Awkward Bow

Jeremy Noel-Tod

  • The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill
    Penguin, 72 pp, £9.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 14 100991 8

The first poem of For the Unfallen (1958), Geoffrey Hill’s first book, was entitled ‘Genesis’. It declared:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

Hot blood is at the heart of Hill’s theological, oppositional poetics. Man’s passions may turn vicious, but without them he is unredeemable. Hence Hill’s admiration for righteous anger and blood sacrifice. Blood, in his poems, functions as a metonym for sincerity as much as savagery; and the image of fake blood (a ‘wound’ from a ‘red biro’) recurs as a metaphor for the problem that preoccupies Hill as a writer: how to be both artful and sincere. ‘Artistic men prod dead men from their stone’ in one early poem. The ambiguity – whose stone is it? – is accusatory. Hill presents himself as a writer compelled to memorialise the glorious dead in verse, even though the cold-bloodedness of the artist aestheticising the suffering of others troubles and inhibits him.

This agonising attitude seemed, until recently, to be reflected in the curtness of Hill’s forms and the infrequency of his output. Since the mid-1990s, though, he has produced a book-length work in a remarkably free new style every two years. After the costive Canaan (1996), Hill returned to the semi-autobiographical method of his most successful volume, Mercian Hymns (1971), to write The Triumph of Love (1998), one of the great long poems of the 20th century. This is high confessional poetry:

vulnerable, proud
anger is, I find, a related self
of covetousness. I came late
to seeing that. Actually, I had to be
shown it. What I saw was rough, and still
pains me. Perhaps it should pain me more.

The book begins with a Tennysonian heart attack, ‘the blown aorta/pelting out blood’. Hill’s emotional and medical history, seen up close, became an unstaunchable source of subject matter, no longer problematically second-hand.

Two books have followed: Speech! Speech! (2000), and now The Orchards of Syon. All three are artfully structured. The Triumph of Love circles, repeating its first line almost verbatim as its last, like the apocalyptic medieval dream-poem Pearl, while its 150 irregular stanzas correspond to the 150 Psalms. Speech! Speech! is divided into 12-line stanzas, also like Pearl, but its 120 sections stand for de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom. The Orchards of Syon is written in 72 24-line cantos, making it perhaps a Book of Days, as well as a version of the kabbalistic exercise of meditating on the 72 names of God. In fulfilling these structures, Hill has encountered the same problem Eliot did when he conceived of Four Quartets – a symmetrical crown for his life’s work modelled on one poem, ‘Burnt Norton’. The quality-control lapses in the three quartets that followed, especially ‘The Dry Salvages’, are the result of this new approach to composition, which required certain patterns to be strictly completed. The sections of The Triumph of Love – Hill’s ‘Burnt Norton’ – expand and contract instinctively, leanly, providing necessary variety. The whole book is a beautifully balanced expression of Hill’s characteristic alternating rhythm. The repetitive stanza structures of Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, are more hospitable to dense, self-parodic filler.

In a recent Paris Review interview, Hill insisted that ‘genuinely difficult art is truly democratic,’ because it resists the politically expedient simplification of experience. ‘Accessibility’, for Hill, is a bloodless myth. There is a danger of taking the maxim syllogistically, though, and arriving at the position that difficulty is necessary if poetry is to attain Hill’s ideal of public art. Hill also insists that he is a ‘simple, sensuous and passionate poet’. Many critics cannot credit this. Stanza 56 of Speech! Speech! was singled out as evidence, by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian:

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