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:

Flanders poppy no trial variant. Does
my bad breath offend you? Pick a name
of the unknown ypres master l as alias.
Abandoned mark iv tanks, rostered by sex,

Marlbrough s’en va-t-en . . . frozen mud
wrestlers
entertaining the Jocks. Arrest yourself:
for grief of no known cause, excuse me.
A superflux among bit players l which
happens to be the best part: unnatural
wear and tear but finished by Christmas.
Beef of Old England’s off. You can eat cake.
yeomanry horseplay fails as light relief.

Despite the rapid switching of tones, the passage is broadly coherent. We begin at the Western Front in the First World War. Flanders poppies, Ypres, the invention of the tank, mud, ‘over by Christmas’ – none of this is specialist knowledge. The way Hill elaborates his subject is more complicated. He seems to be interleaving the modern campaign in Flanders with that led by the Duke of Marlborough (why misspelled?) in the 18th century. The allusion to Marie-Antoinette’s apocryphal words about cake is presumably an indictment of the high-handed attitude of the World War One generals: massive casualties are considered ‘unnatural/wear and tear’ of a ‘superflux’ (a word which, horribly, blends the bleeding men with the rain and liquid mud). In contrast to Marlborough, Haig pressed on disastrously during the winter months. The prevailing mood is ‘Oh what a lovely war’ irony: horror is entertainment; the unknown soldiers are ‘bit players’. The punning ‘horseplay’ and ‘light relief’ of the facetious final headline completes the time warp from tank warfare (tanks were, incidentally, classified by ‘sex’: males and females) back to cavalry. The Flanders poppy is ‘no trial variant’ because it isn’t a new strain of the poppy family, but a flower of symbolic significance, memorialising sacrifice that Hill fears is being forgotten (‘grief of no known cause’).

Although the surface is troubled, the sentiment is essentially simple. Hill’s passionate sincerity about his subject is only thinly disguised as the shorthand sarcasm of the political cartoonist (‘Beef of Old England’ is from Gillray). And there is a characteristic sensuousness in the words chosen both for sound (in this instance, careful cacophony) and precisely double meaning. Like Hill’s earlier sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, which used the French Symbolist sonnet – a supposedly hermetic aesthetic object – to address episodes from British history, Speech! Speech! plays at unlovely difficulty, while retaining a conservative faith in a rational tradition of poetry. This is a polemical conceit that is ultimately more problematic than anything found in ‘difficult’ contemporaries such as Ashbery or Prynne. In those Postmodernists, the instability of the sign is accepted and exploited; associations are not prioritised. For Hill, there is no interest in arbitrary surrealism or real incoherence. One of the stylistic reference points for Speech! Speech! is cryptography through the ages, but it’s hard to believe that it contains any entirely meaningless ciphers included to baffle interceptors. Hill values control and accountability too highly.

This intense control is the problem with stanza 56. Reading it means decrypting each dense statement. It is an accumulation of squibs on a theme, made difficult by the fact that it is an abortive dramatic monologue, which half supposes a hostile reader/ auditor (‘Does/my bad breath offend you?’) who is never fleshed out. Here and elsewhere, the poem’s subject is too much itself: public speech that fails. It suffers because it is not sufficiently counterbalanced – as The Triumph of Love was – by the theme of Geoffrey Hill, private man. The imbalance leads to passages which attempt seriously, but not entirely persuasively, to mourn Princess Diana.

The best way to read the book is not to decrypt but to skip. At its best, Hill’s late manner has a compelling rhetorical rhythm, quarrelling the reader (and himself) into a corner, then breaking away into stranger, more emotionally vulnerable – and often more visual – territory. It is a wary rhythm of short relieved by long: cool then hot. The following passage – also declared unfairly difficult, by Alan Brownjohn in the Sunday Times – is a fine example:

Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one’s country l bearing wíth it
always something under- or over-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon-animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing – marching – in and out of time –
to Holst’s jupiter l ás to jerusalem.

The sentence can be divided into two four-line halves, each employing a stop-stop-start rhythm of adjectives launching longer clauses, hesitating over the line breaks until the second half makes good on its crescendo. The weird, English apocalypse conjured up by the wordplay – the women march ‘to jerusalem’ ‘in and out of time’ – is only glossed, not explained, by the information that something similar happened during a rehearsal for the premiere of Holst’s Planets suite (Brownjohn’s objection was the obscurity of the incident). Hill is talking about his mixed (‘under- or over-subscribed’) feelings towards England (‘I vow to thee my country’ takes its tune from Jupiter). He is attracted by the possibly apocryphal anecdote, yet typically suspicious of its easy appropriation, mindful of the fate of Blake’s prologue to Milton. The image of the marching charwomen, which might be either Walt Disney or Stanley Spencer, expresses the full range of his feelings on the subject. When poetry achieves this, it is its privilege not to append any more prosaic explanation.

‘Don’t look it up this time; the sub-/ conscious does well by us; leave well alone,’ Hill instructs wearily in The Orchards of Syon. The poem’s more personable tone should appease the critics who thought that Speech! Speech! went wildly off-message. ‘You have sometimes said/that I project a show more/ stressful than delightful,’ the opening lines acknowledge. The Hopkinsian staccato stress accents, which bristled above the logomachic lines of Speech! Speech!, are sparingly deployed. It is Hopkins’s example as a delighting Christian nature poet that now prevails – here, after a rain shower:

new-fangled light, the slate roofs briefly
caught in scale-nets of silver, then
sheened with thin oils. These signals
I take as apprehension, new aligned
poetry with truth

Hill’s sincere engagement with Christianity places him intellectually as far from most of his contemporaries as the Catholic Hopkins was from most of his. The theme of The Orchards of Syon is classically Victorian, Arnoldian: how to reconcile the romantic love of nature with the otherworldliness of Christianity. Or, on Hill’s terms, how to align poetry with truth.

After Arnold and before Hill, the problem of Christian romanticism also kept T.S. Eliot awake, though not late enough, if Hill is to be believed. In a 1996 essay published in Agenda, Hill deprecated Four Quartets for having too readily ‘assuaged and consoled’ its first readers, and for subsequently embodying ‘Anglican Einfühlung’. Church of England chumminess is again attacked in The Triumph of Love: ‘The rule is clear enough: last/alleluias forte, followed by indifferent/ coffee and fellowship.’ Hill is clearly much exercised by this bloodless version of Christianity – the Holy Coffee Morning – and contrives to find Four Quartets (and in particular ‘Little Gidding’, the final quartet) guilty of its readers.

Strenuous prose notions can become subtle poetry. Section VI of The Triumph of Love reworked and rejected Eliot’s mystical closing alleluia, ‘And the fire and the rose are one’:

From the front room I might be able to see
the coal fire’s image planted in a circle
of cut-back rose bushes. Nothing is changed
by the strength of this reflection.

Eliot’s heavenly symbolism is brought back to earth, to the particular topography of Hill’s life. As with Eliot, the intensity of certain memories becomes a spur to meditation on the nature of eternity. But Hill is less ready to grant such moments – ‘this reflection’, which is both the poet’s reverie and the visual illusion of a burning bush – transfiguring power.

The Orchards of Syon finds him more peaceable. There is no explicit truce with Eliot, but Hill does concede that a snide remark in The Triumph of Love about Julian of Norwich – source of the reassuring refrain from ‘Little Gidding’, ‘All shall be well’ – was an ‘injustice’. The momentum is now towards the merging of visions:

And here – and there too – I
wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove
was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards
of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.

Hill uses ‘Goldengrove’, Hopkins’s generic term for the natural world (in ‘Spring and Fall’), to mediate between his childhood home in the Midlands and his hesitant vision of the apple groves on the edge of the Holy City. Hopkins’s sombre poem about a child ‘grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving’ invokes the Fall but not the Resurrection. It is typical of Hill to choose such a doubtful touchstone while also alluding – in the recurrent autumnal imagery – to Donne’s more redemptive analogy of the mortal and immortal: ‘in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, [God’s] mercies are ever in their maturity.’

Red, the colour of fall in New England, where Hill now lives, serves throughout The Orchards of Syon as the colour of reconciliation between life and death. Again echoing Eliot (‘Journey of the Magi’: ‘but set down/ This set down/This’), he writes:

Set this down
as anomy’s coherence, and the full-
blooded scrub maples torch themselves in the swamp.

The sentence itself barely coheres; its non sequitur accepts the oppositions of existence, the hot, the cold, ‘clashed consanguinity,/. . . diverse/affinities; unassuaged; rejoicing.’

The younger Hill admitted modern life parsimoniously into his short, stern lyrics; the older Hill is masterfully voracious. Here is the penultimate canto of The Orchards of Syon:

But now and in memory never so
wholly awaited, the breadth of this
autumnal land. In Goldengrove the full
trees trumpet their colours: earth-casualties
majestic; unreal as in life they build
riches of cadence, not yet decadence,
ruin’s festival. This much is allowed
us, forever tangling with England
in her quiet ways of betrayal. Natural
mother, good but not enough. Again, bring
recollection forward, weeping with rage.
Debit the lot to our chequered country,
crediting even so her haunted music.
Loyal incoherence not official
but now and then inspired: when circling
Heathrow on hold we are entertained
by Windsor’s scaled-down perfect replicas;
or as Sussex, dormant, rippling with shadows
of airflow, tilts, straightens under, and they
switch off the flight-chart.
So much for my conclusion, a small
remembrance, nos fidelités sont
des citadelles
– peguy. Our fealties taken
to be your places of refuge and defence.

As in the Holst passage from Speech! Speech!, the subject is Hill’s ambivalent feelings about his homeland: ‘chequered country’ is both a visual and moral epithet. Again, the difficulty is tempered by the rhythm, as the short, knotty abstractions give way to more expansive and personal writing. The first half flies dangerously close to the purely portentous, but the description of descending into England – ironically confusing Legoland UK with the House of Windsor’s place of refuge and defence nearby – is fresh, exact and movingly modern. Hill’s angry question in Speech! Speech! – ‘nów whose England áre you?’ – is itself put on hold above Sussex, Kipling’s heaven on earth (‘we, in godlike mood,/May of our love create our earth,/ And see that it is good’).

This is not Hill’s Paradiso, as Speech! Speech! hinted that it might be (‘Could this/perhaps end here: a Paradiso/not accounted for’)? The Orchards of Syon dwells on the paradisal more than any previous book but gestures only brokenly towards a conclusion, confessing ‘I cannot make it cohere’.

Here are the Orchards of Syon, neither wisdom
nor illusion of wisdom, not
compensation, not recompense: the Orchards
of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.

Hill’s scrupulousness prevents him, in these final lines, from asserting that the Orchards of Syon ‘are’ or ‘will be’ anything for certain. Instead, by a sleight of syntax he dramatises the mystic threshold where speech fails. This is a wisely awkward bow, and one that suggests Hill has not yet finished exploring his fruitfully ambiguous apprehension that ‘I’m/myself close to the inarticulate.’