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 Mauberley”:

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 other.

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 realities.

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 absences:

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 sequence:

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":

And yet
          the instinctive
          that now must seem
willed and awkward
we cannot know God
          we cannot
deny his sequestered
          in a marred nature
if eloquent at all
          it is
with the inuring of scars
and speechlessness
it does not improve Sion
it has no place
          among psalms
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
                    first then
larch or alder


The heart feels for its own
reflects upon itself
light is everywhere
                           the spiders'
          droppings of the
star wormwood

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
                                              and know
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 Paradise:

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 (1984)).
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

Works cited

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.