from The New Criterion, September 2016
Geoffrey Hill was the major English poet of the last half of the twentieth century. Hill’s intransigence, his clotted difficulty, his passion for the redolent fineries of English landscape—he eyed the woods and fields like a plant hunter—have stood in magnificent solitude. Among the poets long set for A-level examinations in Britain, Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes, good poets in their way, had neither the depth nor the irritating brilliance of Hill—both Gunn and Hughes seem poets of their day, with the manners of that day. That’s the fate of most poets—for many, their highest aim. Hill was never on the syllabus.
That Hill from the start was trying to escape his time—perhaps to wrestle his way out—was apparent in the coiled syntax and lush imagery of his first books, For the Unfallen (1959) and King Log (1968):
The Word has been abroad, is back, with a tanned look
From its subsistence in the stiffening-mire.
Cleansing has become killing, the reward
Touchable, overt, clean to the touch.
Now at a distance from the steam of beasts,
The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn
(Each specimen-jar fed with delicate spawn)
The searchers with the curers sit at meat
And are satisfied.
These were the poems of a young man at odds with the Movement, but the influence of the Metaphysicals (and of poets as rarely embraced, at least on such terms, as Southwell and Blake) showed that Hill had set himself tasks that made most of his contemporaries look like the pale imitations they were.
The death of a great poet leaves a gap, even an abyss. (It’s remarkable how many poets once considered great end with a period, not an ellipsis. What afterlife has de la Mare enjoyed, or John Masefield, or Stephen Vincent Benét?) In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot famously remarked,
the existing monuments [of art] form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.
As of literature, so of poets. After a death, those remaining form a new order, their relation to each other forever changed. Indeed, it is by sensing that alteration that we realize greatness has passed—like the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus that marked the presence of an unknown planet.
Which deaths over the past century have had such effect? The modernists, of course, though their careers ended long before they died—before obituaries were written for Eliot, Pound, Moore, Frost, and Williams, their absence had been calculated and digested. (Stevens died closer to some of his major work, but perhaps after a certain age a poet writes posthumously.) Who else, then? Yeats. Auden. Lowell and Bishop, certainly. Heaney, of a generation younger. Now Hill. (In a more minor register, Larkin. Plath, after the publication of Ariel. Berryman, perhaps, though his influence was fatal to poets who tried to form a School of John.)
Hill’s father was a police constable in the market village of Bromsgrove. The poet came, certainly in the private myth of his making, from the old stock of nailmakers. Similar stock once provided the bowmen at Agincourt, their skills passed through families, with nothing ahead but a twisted spine, muddy death, some gristly pride. Hill’s hardbitten splendor was a wound in the blood, in other words.
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone.
[“An Apology for the Revival of Christian
Architecture in England”]
His poetry was recognized even at Oxford, where he took a first in English, as exacting and formidable—forged not in new language, but in an older language still glorious, but indrawn, out of key with his time (in Pound’s phrase), and in key with times long past, as if Donne or Vaughan had been drummed out of the seventeenth century and into the twentieth. Indeed, in Mercian Hymns (1971) Hill hauled the ashes of King Offa from the Dark Age of the Midlands to dump them in the Dark Age of modern England. The poetry of stony certitudes, glistening with primal ardor, fertile but intellective, yet often dry (though not so dry as late Eliot), had only a small clutch of readers from the start.
Hill wrote “memorable speech,” Auden’s definition of poetry, which like all such definitions casts a net too broad. (Pilfering the phrase from Arthur Quiller-Couch, Auden left out “set down in metre with strict rhythms.”) Hill created his own world—or the rhetoric and style that required a world. If you wished to enter, you had to accept its terms—the contract demanded a measure of punishment. It was hard for him to imagine a poetry that did not tax the reader’s intelligence. He armored the poems against loss of attention and therefore made them hard to attend to. For poetry that often left a touch of religion at the edges—Christianity variously rejected, scolded, hedged—some sacrifice was necessary. His second wife, an Anglican rector, said that her husband knelt at the altar, “communicant but resentful.”
The wise men, vulnerable in ageing plaster,
are borne as gifts
to be set down among the other treasures
in their familial strangeness, mystery’s toys.
[“Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints”]
After the age of sixty, we all live in penalty time—but his gift allowed Hill to remake himself at the outset of great age. When the clockworks of most poets are winding down, Prozac proved a specific against throttling depression, releasing him from the trammels. He became what earlier he might have sneered at—industrious. We are rightly suspicious of poets who pour ink onto the page, yet the fluency of Byron is very different from the fluency of Southey. Wordsworth had workaday grace when young but only facile and disastrous ease in old age. Shakespeare—well, Shakespeare. Yet with Hill, even when he wrote rapidly, the poems seem dragged from the depths. (Recall that line from bad police-procedurals, “Order the men to drag the harbor.”) I imagine that he reacted to the onset of the late work with some elation, and some alarm—he was the sort to feel that every silver cloud had a lead lining.
Above Dunkirk, the sheared anvil-
head of the oil-smoke column, the wind
beginning to turn, turning on itself, spiralling,
haped on its potter’s wheel. But no fire-storm:
such phenomena were as yet unvisited
upon Judeo-Christian-Senecan Europe.
[“The Triumph of Love”]
Looking over the wreckage of the later books, especially the Daybooks composed over the last decade of his life, it’s hard to imagine a race of readers that could find much beyond the browbeating and caterwauling. Hill became a voice crying in the wilderness, like an Old Testament grandee—prophet, I mean. Short passages rise beyond the sensibility of the vexed, hermetic mind that composed them—as if the sharpened pales Hill erected against the common reader, the reader he so often held in contempt (let’s face it, the common reader is a poor judge of what will last), had become a stronghold the poems could rarely escape.
This might equally be a description of the ravaged landscape of Pound’s Cantos—local beauties abound, but apart from the early cantos, and others in a limited way, the willful obscurity and vast stretches of sludge have not grown more attractive since his death, however thoroughly the poems have been excavated. The work for Hill went far enough until it went too far. You can fail to seduce a reader by despising him, but you should not despise him for wanting to be seduced. And yet. And yet.
After the torrent of the last poems, book after unlikely book wallowing forth—growly, leg-pulling, sometimes tortured into rhyme, obscure as Linear A (or were the poems closer to the Kensington stela or the Spirit Pond runestones?)—suddenly the millwheel stopped and the millrace was closed. Perhaps someone, somewhere, is preparing a Key to All Mythologies to explain poems almost immune to the reader’s eye (as Hill, if we believe him, seems to have desired, though beneath every resistant child lurks a desire for love). What they offer is so partial, so demanding, at best they might come to have the reputation of Finnegans Wake—preposterous, brilliant, but who but an Aquinas can find the time? The grim pride did Hill no favors.
The great work, the work likely to last because it can be read with stony-eyed (but not stony-hearted) pleasure, will be the best of the early poems, the shocking swerve of Mercian Hymns, the magnificent long poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and, among the books of the Flood, Canaan, The Triumph of Love, The Orchards of Syon, Without Title, and A Treatise of Civil Power, books more focused if not easy to compass. After publication of his collected poems five years ago, Hill lapsed into the quietude—perhaps, in his case, a fraught quietude—that often befalls poets in their eighties. He became Grand Old Mannish in his last years, with his Brillo of white beard and a straw hat only slightly larger than a hubcap. Then there was a quiet click as he slipped out the door.
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The New Criterion
Editor & Publisher: Roger Kimball
Executive Editor: James Panero
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