Without Title, by Geoffrey Hill. Penguin Books. $9.99.

Scenes From Comus, by Geoffrey Hill. Penguin Books. $9.99.

The sense of language as guilt—the sense that words accrue faults, and even seemingly innocent utterances trail remote incriminating meanings the way a bird trails its shadow on the ground—is a heavy presence in twentieth-century poetry, and nowhere heavier than in the work of Geoffrey Hill. That language abets acts of oppression and violence, even incorporates them in its elemental structure; that rhetoric is always, so to speak, coolly stacking the deck: these are charges frequently brought by writers on the edges of the former British empire, for whom exposing the ancient wrongs concealed in modern speech has been a means of addressing colonial depredations. When Seamus Heaney sifts “the coffered/riches of grammar/and declensions” for the Saxon roots of English, the Norman conquest of the Saxons, and by extension the English occupation of Ireland, are really the raised lid of the coffer. But what has often seemed a mere piece of strategy for writers away from the imperial center—could anyone believe that language is tainted for Heaney?—rises to the level of penitential ardor in Hill’s work, which adds to the modern idea of language as the dark unconscious of civilization a religious sense of language as a mirror of the fall of man, as something that swerves into sin.

Hill, of course, unlike Heaney and the postcolonial poets, is English—thus in the realm of etymological politics more sinning than sinned against—and he writes from within an Anglican tradition that is not casual in its regard for repentance. To enter into poetry is, for Hill, to undertake an exemplary ordeal in which the poet must make atonement, not only for his own corrupted medium, but for the larger corruptions of history. In his great sonnet sequence “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England,” published in Tenebrae in 1978, Hill works to recuperate an English national aesthetic which is compromised by, among other things, the history of British India. The image of an English country house, partly decayed by time, serves as an emblem of England both in uneasy conscience and in potential reconciliation:

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.

It stands, as though at ease with its own world,
the mannerly extortions, languid praise,
all that devotion long since bought and sold,

the rooms of cedar and soft-thudding baize,
tremulous boudoirs where the crystals kissed
in cabinets of amethyst and frost.

—From The Laurel Axe

In this extraordinarily beautiful passage we can see large and small examples of Hill’s attempt to heal language with itself, his etymological redemptions. Take the “injured stone”: “injury” descends from the Latin for “unjust” or “unlawful,” and the stone is both “injured” in the usual sense of being physically damaged and “injured” in the ancient sense of being outlawed, of being outside legitimacy. The house’s status as an unjust trophy of British imperial power is amended, softly, by its own erosion, just as its salutary “ease with its own world” is clouded by the “mannerly extortions” in its past. Thus what the house is and what it has been are acknowledged and brought into balance, in a single image and even a single word. And thus the double kiss in the final stanza (at least one critic has noted that in the parlance of billiards the thudding of the baize balls is a kiss) points to the possibility of a genuine reconciliation, one that will allow the real beauties of the house to be mourned and celebrated even as nature slowly retakes it.

Much of Hill’s best work, from the lyrics of King Log to large sections of his two magnificent new books, pursues precisely this kind of balance; “An Apology” achieves it on a larger scale by interweaving poems about the history of British India and the suffering English poor with poems that celebrate the beauties of English architecture and landscape. What is interesting about this work is the extent to which its moral aims depend on its aesthetic capabilities. To atone legitimately, the poet must perfect an art of language, but language, the dangerous domain of “languid praise” and “bought and sold” devotion, will try to betray the poet. The poet, by committing himself to his corrupt medium, offers himself, Christlike, to a condemnation from which only his own power of moral transfiguration can save him. In a strange entwining sense, language perfected aesthetically saves aesthetics morally. (Hill has written of Coleridge’s capacity “to transfigure his own dissipation by a metaphor that perfectly comprehends it.”) He has praised as an insight into the creative act Eliot’s description of a character from the seventeenth-century play The Changeling—“the unmoral nature, suddenly trapped in the inexorable toils of morality”—but the conclusion of Eliot’s passage might serve just as well as an epigram for this vision of the poet in his art. “Beatrice is not a moral creature,” Eliot writes; “she becomes moral only by becoming damned.”

If there is a certain dramatic intensity to this vision of the poet’s ordeal, intellectually it threatens to become febrile; one can never quite say whether the kind of atonement Hill seeks is metaphoric—and therefore itself bounded by aesthetics—or whether it is meant to have actual power in the world. Does it emulate aesthetically the resolution of a guilt, offering what is then essentially a therapeutic emotional experience, or does it redeem a sin in fact? The method of “An Apology” could certainly be restated in terms of aesthetic psychology without diminishing the felt power of the poem. And so the reader of Hill’s verse (and of his essays, which treat the subject more explicitly) would be justified in feeling some anxiety about the ontological status of the poet’s saving acts. Indeed, Hill has at times expressed a similar anxiety himself. When the poet addresses the angel Gabriel as “a mood almost” in “Psalms of Assize,” it is impossible to say precisely who or what he means to summon:

Gabriel descend
as a mood almost
a monody
of chloroform
or florists roses
consensual angel spinning his words

And surely it is some perception of this kind that lies behind the simplistic but relatively common criticism that Hill’s work “lacks a true feeling for the passion of religion,” that it is religiose rather than authentically religious. For why should we care, really, whether a writer is authentically religious? No one minds that Joyce uses religious themes and images in his work, because no one can doubt Joyce’s doubt; there is no competition between his religious and aesthetic aspirations, because his work has no religious aspirations. The work of “authentically religious” poets such as Donne and Herbert does have religious aspirations, but the aspirations involve, at most, the hope of a merely private efficacy: Donne writes “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” to save his own soul, not to save other people’s souls. The aesthetic embodiment of Donne’s prayer makes it, for readers, at most an example of how to pray, a lyricized prayer with which we are free to identify; but it is not our own prayer, and it cannot atone for our sins. But Hill’s work does at times seem to want to atone vicariously for others’ sins. At such moments a conflict opens between the aesthetic and the religious, for this is surely to ask from poetry what it cannot possibly achieve. The beauty of a passage begins to work against the credibility of the passage, for the more beautiful the passage, the more clearly one sees that it cannot do what it is being used to do, that it must remain earthbound, however sublimely. And might not the reader who senses that this is happening begin to search for the expression of an uncomplicated “authentic religious feeling” as a means of resolving the conflict on his own?

This uncertain sense of the dimension of the poet’s moral power is responsible for the most serious flaw in Hill’s body of work. For there are moments when Hill’s poems appear to resent their own beauties, moments when his mistrust of language rises to smother his poems at their moments of greatest effect. His unusually learned allusiveness, his frequent quotation from Latin, his penchant for hiding ideas central to his poems behind screens of specialized knowledge—all of which contributes to his reputation for obscurity, and it must be said that Hill has been called “the greatest living English poet” by more critics than have understood him—I take as the practical signs of this mistrust, as in this terrific anticlimax from The Triumph of Love:

If I were to grasp once, in emulation,
work of the absolute, origin-creating mind,
its opus est, conclusive
otherness, the veil
of certitude discovered as itself
that which is to be revealed,
I should hold for my own, my self-giving,
my retort upon Emerson’s “alienated majesty,”
the De Causa Dei of Thomas Bradwardine.

This passage is something so nearly extraordinary that one is justified in resenting its moments of academic shorthand (“Emerson’s ‘alienated majesty’”), which, thrown up before Hill’s thoughts, are like privet hedges obscurely indicating the presence of the mansions they conceal. In this case “alienated majesty” stands in for Emerson’s idea that we see our own rejected thoughts in great works written by others, and the De Causa Dei, I suppose, for Bradwardine’s doctrine that the irresistible divine will is at work in all human action. Thus it is possible to discern in this passage a lovely thought about the human community in God, Hill imagining that if he could “grasp once” the work of the “origin-creating mind” he would know that others share our rejected thoughts because God is at work in us all. The trouble is that the ideas Hill has papered over in this way are precisely the ones which are most important to the poem, and thus precisely the ones that ought to have been described in the original language of Hill’s poetry rather than being reduced to mere tics of allusion. Hill himself has written of the “distortions of interpretation” that occur “when ideas are extracted from the texture of language”; surely those are the distortions he invites here. It is as if he would rather preserve his thoughts in a kind of remote chastity than allow them to fall into language, a fall which must nevertheless be their only chance to achieve any real presence in his art.

There is too much of this academic reserve, the symptom of a moral ambition that has begun to turn on the aesthetic technique that embodies it, in Hill’s work, particularly his work of the last decade. And so it is with surprise and delight that we take up his two newest books, the long poem Scenes from Comus and the collection Without Title. For these new books not only restore the balance between the aesthetic and the ethical, but bring beauty and goodness into a new relationship that deepens our understanding of Hill’s work as a whole.

Scenes from Comus is a long poem built on an elaborate plan: it takes its title from a work by the composer Hugh Wood, for whom it is offered as a birthday gift. Wood’s work is itself based on Milton’s masque Comus, which was first performed in Ludlow Castle, near the border of England and Wales, in 1634. Hill thus begins to establish the series of complementary subjects that he weaves in and out of the book, sometimes in surprising ways: music, Milton, the landscape around the Severn river (which runs west to Ludlow and figures prominently in Milton’s work), Hill’s and Wood’s own lives (they were born within weeks of each other in 1932). The formal plan on which these subjects play is equally intricate. The work is divided into three parts: “The Argument of the Masque,” made up of twenty stanzas of ten lines each; “Courtly Masquing Dances,” made up of eighty stanzas arranged in a chiasmic pattern of nine-line stanzas framing two of seven lines; and “A Description of the Antimasque,” made up of twenty stanzas of twelve lines each. The insistently repeated numeric patterns of the stanza forms act as a kind of time signature; the subjects drift in and out like musical motifs.

The great theme of Milton’s masque is the relation of sensuality and chastity: the lustful enchanter Comus, a possible figure of the artist, captures and attempts to seduce a virginal lady, until Sabrina, the spirit of the river Severn, defeats his spells and sets her free. What is most interesting in Scenes From Comus, what makes this book perhaps the pivotal volume of Hill’s late career, is the way he appropriates Milton’s old images and themes to effect one of his customary atonements. But this time, instead of involving historical atrocity or religious breach, the reconciliation is between the two forces that had begun to break apart in his own work, the sensual love of language and the chaste righteousness that it must somehow serve. “It’s not impossible to be the child,” he writes, referring to Comus,

of Bacchus and Circe, all imagination,
a demon made against his deepest will
a choric figure awed by what he hears.

And yet for Hill, as for Milton, it is the figure of Sabrina, the river, who ultimately unites the erotic attractions and the moral aims of art. Sensuous but chaste, virtuous but magical, Sabrina is a figure of rare alchemy who transforms the enchanter’s merely bestial designs into liberating deeds. In a crucially beautiful moment Hill imagines the spirit of the river flowing through his own poem, the lines of printed verse transformed into long plants trailing in the stream:

The river the forest, the river ís the forest,
the forest the ríver, swamps of loosestrife
choking fecundity. Sabrina, she also, chaste
genius of teeming and dying,
I fancy her
trailing labiles, placentas, uncomely swags.
My own lines double here as her lianas.

And indeed the tempering spirit of Sabrina does move through this work, soothing what had threatened to become a tone of permanent hectoring and enticing the poet into his closest and most rewarding consideration of nature since Mercian Hymns was published in 1971. He writes marvelously of “fern-shouldering streams,” of

a fabled England, vivid
in winter bareness; bleakly comforting,
the faded orchard’s hover of grey-green.

There are other scenes in Scenes from Comus, as there are in Without Title, and other modes of poetry; but in both books it is moments such as these that are most memorable. The best poems in Without Title carry on in the drift of a Sabrina-inspired simplicity:

Profoundly silent January shows up
clamant with colour, greening in fine rain,
luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole
brightest at sundown.

On hedge-banks and small rubbed bluffs the red earth,
dampened to umber, tints the valley sides.
Holly cliffs glitter like cut anthracite.
The lake, reflective, floats, brimfull, its tawny sky.

This poem is titled “Epiphany at Hurcott,” and it exemplifies not only the increasingly prominent place Hill gives to natural description, but also a new emphasis on nature as the point of contact between the divine and the human: this is an epiphany in which God communicates not through but simply as the scene, and so the mimetic recreation of the scene is also the nearest thing to a recreation of the epiphany. The aesthetic perfection of the lines completes, rather than competes with, the poem’s religious dimension. Hill’s theological commitments are more complex than these terms indicate, but there is a sense in these poems that a God who has always seemed painfully transcendent (the God of “Lachrimae,” “self-withdrawn even from [his] own device”) has been replaced by a God of an at least potentially generous immanence. Even in the poems where the earth appears bleak and empty and old age grimly presses, as in the “blanched apparition” of “Wild Clematis in Winter,” the sense is rather of a vessel drained of God (“blanched,” with its suggestion of both “faded” and “blank”) than of an existence hopelessly cut off from Him.

And this has important consequences for Hill’s poetry, which is then empowered to draw from the world both the authority and the consolation it had previously reached for in a library or a void. (We might say that it has literally discovered “the veil/of certitude ... as itself/that which is to be revealed.”) The clarity, the profoundly mournful simplicity, of Hill’s forms and tones in the best poems here—it resembles Montale’s in Finisterre, and the book is in fact presented in omaggio a Eugenio Montale—follows immediately from this sense of a late, renewed communion. In “Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints,” the poet turns from a Christmas scene in a church to an extraordinary natural figure that mingles mortality and inspiration:

The wise men, vulnerable in ageing plaster,
are borne as gifts
to be set down among the other treasures
in their familial strangeness, mystery’s toys.

Below the church the Stour slovens
through its narrow cut.
On service roads the lights cast amber salt
slatted with a thin rain doubling as snow.

Showings are not unknown: a six-winged seraph
somewhere impends—it is the geste of invention,
not the creative but the creator spirit.
The night air sings a colder spell to come.

This poem is itself a kind of miracle: transparent and yet loaded with double senses, at once playful, weary, and profound. The wise men appear transformed by an art that comically reverses their function: they are now “borne as gifts” where they once bore gifts to Christ, now “mystery’s toys” where, as the recipients of the first epiphany, they were mystery’s confidants. The poet reflectively considers the icy river and the sleet falling through the amber beams of the streetlight, then suddenly sees the scene as a potential annunciation. The angel that “impends” (“impends” suggesting both “lies in wait” and “hangs overhead”) is at once the visitor to Mary and the spirit of poetic inspiration (“geste” playing on both “ghost” and the “gestation” of a pregnancy). But it is the night air itself that gently assumes the angel’s prophetic role. It “sings a colder spell to come,” suggesting both impending death and impending transformation: to sing, after all, is a shaping, aesthetic activity, and the “spell” is both the coming time of cold and the artist’s magical act of transfiguration. The poet will die and be reduced, like the wise men, to “vulnerable plaster”; but as one of the wise men he will live on, no longer bearing gifts, in his work a gift himself.

One footnote. Scenes from Comus appeared in the US in 2004. Though Hill’s work has never been widely read or commercially successful, this new book went virtually unnoticed; it received few reviews and vanished so quickly that many of its potential readers were never aware of its existence. Soon afterward, Geoffrey Hill lost his American publisher. As of this writing there are no plans to publish Without Title in the US at all. Thus two of the outstanding works in the last decade of English-language poetry, written by a poet widely regarded as among the best now living, have aroused no interest, provoked no conversation, won no acclaim in the country in which the writer has been living for eighteen years. These books are not unusually demanding; the difficulties they do present are both rewarding and necessary, and both books contain, as I hope I have shown, long sections of rich simplicity. If you have been in need of a reason to despair over the culture of poetry in America, here is one. In years to come contest winner after contest winner will be forgotten with their galleries of blurbs. And we will be the generation that neglected Geoffrey Hill, and our loss will be our embarrassment.

Originally Published: May 23rd, 2006

Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry.

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  1. August 31, 2010
     Martin Walker

    >And thus the double kiss in the final stanza (at least one critic has noted that in the parlance of billiards the thudding of the baize balls is a kiss) points to the possibility of a genuine reconciliation<
    There is no such thing as "baize balls" thudding - the balls (made of various forms of plastic) touch the edges of the table, the top of which the baize is stretched over, with a thud; they "kiss" when they touch each other softly.