A Pilgrimage of Faith : The Earlier Poetry of Geoffrey Hill
Published in Literature and Religion, the journal of the Korean Association for Literature and Religion, Volume 12 No. 2, Winter 2007, pages 257 - 278
The Pilgrim sets out on life’s journey with nothing more than a handful
of questions: Where is God? What is man? Does life have meaning? Why is
there so much pain, injustice and horror? The journey I wish to pursue
here is the very personal journey in quest of answers to those
questions recorded in the poetry of the English poet, Geoffrey Hill.
Geoffrey Hill stands in the English tradition founded on John Milton
and William Blake, for whom God is (and is not) present and active here
and now, as suggested in Blake’s very familiar poem / song ‘Jerusalem’:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon those clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
England is, indeed, on the whole a ‘green and pleasant land,’ but even
though the industrial revolution is long past, it still has its ‘dark
satanic mills,’ places where pain stagnates and people have lost all
hope; ‘building Jerusalem’ is a project that is no easier in the
complacency of wealth than it is in the anguish of poverty, while
neither the green nor the mills can claim to be closer than the other
to the goal. If Paradise is to be attained, Blake seems to be saying,
both greenery and dark mills need to be transformed, not in themselves
so much as in our vision of them (by ‘mental fight’). Neither is in
itself close to being a desirable Eden.
Gerard Manley Hopkins offers a similar glimpse of a here and now where
natural beauty and its discontents coincide. Natural, physical beauty,
he says, is a thing of value that we cannot but lose, and this makes us
conscious of our other losses; England’s green and pleasant land is the
place in which we best behold the sorrow of fall and decay.
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Hopkins’ Goldengrove, this place where beauty and loss, joy and tears
coincide, is a place to which Geoffrey Hill will bring us back, by and
by. Another starting point for Hill’s journey is a well-known poem in
which Hopkins expresses much the same struggle as Blake, in ways close
to some of Hill’s own concerns:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod . . . .
We are now better prepared to approach the first poem in the first
collection Geoffrey Hill ever published. It is an extraordinary poem,
and one of his most overt expressions of faith; after this, faith has
to delve out of sight in quest of the miracles of God that lie buried
within the filth and stench of human history, and of adequate words
with which to speak them. The stress on beauty, blood and pain, and the
quest for a faith that can deal with them in the ‘here and now’ is
central to Hill’s work, as it was to Blake’s and Hopkins’.
Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God.
And first I brought the sea to bear
Upon the dead weight of the land;
And the waves flourished at my prayer,
The rivers spawned their sand.
And where the streams were salt and full
The tough pig-headed salmon strove,
Ramming the ebb, in the tide's pull,
To reach the steady hills above.
The second day I stood and saw
The osprey plunge with triggered claw,
Feathering blood along the shore,
To lay the living sinew bare.
And the third day I cried: "Beware
The soft-voiced owl, the ferret's smile,
The hawk's deliberate stoop in air,
Cold eyes, and bodies hooped in steel,
Forever bent upon the kill."
And I renounced, on the fourth day,
This fierce and unregenerate clay,
Building as a huge myth for man
The watery Leviathan,
And made the long-winged albatross
Scour the ashes of the sea
Where Capricorn and Zero cross,
A brooding immortality -
Such as the charmed phoenix had
In the unwithering tree.
The phoenix burns as cold as frost;
And, like a legendary ghost,
The phantom-bird goes wild and lost,
Upon a pointless ocean tossed.
So, the fifth day, I turned again
To flesh and blood and the world's pain.
On the sixth day, as I rode
In haste about the works of God,
With spurs I plucked the horse's blood.
By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
And by Christ's blood are men made free
Though in close shrouds their bodies lie
Under the rough pelt of the sea;
Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight
The bones that cannot bear the light.
The word ‘faith’ is best defined in a phrase of the New Testament, the
letter to the Hebrews (11:1), “faith is the assurance of things hoped
for, the conviction of things not seen,” a phrase made strong by its
contradictions, its oxymerons, the suggestion that human responses to
the divine always involve struggle, tension and uncertainty. The quest
for God has always been accompanied by a temptation toward escapism and
abstraction. Myths are easily invented, depicting some kind of
‘beyond’ – an unchanging, immaterial, bodiless, ‘spiritual’ realm said
to ‘transcend’ but in fact simply denying our human realities of flesh,
blood, pain and death, but that is Platonism, not the Christian Gospel.
If God is not absolutely ‘here and now’ in all the material complexity
of our human flesh and blood, beauty and death, our passions and
furies, he is nowhere at all. As Hill says in “Genesis,” “There is no
bloodless myth will hold.”
Geoffrey Hill was born in Worcestershire in 1932. When the Penguin
edition of the Collected Poems was published in 1985, it contained less
than 200 pages. Then for ten years he published nothing more. At last,
in 1996, he published a new volume of poetry, entitled Canaan. Before
1985, Geoffrey Hill had published only four volumes of poems: For the
Unfallen (1959), King Log (1968), the prose poem sequence Mercian Hymns
(1971), and Tenebrae (1978). In the 1985 Collected Poems, these are
completed by the three short Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres (1984) and
the ten poems of the sequence The Mystery of the Charity of Charles
Péguy (1984). But in the 10 years since Canaan in 1996, he has
produced a whole series of remarkable new volumes: the ‘vague trilogy’
The Triumph of Love (1998), Speech! Speech! (2000) and The Orchards of
Syon (2002), then Scenes from Comus (2005), Without Title (2006), and A
Treatise of Civil Power (2007)
Geoffrey Hill is a very great poet. His poems are often extremely
difficult. He is a craftsman of words. But more than that, he is
convinced that “to speak, to write, is to act.” For the poets he
admires, and the poets he celebrates in his work, whether of the
English 16th -17th centuries or of the 20th-century world’s varied
tyranies, words might prove to be “a cause for exile, imprisonment or
death.” For them, poetry was ‘performative,’ directly consequential in
a way it could not be for him writing in modern England. The
frustration is that of the prophet who has the impression he is
speaking to the wind, if not that of Cassandra, ignored and mocked
especially when attempting to speak the unpopular truth. But
responsibility remains. In commentary he has echoed words of Charles
Péguy: “why do I write of war? Simply because / I have not been
there.” We cannot help being reminded here of Ezra Pound’s famous
evocation of the horrors of the First World War in “Hugh Selwyn
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Wainwright (8) sets this beside Walter Benjamin’s “There is no document
of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”
(Theses on the Philosophy of History). Hill, he says, has always
manifested a virtual “obsession with human suffering, ‘circumstantial
disasters’, and all that compromises those circumstances—the condition
and posture of the suffering, the façade, the imaginings and,
most of all, those who contemplate.” At the same time, he cannot ignore
the nagging sense of guilt for not having been ‘there’ where so many
have suffered. The journey proposed in Hill’s work, then, is above all
a journey of exile and quest, through the horrors and perversions of a
fallen world, but one where there come occasional, indistinct signs of
beauty, indirect indications of a redemption still far from being
accomplished. But time will not allow a complete journey in this paper.
The mostly very challenging poems Hill has published since Canaan will
have to await another occasion.
Any approach to Hill’s work demands a familiarity with the challenges
raised by the 20th-century English-language poetry of Modernism and
beyond. First, there is Ezra Pound’s assertion “Poetry is difficult,”
repeated a number of time in the first of the Pisan Cantoes. Literary
modernism, Wainwright has written (96), rejects “what Pound called
‘mellifluous archaism’.” First is the determination to “break the
pentameter”, second the effort to disrupt the lyric ‘I’ – hence the
conception of impersonality as expounded in Eliot’s essay “Tradition
and the Individual Talent,” and the development of the persona.
Thirdly, there is the replacement of consecutive conscious thought by
sequence and juxtaposition. This moves us on to manifesto Surrealism’s
anti-rationalism. The result, Alan Wall says, is that “history intruded
with its cinematic cuts, jabbering away in languages living and dead,
constantly interrupting itself in different voices.” Hill’s Speech!
Speech! collection (2000) takes this program to extreme lengths, as “a
cacophony of different voices: meditative, speech-making, comic strip,
stage-comic, cliché, advertising . . . lists, post-its, diary
jottings, imperatives, real and imaginary dialogues, obits, mishearing
. . .” Yet it also recalls the early 17th-century writer Richard
Burton’s (Anatomy of Melancholy 26) description of his own style:
. . . barbarism, Doric dialect, extemporanean style, tautolgoes, apish
imitation, a shapsody of rags gathered from several dung-hills,
excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out,
without art, invention, jusgement, wit, learning, harsh, rude
phantastical, absured, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed, indigested,
vain, scurrile, idle, dull and dry; I confess all . . .
Jeffrey Wainwright has pointed out (Agenda 57) that one fundamental
reference for the kind of poetry Hill writes is to be found in Ezra
Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920). He quotes Hill's own words about
the third and fourth poems' “rapid juxtapositions and violent
lacunae... phrase callously jostling with phrase, implication merging
into implication ...sententiae curtly abandoned.” (The Enemy's Country
94-5) and goes on:
This describes of course those aspects of Hill's style that he has
developed from that source, a feature of his work so fascinatingly and
disruptively offset by the contrasting capacity for strophic passages
of extended eloquence and lyrical plenitude. In his work at large, and
sometimes within individual poems, each mode seems to criticise the
The opening lines of the first poem in Ezra Pound’s volume, “E.P. Ode
Pour L'election De Son Sepulchre” are of immense importance for our
understanding of Hill’s poetic journey:
For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"
In the old sense. Wrong from the start--
No, hardly, but seeing he had been born
In a half savage country, out of date; (. . . . )
Pound’s would-be poet is ‘out of key with his time’ and that is
something Hill senses about himself, and also about the French Catholic
poet Charles Péguy. As Hill writes in his The Mystery of the
Charity of Charles Péguy : “This world is different, belongs to
them – the lords of limit and of contumely . . . This is your enemies’
country.” Essentially, the world in which and of which Hill writes is a
fallen world, ruled by ‘lords of limit’, so that any who seek to speak
truth are almost bound to be ignored or misunderstood, if not actively
persecuted. The great Russian martyr-writer Osip Mandelstam once
boasted that it was only in the Soviet Union that “they really respect
poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than
anywhere else.” For Hill, any remaining trace of religious faith brings
with it an added sense of responsibility for others, and at the same
time an intense sense of guilt for all that one has not done, cannot
do. The world is full of brutality, pain, and death, and it is far too
easy to ignore it all, while justifying oneself, and (worse still)
writing beautiful verses about it. One major theme in Hill’s work is
the responsibility of memory and another is the rejection of any glib
facility in writing, a fear of making beautiful words about dreadful
This is how he locates his theme in "Drake's Drum" (the fourth poem of
"Metamorphoses" from his earliest collection For the Unfallen):
Those varied dead. The undiscerning sea
Shelves and dissolves their flesh as it burns spray
Who do not shriek like gulls nor dolphins ride
Crouched under spume to England's erect side
Though there a soaked sleeve lolls or shoe patrols
Tide-padded thick shallows, squats in choked pools
Neither our designed wreaths nor used words
Sink to their melted ears and melted hearts.
While mythology may tell tales of the dead transformed and thus saved
from death’s oblivion, the poem only invites pity and memory for so
many nameless dead, and an awareness of the distance separating them
from any form of tribute that the living may offer. The tone of
"designed wreaths" and "used words" is scornful, harshly doubtful of
the possibility or validity of memorial gestures or speech. In this
early work we are already confronted with Hill's most consistent
topics: death, memory, and the impossibility of adequate record or
tribute. It is a theme that we can follow through his entire work. We
find it clearly stated in the last half of the last poem of the King
Log "Funeral Music" which is in part borne on memories of three people
executed long ago during the Wars of the Roses:
... If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us -- or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end 'I have not finished'.
The pity the reader is invited to feel for so much wasted life, and so
many unwilling deaths, is not dwelt on but lingers as an angry question
in the silences. To complete the record of early traces of this
thematic thread, we would need to evoke the very aptly named "History
as Poetry" also from King Log:
Poetry as salutation; taste
Of Pentecost's ashen feast.
Blue wounds. The tongue's atrocities.
Poetry unearths from among the speechless dead
Lazarus mystified, common man
Of death. The lily rears its gouged face
From the provided loam.
Fortunate Auguries; whirrings; tarred golden dung:
'A resurgence' as they say.
The old Laurels wagging with the new: Selah!
Thus laudable the trodden bone thus
Unaswerable the knack of tongues.
The claim that poetry, any skill with words, fine speaking, is a
“divine gift” is echoed ironically; we all know stories in which such
divine gifts turn out to be poisoned ones; the curse of Cassandra has
been generously handed on. Even the gift of tongues at Pentecost is not
safe from such uncertainty, as any honest preacher must know.
Wainwright (31) points to Herbert Marcuse’s critique of art contained
in An Essay on Liberation:
The aesthetic necessity of art supersedes the terrible necessity of
reality, sublimates its pain and pleasure; the blind suffering and
cruelty of nature (and of the ‘nature’ of man) assume meaning and end –
‘poetic justice’. (. . . ) And in this aesthetic universe, joy and
fulfillment find their proper place alongside pain and death –
everything is in order again . . . [but] the achievement is illusory,
false, fictitious: it remains within the dimension of art, a work of
art . . . This is perhaps the most telling expression of the
contradiction, the self-defeat, built into art: the pacifying conquest
of matter, the transfiguration of the object remain unreal – just as
the revolution in perception remains unreal.
This echoes Hill’s anxiety of unreality very precisely. And yet, Hill
insists, the risk must be taken if the poet is not to remain totally
silent. Hill’s intensity is in part the result of his awareness of the
modern prostitution of image and word through the media, publicity and
propaganda of all kinds, where all reality is reduced to raw material
for entertainment, in itself meaningless.
The Mercian Hymns are hugely inhabited by the dead, by the relics they
leave scattered in nature, or in associated memories, and by strong
XI (final stanzas)
Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring. It is safe to
presume, here, the king's anger. He reigned forty years. Seasons
touched and retouched the soil.
Heathland, new-made watermeadow. Charlock, marsh-marigold. Crepitant
oak forest where the boar furrowed black mould, his snout intimate with
worms and leaves.
And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us he vanished
he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.
The history underlying the Mercian Hymns is national (Offa was the
first to bear the title "King of all the peoples of England"), and it
is marked by generalized political violence and cruelty; the poem
ponders the way power corrupts the power-holder, who maintains his rule
by violence. The fascination with power and the inevitable corruption
of those who wield it is central to much of Hill’s work. He often
revisits Hobbes’s Leviathan. He has written (Rhetorics of Value, 2000):
“Leviathan . . . is a tragic elegy on the extinction of intrinsic value
. . . Hobbes’s despair arises from the extinction of personal identity,
which he in turn identifies with intrinsic value.” After the prose
poems of the Mercian Hymns, there was a return to more poetic modes of
expression in Tenebrae. This collection's poems are mostly far more
simply lyrical than any written before, often exquisitely beautiful:
Slowly my heron flies
pierced by the blade
mounting in slow pain
strikes the air with its cries
goes seeking the high rocks
where no man can climb
where the wild balsam stirs
by the little stream
the rocks the high rocks
are brimming with flowers
there love grows and there love
rests and is saved
There are echoes from Spanish poetry here, the poet tells us in a note
at the end of the Collected Poems, and we think of Lorca, and of St
John of the Cross, but with the Song of Songs looming behind. In this
collection the darker shadows of history seem to have withdrawn, but
they return abruptly at the end of the last poem in the collection. For
Hill, poetry would surrender its main role as a communication of spoken
truth if it were reduced to a mere music of phonemes:
Music survives, composing her own sphere,
Angel of Tones, Medusa, Queen of the Air,
and when we would accost her with real cries
silver on silver thrills itself to ice. (from: Tenebrae 8)
For Hill, the collapse of poetry into music is a betrayal of its moral
responsibility, a loss of the challenging message depending on words.
Thus history and pain exist together, always waiting to return, to find
expression, and when the Collected Poems were being put together, Hill
tells us (199) that he reversed the chronological order so that The
Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy came after the Chartres
verses, which means that the last lines in the book are:
Low tragedy, high farce, fight for command,
march, counter-march, and come to the salute
at every hole-and-corner burial-rite
bellowed with hoarse dignity into the wind.
Take that for your example! But still mourn,
being so moved: éloge and elegy
so moving on the scene as if to cry
'in memory of those things these words were born.'
This, Wainwright writes (45), “is a poem about the potencies of words,
their direct issue, their distant weights and attractions, their
formulations of memories, images and ideologies, their sounds and
resonances – about what kinds of things can be done with words.”
Similarly, Peter K. Walker, in his Agenda essay (76-87), writes:
The cry of individual pain (becomes) a metaphor of the cry of a world
which in the end is losing its sense of any radiance of passionate
engagement or deeper self-surrender. It is the cry of the stuff of
humanity itself. It is emblematic, metaphoric even, I believe, of
Hill's recent poetry as a corpus, the mark of which is its fusion of
intellectual strength with simple, sensuous and passionate immediacy,
coming out in passionate admiration, or anger and protest, ... or out
of a deep sense of loss.
After this comes the volume Canaan, named after the Promised Land which
was also the land in which Israel betrayed their God and their true
calling, and went "whoring after strange gods," so that the land of
milk and honey is at the same time the wilderness of temptations and
Jerusalem devastated. This interpretation is indicated by the quotation
from the Geneva Bible version of the Old Testament placed before the
Table of Contents, "the land was defiled with blood". We have here the
fundamental theme of Hill's concern: how to speak justly of the
unjustly shed blood that so defiles human history? A related dimension
in Hill's work is his horror at the events that took place in Germany
and central Europe in the 1930s and 40s under the general command of
Hitler. All of that is contained, in the poem "Ovid in the Third Reich"
at the start of King Log, in the two words 'Things happen.' The
‘innocent’ victims died, their innocence was no protection, while the
killers claimed to be innocent, simply doing their job.
In Canaan we find the sequence "De Iure Belli ac Pacis" dedicated to
the memory of Hans-Bernd von Haeften, 1905-1944. Von Haeften, who was
executed for his part in the plot to kill Hitler, stands in Hill's mind
for integrity and true European values, (in contrast, Hill suggests, to
the unimaginative bureaucracy enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht of
the present EU). Here we are at the heart of very important matters,
especially in the fourth poem:
In Plotzensee where you were hanged
they now hang
tokens of reparation and in good faith
compound with Cicero's maxims, Schiller's chant,
your silenced verities.
To the high-minded
base-metal forgers of this common Europe,
community of parody, you stand ec-
centric as a prophet. There is no better
vision that I can summon: you were upheld
on the strong wings of the Psalms before you died.
Evil is not good's absence but gravity's
everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.
Hill's customary doubts here give way to a rather more affirmative
grimness. He portrays the latent possibilities of utter evil manifested
in those who exercise ruling power and wonders where redemption lies;
not, though, without some hope at the end of the last poem in the
Christus, it is not your stable: it will serve
as well as any other den or shippen
the arraigned truth, the chorus with its gifts
of humiliation, incense and fumitory,
the soul-flame, as it has stood through such ages,
ebbing, and again, lambent, replenished
in its stoup of clay
So the passion and thought are brought into a kind of unity, for the
flame is the flame of a reasoned anger, a passionate degree of care.
Hill remains true to the poetic Way he discovered in his youth in Donne
and the other "Metaphysicals", where the passion and the intelligence
complete each other in their separate but intersecting spheres. Milton
(in Of Education) wrote that poetry is “more simple sensuous and
passionate” than logic or rhetoric, stressing “what religious, what
glorious and magnificent use might be made of poetry, both in divine
and human things.” Hill is a difficult poet because he thinks so very
much and feels so very deeply, as in "Psalms of Assize VI":
that now must seem
willed and awkward
we cannot know God
deny his sequestered
in a marred nature
if eloquent at all
with the inuring of scars
it does not improve Sion
it has no place
to the chief musician
it goes without lament
it is not
the almond branch prophetic
nor is it any kind of blessing
given this people
The poet speaks as a prophet: the English tradition has long been
familiar with that notion, it includes Milton and Blake among other
notable non-conformists. We cannot read Canaan's title without
recalling Blake's “Jerusalem”. It seems that in Hill's mind, the
questions of the possibility of establishing justice, of using words to
speak truth, and of writing poetry, are one and the same. And as the
prophet denounces the unjust with righteous anger, so too much of
Hill’s more recent work is stamped with a strong note of fury at the
failure of humanity to act humanely.
The possibility of hope under such shadows must be a key concern and it
is with that theme that Hill challenges readers most deeply. His poetry
can never be seen as a mere tissue of verbal patterns; it bites into
the reader's mind and asks: "You, what is your hope? Will there be
meaning?" Hill is looking for light in very dark times indeed. Yet
Canaan contains another kind of poems, too. In the "Cycle William
Arrowsmith 1924-1992" Hill shows once again that a significant degree
of beauty exists in the world despite the contrary realities:
Natural strange beatitudes
the leafless tints
of spring touch red through brimstone
what do you mean praise and lament
it is the willow
larch or alder
The heart feels for its own
reflects upon itself
light is everywhere
droppings of the
Redemption, or hope, are present in Hill’s records of the experience of
these moments of sheer, unmediated natural beauty. They constitute, for
him, sufficient reason for hope that the corruptions of human history
and the blind cruelty of things are not all there is. The second poem
in the volume must have one of the longest titles in history, but what
it says is that the poet aspires to ‘getting it right’ because at such
moments the poem and the truth of things coincide:
That Man as a Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which Is His Perfection
Abiding provenance I would have said
the question stands
even in adoration
clause upon clause
with or without assent
reason and desire on the same loop --
I imagine singing I imagine
getting it right -- the knowledge
of sensuous intelligence
entering into the work --
spontaneous happiness as it was once
given our sleeping nature to awake by
innocence of first inscription
The much more recent volume The Orchards of Syon (2002) expresses this
same experience even more clearly, while bringing us back to Hopkins’
Goldengrove which, as a geographical place, lies not so far from Hill’s
own childhood home in Bromsgrove, and incorporates all the human
experiences (often linked to childhood) corresponding to Eden or
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.
Wainwright (118) summarizes this with the remark, “Syon is not a time
or place but a mental vision.” With that we are brought back to Blake’s
unceasing “mental fight” to build (or find) Jerusalem in England, that
we saw at the beginning. There is pain and there is the threat of
oblivion, and there is blood, and a vast ocean of meaningless words,
Hill says, but when all is said and done, there are moments when words
of poetry spoken ‘here and now’ succeed in getting as close to Truth,
to Eden and to God as anyone is entitled to get, so long as we are
creatures of flesh and blood and bone:
Patchy weather, quick
showers gusting the fields like clouds of lime.
You thought us held by favours, see above.
Such are the starts of memory, abrupt
blessing slid from confusion. Await
new-fangled light, the slate roofs briefly
caught in scale-nets of silver, then
sheened with thin oils. These signals
I take as apprehension, new-aligned
poetry with truth, and Syon’s Orchards
uncannily of the earth.
To conclude: what Hill suggests we sense by faith is that we do not
live our lives alone; an Other than I is there, praying each of us
without exception to accept his loving presence and to find in a
communion with him the ultimate meaning of our life. That communion is
not imposed by force, and our response is not demanded with a hail of
fearful threats of retribution in case of refusal. Those are entirely
human ways of being. There are times when we need simply to indicate to
others this mystery: there is within the human person a point beyond
all perception where the Eternal awaits us. Modern, computerized youth
might see this as an “interface” and the word appeals since indeed what
happens there is the nearest we can come to a meeting “face to face”
with God, the risen Christ, the living Breath of love.
We all know how many lives have been annihilated by
human hands claiming to act in the name of God’s truth and justice. The
victims of inquisitions and orthodoxies of many kinds, physically
tortured and killed, excluded from society, universities, villages and
homes, to say nothing of the millions of soldiers fallen in the name of
those exalted servants of Empire and the National Interest, Truth and
The Demands of Justice. This horror, the ultimate betrayal of human
nature, is the central concern of the poet, Geoffrey Hill. To him, and
to all Masters of Mercy, human suffering is always intolerable, and
there is no need to add the qualification “innocent” since there is no
human person who is excluded from God’s merciful love. But in recent
human history, the suffering seems to dominate both past and
present—the injustices, the wasted lives, the ruined promises make it
hard to perceive the beauty of God’s creation, even in its imperfect,
‘fallen’ state. To realize this and to speak of this, the poet’s
responsibility is immense and terrifying: to speak the truth (which is
also beauty) in just language without betraying it by ‘aestheticizing’
it. Such is the quest and pilgrimage out of which Hill’s poetry arises
and develops. Humbly may we receive it.
The Poetic Works of Geoffrey Hill
Collected Poems. Penguin. 1985. (Contains For the Unfallen (1959), King
Log (1968), Mercian Hymns (1971), Tenebrae (1978), Hymns to Our Lady of
Chartres (1984) The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy
Canaan. Penguin. 1996.
The Triumph of Love. Penguin. 1998.
Speech! Speech! Penguin. 2000.
The Orchards of Syon. Penguin. 2002.
Scenes from Comus. Penguin. 2005.
Without Title. Penguin. 2006.
A Treatise of Civil Power. Penguin. 2007.
Geoffrey Hill. The Enemy's Country: Words, Contextures, and other Circumstances of Language. Stanford University Press. 1991
Agenda: A Tribute to Geoffrey Hill. Volume 34 No. 2. 1996.
Jeffrey Wainwright. Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill. Manchester University Press. 2005.