Geoffrey Hill: The Poet in Winter

As Reviewed By: John Drexel

The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill. Counterpoint, 2002. $23.00

I ought, in the interests of full disclosure, to begin with a confession: Geoffrey Hill was my thesis tutor–i.e., my academic advisor–when I was a graduate student at Leeds University in the late 1970s. Our relations were entirely formal, occasionally strained though always what the Germans call correct. In our regular meetings, there was never any discussion of his poetry nor of what I myself was attempting to write in that line. I say this because I am sure that my own subsequent attention to his work is colored by my encounters with him during that year. I sometimes wonder what my reaction to his poetry would be today if I had never met the man. Would I have discovered it at all? I honestly cannot say.

[private]That said, I am astonished that I continue to encounter readers of contemporary poetry who profess to be entirely unaware of Hill’s existence, who respond with blank indifference at the mention of his name. To one for whom his work has been central for twenty-five years, this reaction comes as a shock; yet, on a certain level, it should not surprise. In an age in which it seems that poets are judged as much by their efforts at self-promotion as by their work itself, Hill disdains public relations and does little to cultivate a wider readership. He is the last poet you will ever see joining in the fun of National Poetry Month, making the rounds of summer writers’ conferences, taking part in opportunities to Meet the Author, or judging yet another first book competition.

By way of introduction, then, for those who somehow remain unfamiliar with Hill–and for those who might approach him for the first time now, with conventional expectations–it is best to begin by stating what his work is not. It is definitely not descriptive or journalistic. He gives us no suburban romances, no affectionate anecdotes about grandparents, no family vignettes or scenes of mild domestic disturbance; no poems about picking blackberries. No poems, in other words, that one will ever read in The New Yorker–which is not necessarily to disparage poems one will read in The New Yorker, only to say that neither Hill’s frame of reference nor its verse manifestations are what most readers of contemporary poetry have been conditioned to expect in contemporary poems. Nor, it should be added, does he deal with “issues” or “problems” in anything like a way that will satisfy the reader eager to have his or her own convictions about the world reinforced. Nothing in his poetry even distantly resembles “creative writing.” Reviewing The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) in Encounter, the British poet and critic John Mole described Hill’s work as “remote in its sonority and its making of ex-cathedra statements, as if it were being delivered to a particularly erudite congregation from the other end of the cathedral.” That remoteness is not absent from his new book, The Orchards of Syon; but, paradoxically, it is intermixed with a more intimate tone.

In the characteristic and now famous endnote to his sequence “Funeral Music” inKing Log (1968), Geoffrey Hill declares that “I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks.” A paragraph later, he speaks of “ornate and heartless music punctuated by mutterings, blasphemies and cries for help.”

Early and late–and now, as the poet himself acknowledges more than once in The Orchards of Syon, we are in the territory of what we might consider late Hill–“grim” (not to say “ornate and heartless”) music has been a hallmark of Hill’s style. Yet, that music has not been without a strange beauty. Surveying the work of half a century, we can see that, from the beginning, Hill’s project has been to record what he called, in the early poem “History as Poetry” (in King Log, 1968), “the tongue’s atrocities”–and not those of the tongue alone–while rescuing from the disorder of our time and earlier times some vision of how we might “redeem the world” (to borrow a phrase from “Genesis,” the first poem in his first book, For the Unfallen [1959]). That undertaking is now carried on by way of “a high formal keening” (XIX).

No endnotes or footnotes adorn this current book. One feels they would be of little practical use anyway. It is as if Hill is saying, If you have made the journey this far with me, you can do without such aids; let the poem speak for itself. Instead, he enjoins the reader to “Treat with care / these angry follies of the old monster. / Dig the–mostly uncouth–language of grace” (LXIX). Our signposts here come in the form of three epigraphs from what might seem unlikely sources: De Causa Dei, by the early 14th-century English mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine; the 17th-century Anglican poet Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations; and D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.

The Bradwardine epigraph in particular points to the nature of Hill’s concerns. It reads, in part: “Later, but before I had become a student of theology, that truth of which I have spoken struck me like a radiant light of grace.” In his current academic tenure as Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University, Hill teaches postgraduate courses on Literature and Religion in England and on Gerard Manley Hopkins. Most intriguing–and even more telling–is a course titled “Voice and Otherness,” which, the department catalogue reveals, “Examines the relation and disrelation between experience, especially the experience of suffering, and language. Emphasizes the theological, ethical, psychological, and poetic dimensions of communication and incommunicability.” This description could well stand for a summary of Hill’s own poetry in general. Certainly it is an apt synopsis for the concerns explored in The Orchards of Syon.

The Orchards of Syon, by my count his ninth distinct book of poems, is published in Hill’s 70th year, and it now is possible to discern the larger shape and arc of his achievement, to speak of early and late. The first four books (from For the Unfallenthrough Tenebrae [1978]–all usefully assembled in the 1985 King Penguin edition ofCollected Poems)–may be regarded as early Hill. Despite their stylistic differences from one another (the prose poems of Mercian Hymns [1971], the sonnet sequences in Tenebrae), the poems in these collections are, to a fault, linguistically scrupulous and tightly argued. With Canaan (1996), Hill seemed to move into a new, uncharacteristically prolific and more expansive phase, though one still preoccupied with history and the tongue’s atrocities. The Orchards of Syon shares with its two immediate predecessors, The Triumph of Love (1998) and Speech! Speech! (2000), a more determinedly personal tone that marks a departure from his early work. (Speech! Speech! shocked even Hill’s most ardent admirers with its garrulousness and its thumb-your-face attitude; its alternate title might well have been He Do the Police in Different Voices–the original title of Eliot’s The Waste Land.)

Hill’s finest works have been sequences: Mercian Hymns, “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz,” “Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture,” the aforementioned “Funeral Music.” Let him start to explore a theme or train of thought, and he must worry it to its (logical) conclusion–although, again, in his scrupulousness, Hill will not accept a single, final Conclusion. Thus the obsessive passion for sequences, for structures in which one poem modifies and extends the subject of the poems around it, as if the poet is saying “Yes, but,” or “That much is true, but that is not the whole truth,” or, “There is more to it than that,” or, “Consider it from this angle.” That pattern is followed here, although with some differences.

The Orchards of Syon–the title plays on the conflation of Syon/ Zion, among other things–consists of 72 24-line interrelated sections written in blank verse and modeled on the Italian canzone. (I am not entirely unpersuaded that Orchards cannot be read as 72 interrelated poems. Hill’s detractors might claim that the book consists of one poem written 72 times.) Each section is headed by a roman numeral, though, again, I would hesitate to call this a sequence; the progression is not linear but polyphonic. Each section, too, occupies a full page; the typographic regularity and evenness of each serves to lend the whole an appearance of order that belies the vehemence of the content.

These are first-person meditations on the Fall; the possibility of grace; the attempt, at three-score years and ten, to come to terms with the past and to make sense of one’s existence. The voice may be Hill’s own, but the persona at times may be that of “a Latin love elegist” (LIV), or of Augustine late in life, or of Prospero (as when Hill writes “The labours of the months are now memory, / indigent wordplay, stubborn, isolate / language of inner exile” [VIII]), or of Shakespeare himself:

clearly heard many voices. No secret:
voicing means hearing, at a price a gift,
affliction chiefly, whereas despair
clamps and is speechless.

True, Orchards frequently is marked by a self-consciousness rarely evident in his earlier collections, though abundant in Speech! Speech! “I wish I could say more. Even / this much praise is hard going,” writes Hill in LXIX. No poet since Eliot has worked so hard to distance the poem from the poet as Hill. Hitherto, he endorsed Eliot’s central declaration in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” On receiving the T. S. Eliot Prize at Belmont Abbey College, North Carolina, in September 2000, Hill addressed this very issue and somewhat revised his previous stance: “While still deploring as strongly as ever the prevalent notion that self-expression issues from the supposedly authentic self like ectoplasm at a séance, I now entirely accept that the flawed self will, indeed must, be embodied in some way in the finished work …” It is nearly impossible to read Orchards of Syon without acknowledging that Hill’s “flawed self” is at the heart of this work.
As ever, Hill’s writing engages and withholds at the same time. Here more than ever, continuing somewhat in the same surprising vein he began in Speech! Speech!, his verse is so marked with disjunctions and discontinuities that one might be tempted to mistake him for an English cousin of John Ashbery. Indeed, a reader’s fondness for the associative procedures of Ashbery might persuade that reader to give Hill the benefit of the doubt. But any similarities between the two poets are, at best, superficial. Ashbery, urban and urbane and popular in a way impossible for the modernists, entertains us with parables of some abstract present; Hill, the uncompromising late-modernist poet-scholar, freighted with knowledge of the world as it was and skeptical of the ability of language adequately to depict that world or say anything meaningful and true about it, inhabits a past that, if not idealized, at least has escaped the memory of the common reader. Orchards moves with a quicksilver fluidity between past and present, between the personal and the historical, between the abstract and the concrete. While Eliot did much the same thing in the various sections of the poems of the Four Quartets–a work whichOrchards resembles in a number of respects–Hill here does it within the same canzone, on the same page, in the span of a few lines. Hill’s struggle is evident in the gnarled syntax and condensed grammatical utterance that is a stylistic trait throughout The Orchards of Syon. But I do not want to suggest that these poems turn their back on the world; rather, what they discern when they look at the world is not the surface show of things but the matter that might serve as a bridge between the here-and-now of life and its spiritual underpinnings. To put it another way: Hill’s poems are in the world but not of it.
Thus, the infamous “difficulty” in Hill’s poems is not merely (“merely”!) procedural but, more to the point, theological. (Here I use the word theological both in its standard sense and, more expansively, to indicate any comprehensive world view that informs and underlies a poet’s work–its raison d’etre–and the world in which he lives and moves and has his being.) Hill’s work has long had its admirers, and has acquired a small but powerful legion of champions, but its theology makes it notoriously resistant to imitation.
Orchards, then, is in large part a meditation on the act of meditation itself, and of how living creates experience, experience becomes memory, and, at last, “memory proves forgetting” (XV):

Memory is its own vision, a gift of sight,
from which thought step aside, and frequently,
into the present, where we have possession
more and more denied us.

And in XXXIX he declares: “I repeat: ageing / is weirder far than our dying.”
Interspersed among these abstract and somewhat self-regarding statements are passages of astonishing verbal and visual brilliance. For example, XVII begins:

Tri-towers, Christ-silos, rise from, retract
into, the broad Ouse levels. Roadside poppies,
hedged bindweed, still beautiful. The kempt fields
basking; intense the murmur of full summer,
more growl than murmur: coast-traffic snarled,

XXVIII opens with the image of “Wintry swamp-thickets, brush-heaps of burnt light. / The sky cast-iron, livid with unshed snow.” By the same token, in XXVII there is a vision of “winter in its bounty, / Goldengrove laid bare, becalmed, / lightly sketched in snow; peacock / and peahen treading the white grass.”

It need hardly be remarked, at this stage, that Hill demands much of the reader; the words dense and allusive in this context are scarcely adequate descriptions. For starters, Orchards assumes a fluency in several languages (German, Spanish, and Latin are much in evidence throughout this book). Every page is thick with enough references and allusions to furnish the matter for several doctoral dissertations: British history before 1660 and since 1945, the geography of England, architecture, natural science, poets, composers, Internet domains, the Church Fathers, the Old and New Testaments–and much else that I do not have the space to mention here. A more than passing familiarity with Dante, Coleridge, Blake, Housman, Montale and his women, Mandelstam, Lawrence, Elgar, and Schnittke is more than helpful. And this is just the beginning. If you know nothing about the 17th-century Spanish dramatist and priest Pedro Calderón de la Barca (described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “a model of the truly Christian and knightly poet of his period”), author of La vida es suenõ, you will be entirely at sea. The phrase “Inurements / I allow, endurances I approve” (LXX) harkens back to the opening line of “Pavana Dolorosa” in the sonnet sequence “Lachrimae”–“Loves I allow and passions I approve” (itself an inversion of Robert Southwell’s “Passions I allow, and loves I approve”)–in Tenebrae (1978). Throughout the poems, like leitmotifs, run the Orchards of Syon themselves, the real or imagined place called Goldengrove, the phrase La vida es suenõ.

(Syon, I take it, is Syon House, near Kew, where, in 1554, Lady Jane Grey ascended the throne at the start of her nine-day’s monarchy. Goldengrove, of course, is found in Hopkins: “Márgarét, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?” In Hill’s poem, knowing the English penchant for giving homes names that are evocative or fanciful or both, one might reasonably take Goldengrove to be Hill’s home in Lancashire. Or, if not that, an equivalent image to Housman’s “land of lost content” and “blue remembered hills.”)

Someday, no doubt, some scholar will produce The Annotated Geoffrey Hill. Until then, we must rely on our own wits and such knowledge, whether great or little, as we might possess to make initial sense of the poem. (Beyond this, there is the necessary skill of reading between the lines.) Yet it does not take much sleuthing to determine, for example, that the Hodder is a minor river in rural Lancashire. (For the record, it flows from the Forest of Bowland into the River Ribble. How fortuitous is it, for Hill’s purpose, that the River Eden and the Eden Valley, while not geographically proximate to the Hodder–and to the [actual or imagined] Goldengrove?–nonetheless are located in the same county?)

Difficult as they may be, Hill’s poems do not begrudge us the luxury of Eliot’s dictum that a poem must be felt before it can be understood. To readers who normally recoil from poems that require them to enter into a world whose foundations and concerns and moral landscape are not those of the contemporary world, I would urge: Read Orchards first for the language and the imagery, and see where that takes you. If you cannot muster a basic sympathy for Hill’s vision, however temporarily, then at least resist the temptation to dismiss or deprecate it. If you cannot believe in what Hill is saying, at least suspend your disbelief, as Hill himself has done:

And here–and there too–I
wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove
was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards
of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.
But there we are: the heartland remains
heartless-that’s the strange beauty of it.

In his Eliot Prize remarks, Hill acknowledged the impossibility of what Yeats calls “perfection of the work”: “Language engages our fallibility at the heart of our greatest achievement.” It is too early to tell whether The Orchards of Syon is Hill’s greatest achievement; we will need to live with this book for a long time. Readers who have no sympathy for Hill’s way of writing to begin with will find no comfort in this book; indeed, they will react with all the more bafflement and indignation than before. But those who have made the journey from For the Unfallen onward and who are at least halfway attuned to his peculiar voice and vision will be startled, again and again, by its language of grace. Although the least tractable and companionable of living poets, Hill nonetheless remains the most necessary, as the strange beauty of The Orchards of Syon attests.[/private]

About John Drexel

John Drexel's poems have appeared widely in magazines in the U.S. and Britain, including the Hudson Review, Oxford Poetry, Paris Review, Salmagundi, Southern Review, and Verse, and his work is included in A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play (Sarabande Books, 2001). A former editor at Oxford University Press and past recipient of an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship and a Hawthornden Fellowship, he works as a freelance writer, editor, and critic. He also directs occasional poetry workshop-seminars in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, and in Cornwall, England.
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