Geoffrey Hill: The Corpus of Absolution

As Reviewed By: Ernest Hilbert

Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill. Counterpoint Press, 2002.

Geoffrey Hill is so categorically admired by those who read him regularly (and they do not comprise a great horde) that it seems simply a matter of time before one will begin to hear of a “Hillian corpus” as one sometimes hears of an “Aristophanic corpus”. His reputation fully grounded and affirmed by the late 1970s, when he published Tenebrae, Hill was, like Philip Larkin, known as anything but prolific, having published merely three slender volumes in twenty years. This worked finely to his advantage, as he has never admitted to surrendering a position or regretting a single word. So, It is impossible not to remark upon the number of books he has completed and presented to the public since 1992, including New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992 (1994), Canaan (1997), The Triumph of Love (1998),Speech! Speech! (2000), and most recently The Orchards of Syon (2002).

[private]Hill, who lives in Boston, returns in summer to the British midlands, where he was raised. His most widely read book, Mercian Hymns (1971), joins together the medieval Christian and earlier pagan worlds with the meadows and streets of his own childhood. Orchards refocuses his attention on Kindheitslandschaft, the landscape of childhood, though never in a distinctly autobiographical manner. Hill, who is now seventy years old, is writing about childhood in an ambitious and heavyhearted way, as though looking back down through valleys grown dark and threatening with years. Having done the opposite of T. S. Eliot, who crossed the Atlantic to England and in many respects turned away from the land of his birth, Hill does not, like Eliot, leave his native soil behind. Despite having made America his home over the past decades, England remains at the center of his poems. Her “myth, politics, landscape” beset every poem, “with language / seeding and binding them.”

One may start out with a very literal clue present in the last book’s title, a modernized spelling of the English illuminated manuscript Orcherds of Sion, printed by Wynken de Worde, William Caxton’s successor, in 1519. It was commissioned for Brigittine nuns at the Abbey of Syon, in Northeast Devon, where the body of Henry VIII was taken upon his death in 1547 en route to Windsor. During the night, the coffin broke open, and in the dawn dogs were discovered chewing the bloated, gaseous corpse. This is typical of the nightmarish historical episodes that resonate ruthlessly in Hill’s poems. The image of bodily corruption forms a ground bass to the higher registers. The original Orcherds of Sion was a translation of St. Catherine of Siena’sDialogo, a series of meditations on the division between God and the human soul, with the conclusion that Christ exists as a bridge across an otherwise impossible gulf. The threefold progress described by St. Catherine of Siena consists of affection, love, and finally peace. Catherine, who probably starved herself to death at the age of thirty-three, believed that she had buckled under the weight of the Church itself. Hill too can be understood to suffer under incredible weight, though not only that of the Church. He is an apologist for the much-maligned Church of England, seeing it as a living, earthly presence rather than an ideal, unrealized presence; yet history, and the immense suffering he perceives in it, remains a weight that compresses his poems, forming, finally, diamonds from such coal.

If the Orchards of Syon were to be compared to any of his other books, it would beSpeech! Speech!, though it can also be balanced in formal terms with The Triumph of Love, the third of the four that are being termed his “late” books (Canaan is the earliest of this group). The stanzas of Orchards, which may be read as individual poems, are twenty-four lines each of asymmetrical blank verse, scored with the notational accents of sprung rhythm. The 72 stanzas have been described by Jeremy Noel-Tod (who makes much of Hill’s descent from the high modernism of Eliot) as possibly a numeric reflection of “the kabbalistic exercise of meditating on the 72 names of God.” As with the two previous books, Hill makes use of carefully selected historical moments that emerge, mingle, and fall away, in every instance leaving echoes or traces to be picked up again. In the cases of Triumph and Speech!, for instance, the reader encountered persistent references to Alan Turing, breaker of the Nazi’s naval Enigma code, and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the military governor of Nigeria who gave his own life during a coup in 1966 to save that of a guest (Hill spent time in Nigeria before the Biafran War; both of these are examples of what have been described elsewhere as “secular saints” to Hill’s imagination). InOrchards, Pedro Calderón’s play La vida es sueño (“Life is a dream”) and the tragic life of English composer and poet Ivor Gurney emerge as recognizable shapes, among many, in a larger tapestry.

Unlike his earlier poems, which were demanding but mournful, Orchardsdescends into the spikiness of a philippic–gymnastic though it may be. Orchardsbrings to ground the prophetic endowment of the Promised Land–England’s “green and pleasant land”–suggested by William Blake in the now politically controversial prefatory hymn to his epic Milton. Hill is unrelentingly difficult, and though his detractors might see behind this difficulty the maneuverings of an arch-conservative, even imperial attitude, it is more correct to see in it the modernist distrust of language and a pressing fascination with the savage and mysterious origins of the English people. Hill has been deemed elitist by members of the British literary press–who are, frankly, always sniffing around for anything not laid out in accordance with the simplest tastes–but in his defense one will surely point out that Hill has never equated ease with democracy. He seems downright baffled by the thought that accessibility should be intimately linked to democracy. In other words, the demotic and democratic do not wear the same cut of suit at the funeral of modernism.

Perhaps marking an allegiance with that other visionary English poet from the midlands, Hill selected for the cover of Orchards a D. H. Lawrence watercolor depicting a rainbow arcing over a landscape clotted with railways and smokestacks. To reinforce this, he includes an epigraph from Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow(perhaps Lawrence’s best; the watercolor was given by Lawrence to Viola Meynell upon completion of the novel in 1915). The First World War, which haunts the British mind in a way unknown elsewhere, provides the shadow image of the dark trenches driven through the hills of the British Midlands by industry and suburban sprawl. One recalls Lawrence’s despairing recollections of the mineshafts forced through those valleys long before the Guns of August, in Women in Love and later in the three versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Hill deploys verticules and Hopkinsesque accents in a positively martial manner in Orchards, identical to their application in Speech!, though here they breathe in a less musical air. The voice of the poems, their architect and engineer, admits: “yes, I do stress as if parsing.” The accentual marks are percussive when not intrusive, but they are rarely instructive. Perhaps contemporary English, be it American or British, simply will not go easily supine beneath the notational clouts and cuts of sprung rhythm. Still, the force and careful grandeur of the poems from his first book, For the Unfallen (1958), resound and course over the long poem in its less indistinct moments:

Might gain eras of promise, collages
of dashed peace, many-headed the field
rose, dog rose, tossing in bright squalls
all things self-verifying. A ferrous
atmospheric tang between lightning-bouts
has similar potencies, its presentiments
in the instant abundance, superflux,
familiar chill inspiration, self-
charged shock beyond shock.

Here is an electroshocked grip that was absent in the early poems. It is difficult to know if it belongs here either, and it will distress the lighter-hearted reader (the provenance of that odd word “superflux” can be traced to Shakespeare’s King Lear, as per Clive James’s letter to the editor in the London Review of Books, 20 March 2003).

The motifs strung through the book might not be contiguous but they operate and vie with one another for primacy. The arcana strewn about the ruins are even more rare and confusing than those of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. The tundra of allusion is downright Miltonic, perhaps even more chthonic and ranging. As layers of an ancient city stripped down by archaeologists in a reversal of its overlaid histories, Hill, whose previously intense focus remained on the etymology of individual words, has turned his attention to chosen phrases and a renaissance delight in a variety of arts and sciences, including popular movies and the internet. Comparisons to Eliot are no more taxing. Unlike either predecessor, however necessary it might be to name them, Hill’s polyphony is very much in line with that of our day. He stresses “Shakespeare / clearly heard many voices. No secret: / voicing means hearing.”

Hill would not be placing a foot incorrectly if he chose to follow many poets after 1922 and included an appendix of notes to his new poems as he has for other poems in the past. Of course, if properly annotated, Orchards would require a late Joycean ratio of footnote to original work, one in which the former sometimes overspreads the latter, begging more questions than can be answered in any commentary. Even the most sophisticated reader will trip over many of the bits laid about these trenches (trenches in both the archaeological and military sense). Hill’s mixing of the demotic and liturgical, administrative and poetic, commercial and visionary, prosaic and elegant is at times very affective, at others, more baffling:

And Í said: is there anything you think
you should tell me? Was there a mirror
and did it breathe cold speculation?
He is knackered and there are no
schemes to revive him.

The motion from a partly threatening request–as one would expect from a jilted spouse or one’s therapist–to the ironic, Blakean visionary idiom of the mirror breathing “cold speculation,” moving through the chummy use of “knackered” (thus, one would conclude, in need of some “kip, ay, mate?”) and closed off with the refined “schemes to revive him” is by no means a new approach, but it is employed incessantly in the poem.

Hill’s repertoire, impressive as it is, might have gone too far in Orchards. The mixture of elevated speech and cant is, from time to time, unfortunate. Like a combination of gin and rum, it is evil. The poems bristle like a porcupine or First World War sea mine. They seem unduly angry and defensive. On first and even third passes, the poems appear aggressively obscure, almost like a series of equally impressive dares. It is almost as if something or other were being hidden. It is more likely that the very late modernist complexity of the poems projects its own order of meaning, one that might justify such density. It could be suggested that Hill has allowed himself to wash into a Poundian tangle where “mind and you are our Sargasso Sea,” yet with Hill it may be suggested that the “new brighter stuff” of the “differing light and deep” is very much its own end. Despite claims ranging to the contrary, it is difficult to believe that any mind as gifted as Hill’s would dedicate its talents to the task of meaningless obfuscation. He might be legitimately suspicious of modern uses of language, but he will not leave that language to scatter on a storm shore as post-structuralist L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets have. Meaning might be deferred, but not infinitely or indefinitely. If one were yoked to a sufficiently historical artistic sense, it is reasonable to submit that Hill is writing in a style that is no longer valid or appreciated by readers or poetry in or out of academe. It should be asserted, however, that poetry like his (and there is little to compare it to, really) does not buckle under its own weight. It is perfectly slotted together. It rises as an arch at times, locked into an arc by its keystone; at others it hunkers like a squat medieval keep. One could spend years trying to reduce it to rubble, since it partially resembles a heap of rubble to begin with. Hill knows that the “year rounds, takes fragments round with it”:

The well-worn pattern, familiar abutments,
abraded angles, in the nature of limestone,
unfinished to perfection.

He surely is aware that his poems are daunting, that they are not adequately slim and sexy by contemporary standards, their irony rather horned and armored. He can seem crabby, and one sometimes suspects he has a right to such feelings when all is said (and it is always said) and at long last done.

Hill has admitted having written these later books with Alexander Pope’s mock-epic Dunciad and Ben Jonson’s tragic-comic plays in mind. They resemble polemics in their fierceness, but they are not merely such. Given that his forebears include the likes of Dryden, perhaps Hill’s venom is less mild, if more widely dispersed, than has been formerly suggested. Likewise, his dexterity and erudition will almost certainly come across as simply menacing to all but his most cultish readers; but his finer moments are nearly without parallel in the language today:

Sleep to incubate diamond. What a find,
a self-awarded donnée if ever
I knew one.

Or the startling Whitman-like final passage of the poem’s opening section:

Tell me, is this the way
to the Orchards of Syon
where I left you thinking I would return?

William Logan has written of Hill’s complexity rising from a “forlorn hope that his poetry might escape the travesties of an age where all public speech is suspect.” This is not an unusual or unreasonable tactic for Hill to pursue, particularly at an age in life at which many poets grow increasingly lax or cease writing altogether, as though they had paid their dues in the Borgesian Library of Babylon. Unlikely to be remembered as the zenith of his many achievements–Tenebrae (1978) or Canaan is more suited for such a distinction–Orchards nonetheless reads as the work of one of the few major poets alive today. Hill’s work is necessary, even if it must to be shouldered with substantial exertion in an era of radically simplified and blundering language. Readers new to his work would do well to return to King Log (1968) or The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) before attempting this snarling, later (may we pray not last) poem. Its central theme, its theme of themes, is a search for “a hard-won knowledge of what wears us down.” It is with this knowledge, and in its constant pursuit, that he remains one of the few to convincingly convey a nearly sacramental impression through an arrangement of both exacting religious and fuming sardonic language, the weights and balances of grace, suffering, “súch wórds / as absolution.”[/private]

About Ernest Hilbert

Ernest Hilbert edited the Contemporary Poetry Review from 2005 until 2010. His poems have appeared in The New Republic, Yale Review, American Poetry Review, Parnassus, Boston Review, Verse, New Criterion, American Scholar, and the London Review. His debut collection is Sixty Sonnets (2009). He graduated from Oxford University, where he edited the Oxford Quarterly. He hosts the popular blog and video show and is an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, an archaeologist.
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