Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, Geoffrey Hill, edited by Kenneth Haynes, Oxford, 2013, 992pp, £35 (hardback)
Poet Geoffrey Hill famously divides opinion among readers of contemporary verse. For some critics, Hill is 'the greatest living English poet' (Michael Dirda), 'at once urgent and timeless' (Christopher Ricks), even 'the central poet-prophet of our augmenting darkness (inheriting) the authority of the visionaries from Dante and Blake on to D. H. Lawrence' (Harold Bloom). A highly erudite, allusive writer, drawing on vast areas of often arcane scholarship, from the Cabala to Fibonacci numbers, while employing a sonorous, antiquated poetic voice, Hill is the very antithesis of the modern, PR-conscious, latte-drinking, commission-friendly, New Gen poet. Risking portentousness, later Hill in particular can sound like a latter-day Jeremiah, wagging his finger at the modern world's moral turpitude and intellectual deficiencies. Given his highly rhetorical, densely compact post-Yeatsian style, it's difficult to imagine a School of Hill, or an epithet such as that attached to a far more popular poet - 'Larkinesque' - being applied to the author of such landmark volumes as Mercian Hymns and Tenebrae. The very idea of poetic 'accessibility' would surely be abhorrent to Hill, who was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford in 2010. His image remains one of hair-shirted severity, asceticism and literary high seriousness. And to keep up, Hill's readers need to work. But while there is a general critical consensus about the literary value of Hill's earlier poetry, stretching from his debut, For the Unfallen (1959), up to and including his poetry of the early 1980s, which richly demonstrated his technical command and ability to create what fellow poet Michael Longley called 'exquisite, immaculate music' from the raw material of history, religious faith, the condition of England and the proper roles and responsibilities of the artist, there seems little or no consensus about the deluge of work produced by this formerly parsimonious poet since Canaan (1996).
The later books, after the poet's depression or what Hill called an 'undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder' was reportedly treated with lithium, have appeared with almost indecent haste over the last 18 years, often enduring a harsh critical reception. Since the poetic floodgates opened, Hill's literary reputation has taken an incremental battering as one book has followed hot on the heels of another, from Canaan to The Triumph of Love (1998), quickly followed by Speech! Speech! (2000), The Orchards of Syon (2002), Scenes from Comus (2005), Without Title (2006), A Treatise of Civil Power (2007), Clavics (2011) and Odi Barbare (2012). Rather than basking in the critical glow of a late Yeatsian flowering, Hill's most recent and certainly most challenging poetry has often been met with irritation, bafflement or outright hostility. The anti-Hill faction found its most caustic critic in Lachlan Mackinnon, who tore Clavics to shreds in The Independent (June 3, 2011), concluding: 'This book...is really the sheerest twaddle....Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.' But Hill's later work also has its devotees and is attracting the kind of scholarly attention lavished on an avant-garde poet such as J.H. Prynne. Both writers have online discussion groups and websites dedicated to their work, perhaps fuelling the suspicion they have more literary disciples than actual mainstream readers. And with the weighty Broken Hierarchies covering almost 1,000 pages, with three-quarters of the jumbo volume made up of recent work, it seems unlikely the tide of popular critical opinion is set to turn in Hill's favour. However, disinterested readers will find significant virtues in Hill's poetic strategies, both early and late.
Although the texture of Hill's poetry has undergone a radical overhaul since the 1990s, there are fundamental continuities between his earliest and latest work. 'Genesis,' the opening poem in Hill's debut collection, For the Unfallen, is a five-part lyrical exploration of the seven-day birth of religious belief, a visionary poem drawing on the natural world to explore the redemptive power of the blood of Christ:
By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
While The Movement poets of the early 1950s were busy embracing lyrical rationality and dismissing what Larkin called the 'myth-kitty' approach to poetic inspiration, Hill's poems were variously inspired by the Metaphysicals, particularly Donne, Vaughan and Herbert, the American Allen Tate, plus the work of the 18th-century poet Christopher Smart. ('Genesis' was originally subtitled 'A Ballad of Christopher Smart'). It's arguable that Hill has always been a writer and man out of time; a learned poet and contrarian, speaking in a prophetic voice, fired by deeply religious or spiritual doubts and convictions, producing poetry shaped by historical events of relatively little concern to most mainstream poets or, indeed, readers. Hill's poetic themes are established early and remain constant, from the nature of religious faith to the burdens and horrors of history (notably the Holocaust), and from the role and responsibilities of the artist to the alleged ruination of England and the sanctity of its language by those in positions of power. Another abiding theme, explored early on in For the Unfallen, is our collective moral and social responsibility to those who have gone before, as crystallized in 'Merlin':
I will consider the outnumbering dead:
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now, should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locusts' covering tide.
Hill's literary reputation was boosted significantly with the appearance of King Log (1968), his ornately compact poetic rhetoric exploring the victims of history and the cost of memory. The collection's famous opening poem, 'Ovid in the Third Reich,' is often taken as an exploration or testing of Adorno's idea of the impossibility of lyric poetry after Auschwitz. The ancient Roman poet - or Hill himself?- contemplates the parameters of both evil and individual moral responsibility, seemingly unwilling to judge even the architects of the Third Reich, while the poem itself suggests innocence in the face of such towering evil is no credible defence:
I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.
I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.
Hill's early concentrated lyrical forms, his almost brutal use of enjambment and a sense of cold, philosophical finality create a resonant and morally ambiguous poetic music. The importance of music and specifically song is also evident throughout Hill's earlier work, as underlined in some of the titles: 'Locust Songs,' 'Canticle for Good Friday,' 'Funeral Music,' 'The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz,' and 'September Song.' (The poet and critic Michael Schmidt has suggested that such poems 'are attempting to transcend their forms into some liturgical function, but they remain poems because the faith is not intact'). The latter poem, 'September Song,' one of the most analysed in the Hill canon, possesses its own bleak, elegiac music. From its bitterly ironic title - with its inevitable echo of the American pop standard - the poem charts the inhumanity of the concentration camps through the clipped, matter-of-fact commentary of the speaker, who notes the extermination of human beings as though itemizing a laundry list:
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
The poem's three-line third stanza has elicited intense critical commentary and remains one of the most-quoted examples of post-Holocaust literature:
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
For Jon Silkin, Hill creates both a self-elegy and a dirge for the death camps. But he also considers the poem oblique literary criticism, Hill touching on the moral dangers of a writer appropriating such weighty historical matter for poetic ends: 'He tactfully touches for instance on the overweening ambition of the poet who hitches his talent to this powerful subject, thereby giving his work an impetus it may not be fully entitled to, since, only the victim, herself, would be entitled to derive this kind of 'benefit.' But he also modestly pleads, I think, with 'it/ is true' that whatever the reasons for his writing such an elegy, a proper regard for the victim, a true and unambitious feeling, was present and used.' For Christopher Ricks, the fact that the highly resonant, but ambiguous three lines are in brackets is essential to a full understanding of their intent: 'For it is this, and not their tone or syntax alone, which gives them that unique feeling of being at once a crux and an aside, at once an inescapable honourable admission and something which the poem may then honourably pass over. It is the brackets which embody the essential discrimination between the right and the wrong kind of detachment.'
Published in 1971, and written in the form of what the poet called 'versets of rhythmical prose,' Mercian Hymns proved a great critical success and is still often named as one of Hill's most successful, even approachable volumes of poetry. Perhaps influenced by the example of another ambitious religious poet in a mostly secular world, David Jones, Hill interweaves the figure of Offa, the brutal eighth-century king of Mercia, with elements from his own childhood. The great sweep of history, and the creation of a despot's kingdom is studded with fragmentary, often luminous details from the poet's past:
So, murmurous, he withdrew from them. Gran lit the
gas, his dice whirred in the ludo-cup, he entered
into the last dream of Offa the King.
To quote the book's epigraph from C.H. Sisson, the sequence charts the links between the 'conduct of government' and the 'conduct of private persons.' Interviewed by John Haffenden, almost a decade after publication, Hill saw the book as an attempt to forge links between the historical and personal. Dismissing critic Harold Bloom's notion that the poem's only subject matter is the poet's 'own complex subjectivity,' Hill explained: 'I was not merely interested in the phenomenon of my own sensibility, I was genuinely interested in the phenomenon of King Offa and of the rise and fall of the kingdom of Mercia. My feeling for Offa and Mercia can scarcely be disentangled from my mixed feelings for my own home country of Worcestershire.'
Hill changed stylistic tack in his next volume, Tenebrae (1978), often substituting the hymn-like, rhythmic prose passages of Mercian Hymns with the sonnet, the later book's dominant form. Like his earlier work, Tenebrae is concerned with a sense of history and place and what Hill called, in a Poetry Book Society Bulletin statement at the time, 'the strange likeness and and ultimate unlikeness of sacred and profane love.' For those often baffled or confused by Hill's work, there is undiluted literary pleasure to be drawn from the book's more formal poetic cadences and its many haunting lyrical passages:
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.
But the awareness of evil and the necessity of acknowledging the often heroic victims of evil remains a concern of Tenebrae, the poet evoking, in 'Christmas Trees,' the figure of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi theologian, executed just weeks before the capitulation of Germany, in lines of great poise and understated power:
Against wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.
Hill the published poet largely fell silent between 1983 and 1996, reappearing with Canaan, the first book of what became quickly defined as Hill's later and most 'difficult' period. The volume ushered in Hill's later style, combining a high poetic diction, with an admonitory, self-questioning, often prophetic tone, the poet aiming his firepower at politicians ('Where's probity in this -/the slither-frisk/ to lordship of a kind/ as rats to a bird-table?', 'To the High Court of Parliament') or his own spiritual struggles ('I say it is not faithless/to stand without faith, keeping open/ vigil at the site,' 'To William Cobbett: In Absentia'). Yeats and Eliot are often the book's presiding literary spirits, in poetry marked by high diction, savage paradoxes, and Hill's ongoing struggle with religious faith, dwelling on such key spiritual concepts as atonement. But William Scammell, in common with other critics reacting to future Hill volumes, was unconvinced by the poet's high moral tone, as expressed in poetic terms: 'The problem with this 'timeless' (Christopher Ricks's word) approach to our sins and fatuities is not that it's untrue but that it's couched in such lofty mandarin tones, half Ecclesiastes, half Foreign Office nabob,' adding: 'There's hardly a thing, an object, a person who comes alive in the whole book; it's all deep theological space and etiolated abstractions.' Adam Phillips's Guardian review of Canaan, while praising certain poems in the book for displaying 'astonishing poignancy and wit,' also felt that too many of the poems were locked in a moral or theological viewpoint, 'recognisably his own: prejudicial and unamused.'
The shadow of Eliot's Four Quartets falls over the page for much of The Triumph of Love, published in 1999. But the critical tide was already starting to turn against Hill's later work, which was often mediated via an oratorical, increasingly cranky poetic persona, angrily sounding forth on the various evils of the modern world or arguing with itself in an esoteric, fragmentary fashion about arcane scholarly minutiae:
What a fool! And what folly! I should have stuck
to Lucian from the start. Erasmus, More
(Morus - ED), how could it fail, that lineage?
As before, the question stands as one
of rhetoric. Wealth - copia - was required
to buy moderation: Lucianic
or Erasmian moderation, that is.
Scholarly gravitas now seems to be proffered as the chief poetic virtue, superseding the lyric impulse or any imperative to communicate with the reader. Even leading critics admitted struggling with later Hill, including Blake Morrison on The Triumph of Love: 'Having read it four times, I still find large portions of it difficult to decipher, and anyone new to Hill will find it hard not to feel oppressed by his erudition.' But it was the poetry's keening note of modern prophecy which caused most concern, particularly when this was delivered with a fair degree of thin-skinned disdain for hostile critics or indifferent readers, as defined by Sean O'Brien when reviewing The Triumph of Love: 'At the close, Hill grimly affirms that poetry is a sad and angry consolation - partly for the pains of humankind in general but also for the misunderstood, neglected creature (the poet) who can deliver the phrase to the uncaring world. It is this conflation of art and artist that sticks in the craws of some readers.' (The blurb to Hill's 1959 debut collection, For the Unfallen, now seems deeply ironic in the light of his later poetic persona: 'Geoffrey Hill's poems are distinguished by their clear, warm use of words, the level solemnity of their thought, their modesty and lack of attitudes'). But Hill can occasionally win over even the most resistant of critics with haunting passages of undiluted lyrical beauty, seemingly fashioned beyond the demands of scholarship:
Though already too late we must
set out early, taking the cinder
path by the old scythe-works. There will be
no quarrel between us - all this time -
a light rain unceasing, the moist woods
full of wild garlic.
There are many such ravishing lyrical interludes in Scenes From Comus and Without Title and scattered elsewhere throughout the later work. While sympathetic commentator Colin Burrow concedes that Hill's 'range of learning is the main source of the perplexity' for many readers and critics, he also neatly defined this pure lyrical strand in his review of Broken Hierarchies in the London Review of Books: 'The instant sources of delight are lines that reverberate in the mind.' And while Hill's attempts at humour can sound heavy-handed, his edgy later style can occasionally help banish the image of a poetic Mr Grumpy with, for example, a sequence about rock idol Jimi Hendrix or references to rap and heavy metal music.
At almost 1,000 pages, Broken Hierarchies is nearly 200 pages longer than Ezra Pound's The Cantos, while T.S. Eliot's relatively slim Collected Poems would hardly fill a third of the outsize volume. Hill's intimidating cathedral of a collection includes twenty-one books of poems, including four making their first appearance, while several earlier books have been expanded or revised. The subject matter of what are collectively called 'The Daybooks' ranges from Hill's Welsh ancestry (Oraclau); to the siege of Chester and a cut-up response to the 17th century, using George Herbert and Henry Vaughan stanza shapes (Clavics); to an intellectual conversation, in sapphics, with departed writers from several cultures and centuries (Odi Barbare). But while devotees bristle whenever Hill's poetry is described as 'difficult,' it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Readers wishing to seriously get to grips with Hill's later poetry will need to absorb a wealth of ancillary scholarly material. Even poet and critic Peter McDonald, Hill's chief amanuensis, conceded as much in his online review of Clavics andOdi Barbare: 'Hill's most recent publications, which seem to be coming at the rate of around one full volume per year, are daunting prospects for even his veteran readers...Putting 'difficulty' aside, though, it's true to say that Hill's current poetry is not exactly easy to enjoy at first go.' In short, new readers should not start here, but with the individual collections or Hill's much more manageable Selected Poems (2006). But Broken Hierarchies possesses a magisterial intellectual sweep and sense of literary high ambition which is perhaps unique in contemporary English poetry.