The Last Serious Poet?
Incorrigible obfuscator or doyen – Henry Hopwood-Phillips assesses a poet on whom the jury is still out
Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013, hb, £35
Examples of writer’s block don’t come much more famous than that of Geoffrey Hill’s. Armed with a first from Oxford in English Literature in the 1950s, he has been doing time in cloisters ever since. Libraries may have dulled his sense of mortality because after his first books, Unfallen (1959), King Log (1969), the profoundly English Mercian Hymns (1971), and the devotional poetry of Tenebrae (1978), almost twenty years lapsed before Canaan in 1996. But then came what has uncharitably been called an episode of textual diarrhoea—ten volumes of frictional verse. The reason is quite pedestrian: ‘In the past I would wait twenty years for a line. Now I don’t have that option,’ Hill admits.
Loam, screed, bleb, burgh, marl, yew, tamp, thrum, buff, leasowe, frond and creel are onomatopoeic words with German roots not often heard today. Some would consider them pretentious or redundant. Hill, author of the corpus each makes an appearance in, disagrees:
‘The language [many] think of as democratic anti-elitist is really the scraps of the English language that have dropped from the feasting tables of the oligarchs.’
Hill is adamant that calls for a simplification of language have political implications. Tyranny requires simplification. A language that is truncated makes for a similar life. For some this may verge on Orwellian platitude; but for others, it is interesting to see the idea play itself out in reality. Hill is not afraid to attack those who mask the language of hegemony: the pressure to dumb down for political rather than intellectual reasons.
The title of the book should perhaps have been longer and only referencing ‘Broken Hierarchies’ makes Hill sound like an unreconstructed blimp. But although his poems in places (XXXV and LIV of Liber) assert that hierarchy is good (perhaps meaning that he believes that logos exists and should be pursued) this is opposed to hegemony (the exercise of power upon discourses of truth), which is bad.
For Hill true poetry is the pursuance of truth – the truth that pushes, challenges and confronts. The sheer volume of obscure references that adorn Hill’s poems often have critics referring to him as ‘dense’ and ‘full of baroque allusions’. This makes him sound heavy and sententious, but he is not. In some of his best poems, the heaviness and lightness of being collide, Kundera-style. Here is a good example:
Blurring sharpens: instance, my cold-tears make
Flowerets, faceted clusters, out of clear brights,
headlights, either, twelve, across, signal gantries
like emporium glitter. I’m not driving
fortunately. How slowly it all goes
Hurtling to oblivion. Line after line
(XXX, Orchards of Syon)
The tendency to encase such intense emotions in a tight, restrained, straitjacket of form makes for thrilling reading. It’s like watching a Puritan fight his way out of a ruff.
Not that the poet lets it all degenerate into the Geoffrey Hill show. In his early poems especially, Hill is evidently an adherent of T. S. Eliot’s dictum that poetry should not be the expression of personality, but its transcendence.
Rather than abolish his personality, however, he stretches it across the span of history. 55, Ludo refers to a ‘scribe of epochs’, which would be a great title for Hill. At the heart of his poems sits a philosophy that ‘Time and light move simultaneously/ in either direction such is my view.’
His ability to empathise with almost all periods of the past had Tom Paulin, in LRB, 1985, dismiss the poet as an exponent of ‘kitsch feudalism’ but Hill’s medieval sketches are in fact eminently authentic. Here is The White Ship, a poem on the tragedy of 1120 when William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I died on a boat in a storm:
Where the living at hazard go,
And with expense, the drowned wan-
der their while; are spun
In harp-surges, St-Lo;
Submerge to reappear.
It does not much matter
How artless grief is. Water
Silences cries that distrained the ear;
Witholds, still, what it might give
As casually as it took away:
Creatures passed through the wet sieve
Without enrichment or decay.
(The White Ship, For the Unfallen)
However, it is easy to see why this unusual combination of the cerebral and lyrical has many confused. And Hill’s treatment of religion is no easier to fathom. Caleb Caldwell in Make Literary Magazine describes him as ‘God-bothered’ and it is true that Hill comes close to expounding outright Christianity in Tenebrae (darkness). He refers to the ‘God-ejected Word’ negatively and informs us that Dante probably reckoned that ‘Everything that is not God is tourism’. But ultimately he holds back. In ‘To William Cobbett’ (Canaan), he tells us
It is not faithless
to stand without faith, keeping open
vigil at the site
Christianity is the vernacular Hill uses to address the serious questions that frame a would-be post-Christian world. At the core of his poems is an indestructible hope against all the odds. He sometimes becomes insouciant: ‘If the Word is not with us, what is our/ present legal position?’
And Hill enjoys playing both prosecution and defence. But it is the anchor of faith, a belief in grace minus theology so to speak, that allows the poet to abseil down cliffs of pessimism to look hard truths in the eye.
These truths range from politics—‘this is your enemy’s country which they took/ in the small hours of an age before you woke’—to the protection of self in a corrosive world—‘a work done/ to gain or regain possession of himself,/ as a means of survival’ (‘Alanbrooke’s War Diary’)—to historical amnesia—‘the unfairness and waste of/ survival; a nation with so/ many memorials but no memory’—and of course, love—‘Both of us here conjoined in epitaph awaiting stone’.
There is an overwhelming sense of original sin in Hill’s work likewise. The impression that knowledge comes with a great weight bestows a Faustian heaviness on his verse that is profoundly poignant. This pressure, which builds throughout the book, is best described by Hill’s wife, Alice Goodman, an Anglican rector, who notes her husband is ‘communicant but resentful.’
This sense of being upended by history is a trait he shares with the country he hails from: England. Some of the poems in Unfallen (‘Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings’, ‘Drake’s Drum’ and the ‘The White Ship in particular) are arguably the most complex yet lyrical renderings of folk-history ever to have been written but it is Mercian Hymns, with its talk of ‘primeval heathland spattered with the bones of mice/ and birds’ and ‘trudging out of the dark, scraping their boots/ free from lime-splodges and phlegm. They munched/ cold bacon’—a place where ‘A solitary axe-blow’ is the ‘echo/ of a lost sound’, that really steals the show. As the usually caustic William Logan observes, ‘Hill has the pulse of the English inside him, knowing like a lawyer all its loopholes and vagrancies.’
The tense ambivalence in Hill pits lesser, comfortable truths against immense tectonic blanks. This means on one level, beauty still thrives ‘on squatters’ rights’, language ‘destroys ideas but not character’ and ‘something of value is derived’ from our lives ‘regardless of our botched loves, uncalled-for, unconnived for’; but on a deeper level, our inheritance is little more than a heap of broken images, our narrative is doomed to be its lack:
Whose passion was to find out God in this
His natural filth, voyeur of sacrifice, a slow
Bloody unearthing of the God-in-us.
But with what blood, and to what end, Shiloh?
(Shiloh Church, 1862: Twenty-Three Thousand, King Log)
An eminently postmodern theme for the poet the Postmodernists love to hate.
Henry Hopwood-Phillips works in publishing