Weight of the Word, Weight of the World
Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012, by Geoffrey Hill, ed. by Kenneth Haynes. Oxford University Press. $34.95.
“i will consider the outnumbering dead”: 1952–1983
In the beginning, there is polyphony, false starts, botched experiments, and mixed motives. Usually. Consider some of Geoffrey Hill’s contemporaries: how many of the forty poems in The Hawk in the Rain, Ted Hughes’s debut, sustain a recognizably Hughesian note? I’d say about eight. Philip Larkin soon dismissed his own first book, The North Ship, finding too many of its poems unduly influenced by Yeats’s music (which was, in Larkin’s view, “pervasive as garlic”). Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen (1959), is different. It’s true that Allen Tate, early Robert Lowell, and Richard Eberhart are here, but their influence has already been digested, and in many ways Hill seems to have already surpassed them. No wonder Harold Bloom’s a fan. Here and there, admittedly, Hill’s difficulty can seem willed, and some of the formal control has been achieved at the price of a certain dryness and stiffness — and one suspects that the young Hill is not altogether unhappy about this — but For the Unfallen remains an almost eerily self-assured debut, with its epigraph drawn from one of its own poems, and its opening poem (and the earliest to have been written) entitled “Genesis.” The book’s marmoreally austere quality is what lingers in the memory, and it is a surprise, upon returning to it, to find that most of its poems work in an ironic, mock-heroic mode that Hill would return to decades later with The Triumph of Love (1998). The later work may be more caustic and disruptive, but the continuities across Hill’s oeuvre are already becoming easier to discern.
As many critics have noted, Hill established himself from the beginning as an elegist. The title For the Unfallen promises a memorial for the living, and the book itself contains “In Memory of Jane Fraser,” “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings,” “Two Formal Elegies,” “In Piam Memoriam,” “Wreaths,” “Elegiac Stanzas,” and “Of Commerce and Society” (a series of memorials for Shelley, the Titanic, and St. Sebastian, among others). Each of these elegies is grounded in a particular historical moment. A close engagement with history — itself a form of respectful acknowledgment to the dead — will become another unifying characteristic of Hill’s career.
Such engagement moves center stage in Hill’s second collection, King Log (1968), with the astonishing sonnet sequence “Funeral Music,” which is dedicated to William de la Pole, John Tiptoft, and Anthony Woodville: aristocrats executed during the Wars of the Roses. The poem tells us little about the dead men’s personalities and works; instead, it attempts to find a language that answers to the peculiar fusion of refinement and brutality, idealism and corruption, and mysticism and carnality, of which their lives and deaths were exemplary: “‘In honorem Trinitatis.’ Crash. The head / Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood.” In a postscript to the poem, Hill described it as “a commination and an alleluia” and claimed to have been attempting “a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks.” This self-assessment does not appear in Broken Hierarchies, but it has often been repeated by Hill scholars because it so accurately describes the poem’s flickering play of perspectives:
They bespoke doomsday and they meant it byGod, their curved metal rimming the low ridge.But few appearances are like this. OnceEvery five hundred years a comet’sOver-riding stillness might reveal menIn such array, livid and featureless,With England crouched beastwise beneath it all.“Oh, that old northern business ...”
In “Funeral Music,” as in King Log as a whole, something has changed in the nature of Hill’s language: the syntax is more compacted, the rhythm more varied and expressive, the ironies more savage. The nature of the change can best be understood in terms of Hill’s development as an elegist.
One of his earliest elegies, “In Memory of Jane Fraser,” gave Hill enough trouble for him to reprint it in an amended form as an appendix to King Log, where it is accompanied by a note explaining that “I dislike the poem very much and the publication of this amended version may be regarded as a necessary penitential exercise.” What can have provoked such dislike and necessitated such penitence? Apart from minor changes to punctuation, only the final line has been changed: what was “And a few sprinkled leaves unshook” is now “Dead cones upon the alder shook.” As William Logan has noted, Hill’s “strikingly odd” note suggests that he reprinted the poem “because he dislikes it, a form of penance for having written it.” The perceived shortcomings of the poem’s original last line are almost incidental to Hill’s dislike, which stems from a sense that the poem failed in a more fundamental way to achieve a language appropriate to elegy. Such a language — fissured with uncertainty as to its own propriety, however authoritatively it sings and surges — is what we hear in King Log. I quote section II of “Annunciations” in full:
O Love, subject of the mere diurnal grind,Forever being pledged to be redeemed,Expose yourself for charity; be assuredThe body is but husk and excrement.Enter these deaths according to the law,O visited women, possessed sons. Foreign lustsInfringe our restraints; the changeableSoldiery have their goings-out and comings-inDying in abundance. Choicest beastsSuffuse the gutters with their colourful blood.Our God scatters corruption. Priests, martyrs,Parade to this imperious theme: “O Love,You know what pains succeed; be vigilant; striveTo recognize the damned among your friends.”
The poem begins by apostrophizing love in a grand Romantic manner, but at once swerves into something more low-key: “subject of the mere diurnal grind.” An apostrophic address is usually made from a position of subservience, but here it is the addressee that is “subject.” “Diurnal” recalls Wordsworth’s “A slumber did my spirit seal” (“Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course”), but is this an intentional allusion? The “diurnal grind” could refer to love being spoken of too often and too lightly, or to the sorts of quotidian matters that diminish passion, or possibly to routine sex (that last interpretation would have seemed eccentric when the poem first appeared, but Hill’s later work is much more frank about sexual matters), but then, what is “mere” about such things? Does it help or hinder to know that “mere” once meant “pure,” which is how Shakespeare uses the word? Or that Hill, much later in life, would account for the power of Yeats’s late poetry by saying that Yeats gets “the sense of [F.H.] Bradley’s word ‘mere.’ Everything in Bradley is merely itself, or merely less than itself, except when it is ‘somehow’ raised above itself by the power of eros”? And, having mentioned Wordsworth, a northern English reader may be disposed to note that “mere” can also mean “lake,” as in “Grasmere.”
The second line, “Forever being pledged to be redeemed,” is just as volatile, with its connotations of love, chivalric allegiance, and fiduciary matters. To what extent does one sense ironize another? If love has been pledged “forever,” when can it ever be legitimately “redeemed”? Does “to be” imply that love was only pledged so that it could subsequently be redeemed, in the way that the phrase “I love you” implicitly demands reciprocation? Or is it a less loaded observation: love gets pledged and then later gets redeemed, and that’s just how it goes?
As the poem unfolds, the reader quickly becomes sensitized to the fact that every lexical word they encounter has to be understood in ways that complicate or contradict one another. Some choices are relatively straightforward: is the “changeable / Soldiery” a reference to relief at the end of watch, or a broader comment on the rise and fall of empires, or a coded reference to the unpredictable behavior of an occupying army? A more troubling ambiguity is produced by the extent to which the meanings of some words have changed over time: unusually for a Hill poem, we are not given one stable, fixed historical point from which to orientate ourselves. The most volatile word is the first we encounter: love. Is this sacred or profane love? An abstract noun or a human addressee? The Greek word ἀγάπη is translated as “love” in most English-language Bibles up to and including the Geneva Bible, but it sometimes becomes “charity” in the King James version (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 13:13). Since “charity” is mentioned in line three, should we take this as a significant reference point?
Each interpretation we hazard will condition our understanding of the next. By the time it reaches its culmination the poem has achieved a state of acute uncertainty, and yet it seems to have been speaking to us directly and urgently throughout. To read the poem is to eavesdrop on the English language, and hear time rendering our decisions meaningless. Section II of “Annunciations” does not “mean” so much as reveal the flaws in how we construct and construe meaning. It does not “communicate” so much as rob us of our innocence.
It is remarkable that Hill should have already made and then remade his style before tackling the subject of his own childhood, as he did in Mercian Hymns (1971), his third and most approachable collection. It is a sequence of prose poems concerning King Offa and the poet’s own childhood self. Offa exists in the sequence as both an actual, historical person (the eighth-century ruler of the English kingdom of Mercia, and of much of Southern England) and in a mythologized, legendary form as a sort of evil twin to King Arthur; likewise, the child Hill exists both in Bromsgrove circa 1938 and in a timeless world of his own imagining. Each facet of the poem illuminates the others, with Offa’s childish tyranny finding its corollary in the behavior of the young boy. Part VII describes an act of vengeance after a favorite toy is accidentally lost by a friend. Another poet would have depicted the child’s spiteful reprisal in a light comic mode, but Hill’s humor pushes deeper into more disturbing territory:
Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after
the day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already
obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of heavy
snub silver. Ceolred let it spin through a hole
in the classroom-floorboards, softly, into the
rat-droppings and coins.
After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering
with fright, down to the old quarries, and flayed
him. Then, leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours,
calm and alone, in his private derelict sandlorry
Hill gives us an altogether unsparing self-portrait of his childhood self, and captures the peculiar forms of loneliness, alienation, and self-theatricalizing that are an inevitable part of the working-class autodidact’s progress: “Dreamy, smug- / faced, sick on outings — I who was taken to be a / king of some kind, a prodigy, a maimed one.”
Having addressed that blood-soaked “northern business” in “Funeral Music,” and the quasi-mythical past of his native Worcestershire in Mercian Hymns, Hill turns his attention to more genteel landscapes in what is perhaps his greatest single volume, Tenebrae (1978). The historical and linguistic ironies that threatened to tear the poems of King Log apart have been pushed well below the apparently tranquil surface of the sonnet sequence “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England”:
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woodswith smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shineout from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Such lines may beguile the unwary reader, but there are many signs that all is not well in England, which is depicted as a kingdom of “untold mistakes,” of pretension (from the “hired chaise” to the “gilt corridors” and rooms “stiff with the bric-a-brac of loss and gain”), of tweeness and inadequacy (“Make miniatures of the once-monstrous theme: / the red-coat devotees”), of complacency (“Platonic England ... / rests in its laurels”), of “mannerly extortions, languid praise, / all that devotion long since bought and sold,” and of mendacity: “an enclave of perpetual vows / broken in time.” Hill’s subject here is nostalgia, though some critics accused him of simply expressing it. His riposte is worth quoting:
To be accused of exhibiting a symptom when, to the best of my ability, I’m offering a diagnosis appears to be one of the numerous injustices which one must suffer with as much equanimity as possible.
Another sonnet sequence, “Lachrimae,” explores Hill’s agnosticism. Christian mysticism and anguished inquiry meet, and this time the ironies and paradoxes are not pushed below the surface, they are the surface:
I cannot turn aside from what I do;you cannot turn away from what I am.You do not dwell in me nor I in youhowever much I pander to your nameor answer to your lords of revenue,surrendering the joys that they condemn.
For all its artifice and allusive borrowings, “Lachrimae” is a work of confession and lyric passion. As a meditation on doubt and witness, its clarity and subtlety stand comparison with the poetry of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. The final line of the closing sonnet finds the speaker poised on the brink of faith in Christ, offering the hesitant promise “tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”
With Tenebrae Hill began to be regularly referred to as the greatest living English poet. In terms of Hill’s trajectory, what is perhaps most significant is the way this book interrupts an otherwise career-defining movement towards fragmentation. At first it may seem that Hill has returned to the formalism of his earliest writing, but the fluid, graceful lyricism of a poem such as “The Pentecost Castle” is a new achievement:
I shall go downto the lovers’ welland wash this woundthat will not healbeloved soulwhat shall you seenothing at allyet eye to eyedepths of non-beingperhaps too clearmy desire dyingas I desire
Hill would rarely permit himself to sing quite so freely ever again. The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) is an elegy for the eponymous poet who was killed in WWI; but although the poem is a departure in terms of form — it is a discursive narrative written in rhymed quatrains, a form Péguy himself often used — it does not feel like an advance exactly. In imagining Péguy’s troubled relationship with his faith and his idiosyncratic form of nationalism, the poem explores concerns that had already been given lyrical expression in Tenebrae; and in portraying a man passing from life into myth, the poem recalls Mercian Hymns — even if King Offa was a tyrant whereas Péguy is “one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century” (according to the poem’s long accompanying note, which does not appear in Broken Hierarchies). In other ways, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy looks forward to techniques that Hill will make fuller use of later, as when the loss of Péguy and all that he stood for seems to mysteriously give rise to a vision of immanence and natural beauty:
The hawthorn-tree,set with coagulate magnified flowers of may,blooms in a haze of light; old chalk-pits brimwith seminal verdure from the roots of time.
Despite succeeding on the terms it sets itself, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy now looks like a transitional volume. After it there would be a thirteen-year gap in publication.
“take it, leave it, the serious work’s been done”: 1996–2007
The six books Hill published between 1996 and 2007 vary enormously, from the splenetic mockery of Speech! Speech! (2000) to the “forms and patterns of reconciliation” (Hill’s words) of The Orchards of Syon (2002), but what sets them collectively apart from his earlier work is the speed of their arrival, and their willingness to speak directly and publicly to and about the present day. The elegiac strain does not disappear, but it is now focused on contemporary figures: sometimes in straightforward elegies for loved ones, and sometimes in more complex memorials for public figures, as in “Churchill’s Funeral” from Canaan (1996) or the numerous elegies for Princess Diana in Speech! Speech! Sometimes public and private elegies fuse, as in the extraordinary “In Memoriam: Gillian Rose” from A Treatise of Civil Power (2007).
In 1992 Hill began taking antidepressants, and in The Triumph of Love, section CIX, he describes their effect in terms of a religious conversion, “a signal / mystery, mercy, of these latter days.” To hostile readers, this “explains” Hill’s later work all too well — it’s just the pills talking — and in a Paris Review interview in 2000 Hill was happy to credit the release from chronic depression as an important factor in his newfound prolificacy; but other significant life changes during this period would include the ending of his first marriage (of twenty-seven years) in 1983, his subsequent marriage to Alice Goodman in 1987, his move to the US in 1988 to take up a teaching position at Boston University, and the heart attack he suffered shortly thereafter. Whatever its origin, Hill’s garrulousness is striking because prior to this his most characteristic quality had been his seeming reluctance to write or publish at all. He needed the alter-ego of Sebastian Arrurruz in order to write of erotic experience in King Log, the part-mask of King Offa to depict his childhood in Mercian Hymns, and many of the poems in Tenebrae drew heavily on the writings of Christian mystics: St. John of the Cross is a presence if not a full-blown personae in “The Pentecost Castle,” and Robert Southwell fills a similar role in “Lachrimae” until the final sonnet, which is a version of a poem by Lope de Vega. Beyond all of this, Hill seemed fundamentally reticent to publish poems at all. An essay by Brian Cummings exploring Hill’s fascination with recusant martyrs such as Edmund Campion and Southwell suggests an analogy: “The ‘recusant’ does not so much make a stand on what he or she says, as refuse to say something else expected of him or her. Yet this denial is also a fundamental form of affirmation: it defines the person.”
Refusal, denial, and restraint remain integral to Hill’s later poetry, but they are present as subjects or themes rather than characteristics of the verse. He is more forthright when speaking of his own refusals (as he writes in Canaan, “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site”), and he is unsparing of those who lack any sense of reticence, restraint, or shame, such as the corrupt Tory MPs involved in the cash-for-questions scandal:
Where’s probity in this —the slither-friskto lordship of a kindas rats to a bird-table?— From To the High Court of Parliament
Less nobly, in The Triumph of Love Hill takes on pseudonymous adverse critics like “Lothian MacSikker” (Lachlan MacKinnon, I presume?) and “Seán O’Shem” (Sean O’Brien?) who have dared to denigrate his work: “And yes — bugger you, MacSikker et al., — I do / mourn and resent your desolation of learning,” and “even our foes / further us, though against their will / and purpose (up / yours, O’Shem).” However unrestrained this may appear, he is attacking what he sees as the critics’ arrogance and lack of consideration.
Poetic form is another manifestation of the restraint that Hill finds essential to his newfound fluency. After Canaan, which consists of stand-alone poems and sequences, The Triumph of Love is a 150-poem sequence (usually understood as corresponding in some way to the 150 Psalms of David), though the sections vary greatly in length. The three books that follow are all through-composed book-length sequences: Speech! Speech! consists of 120 twelve-line sections (“my topos is SODOM, grandiose / unoriginal”), The Orchards of Syon of seventy-two twenty-four-line sections, and Scenes from Comus (2005) consists of three parts, each with its own repeating stanzaic form. Only in Without Title (2006) and A Treatise of Civil Power does Hill return to collections of individual poems. The best of Hill’s later work is cast in freer forms. As Jeremy Noel-Tod has noted, “The repetitive stanza structures of Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon ... are more hospitable to dense, self-parodic filler.” Hill seems to be aware in Speech! Speech! that a kind of slackening-off has taken place, but his feelings on the matter are mixed: sometimes he comes close to justifying his more unbuttoned approach (“Scrupulosity can kill / like inattention”), but elsewhere he finds dismissively quotidian analogues for both his poetic practice (“He voids each twelve-line block | a head / solemnly breaking water”) and its results (“A set of courtly clogging dances”).
This sense of alienation and uncertainty as to his own aims and motives persists in The Orchards of Syon, but Hill seems to be reaching a more settled accommodation with his predicament: “I wish I understood myself / more clearly or less well.” Such dubiety is often depicted as an intrinsic part of the aging process, about which the collection has much to say: “I tell you, ageing is weirder by far / than dying,” and “Intense / unwasted life, so nearly at an end, / what can I say now, except Whose wére you?” The elegiac strain is increasingly centered on the mysterious figure of an early girlfriend who will haunt much of Hill’s subsequent poetry: “I think you are a muse or something, / though too early rejected.” Hill connects his rejection of this once-beloved woman to his becoming a poet, and given how often Eliot, Pound, and Yeats are invoked in Hill’s later work, we seem to be led to understand this guilt as a Modernist phenomenon, that is, a product of the artist’s self-conscious decision to perfect the work at the expense of the life, or to impose a limitation on the life in order to enable or extend the literary work, as in Eliot’s “La Figlia che Piange.” But where Eliot’s early poems seem to be haunted by a regret for something irrevocably done (“The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract”), Hill’s later poems are haunted by things left undone: this relationship, we are repeatedly told, was never consummated: “a non-event, our absurd love.” Still, there is something decidedly Eliotic in the way sexual regret is simultaneously encrypted and amplified into a sort of mystical vision, and many of the collection’s rueful observations could refer either to Hill’s abandonment of love or to his commitment to poetry: “Unwise to make wise choices / too early.”
As in his earlier work, Hill continues to map England’s actual and mythological landscapes, but he now augments them with more abstract locations, from the cursed/promised land of Canaan to the Orchards of Syon, an elusive site of peace and reconciliation located somewhere between “Silvertown” and “Goldengrove.” The latter is of course a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” but it also refers to Jeremy Taylor’s The Golden Grove, a prayer book for children written while Taylor was in hiding from Oliver Cromwell. The eponymous orchards also have numerous sources, including these lines from the parliamentarian soldier-poet George Wither’s work of 1643, “Campo-Musae”: “My selfe, and my estate, I shall contemne, / Till we, in freedome, sing our Syon-songs.”
From about this point, Hill’s elegiac historicizing focuses on the period of the English Civil Wars, and the present day is seen in the light of seventeenth-century debates on poetry’s role as civic discourse. It would be too simplistic to define Hill’s sympathies as either “royalist” or “parliamentarian,” terms that were in any case continually redefined throughout the seventeenth century, but a pattern does emerge: Hill is drawn to exemplary individuals on either side of that divide who were possessed of a value in the moment of that individual’s defeat. Collectively, the missed chances and lost futures of the Civil War period constitute in Hill’s imagination a sort of alternative England — not so much a promised land as a land of unfulfilled promise. Such concerns remain central to Hill’s subsequent collections: Scenes from Comus refers to Milton’s Comus, and A Treatise of Civil Power takes its title from a political pamphlet Milton published in the dying days of the English republic.
The corollary of Hill’s Hobbesian concern with the body politic is his increasing awareness of the politics of the body. This period of his work abounds in references to the indignities of aging, and the ways in which it impinges on his attempts to write:
Loud hissing in the ears may or may notmean blood pressure soaring, or sex on heat,or siren voices, or your lisping snakes.— From Scenes from Comus
This sound often threatens to overwhelm Hill’s later work; it’s a sort of white noise constituted of hypertension, distracting sexual urges, and the hissing of a hostile audience (I take the reference to snakes to be a glance at Laocoön, the incomprehensible Trojan prophet who was killed by sea snakes, and with whom Hill identifies in Odi Barbare). But while speech, hearing, and comprehension become ever more difficult, Hill’s eye for imagery grows ever more sharp, culminating in Without Title (a title that itself suggests visual art), and particularly in the three poems titled “In Ipsley Church Lane,” the first of which begins:
More than ever I see through painters’ eyes.The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them.Clogged thorn-blossom sticks, like burnt cauliflower,to the festered hedge-rim. More than I care to thinkI am as one coarsened by feckless grief.Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone.
Hill’s later work is studded with such moments, and they exist in a curious tension with the more recalcitrant material that surrounds them, in which Hill’s principal engagement is, as ever, with the dead, whether he is addressing them, elegizing them, alluding to them, or measuring the present against their achievements. At such times, Hill’s back seems to be turned to the reader, though he knows we are there: his erudition constantly threatens to petrify into archness as he throws a scrap from the great feast of languages our way. But when the natural world reasserts its claim to his attention, Hill’s relations with the reader are apt suddenly to thaw, and we may experience what feels like an unmediated apprehension of — for want of a better word — beauty.
In “A Bad Time for Poetry,” Bertolt Brecht famously wrote that
Inside me contendDelight at the apple tree in blossomAnd horror at the house-painter’s speeches.But only the secondDrives me to my desk.
Hill seems driven to his desk by both beauty and horror, and they continue to contend in his poetry, each one distracting him from the other. He offers a sort of apologia for his distracted later style in “Parallel Lives,” when, having explained an obscure allusion to Thomas Wyatt’s “The Quyete of Mynde” (Wyatt’s translation of an essay by Plutarch), he writes
It is parsed herebecause, since Wyatt wrote, that continenttemper which could play equivocation,land it and slit it, find there the gold ringof truth safe in its gut, is history.
To say that such poetry “is history” is, of course, richly ambiguous, since the poem itself fulfills the criteria for the kind of poetry it says has ceased to be.
“so many of us, fools of our own lives”: 2007–2012
The Daybooks — the name Hill gave to the six sequences of poetry that close Broken Hierarchies — fill the final 300 pages of this volume. Along with the substantially extended “Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres” (first published in 1982) and “Pindarics” (first published in 2007), this constitutes a third and final stage of Hill’s poetry. After the opening sequence, “Expostulations on the Volcano,” each of the Daybooks has a non-English-language title — “Liber Illustrium Virorum,” “Oraclau|Oracles,” “Clavics,” “Odi Barbare,” and “Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti” — recalling John Ruskin’s later work such as Munera Pulveris or Fors Clavigera. The latter, an impassioned attempt to warn society away from the capitalist automatism and moral relativism into which it was headed, was a key work for Hill throughout his life, and in the Daybooks he develops some of its techniques. In Fors Clavigera, rather than a straightforward polemic, Ruskin offered something candid and autobiographical (private), and also satirical and theatrical (public). Crucially, however, Ruskin did so in a series of open letters that were initially published as pamphlets — a form that enabled immediate, provisional response, and accommodated role-playing and self-correction. By contrast, Hill casts the Daybooks in strict, closed forms. All of these sequences are metrically regular, and every line rhymes (with the exception of Odi Barbare, which is written in the metrically demanding but unrhymed form of sapphics). The marriage of radical, unstable, digressive content and regular, traditional form is uneasy, as Hill surely knew it would be. Near the beginning of “Expostulations on the Volcano,” Hill offers an apologia for rhyme:
Rhyme is itself re-ordering of will,Directio voluntatis, a long diveHeavenward; held finally to be still.
Fair enough, but this doesn’t excuse lines like “there are ranker demons who piss as men” (generated by the need to rhyme on “specimen”) or couplets such as “Art is impregnable in what it claims, / Consoles itself while children curl in flames,” which sounds like William McGonagall rewriting “September Song.” Presumably, Hill would justify such moments in the terms he offered in one of the lectures he gave as the Oxford Professor of Poetry: “obscenity in verse of the highest moral calibre is essential, because the twi-natured domain of civic and private debauch ... has so much about it that requires a genius for the obscene to match.” He cited Thomas Nashe’s prose as exemplary of such genius. Regardless of whether readers find such an argument persuasive, it must be admitted that the bum notes here are far outnumbered by moments when Hill shows that, no matter how strict the formal demands, he retains his innate gift for incisive, memorable phrasemaking: “A peacock’s plumes that give me the glad eye,” “I detect something false in that disquiet,” “There are brief seasons to have things eternal,” “We are in deeper than good will would take us,” “Darkness is greying as the birds begin / To air their quarrels,” and so on.
How, then, are we to read the Daybooks? As in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, the individual sections were not intended to stand alone, though some of them clearly can and do; but do the sequences build on one another? If so, why has the first written (“Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti”) been placed last? Why does Odi Barbare now appear as the fifth daybook, when it was originally billed as the second (upon its first publication by Clutag Press in 2012)? Why does “Liber Illustrium Virorum” currently appear as the second daybook, when it contains reflections on the experience of publishing Clavics (2011) and Odi Barbare? Several critics have tried to find a sort of Commedia structure in Hill’s late books, but that doesn’t help us here: any of these sequences could be taken for an Inferno or Purgatorio (readers will disagree over whether they are suffering to any purpose), but there’s no sign of a Paradiso.
Hill’s concerns are consistent throughout the Daybooks: the failure of our governors (all of these sequences were written during the economic crisis that began to surface in 2007), regret for lost love, and a strong pessimism as to the likelihood of his being understood. He anticipates nervous incomprehension (“If the late / Writings are about grace and self-loathing / Tick the box”) and hostility: “Voices of varying petulance and pain // That speak more to themselves than us.” What changes from sequence to sequence are the formal properties. By that, I don’t just mean rhyme scheme and metrical pattern, but the register, the tone, and the parameters of allusion. In the Daybooks, Hill seems to have applied these to preexisting concerns in a way that can make the sequences feel like the workings-out of equations.
In the opening sequence, “Expostulations on the Volcano,” Hill returns ever more insistently to the formative experience of having abandoned his first love, and again connects this act to his having become a poet. Throughout the Daybooks there are repeated hints that the “long-lost one” is simply the necessary fiction that enables these poems (“There is a space / And you fill it”), and at times she is envisioned as an emblem of intrinsic value, the loss of which is “the price extorted for what gifts allow, / Our long-drawn attestation of love’s wrath.” A powerful tension is maintained between this abstract, functional aspect of the beloved addressee and a more flesh-and-blood incarnation:
Nor would I convey you as anythingOther than the late Muse of Poetry,Our love sealed with a grope and a penny ring,Though I have grown tired from your harlotry.
Note that the speaker is “tired from” rather than “tired of” the Muse’s harlotry: he has not been an onlooker but an active participant. By contrast, his dealings with the Muse’s human vessel are described as “that dire unconsummate / Business of ours.”
The second sequence, “Liber Illustrium Virorum,” concerns Coriolanus, a play to which Hill used to devote an entire semester at Boston University. The central question here is whether the sin of pride is soluble in heroism. A number of literary heroes are considered, including Coriolanus, Aufidius, and Odysseus; and there are references to more questionable emblems of real-life heroism such as the ritterkreuz (a German war medal). Yeats is repeatedly invoked (at one point Hill calls him his “seamark,” which is what Coriolanus wishes his son to be: “Like a great sea-mark, standing every flaw / And saving those that eye thee!”) and throughout the sequence Coriolanus is referred to as “Coriolan,” which keeps T.S. Eliot’s verse drama within earshot. Eliot, we remember, thought Coriolanus was “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success” and superior to Hamlet, and Hill similarly favors Coriolan over the Four Quartets: Hill’s engagement with Eliot is characterized by such equivocation, for Eliot established, in Hill’s mind, the grounds upon which Eliot himself may be criticized.
But all of this makes “Liber Illustrium Virorum” sound more schematic, and perhaps more coherent, than it actually reads. Taking a section more or less at random will give a better sense of how the sequence works: in “XVIII” the themes of pride and heroism lead Hill’s associative imagination to open with a reference to Lord Nelson, who “skipped cannonballs across sea surfaces”; the section closes with an answering reference to Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bouncing bomb, as used by the Dambusters. Between these two reference points are strung further associations with military innovation and violent, awe-inspiring spectacle, there is “yet another ranging shot / On Coriolan” in the form of a quotation from A.C. Bradley’s 1909 Oxford lecture on the play, and there are some personal asides provoked by the central image of glancing blows: “I strike mirrors as old. / This trickster age.” The phrase “ranging shot” and the image of cannonballs will be picked up a few sections later with a reference to “Dulle Griet,” which is the nickname of a fifteenth-century Belgian bombard that was employed by the city of Ghent as an offensive weapon until it was seized by enemies and, like Coriolanus, turned against its city of origin. “Dulle Griet” is also the title of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and since Bruegel is name-checked in this sequence as well, the reference could be to either or both.
Every allusion in the sequence works in this way, triggering webs of cross-reference the scope of which depends on the resourcefulness — and patience — of the reader. Can Hill’s endeavor here be seen as a development of “Annunciations”? Yes and no. He is still able to peel away layers of meaning from words and images, revealing ever more hidden depths to the material we unthinkingly think with, but the cross-referencing can now seem to be an end in itself, which was not the case in the best of the early work. To take just one example, Timon of Athens is a recurring figure in “Liber Illustrium Virorum,” but the many fleeting references to him never build into an argument. It may be significant that Timon of Athens is the only play of Shakespeare’s in which no family or love relationships feature: financial obligation is the only thing that holds the characters together, and the theme of civic responsibility, and of its usurpation by the laws of the market (what Hill would call “plutocratic anarchy”), became increasingly important to Hill. But this sort of speculation feels detachable from the actual instances of allusion. At one point we are told “Timon’s misanthropy enjoyed its root,” a pun on Timon, whom we see eating roots that he has foraged while living in the wild, having renamed himself “Misanthropos,” which is the etymological root of “misanthropy.” Isn’t there something complacent about such punning, something that may have more in common than it realizes with Timon’s self-satisfaction?
Hill’s pessimism, or indifference, in regard to his present-day readership (“misanthropy” is too strong a word) spurs him on to investigate other forms of imaginative communion, including some that would only seem possible to other cultures, or in other languages, or at other times. In Oraclau|Oracles (2010) he simultaneously discovers and constructs his Welsh ancestry, sometimes using the English-born Welsh nationalist Saunders Lewis as a surrogate self. In “54” Hill implores Lewis to “teach me how to be received / By people amongst whom I have not lived,” and in “119” (which is titled “Hiraeth,” a Welsh word that means “yearning”) he imagines this paradoxical homecoming as an aspect of his wish to be reunited with his lost beloved:
I would do gratefully what others claimThey could not: relive my adolescenceIf I were granted a special licenceTo learn Welsh and love you. Great shameI cannot speak or singThis language of my late awakeningNor ask your pardon, Beloved, nor bringYou, my bride, into the feasting houseOf first desire, dazed by your wedding dress.
Restitution — whether of lost heritage, lost language, or lost love — can be found not in a hoped-for future but in an imagined past, where it may be glimpsed, as here, through a careful arrangement of conditional and negated clauses. In such a meticulously wrought stanza, there is a fine irony in Hill’s offhand wish to “learn Welsh”: how long would this take, we may wonder, given that he never stopped learning English.
The Oxford English Dictionary was Hill’s sparring partner for eight decades, but there are moments in Oraclau|Oracles when even it throws in the towel, as when Hill offers the following self-assessment:
Not metaphysics: try clavics,Indigent casuistry;My neo-Welsh pleadings hung out to dry.
The word “clavics” is Hill’s own coinage, and in the next section in the sequence he defines it as “the alchemy of keys.” He uses the neologism as the title of the subsequent daybook, the opening lines of which suggest the form that the key will take: “Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise, / Numerology also makes much sense.” There’s a generous scattering of references to the Kabbalah throughout the Daybooks, which, given Hill’s longstanding engagement with Judaism, is not entirely surprising. As for numerology, Hill seems to have become fascinated with the number 144, which is significant in Judaic tradition because it is the double of seventy-two (the number of the names of God) and because God created the world in six days, or 144 hours. Each of the Daybooks appears in numbered sections: the first contains fifty-four sections, as does the second; the third contains 144, the fourth forty-two, the fifth fifty-two, and the sixth ninety-five. If we add all of these sections together, we get the number 441, which is 144 reversed. Hill has used this sort of numerological architecture before — the total number of lines in Speech! Speech! was 1,440, and The Orchards of Syon as originally published consisted of seventy-two sections — and it is another sign that the Daybooks was organized according to a preconceived design.
Another kind of key provides a more helpful point of entry to Clavics: that of music. Among other things, Clavics is an elegiac tribute to the Royalist musician William Lawes, who was killed at the Battle of Chester in 1645. King Charles instituted a special mourning for Lawes, calling him “The Father of Musick,” but he was revered by the parliamentary side as well. In this sequence, Lawes’s inherent value is a corollary for the intrinsic value of music, to which Clavics pays tribute. “37” begins:
Music, you are the absolute sole lordCrashaw names love. Add Sidney’s own strikerOf the sensesAnd we’re away.
But even the value of music is not so absolute as to allow it to stand above the vagaries of fashion: having been highly esteemed in its day, Lawes’s viol music was subsequently neglected for centuries when it was deemed cacophonous and overly complex, and it has only recently been rediscovered. Hill would have known this (his keen interest in early modern music can be traced to his earliest critical writing), and by using Lawes as his focal point he is making a wry joke about how long it will take readers to appreciate him.
Odi Barbare is altogether less accepting of fickle public opinion. The title comes from three poetry collections that appeared between 1877 and 1889 by the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci; the phrase is usually rendered as Barbarian Odes, but Hill reverses the meaning by offering an alternative translation: “Like Carducci meant ... // ... I // Hate barbarians taking a stab at meaning.” The sequence explores the difficulties inherent in any attempt to communicate with the “common man,” and Hill aligns himself with Troy’s prophets, Cassandra and Laocoön, whose warnings about the Trojan horse were fatefully ignored. Laocoön’s speech was thought to be so convoluted that it must be nonsense: an accusation often leveled at Hill himself, and one that he all but invites here by deploying an especially compressed syntax and outlandish diction that frequently sounds like non-translated Latin: “Rumpus, uncouth anacolutha, bullish,” “Passive agon gravity’s apatheia,” and (a line that appeared in the original publication but was excised from Broken Hierarchies) “Reconcile de facto Euripedean.”
Odi Barbare’s epigraph comes from Aeneas’s description of his father-in-law, Priam, an old man who, as Troy falls, arms himself for combat:
arma diū senior dēsuēta trementibus aevōcircumdat nēquīquam umerīs et inūtile ferrumcingitur ac dēnsōs fertur moritūrus in hostis
The epigraph is not translated, but may be rendered as “He puts his long-disused armor on his trembling old shoulders, fastens on his useless sword, and bears himself, about to die, into the thick of his enemies.” Priam knows that the worst has already happened and that his act of defiance will be futile, and Hill presents himself here as a similarly principled old man, arming himself to write combatively. The poem undermines this rather heroic self-image with its numerous references to stumbling, shivering, and trembling: all signs of age that translate Virgil’s “trementibus” — a form of which appears in the title of the following sequence, “Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti” (“At the time of the earthquakes”).
In what might be a rare conciliatory gesture toward the reader, the Daybooks opens and closes with its two most immediately engaging sequences. In an interview, Hill said that “Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti” began “as a result of my coming face to face with Donatello’s Habakkuk in Florence in May 2007,” though his description of the sculpture doesn’t sound overly impressed:
A prince of God, dole-featured Habakkuk,Pondering his extraction from the block,The garb shit-coloured and the head nude.
The image of Hill as tourist/researcher, soaking up all the information he can, helps to give a focal point to the sequence’s enormous supporting cast, which includes philosophers (Thomas Hobbes, Antonio Gramsci, David Hume), artists (Donatello, R.B. Kitaj, Francesco di Giorgio Martini), and poets — some familiar (Dante, Yeats, Pound), and some surprising (Gavrila Derzhavin, Velimir Khlebnikov, Coventry Patmore). Petrarch’s “Triumphus Temporis” provides the sequence with an epigraph. Petrarch’s Triumphs was written in response to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and considers the triumphs of love, chastity, death, fame, time, and eternity — each of which to some extent overrules the triumph that precedes it. In the moralistic “Triumphus Temporis,” Petrarch contemplates his poetry’s failure before the triumph of time. Hill’s sequence occasionally sounds a similar note of gloomy self-reflection (“There are things here I wish I had not said / Or thought, even”), but more often manages to retain faith in poetry’s ability to solve love and loss, memory and apprehension — if only in glimpses:
I can see someone walking there, a girl,And she is you, old love. Edging the meadowThe may-tree is all light and all shadow.Coming and going are the things eternal.
Nine of the sequence’s ninety-five poems are versions of poems by Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, Fyodor Tyutchev, and Eugenio Montale. Montale is an abiding presence throughout, and there is even a poem in memory of Irma Brandeis, the Dante scholar and translator for whom Montale wrote many of the poems in Le Occasioni, before they subsequently became estranged. As before, the liberating exigencies of persona, translation, and poetic form enable Hill to write with candor and directness, as in these lines, freely rewritten after Blok:
My soul, be still, even as you strive and love;Neither urge onward nor yet hold me back.It will come soon enough, that starkEncounter | with the certainty of love.
The sequence, and Broken Hierarchies, ends with the line “The stars asunder, gibbering, on the verge” — and no final period, reminding us that Hill has avoided calling this volume a collected poems, even if that is what it now amounts to.
“urge to unmake / all wrought finalities”: hill’s revisions
Kenneth Haynes is credited as the editor of Broken Hierarchies, and Hill claimed not to have felt able to tackle the book without his assistance. Given Haynes’s meticulous editing of Hill’s Collected Critical Writings, his presence here confirms that any changes to text or lineation enjoy Hill’s imprimatur, unlike the unreliable text of the Penguin Selected Poems — and there are many changes here. To begin with one of the most obvious, “Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres,” which originally appeared in 1982 as a sequence of three poems, is now a sequence of twenty-one. For reasons unexplained, it now appears between 1983’s The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy and 1996’s Canaan. This means that we now encounter Hill’s dismissive assessment of his late tendency to address a long-lost beloved before we have read the addresses themselves: “I confuse many by writing so / much on the cusp of devotion” and “This is a primitive animation. / I am bemused that it works; but work it / does.” The devotion to which these lines refer may be sacred or profane — that is, they could apply to Tenebrae or to the Daybooks — but either way, they introduce a sour note at too early a stage in the book. Another sequence, “Pindarics,” has also been greatly revised. It first appeared as a sequence of twenty-one numbered sections in Without Title, but has now been extended to thirty-four sections, with many of the originals appearing in a heavily revised form or else being cut altogether. Each of the original sections carried an epigraph from Cesare Pavese, but all of these have now disappeared, and many of the sequence’s other dialogic elements have been toned down, with Pavese being replaced to a large extent by the lost beloved, who is yet again brought in to prop things up. It is not clear that the original sequence required revision, nor that this new version is an improvement. When Hill writes in section 29 that “these strophes are protracted and it tells” it is hard to disagree.
Perhaps we should not be surprised by this tinkering: ever since “In Memory of Jane Fraser,” Hill used the appearance of new printings, selections, and collections of his work as an opportunity to make changes. That this received relatively little comment is largely because the changes tended to be relatively small scale and for the better. But toward the end of his life something changed, and this tendency got out of hand. A Treatise of Civil Power was originally published as a chapbook of the same title with Clutag Press, and Hill made several revisions to the poems when he republished them in a more widely available version with Penguin. Some of these changes were strongly criticized; for example, a phrase in the closing line of “Coda” — “A wicked thing to say” — became “A damn-fool thing to say.” In Broken Hierarchies, this phrase has reverted to “A wicked thing to say,” suggesting Hill thought better of his earlier amendment. Perhaps, then, had he lived longer, he would have had second thoughts about some of the other changes. For example, there are unfortunate alterations to two of his finest late lyrics, “The Argument of the Masque” section 20 (from Scenes from Comus) and “XXVIII” in Odi Barbare. Here is the former as it first appeared:
That weight of the world, weight of the word, is.Not wholly irreconcilable. Almost.Almost we cannot pull free; almost we escapethe leadenness of things. Almost I have walkedthe first step upon water. Nothing beyond.The inconceivable is a basic service.Hyphens are not-necessary for things I say.Nor do I put to strain their erudition —I mean, the learned readers of J. Milton.But weight of the world, weight of the word, is.
The new version follows the original until “basic service,” which is now followed by a semicolon instead of a period, and then the rest of the poem reads as follows:
Not to be too Parnassian about it;And not to put to strain their erudition(I mean the learned readers of J. Milton);And weight of the word, weight of the world, is.
The revisions seem designed to illustrate the way relatively small changes can wreak havoc with a poem’s tone and argument. David-Antoine Williams has pointed out that he, as well as Charles Lock, Michael O’Neill, Peter Pegnall, Piers Pennington, Christopher Ricks, and others, singled out the original version of this lyric for particular praise, and he asks some difficult questions:
Are we all bound not only to acknowledge the revision, but also to acknowledge the supremacy of the revision? And will Hill criticism have to endure a long period of deadening debate over the relative authority of the different versions and editions of the poems? And is this, in fact, the last word on all the poems 1952–2012, or should we expect corrections and revisions in the next printing?
If this sounds like wounded pride, I can sympathize. Reviewing Odi Barbare in the Times Literary Supplement after its initial small-press appearance, I lavished praise on “XXVIII” in particular, and quoted its closing stanzas:
What though, wedded, we would have had annulment’sConsummation early, and though in darknessI can see that glimmerous rim of follyLave our condition,Had we not so stumbled on grace, beloved,In that chanced day brief as the sun’s arisingPreternaturally without a shadowCast in its presence.
In the current incarnation of these stanzas, that head-clearing, heart-warming word “beloved” has now been changed to “betimely,” muddying the syntax and introducing a fussy note, whilst “can see” has become “could see,” confusing the perspective of the speaker.
Elsewhere, finicky changes abound, with those to The Triumph of Love being particularly unfortunate. Many — but not all — of the “editor’s” bracketed interjections have been replaced with parenthetical asides from the main speaker, draining the poem of some of its wit, self-awareness, and convulsive vitality. Without the presence of [ED.] — standing for “editor” — the lyric voice is less dramatic, and comes across as would-be sincere. In other changes, “MacSikker” has lost his first name of “Lothian,” so there’s less chance of Lachlan MacKinnon being identified as its target, and “Seán O’Shem,” though still named in full, is no longer hailed with “eat / shit” and “up / yours”: so the pettiness is retained without the candor and tonal extremity of the insults, and without them the sequence’s great concluding defense of poetry as “a sad and angry consolation” loses some of its complexity and force. For a final illustration of the problem, consider these lines from “LXXXVII”:
A girl I once neededto be in love with died recently, Verginebella, aged sixty-three. Forgive all suchlapses in time, and mend our attentionif it is not too late.
These lines now read as follows:
A girl I oncecourted competitively has diedaged sixty-three. Salve my uncouth pretenceat love, her small strained courtesies. Forgivelapses in grace, common yet of one’s self,although it is too late.
The incisive line-breaks of the original have been allowed to fall flat. Instead of a self-indicting insight into male egotism (“I once needed / to be in love”), we have the lamely jocular “courted competitively.” Instead of a hopeless plea for forgiveness, we have musty blather and banality. I could provide further examples, but haven’t the heart. Hill the critic should have had a word with Hill the poet. For whatever reason, in his final years Hill chose to mute and maim many of his poems. The last poem in A Treatise of Civil Power ends with a strange, broken-off stanza that now sounds like a kind of warning:
— Urge to unmakeall wrought finalities, become a babblerin the crowd’s face —
Even these lines have been tweaked for their appearance in Broken Hierarchies, with the line indentation and the terminal em dash being removed. The many changes introduced by Broken Hierarchies should not and in the long term will not be allowed to stand as definitive. Every one of them constitutes a failure of nerve.
Hill’s reputation will continue to rest on his undeniable early work, but I’ve given as much space here to the collections from Canaan to A Treatise of Civil Power because they are currently underappreciated, and because they offer what I believe to be some of the most thrilling experiences available to a reader of contemporary poetry. I find a lot of the material in the Daybooks more questionable, but these are early days, and to praise only that which poses no challenge is self-flattery. Immersion in Hill’s work is likely to change a reader’s perspectives, perhaps permanently. The reader who looks at Broken Hierarchies and sees only innumerable difficulties is not likely to make it very far through its 936 pages. It is better to think of Hill’s project in its entirety — and I would include his Collected Critical Writing in this — as a singular challenge: to ask difficult questions of oneself and of art; to read as deeply and as carefully; and to take poetry as seriously, as Hill did. As he tells us in the original version of “On Reading Crowds and Power”: “But think on: that which is difficult / preserves democracy; you pay respect / to the intelligence of the citizen.” The mediocracy of UK poetry culture prefers less demanding poets and less discerning readers. It was painfully embarrassing to see, year after year, the UK’s many poetry prizes being judged by, and awarded to, Hill’s inferiors. His absence from their roll calls discredits them. It should not be controversial to say that if his work is to receive a fairer assessment it must be seen in a longer perspective, and judged against quite different and more stringent criteria. I’ll close with some lines from “Citations I.” Allusion once again, the voice modulating from that of the poet into that of an alter ego, and yet unmistakably Hill’s work:
StillI think of poetry as it was saidof Alanbrooke’s war diary: a work doneto gain, or regain, possession of himself,as a means of survival and, in that sense,a mode of moral life.