Rancorous Old Sod

Colin Burrow

  • Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill
    Oxford, 973 pp, £35.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 960589 7

Not everyone likes Geoffrey Hill. There have been tedious arguments about his ‘difficulty’, about whether that difficulty has become hermetic obscurity in his later work, about his politics, and about whether the large quantity of verse he’s written in his sixties, seventies and eighties is as good as the relatively small number of poems he wrote in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The asymmetrical volume of his output is one of the more obviously remarkable things about this remarkable collection: poems published between 1959 and 1995 occupy only about 150 of its 940 pages, while the work of Hill’s later years fills the remaining five-sixths of the book.

Anyone who reads Broken Hierarchies through will recognise that Hill is seriously good, and that he probably belongs among the great. But there is both perplexity and delight along the way. His range of learning is the main source of the perplexity (Fibonacci numbers, Origen, the Great War, puns, madrigals, nail-making, Nye Bevan, biplanes, God, Thomas Bradwardine, Platonism, Messiaen, hawthorns, forgotten martyrs, Iceland, the Virgin, Welsh history, laurels, prophecy, cabalism). The instant sources of delight are lines that reverberate in the mind (‘A solitary axe-blow that is the echo of a lost sound’ or ‘Landscape is like revelation; it is both/singular crystal and the remotest things’), and descriptions which have the clarity of visions:

Sharp-shining berries bleb a thorn, as blood
beads on a finger or a dove’s breast pierced
by an invisible arrow to the heart.

Like much of Hill’s writing this strikes a direct connection between the experience of seeing something and earlier English poetry. It has a tincture of Richard Crashaw’s Counter-Reformation gory godliness; a flavour of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the way it risks going too far with the alliterating ‘bleb’ and ‘blood’; and the echt Hill quality of making it appear that just seeing something can hurt.

The earlier poems display not just extraordinary technical skill, but also an exceptional ability to feel and experience across history and between persons. Take this description of a death in the Great War from The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983):

The blaze of death goes out, the mind leaps
for its salvation, is at once extinct;
its last thoughts tetter the furrows, distinct
in dawn twilight, caught on the barbed loops.

This manages to be inside the experience of dying at the same time as watching it happen on a newsreel. Matter and spirit are not entirely separable: machine-gun bullets ‘tetter’ or rip the ground but are fused utterly with the thoughts they scatter. The ‘barbed loops’ suggest at once barbed wire and, standing as they do so close to ‘salvation’, a crown of thorns. One death stands for all. That deep sense of historical continuity and responsibility across different minds and times – the sense that we are all one, and that mind and matter may not be entirely separate – is the ground-tone of Hill’s earlier work.

The remarkable unstoppling of Hill’s muse in the later 1990s was partly the result of his being prescribed lithium for depression. ‘How is it tuned, how can it be untuned,/with lithium, this harp of nerves?’ he asks in Speech! Speech! (2000). Hill is impatient with simple distinctions between his early and later works: ‘If the late/Writings are about grace and self-loathing/Tick the box’; ‘The late work I find strange/To live with, like derange-/ment’; ‘Not again those marvellous early poems/Lately acknowledged’. He is right to be irritated, since there are at least three loose groups of extremely various poems here. There are the earlier poems (brilliant, themselves diverse, sometimes perhaps too overtly made), and the larger, looser and more civically engaged poems of the 1990s, which have hitherto been regarded as ‘late’ Hill. Then there are six collections of his most recent poems gathered under the heading The Daybooks, three instalments of which appear here for the first time.

There is no vast imaginative rupture between each of those phases, though there is a sad period of silence between The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy and Canaan (1996). The three ‘Hymns to our Lady of Chartres’ which concluded Hill’s 1985 Collected Poems are in this volume extended to 21, as though retrospectively to bridge this lacuna. The continuities across the work are hard to describe without simplification, but it helps when reading Hill to think of him as a person caught in the vortex of two very large questions, one moral and the other semantic. The moral question concerns the obligations of the living to the dead. How should we acknowledge and remember people who have died, and particularly people who have died for us – in wars, on crosses or in wildernesses? The second concerns how we are to use words, the multiple senses of which may enable us to see the world (and beyond) more clearly, but which slackly employed may pull us down into mental and moral slavery. Both these preoccupations have religious aspects: how can we speak about death, God and salvation? What do we owe to Christ or to the martyrs? Both are also concerned with how we are positioned in relation to other people, living and dead: what we justly owe them, and how we may converse with them when the language that we habitually use is tarnished and dim. That gives his verse a growing concern with the language and practice of political justice, both in the present and across time. It also connects with another major aspect of Hill’s work: his sense of obligation and debt to earlier English writers.

The evolution of his work is indeed best understood through his changing relationships with past poets. Hill is the grammar-school-educated son of a policeman from Bromsgrove, and so was not ever likely to be an Eliotean Tory in a four-piece suit, but his earlier poems show an affection for an Anglo-Catholic chiselled impersonality that owes a great deal to Eliot. The midwinter spring of Four Quartets lives on in many of Hill’s hedgerows, in which seasons are often annealed together by a flash of the sun: ‘December chastens the stream bed; frosted mist/hangs in autumn’s leasowe; the far slope/burns hazy yellow where it is spring.’ The later works move well beyond the poetic impersonality advocated by Eliot, and are sometimes anguishingly direct about depression. A poem in The Orchards of Syon (2002), for instance, describes the poet weeping in his car, with tears making ‘flowerets, faceted clusters, out of clear brights’. That unexplained grief turns into the sorrow of going onwards and onwards to nowhere. Typically Hill combines this with a reflection on how much harder it is to write poetry than literary critics imagine: ‘Lyric cry lyric cry lyric cry, I’ll/give them lyric cry!’ The poem takes the fiction that the lyric originates with a bloodless ‘lyric cry’ of emotion and reconnects it with raw misery.

As the later work moves away from Eliot it draws cautiously closer to the political intensity and associative methods of Pound’s Cantos. But there is also a battle of a kind going on here, against ‘Pound’s destructive matrix, creative hatred’ and his ‘rectitude and epic blague’. Pound was obsessed with the corrupting power of ‘usura’. This is replaced in the writing of Hill’s middle period with a recurring late medieval vocabulary of political justice, in which the key terms ‘commonweal’ and ‘equity’ do battle against the ‘Commonplace hegemonies: everywhere/Dismantled hierarchies’ as well as, latterly, the ‘anarchical plutocracy’ that dominates our world. The later verse also gives strong positive weight to Jewish intellectual traditions, partly to exorcise the anti-Semitism of Pound and Eliot, but also because Hill, whose second wife is a Jewish-born Anglican priest, has an elective affinity with the zeal of the Old Testament prophets. He also has some sympathy for the arcane symmetries found in the universe by cabalistic thinkers.

Hill’s career has not developed solely in dialogue with modernists. He is the last great 17th-century poet, and seems to have lived through that century as well as our own. Tenebrae (1978) retuned recusant and Counter-Reformation styles of devotion into hard-edged Anglican sonnets of worship. Tenebrae reflected the view (of Louis Martz and others) that the religious verse of Donne and Herbert had its roots in Catholic manuals of devotion. In the late 1990s – just when literary critics were becoming excited by the radical voices of the English Civil War – Hill moved into the political ferment of the mid-17th century. The civic republican Milton of the first and second Defence of the English People became an explicit model: ‘I’m convinced that shaping,/voicing, are types of civic action.’ Sidney and Milton are said to have ‘voices pitched exactly –/somewhere – between Laus Deo and defiance’, which is just where Hill was attempting to pitch his own verse in this period. In Speech! Speech! the voice of Miltonic resistance to the present takes on a popular edge: ‘Politics, RAPMASTER, must be a part/of our conformable mystery, this/twinship of loathing and true commonweal.’


So there are several literary histories running through this body of work, as well as a personal history. What makes Hill a great poet rather than just a very clever person is the richness with which his thought and reading suffuse his vocabulary. He can use single words in equivocal ways in order to make them carry the force of an argument. The word ‘mass’ is a good example. That word can evoke the heaviness of soil and of bodies, an accumulated weight of history, or the ritual worship of the Mass. The range of senses enables weighty things to become so heavy that they achieve a kind of moral elevation: pursue mass far enough and take it deep enough and it becomes the Mass, a centre of gravity for humanity, by which it can be drawn upwards to love: ‘Ascend through declension/the mass the matter/the gross refinement/gravitas.’ That swirl of ascent and descent through gravity can lead, etymologically, through the Latin pondus, towards pondering, or weighing: ‘imponderables brought home/to the brute mass and detail of the world;/there, by some, to be pondered’. And pondering, revolving large and hard thoughts in a way that could either pull you down or enable you to leap towards a world beyond this one, is what Hill’s poems often do. He does not just say but believes that ‘weight of the word, weight of the world, is’, and vice versa. This is not an easy belief to live with. It can pull everything down towards death: ‘Each sensate corpse, in its fatal/mass-solitariness, excites/multiples of infliction.’ Pondering so weightily can sometimes come dangerously close to being ponderous, and Hill may sometimes yield too readily to the sonority of abstract nouns (‘The flawless hubris of heroic guilt’; ‘Hidden artificers of the visible’).

But his gravity is offset by the crucial fact about Hill: his imagination is driven by antinomies. He is attracted not by the weight of gravity but by moments when the heavy and the light coincide, physically, and metaphysically, and tonally. This is most instantly appreciable in his imagery, particularly in his numerous and wonderful descriptions of birds. None of these is overtly allegorised, though Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ may flutter over several of them. Some are just magically vivid: peacock feathers have ‘eyes – like a Greek letter,/omega, fossiled in an Indian shawl’, or ‘a woodpecker removes rivets’. His larger birds labour miraculously upwards, defying gravity: ‘How the swans peel/their wings from chaliced rest, half-drag their flight’; ‘The heron’s flight out of the reeds is laggard/Yet still it climbs’. And that heavy climb can be what Hill does too:

Up against ageing and dying I stand bemused
by labours of flight: a low-geared heron
retiring to its pool, the shape that gulls
beat and tack; a motionless
crow butting a head-wind.

That struggle against invisible resistance is often a part of his birdscape: ‘Head-on the big crows/halt the wind, the gulls plane in wide curves, vanishing among the flurries’. Swifter birds enable him to see an invisible architecture in the air: ‘Sharpened, sharpening, the swifts’ wings/track and loop back clear skeins/through vanished arches.’ And prayers too can be birds, driven upwards by self-destruction: ‘the charred prayers/spiralling godwards on intense thermals’. We are heavy matter aspiring upwards.

All this shows not just that Hill is very good at describing what we all see, but that his way of looking is suffused with a long Christian tradition of holy paradox. His love of the ambiguous and multivalent word (‘And glowery is a mighty word with two meanings/if you crave ambiguity in plain speaking/as I do’) has as its tonal correlative an attraction towards rhetorical tropes and tones of voice that conjoin different points of view. The ironic, the sardonically humorous and sometimes the sarcastic run through this volume, and are often underpinned by deep emotion: ‘The glory of poetry is that it is solemn,/Racked with anarchic laughter.’ His strongest tones of irony tend to be reserved for things on the edge of human comprehension. These could be historical events that exceed our capacity to respond to them – mass murders, bulk deaths, martyrdoms – or they could be points of doctrine which so completely defy our intuitions that they can only be grasped through equivocal or double-edged language. His extraordinary poem on the Holocaust, ‘September Song’, in which the poet finds himself writing an elegy for himself along with one for a victim of a Nazi deportation born the day after him (19 June 1932), ends: ‘This is plenty. This is more than enough.’ ‘Plenty’ is emptied of all joy by the abundance of death, and has to be said in a tone of voice that goes well beyond irony. A later more overtly political poem adapts the incredible doctrine stated in the Sermon on the Mount that the meek shall inherit the earth:

The meek shall die rich
would you believe:
with such poverty
lavished upon them.

‘Would you believe’ is both ‘if only you would believe it’ and ‘hah! how could you believe such a doctrine in a world like this one in which the distribution of wealth is systemically unfair?’ That tone of voice says two things. It allows that there are higher truths, and it suggests that human beings are not able to grasp them. There is no superiority in this. The poet is caught up with the mass of us trying to hear truths pitched just beyond our capacity. And that allows room for gravely sportive wordplay, which can be directly linked with Hill’s own physical frailties: the glorious line ‘For definitely the right era, read: deaf in the right ear’ alludes to Hill’s own deafness in one ear, the result of a childhood illness. His wordplay is often heightened in passages of self-description, particularly in poems published after 2000: ‘I was wired weird’; ‘This is late scaffold-humour; turn me off’; ‘No man’s/Certitude my servitude’. Other delicious mishearings conjoin the worldly and the otherwordly, more or less incidentally, such as ‘Credo (car radio)’.

Hill’s conjunctions of sense and tone often go along with conjunctions across time and linguistic registers. In Mercian Hymns, Offa is described hearing an encomium of his rule that calls him ‘overlord of the M5’, and he says ‘I liked that … sing it again.’ In The Orchards of Syon, Captain Kirk addresses the angel of death with ‘Beam/us up, Asrael’, while in The Daybooks the 17th-century musician William Lawes is imagined auditioning at Ronnie Scott’s. At the heart of Hill’s writing is a kind of paronomasial mysticism, in which a pun or double sense can beam us up into another world, and in which a misprision of the present can provide release from its prison. Car radio and credo: they conjoin and disjoin mundane and supra-mundane. Often the present does not come out well from the conjunction. The works from the mid-1990s repeatedly get medieval with modernity by allowing earlier voices to bleed into the present:

The spouting head
spiked as prophetic
is ancient news.

This is a media head, spouting words, ‘spiked’ in the journalistic sense of being consigned to a scrapheap, but it is also connected to the executions of Henrician traitors and martyrs, in which heads are literally spiked and spouting blood. Both are fused in a description of Blake’s Albion, which is also ruined Jerusalem, which is also England. This is visionary writing that wrenches you forcibly through time.

It is also savage. And that has made some of his readers squeamish. Hill’s descriptions of sacrifice sometimes seem to carry a relish in sacrifice, and may suggest a will towards self-sacrifice. Hill’s prophetic register has irritated some readers too, who see it as a self-aggrandising fantasy that a poet should hold forth to the nation about the corruption of its tongue. Certainly, part of the abrasive pleasure afforded by these poems is that of sometimes getting them stuck in your craw. But there is nothing holier than thou or superior about Hill. Our heaviness is his heaviness; our mishearings of the past, our tendency to ‘grant inequity from afar to be in equity’s covenant’ by hearing inequity in ‘in equity’, are his problems too. And he attacks himself every bit as savagely as he attacks his age: ‘Rancorous, narcissistic old sod – what/makes him go on? We thought, hoped rather,/he might be dead.’ There is a rage against the easy, too: ‘Take accessible to mean/acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.’ ‘You are/wantonly obscure, man sagt. ACCESSIBLE/traded as DEMOCRATIC, he answers.’ Even irony provides too easy a release into a fused loathing of self and world: ‘Savage indignations/plighted with self-disgust become one flesh.’ This is a mortal voice, driven to aspire beyond its times, perhaps in ways that can drive it towards self-harm.

In a poem about Hans-Bernd von Haeften, an opponent of Nazism who was hanged after preventing his brother from killing Hitler on the grounds that it contravened the fifth commandment, Hill describes him as ‘ec-/centric as a prophet’. That splitting up of the word is driven by a characteristic drive towards equivocal truths: a prophet is both off-centre, eccentric, and ‘centric’, really at the heart of things, because he feels the pressure of conflicting imperatives (kill Hitler; do not kill). In The Triumph of Love (1998), Hill develops this notion of the poet as ec-/centric:

I would have liked to know – I may yet know –
whether the hidden part which most engages me
is closer to nub, crux, crank, or orifice.
Crank, probably. The system which converts
rotary to rectilinear motion is called
the eccentric.

The joke about being a crank that drives forward by being off-centre (and which misses as a result the crux or cross) is typically not quite a joke. Poetry should be a ‘sad and angry consolation’, in which the eccentric drives the crank and the crank circles back on itself in a pulse that drives forward. This can be a painful process (‘I believe/creation is self-healing, a self-stanched/issue of blood’), and Hill’s later verse can almost lock itself up in a cycle of mechanical repetition: ‘Make a piston of stasis. I repeat/Myself stiffly, stalled on the beat.’ Sometimes the crank drives forward in slow metamorphoses of ideas and phrases, as when ‘loves I allow and passions I approve’ from Tenebrae is rewritten in The Orchards of Syon as ‘Inurements/I allow, endurances I approve.’ The latest poems seem often to jolt the mind along and out of despair by phonic play and musical variation that generates ‘its own compound of soul and salsa’: ‘thinking is repetitious so invent:/Dark energy, the enigmatic pulse.’ Patience with repetition allows change and perhaps consolation to emerge from it, as that enigmatic pulse continues to beat from the dark energy which is both somewhere out in the beyond (a pulse in the astronomical sense) and within (a biological pulse). It is perhaps an obsessive mental rhythm, but Hill knows that: ‘Is silence natural? To write/Obsessively can seem so.’

By The Daybooks (2007-12) the eccentric pulses of Hill’s verse turn into a kind of therapeutic recreation:

Writing as now, numbly, to release feeling
And in a sense perplexed that my mind does
Things which amaze me even in its chaos …

I wax rhetorical

A ‘daybook’ is a journal or a ledger in which ephemeral expenses are recorded before they are formally entered in an account, so there is a flavour of provisionality to many of these poems. They sometimes move so fast as to leave even patient readers behind: ‘Spads have their own advisers; bank Gnome-Rhônes’ – eh? (Actually Hill is flying again: both SPAD and Gnome-Rhônes were early 20th-century French manufacturers of aeroplanes, and we’re ‘banking’ in both the aerial and money-making senses.) The Daybooks seem to record the raw matter and processes of thought, its eccentric circlings, its cranks, and sometimes its resounding thumps of self-harm. Anyone who has worked through depression will recognise the mental processes that run through these volumes: the need to build system and shape, and to create order through daily labour, while a pulse of chaos radiates out from below.

New interests spring up in each subsection. Oraclau/Oracles draws on Welsh history, art and mining, turning coal into a corrupted version of the philosopher’s stone in which blackness generates gold. Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti circles around Donatello, counterpointing the ‘half-crazed/Asceticism’ of his sculpture of Habakkuk with moments from Florentine history. The death of William Lawes during the siege of Chester in 1645 is the centre around which Clavics eccentrically cranks, allowing Lawes’s name to prompt meditations on the death of laws (lower-case) and the atrophy of the will (‘Quasi-Shakespearean this play on Will’) in the present. ‘Clavics’ (Hill’s coinage) he defines as ‘the alchemy of keys’. It marks the latest phase in his poetic response to the 17th century. He has moved from the thinking and feeling images which Eliot taught us to see in Metaphysical poetry, through Miltonic public engagement, towards a poetry in which the way to unlock understanding is to create structures that enable clashing conjunctions of different periods of time. Each poem in Clavics looks like a key constructed from shape poems by George Herbert: the blade of the key is a double-decker version of Herbert’s ‘The Altar’, while the handle has the bird-shaped narrow waist of ‘Easter Wings’: ‘I am good for nothing/Else these days than making of wings and altars/Love’s hieroglyphics.’ This orderly shape is filled with some extremely disorderly matter, since keys both lock and unlock: the short rhyming lines at the middle of the ‘Easter Wings’ sections of the poems often recall the early 16th-century poet John Skelton, whose staccato bursts of short rhymed satirical lines were a sort of early modern rhetorical hybrid of rap and machine-gun fire, usually directed against humanists and reformers. In these late poems Hill also draws on Ben Jonson’s poetry, in which short rhymed lines can both tersely state permanent classical truths and rattle out Skeltonic attacks. This blend of madness and classicism creates a kind of English poetical civil war within the shapely key poems in Clavics.

This is the flavour Hill wants to capture in The Daybooks: a carefully crafted poetic form may unlock the universe or it may replicate its turmoil, or (this is a poet of antinomies, remember) both at once. The sub-volume called Odi Barbare takes its title from the Italian vernacular classical odes of Giosuè Carducci: it would normally be translated as ‘Barbarian Odes’ but Hill renders it as ‘I/Hate barbarians.’ This is a deliberately barbarous pun on Horace’s ‘odi profanum vulgus et arceo’ (‘I hate the profane vulgar and keep them at a distance’). Hill has always specialised in creating poems so suffused by history that they sit uncomfortably in their own times, and in The Daybooks he seems almost to take us everywhere and every time at once. The machine-gun fire of Skeltonic verse is turned on several modern barbarians: he has a spat with Richard Dawkins in which ‘He talks/Well, Dawks’, and in which words aggressively evolve around the evolutionary biologist to define his nature: ‘Parasites essential to survivals’ evolves into ‘Parasites intolerant of rivals’. Skelton would have loved it.