From Cardiff to Canaan: R.S.Thomas and Geoffrey Hill
A paper first published in Hyondai Yongmisi
yongu (Studies in Modern British and American Poetry)
(The Modern British and American Poetry Society of Korea)
2 (1997) pages 5 - 29
Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) Sogang University
The riddling title's alliteration is meant to point toward the patterns of local rootedness and the larger dimensions of history and values that bring to some degree of closeness two poets whose work and sympathies may, in other aspects, be located on different sides of most critical equations. Read in Korea, it is hard to say which of these two living British poets, R.S. Thomas and Geoffrey Hill, will prove more accessible.
This paper would like to bring the two poets together without giving the impression that we are going to end with a popularity contest or a comparative survey of approving opinion. Each of them is a firmly established figure with a clearly defined opus and needs to be approached in his own right. R.S. (as he is very often called) is still alive, but his work can be considered to be virtually complete. He was born in 1913, in the English-speaking Welsh city of Cardiff of our title, but his family moved to Holyhead on Anglesey, in the far north of Wales, when he was nearly six. Later they lived in England. As an adult, he served as priest in Wales in a number of rural parishes, during which time he finally learned the Welsh language, and since 1994 he has been living in retirement in Anglesey, in a conscious return to roots.
Geoffrey Hill is some twenty years younger than R.S. Thomas, he was born in Worcestershire (which his work at times identifies with the ancient kingdom of Mercia) in 1932. He has published far less: the Penguin Collected Poems of 1985 contains less than 200 pages. In 1996 he published a slim new volume of poetry, entitled Canaan, the other tablet in our title's diptych. He has been living in the United States since 1988, as a member of the University Professors Program at Boston University. At 65 his poetic identity, too, is firmly established, although his opus and development are perhaps not so certainly complete.
One locus in which their separate trajectories seem to intersect is that constituted by history in its national and transnational dimensions. However, many of the most urgent of their concerns are so bound up in matters connected with specific issues and moments of British and European history that it is hard to see how those not involved in that history will be able to negociate the complexities involved. In comparision, their shared religious dimensions may seem to be almost unproblematic, although they can hardly be considered of transparent simplicity. Their poetry has a shared austerity but what they write is vastly different in poetic register.
It is probably hard for Koreans to understand why people in Wales and Scotland so dislike being called 'English'. Yet it is hardly possible to read the poetry of R.S. Thomas without taking account of his Welshness: it intervenes directly in many poems, indirectly along the margins of his work, in the silences surrounding it, as well as at the point where the poetry rejoins the poet, where poetry is considered in terms of biography.
One of the most deeply felt parts of his Autobiographies (1996) is the short chapter "The creative writer's suicide" on the anguish of being a Welsh poet who can only write poetry in English. Yet it should be remembered that he wrote that chapter in Welsh; Neb, the original, Welsh-language version of Autobiographies, has been available since 1985, and he left the work of translating it into English to another. There was certainly never much risk of his readers forgetting the Welsh dimension of his identity. It was there from the very earliest poems in the first collection The Stones of the Field (1946), which have remained among his most admired, the evocations of people so deeply rooted in the Welsh landscape as to be inseparable from its rocks and skies:
Iago Prytherch his name, though, be it allowed,
Just an ordinary man of the bald Welsh hills,
Who pens a few sheep in a gap of cloud.
Docking mangels, chipping the green skin
From the yellow bones with a half-witted grin
Of satisfaction, or churning the crude earth
To a stiff sea of clouds that glint in the wind... (from: A Peasant)
Study this man: he is older than the tree
That lays its gnarled hand on his meagre shoulder,
And even as wrinkled, for the bladed wind
Ploughs up the surface, as the blood runs colder. (from: Man and Tree)
You remember Davies? He died, you know,
With his face to the wall, as the manner is
Of the poor peasant in his stone croft on the Welsh hills. (from: Death of a Peasant)
These were the kind of lines that struck many so forcefully when we saw them in A. Alvarez's The New Poetry (Penguin, 1962) and they are still the poems that get anthologized (though he is not in the Norton Anthology of English Literature). The affirmation of Welshness was always strong:
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky (from: Welsh Landscape)
and equally his divided response to the English poetic tradition that he could not avoid:
England, what have you done to make the speech
My fathers used a stranger at my lips,
An offence to the ear, a shackle on the tongue
That would fit new thoughts to an abiding tune? (from: The Old Language)
Twelve years later, the same themes still structure Poetry for Supper (1958), with the added complexity that time has passed and some have queried the striking distance between the voice speaking and the people portrayed in his poems:
Fun? Pity? No word can describe
My true feelings. I passed and saw you
Labouring there, your dark figure
Marring the simple geometry
Of the square fields with its gaunt question.
My poems were made in its long shadow
Falling coldly across the page. (from: Iago Prytherch)
It was felt by some readers that the tone was too detached, perhaps ironic, not that expected of a pastor contemplating members of his flock. Autobiographies suggests a variety of keys to this aspect to R.S.'s poetic (and human) personality: a dominating mother who was an orphan at six, who had never known love; a sea-going father often away from home, and little able to express affection; himself growing up separate from the "rough boys" he went to school with but did not feel anything in common with.
As a young poet, he says he was attracted by poets who glorified the State of Nature in which the simple folk of Galway (Yeats) or the Hebrides (Fiona Macleaod) seemed to live. His own experience on a visit to Scotland (Autobiographies p. 46-7) and then in his first Welsh parish, told him plainly that reality was less rosy, that simple rough folk were more likely to be narrow and mean. Above all, the last lines quoted suggest a deeper, more inward reason: R.S. is less interested in the poetic moment of experience as such than in the philosophical or metaphysical questions latent within the poetic perception. Two quotations from Autobiographies may prove helpful, or at least stimulating:
Kierkegaard's definition of a poet was that he is one who suffers. It is in his anguish that he opens his mouth, but the sound that comes out is so sweet to the ears of his listeners that they press him to sing again; that is, to suffer further. (page 20)
On seeing his shadow fall on such ancient rocks, he had to question himself in a different context and ask the same old question as before, 'Who am I?', and the answer now came more emphatically than ever before, 'No-one.' But a no-one with a crown of light about his head. He would remember a verse from Pindar: 'Man is a dream about a shadow. But when some splendour falls upon him from God, a glory comes to him and his life is sweet.' (page 78)
The Welsh word Neb, the original title of Autobiographies means 'No-one' but it can also sometimes mean 'Some-one'; the word for 'Nothing', dim, can also mean 'Something'. Wordsworth might be said to have put his own self firmly at the centre of his work, making himself very much 'Some-one' in the Prelude and in the definitions of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, by his dramatically accented exaltations of the poet's awareness. By contrast, Thomas humbly shuns epiphanies and the related focus on the elevated self. His poems refuse to accentuate his private feelings, and where Wordsworth talked about "emotion recollected in tranquility" he only indicates that "My poems were made in (the) long shadow" of the question he glimpsed in the lonely grim figure in the fields "Falling coldly across the page."
It is perhaps natural, given such self-effacement, that the writer of the Autobiographies refers to himself in the third person, as "he". In order to be somebody, Thomas suggests, the poet must be nobody, just as God can only be God if "he" does not conform to any human ideas of what God might be like. For Thomas the major words mean themselves and just the opposite, or nothing at all, and his explorations of that have been the source of much of his later poetry.
This much more arduous work, poems teasing away again and again at fundamental questions about God, human existence, nature, science, pain, has caused readers not responsive to such things to turn away, while it has brought many others closer to him. These searching poems are written in a new style, with rhythms quite specific to the poet. This new direction seems to start for earnest in Tares (1961) with one splendid riddling poem in a quite new mode, entitled "Here":
I am a man now.
Pass your hand over my brow,
You can feel the place where the brains grow.
I am like a tree,
From my top boughs I can see
The footprints that led up to me.
There is blood in my veins
That has run clear of the stain
Contracted in so many loins.
Why, then, are my hands red
With the blood of so many dead?
Is this where I was misled?
Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?
Does no God hear when I pray?
I have nowhere to go.
The swift satellites show
The clock of my whole being is slow.
It is too late to start
For destinations not of the heart.
I must stay here with my hurt.
What chiefly characterizes R.S's poetic career is the way he has kept on writing until the corpus was more than complete. Even the Collected Poems do not contain all the published poems, and as time went on the questions became more insistent and the reports of things seen in the Welsh hills ever less frequent.
We move closer to the paradoxes of the epigram and the philosophical poem, which are not always attractive to today's horizontal spontaneities of feeling. It is not sure what a person who has decided that there is no invisible dimension to life will make of "Via Negativa" from H'm (1972):
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.
The 533 pages of the Collected Poems contain many attempts to ask the same questions in different ways; R.S. cannot allow the question of God to go away, and he fears for the future of humanity under the harsh regime of what he often (perhaps too often) calls "the machine". For those who care for them, the religious poems of Laboratories of the Spirit (1975) are especially rewarding, starting with "The Hand", which echoes the Old Testament story of Jacob wrestling with God in the night:
It was a hand. God looked at it
and looked away. There was a coldness
about his heart, as though the hand
clasped it. As at the end
of a dark tunnel, he saw cities
the hand would build, engines
that it would raze them with. His sight
dimmed. Tempted to undo the joints
of the finger, he picked it up.
Yet it must be said that this text might almost gain from being printed as prose, the line division has become detached from any real structure of metre or meaning. This is the great accusation often levelled against much of R.S.'s work, that it has lost the lyric spark and become prosaic. Yet that is surely too simple a division, for prose too has its poetic values. There is a pleasure in reading these later poems that derives less from their emotive intensities than from the way the thoughts have been whittled down to the bare bones. He is over sixty by now, after all. The poems in Frequencies (1978) continue to express the chosen themes with striking originality:
I pronounced you. Older
I still do, but seldomer
now, leaning far out
over an immense depth, letting
your name go and waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for the echoes of its arrival. (from: Waiting)
Lyric moments of the Wordsworthian kind are hidden among the sadder works of stillness and waiting, they need to be looked for. "The White Tiger" is one such poem, of astonishing force in its combination of visual description with metaphysical metaphor:
It was beautiful as God
must be beautiful; glacial
eyes that had looked on
violence and come to terms
with it; a body too huge
and majestic for the cage in which
it had been put; up
and down in the shadow
of its own bulk it went,
lifting, as it turned,
the crumpled flower of its face
to look into my own
face without seeing me. It
was the colour of the moonlight
on snow and as quiet
as moonlight, but breathing
as you can imagine that
God breathes within the confines
of our definition of him, agonising
over immensities that will not return.
Of similar power, though too long to quote, is "A Thicket in Lleyn" from Experimenting with an Amen (1986) and in the same collection there is "Moorland" which may give the lie to charges of prosaic barrenness and human coldness:
It is beautiful and still:
the air rarefied
as the interior of a cathedral
expecting a presence. It is where, also,
the harrier occurs,
materialising from nothing, snow-
soft, but with claws of fire
quartering the bare earth
for the prey that escapes it;
hovering over the incipient
scream, here for a moment, then
not here, like my belief in God.
Any such survey would have to conclude with a comment on the fundamental simplicity of the works. These are not "difficult" poems in terms of their content. They are literary in that they show an awareness of George Herbert, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Edward Thomas and Yeats, as well as T.S Eliot, but they rarely address issues of literary theory. They express quite directly questions that R.S. wishes to share with his readers, and they reflect the poise of a mind unlike most in its lack of subterfuge.
R.S. loves Wales, he has never lived in a city, he dislikes modern technological "civilisation", he has had the immense good fortune never to have been an academic and never to have been caught up in the busy-ness of modern rhythms; he has had time to think, watch birds, and write poems. His poetry mirrors his life precisely and that is perhaps why one of his last volumes, The Echoes Return Slow (1988) consists of fragments of autobiography in prose on the left-hand page confronting poems related directly or indirectly to them on the right-hand page.
R.S. rarely brings memories of childhood experiences into his poems, although they figure briefly in Autobiographies. By contrast, one of the major themes of Geofrey Hill's work is memories and their loss; his own childhood memories are especially pronounced in the Mercian Hymns. In this, of course, he may seem to resemble Seamus Heaney, but oh, how different! Again, where R.S. Thomas's poems are almost always (like George Herbert's) complete in themselves, effecting their own closure, Hill's offer a densely knotted complexity with no solution in sight, standing as they do in a very different literary tradition.
It seems extremely difficult to speak about Hill's work succinctly. To coincide with the publication last year of Canaan, the review Agenda issued a special issue (Vol. 34, No. 2) entitled "A Tribute to Geoffrey Hill" in which some of the articles are quite demanding. Only Michael Alexander's preface to the Italian translation of Mercian Hymns was written for a more or less uninformed readership. The fundamental information is quickly conveyed: before Canaan, Geoffrey Hill published only four collections of poems: For the Unfallen (1959), King Log (1968), the prose poem sequence Mercian Hymns (1971), Tenebrae (1978). In the Penguin edition of the Collected Poems (1985), 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).
Indeed, the concept of the 'sequence' is an important one for Hill, who is fond of grouping a number of poems under a single title, without imposing any clear conditions on their inter-relatedness. This technique gives us what may be considered some of his most impressive work: the five poems of "Metamorphoses" in For the Unfallen, the eight poems of "Funeral Music" in King Log, the entire Mercian Hymns, the fifteen poems of "The Pentecost Castle", the seven poems of "Lachrimae or Seven tears figured in seven passionate Pavans", the eleven poems of "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England", and the eight brief poems of "Tenebrae", all from Tenebrae, to name but a few.
The concept of sequence takes on a new complexity in Canaan, where we find, in addition to several normal sequences (seven poems for "Scenes with Harlequins", eight for "De Iure Belli ac Pacis", five for "Churchill's Funeral") we find several poems with the same title scattered throughout the work ("To the High Court of Parliament", "Mysticism and Democracy"). As if to stress the importance of these sequences, we find many of them exploring a variety of forms based more or less freely on the sonnet.
In his essay in Agenda (pages 49-65), Jeffrey Wainwright points out that one fundamental reference for the kind of poetry Hill writes is 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 pp 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. (p 57)
This certainly helps glimpse some of the complexity of Hill's literary contexts. Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell would need to be invoked too, if we are to begin to situate his work in a context of influences. As part of the fragmented and riddling nature of their contents, many poems in Canaan begin with an epigraph, a motto taken from some work of a remote age, often in Latin. Hill's poems do not lend themselves to the striking quotation. They ask to be taken whole; so to begin we might take "Drake's Drum" (the fourth poem of "Metamorphoses" from his earlies 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.
The drum of the title is said to be heard beating whenever England is threatened with invasion from across the sea (as in the Armada that Drake helped defeat at great loss of life). Yet the poem is not concerned with nationalistic issues but with all the lives lost at sea during such battles. While mythology may tell tales of the dead transformed and saved from oblivion, the poem invites pity 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 point of memorial gestures or speech.
In this early work we are confronted with one of 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. It must already be clear that these are not easy poems, not 'personal' in the usual sense, they do not indulge in recollections of personal experience of a familiar kind. The reader has a lot of work to do and these are still the earlier poems, written long before the poet moved out into the Canaanite wilderness. 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 Mercian Hymns carry us mainly in other directions, and would demand whole studies of their own, but they too 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 also personal (memories from the poet's childhood, Offa blending with memories of his grandfather). Critics have been puzzled to account for this set of prose poems, and there was some relief to find a return to more poetic forms 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, of St John of the Cross, with the Song of Songs looming behind. For the poet is in a relationship with Christianity, albeit one sometimes as complicated as his relationship with the English poetic tradition and with recent history. 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:
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)
Thus history and pain are there, waiting to return, and when the Collected Poems were being put together, Hill tells us (page 199) that he reversed the chronological order so that the Péguy poem 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.'
Peter K. Walker, in his Agenda essay (pages 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.
Which brings us to Canaan, the Promised Land of the title, this being 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, where perhaps the key phrase is "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?
It becomes obvious that one difficulty with Hill is the fact that he thinks (and feels) a very great deal, so that each word in a poem may be enormously charged with unspoken things. The Korean reader is too often at a loss over the unspoken references of all modern British literature, but with Hill's the problem is particularly acute. A British-bred reader of my own generation will be able to recognize some of the allusions to the popular mythical images of wartime Britain evoked in the sequence "Churchill's Funeral" (which I myself witnessed) but that is not yet to have read the poem, for we have still to sense the sense of the images, since Hill is not known for outbursts of simple nostalgia. There would be much to write on Hill's hostile relationship with modern British self-imaging.
A perhaps still more important, again largely implicit, 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.'
In Canaan we find the sequence "De Iure Belli ac Pacis" dedicated to the memory of Hans-Bernd von Haeften, 1905-1944. How many today even realize that there was an attempt on Hitler's life? It will take more than a footnote to show the way in which von Haeften, who was executed for his part in that plot, stands in Hill's mind for integrity and true European values in contrast to the unimaginative bureaucracy enshrined in the Treaty of Maastricht. Yet 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.
The last three lines receive particular comment in the various pages of Agenda, mainly on account of their rhythmic intensity and insistent solemnity. Hill's customary doubts here give way to a rather more affirmative grimness. Can there be such poetry, then? Where Thomas ponders the absent presences of God, Hill portrays the latent possibilities of utter evil and wonders; 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. Hill is a difficult poet because he thinks so very much and feels so very deeply. It is therefore no surprise that in Canaan we can find poems where the austerities of Hill seem not after all so far from those of R.S. Thomas, 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
Yet the poet speaks as a prophet: the English tradition has long been familiar with that notion, it includes 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, and of writing poetry, are one and the same. There is more than a touch of Milton in him, and that puts him on the outside of fashionable compromises.
There are not many poets who bring into their work concern about the future of the European Community and anger at the "sleaze" (corruption) that characterized the English political scene in recent years, together with distress at centuries of war and the evil of the Holocaust. The possibility of hope under such shadows must be a key concern and it is with that theme that Hill and Thomas challenge their readers most deeply. Their 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 there are grounds for concern. There is such a thing as "decorum", even in modern poetry. In his essay attacking the reception of Eliot's Four Quartets, placed at the start of the Agenda volume, Hill distinguishes in a perhaps over-subtle way between "pitch" and "tone". We find severe criticism of Canaan expressed by John Lucas in his review published in Stand Magazine (Vol. 38 No. 3, Summer 1997 pages 29-31), where he maintains that Hill himself is indulging in tone where he claims pitch.
Some of the poems in Canaan are marred by too much specific (yet vague) reference to the petty scandals that debased England in the grim years of Thatcher and Major. There is a lack of decorum, a failure of proportion, when Hill introduces such topics in the style that he has chosen, which is a version of high style. The same problem arises with his mentions of the development of the European Community.
These issues are political, although they also have moral dimensions in that they suggest questions about the meaning of life and the fundamental values by which a society sets out to live. Yet it might be felt that Hill has not found a convincing way of telling us what he is talking about. There is something ludicrous or grotesque about finding more or less heavily coded references to recent English politics in a volume where most poems have Latin epigraphs from obscure Renaissance writers that no ordinary reader can possibly fathom.
Beyond this is the question, raised by "Churchill's Funeral", as to what Hill is proposing to make (in poetic terms) of "England". Is this a land of mythic ideal (as "Canaan" or "Jerusalem" suggest) or is he writing satiric poems intended to play a role in contemporary national debate and of little direct concern to outside readers? If so, why are references to contemporary events so unclear?
More than anything else, and the point where the comparison with R.S. Thomas comes into its own, is the question raised fiercely by Lucas: what effect does it have on the validity of these poems, when we know that Hill has swallowed the American academic bait? Lucas is only saying what many must feel when he accuses Hill of "deciding to exchange the bare and as it might seem all-but ruined groves of english academe for the more luxurious ones watered and fed by american dollars." Similar criticisms are sometimes made of Seamus Heaney, to the effect that in Spirit Level he continues to write about his childhood, but has still not written many poems about the contexts in which so much of his life is now spent.
There is a demand that the poet's life relate in some way with the fundamental concerns of the poetry. By his move to Anglesey, Thomas is consciously creating a pattern of locality and identity, even if he has no answers to the difficult question of the political, linguistic, and social future of Wales. By his move to Boston, Hill is detaching himself from a reality that he clearly dislikes, but creates no matching pattern of response, for his new commitment is even more closely identified with the worship of Mammon that he claims to abhor.
Yet this cannot be the last word, even about Canaan, for it contains another kind of poems, too. In the "Cycle William Arrowsmith 1924-1992" Hill shows that he is still capable of the lyric beauty for which, I think, we ought most to admire him:
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
For such poems, and for De Iure Belli Ac Pacis too, Hill is worthy of highest praise, surely. The second poem in the volume must have one of the longest titles in history, but it is a very fine thing, and what it says is the best possible conclusion to this attempt to present a poet whose work is daunting in difficulty but remarkable in quality:
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
R.S. Thomas. Collected Poems 1945 - 1990. London: J.M. Dent. 1993.
R.S. Thomas. Autobiographies. Translated from the Welsh by Jason Walford Davies. London: J.M. Dent. 1997.
Geoffrey Hill. Collected Poems. London: Penguin Books. 1985.
Geoffrey Hill. The Enemy's Country: Words, Contextures, and other Circumstances of Language. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1991.
Geoffrey Hill. Canaan. London: Penguin Books. 1996.