Geoffrey Hill 2

geoffrey hill

In this post[1], I shall be considering poems from Tenebrae and Canaan. I have omitted Mercian Hymns because I have discussed it in a previous post and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy because it is too long and because it is in some respects relatively straightforward.


When I first read ‘The Pentecost Castle’ which is the opening sequence in Tenebrae I had three thoughts: one was that the poem was beautiful; the second was that it sounded like devotional love poetry, akin to St John of the Cross or, further back, the Song of Solomon; the third was that the language was extraordinarily old.


It is comparatively easy to work out how the poem works its effect of loveliness. Hill uses beautiful images, many drawn from nature or from the traditional nature images of poetry: flower, briar rose, trees, aspen, river, wind, high rocks, goldfinch, hawk, heron, sparrow, sparrowhawk . There are images of heraldry and romance: gold, ermine, lily, candles, sword, citadel. The diction is poetic: slain, ,forlorn, passion, distress; the form reminiscent of ballad and folk poetry with four line stanzas and a plethora of patterning devices.


Hill acknowledges his debt to Spanish poetry in the notes, in particular, to the Penguin Book of Spanish Verse edited by J.M. Cohen and a number of poems are almost straight translations. This may account for the old-fashioned effect of the language so much at odds with, for instance, the language of Mercian Hymns. Tom Paulin notoriously refers to this style as ‘visionary mustiness’. For me, this is an apt description of a number of poems in Tenebrae which seem to combine the atmosphere of The Four Quartets with the nostalgia of various Agatha Christie movies. Having said that, Hill recognises and engages with the inauthenticity of nationalist nostalgia in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy where the dangerously attractive myths of the ‘terre charnelle’ are both celebrated and debunked:

This is no old Beauce manoir that you keep

But the rue de la Sorbonne, the cramped shop

Hill is always more complex and complicated than I am suggesting but the language in many of the poems in Tenebrae is alienating because of its stylistic archaism. Using the analysis of syntax as a way in, I will explore one poem,‘A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook’. Hill has said that it was written quite early, in the sixties or seventies, and it may be flavoured by a young man’s desire to shock. I am not sure how to explain the title, whether it is intended to come from the notebook of a Pre-Raphaelite artist or whether it is from a notebook which is concerned with Pre-Raphaelite painting. I am unaware of any specific work of art with which the poem might be associated. Here is the poem:


A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook


Primroses; salutations; the miry skull

of a half-eaten ram; viscous wounds in earth

opening. What seraphs are afoot.


Gold seraph to gold worm in the pierced slime:

greetings. Advent of power-in-grace. The power

of flies distracts the working of our souls.


Earth’s abundance. The God-ejected Word

resorts to flesh, procures carrion, satisfies

its white hunger. Salvation’s travesty


a deathless metaphor: the stale head

sauced in original blood; the little feast

foaming with cries of rapture and despair.


The poem opens with a sequence of words and phrases separated by semi-colons, suggesting some kind of equivalence between each. However, the items are very different. “Primroses’ might indeed suggest some sort of Pre-Raphaelite outdoor painting, celebrating spring, but it is followed immediately by ‘salutations’ which floats free of syntax and explanation. To whom, from whom and on what occasion are there salutations? Why is there such a formal choice of lexis? What has this to do with the ‘miry skull/ of a half-eaten ram and why are there are ‘viscous wounds in earth’? Syntax and line endings work against other to create greater ambiguity. Perhaps the viscous wounds are in the ram’s skull and the skull itself has found an ‘opening’ in the earth. ‘Viscous’ reaps the additional benefit of looking and sounding like ‘vicious’ which introduces an idea of evil to set against the ‘seraphs’. The placing of ‘opening’ on its own at the beginning of the line extends the range of its meanings, possibly allowing for the issue of seraphs into the poem in the next sentence which takes up half a line and ends in an understated full stop, rather than affording us the clarity of a question mark or an exclamation mark which would tell us if ‘what’ was acting as an interrogative or as an intensifier. The poeticisms of ‘seraph’ and ‘afoot’ become heavily ironic when we realize what he is actually talking about. The next stanza maintains the highly poetic register with the repetition of ‘gold’, ‘seraph’ and the introduction of ‘pierced’ with its connotations of the Crucifixion. The inclusion of the ‘worm’ might stir unease. This may be another acknowledgement of the problems of dualism, body and spirit, or to put it another way, of Incarnation. A colon is followed by ‘greetings’, perhaps picking up from the ‘salutations’ in the first stanza. The next fragment sentence with its compound theological noun ‘power-in-grace’ suddenly hints that this may be a form of annunciation. Be that as it may, it is interrupted by the first unambiguously declarative sentence in the poem, which apparently comes from Pascal. This is the pivotal point of the poem from where realization grows that we are looking at blowflies and maggots.


The third stanza opens with another sentence fragment, like a caption or an exclamation: ‘Earth’s abundance.’ We can see in these two words Hill’s ambivalent attitude to the world of matter and flesh, where for him beauty so often seems to be accompanied by disgust. The version of Incarnation which follows is replete with sleazy nuance. ‘God-ejected’ simultaneously suggests ‘rejected’ and ejaculated’ while the triplet of verbs, ‘resorts’, ‘procures’, ‘satisfies’ seem better suited to prostitution than religion.


I take the ‘white hunger’ to be the maggots busy in the ram’s head. There is an echo of the image of the Samson’s riddle of the lion and the bees alluded to in an earlier poem.[2] This emergence of life from the body of the dead ram is taken to be ‘Salvation’s travesty’ and, in a bitter pun, ‘a deathless metaphor’. The poem reverts to ambiguous enjambment and fragment sentences, in parallel to the opening stanza. The final lines are both disgusted and disgusting, a disgust which seems to include sexual disgust, where the phrase ‘the little feast’ could suggest ‘the last supper and the communion feast’ or echo ‘the little death’ (le petit mort). ‘Foaming’ is a further visual reminder of the activity of the maggots but in conjunction with the ‘cries of rapture and despair’ could again be taken as sexual. The tenor of this poem recalls the bitter realization in ‘Genesis’, the first poem in For the Unfallen, that the flesh cannot be renounced:

So, the fifth day, I turned again

To flesh and blood and the blood’s pain.

Canaan was published in 1996; the poet’s New and Collected Poems were published in America in 1994. In the decade since his last published collection, many things had changed. Hill’s first marriage was dissolved and he then remarried; he moved to America. Nevertheless, the poems which open Canaan share the concerns of earlier work, although arguably they are less lyrical and more academic. For the most part, the poet has abandoned rhyme, in contrast to the careful and sustained rhyme scheme in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. However, the poems are as cryptic as ever, in part because of the range of learned allusion, in part because of the ambiguous syntax. The second poem in the collection seems to explore the role of the writer:


That Man as a Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which Is His Perfection


Abiding provenance I would have said

the question stands

even in adoration

clause upon clause

with or without assent

reason and desire on the same loop —

I imagine singing I imagine


getting it right — the knowledge

of sensuous intelligence

entering into the work —

spontaneous happiness as it was once

given our sleeping nature to awake by

and know

innocence of first inscription

In a careless first reading, it is easy to read ‘provenance’ as the much more predictable ‘providence’, which would give the opening words of the poem a churchy or religious resonance. However, having realized that the word is provenance we are left with a number of questions, not the least of which is what is the question referred to in the second line and who is ‘abiding’? Grammatically, this is a detached participle which could qualify ‘I’ or, if we take “I would have said’ as parenthetic, we can attach ‘abiding’ to ‘the question’. ‘The question’ may or may not be the title of the poem, even though this is presented as a proposition rather than as an interrogative. In fact, the provenance of the concept of the ‘rational animal’ is quite hard to pin down. Some trace it back to Aristotle, while others argue that the words ‘political’ or ‘social’ come closer to Aristotle’s meaning than ‘rational’. It appears in the writings of the neo-Platonist, Porphyry and becomes a staple of scholastic philosophy. We can see it in the dualism of medieval belief systems where rationality raised the human towards God while emotion and desire dragged him back down towards the animal.


One of the factors making this poem particularly difficult to interpret is the way so many of the lines float free of syntax so that it is almost impossible to work out how they relate to each other. Nevertheless, the third and fourth lines ‘even in adoration/clause upon clause’ could be interpreted as a defence of the place of reason in religion, as a support to rather than an opponent of faith. This seems to be an extremely theological poem, where much of the ambiguity proceeds from the use of specialised theological terms which also have a more ordinary, everyday use; for example, ‘reason’, ‘desire’, ‘sensuous intelligence’ , ‘happiness’, knowledge’, ‘nature’. A dense theological argument is further disguised by colloquial phrases, ‘on the same loop’ and suppressed syntax. Thus ‘desire’ could be human desire, including sexual desire, or it could be the Aristotelian desire for happiness which in Thomist philosophy equates to the Christian desire for God. ‘Sensuous intelligence’ could be some idealised mode of apprehension as put forward in Eliot’s theory of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ or it could be a much drier epistemological summary of the idea that we experience the world through our bodily senses and then use our intelligence or power of reason to generalise and understand, to acquire ‘knowledge’.

For Thomas Aquinas, this knowledge acquired through the experience of the body and the application of reason can lead to God, but must be distinguished from the knowledge of God which comes through divine revelation. Thus, the ‘rational animal’ in desiring happiness is desiring the knowledge of God but that can only be achieved through revelation. Moreover, the desire for knowledge is brought into question by the story of the Fall. The ‘spontaneous happiness’ Hill seems to yearn for was lost when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It may be that the last lines of the poem look back to the Garden of Eden when humans were happy in their knowledge of God and where Adam, in ‘the innocence of first inscription’ named all the creatures.   On the other hand, the phrase ‘our sleeping nature’ seems profoundly ambiguous. Does Hill simply mean that humans once awoke to the happiness of knowing God; or does the awakening of our sleeping nature, suggest the Fall and suggest that it is, in fact, a fulfilment of our nature. ‘Sleeping nature’ somehow suggests the half-truth of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

The poet is literally at the centre of this poem, straddling the ‘turn’ in a distorted sonnet., in which a tortured sensibility struggles with his role and his own ambivalences.

I continue to find much of Hill’s work rebarbative, when it is not simply incomprehensible because of the huge range of reference and learning. Nevertheless, I find myself becoming more sympathetic to the convoluted workings of his poetic imagination as he battles with the problem of evil, survivor’s guilt and his disaffection with the contemporary world in which he found himself. However, I need to come up for air, so I am taking a break from Hill to look at other poets before, I hope, returning to his later works.


[1] Thanks to colleagues from Giles Goodland’s course on Poetry and Syntax (OUDCE)who have contributed to my discussion of these two poems

[2] See discussion of ‘Two Formal Elegies’ in my previous post.

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