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.

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