Significantly, Hill’s concept of sympathy stems from his understanding of forgiveness. He states that Christians must be engaged, that they must suffer, and that they must, at their core, be sympathetic to those who mourn instead of angry at the aggressors. In this manner, Hill acknowledges that humans must have “daily acknowledgement/ of what is owed the dead.” This is a sentiment that ties him to other Christian writers whom he greatly admires: Charles Péguy, Georges Bernanos, Saint-John Perse, and Paul Claudel.

At one point in The Triumph of Love, Hill expresses the desire to “grasp once, in emulation,/ work of the absolute, origin-creating mind,” an expression of the most basic Christian ambition: to understand God and his work, if only for a moment. Knowing his limits as a human, Hill settles on seeking out some sort of religious experience in this most secular of ages. He prays for “our arrival/ at a necessary salvation.”

Addressed to the Virgin Mary (“Vergine bella”), The Triumph of Love offers a Christian vision of guilt and redemption, and it is an attempt to reconcile the evils of the past through gentleness and understanding. Most important, there are 150 cantos in the poem, and it should be noted that the same number of Psalms are in the Bible. This is not mere coincidence, as Hill draws much inspiration from the Bible, calling on Daniel and Ezekiel and Ruth, deeply influenced not only by their stories but also by their literary styles. Like so much of the best Christian literature, The Triumph of Love is, finally, a song of praise.

Sources for Further Study

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Geoffrey Hill: Modern Critical Views. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom declares that Hill is the strongest British poet active at the time.
  • McNees, Eleanor Jane. Eucharistic Poetry: The Search for Real Presence in John Donne, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Geoffrey Hill. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1991. McNees’s exploration of the Christian notion of presence in Hill’s work, as compared with poets with whom he shares much in common.
  • Milne, W. S. An Introduction to Geoffrey Hill. Vol. 3. London: Agenda/Bellew, 1998. An introductory account of Hill’s work.
  • Roberts, Andrew Michael. Geoffrey Hill: Writers and Their Work. Tavistock, England: British Council & Northcote House Educational, 2004. This introductory account of Hill’s work combines close readings of poems with reviews of critical debates.

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