Geoffrey Hill: Unparalleled Atonement
The recently published edition of Geoffrey Hill’s Selected Poems appears to be an attempt by Yale University Press to atone for Hill’s unpardonable lapse from print on these shores, and I must begin by applauding them for doing so. It is also — as I think all selected editions are, to some extent — an attempt to introduce, or re-introduce, the writing of this unparalleled poet to the reading public. Perhaps no re-introduction is more warranted, necessary, or welcome. Every reader of poetry ought to be acquainted with Hill’s verse, and a slimmer, less overwhelming selected edition is certainly more appealing to many readers than the task of sifting through his individual collections, many unavailable in the United States. Unfortunately, those who are unfamiliar with Hill will find no guide to his work in this volume. Yale's edition contains no foreword or introduction, nor a note from any editor, nor even a few words by the author — only a table of contents listing the poet’s collections, in chronological order, into which the reader blindly dives.
Although they include poems from (nearly) every collection, the editors of this volume clearly prefer Hill’s early career. Two of his first four collections — Mercian Hymns and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy — are the only ones which appear uncut; a mere twenty-two poems from Hill’s final two book-length collections are included; and his most recent collection, A Treatise of Civil Power, is ignored altogether. (The last slight is perhaps pardonable, as this volume was lifted, down to its page layout, from a Penguin UK edition that appeared before Treatise. Still, the omission shows a sad lack of care on Yale’s part.) Some of the selections that the editors made strike one as immediately comprehensible — in trimming Speech! Speech! and including the Mercian Hymns whole, particularly — but many of the individual choices were otherwise perplexing. Several times I felt that editors had cut key pieces, such as in Tenbrae and The Triumph of Love, without a sense that there was any underlying rationale. Although it remains a valuable edition, and one that allows a point of entry into a large, daunting body of work, a poet of Hill's caliber certainly deserves better.
For more than half a century, Geoffrey Hill has produced verse acclaimed by critics, beloved by fellow poets, but still little-known to most of the American reading public. Some book reviewers, such as William Logan, have argued that this disparity is due to Hill’s erudite density — that the poet engages such a menagerie of allusions and references, such complexities of thought and emotion, that even intelligent readers find themselves unable to comprehend. It is an all-too-common criticism laid against Hill and his work and, to my mind, it is nothing more than a convenient scapegoat: there are simply too many poets writing today who are widely read and well-loved despite their apparent difficulty (Jorie Graham, CD Wright, and John Ashbery come to mind).
There are certainly other elements at play that prevent the high esteem for Hill from translating to the poetry arriving in readers’ well-prepared hands. Notable among them, I believe, is Hill’s honest, intellectual, and unfashionable engagement with religion and the Christian tradition. His unabashed faith is a faux pas in the age of postmodernism. It is an element to be dismissed, or questioned, or patronized, but not to be given justice as a meaningful basis for poetry. This irreligious posture is a bias that is stronger in circles of “serious poetry” than in the culture at large, but, within that subgroup of critics, is acceptable and widespread: in an April 2009 review of Paul Mariani’s Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, Denis Donoghue in The New Criterion scolds Mariani for not scrutinizing whether Hopkins’ vocation hampered his poetic gifts. One can infer that Donoghue’s opinion was in the affirmative, and I believe a “flaw” similar to that of Hopkins would be found by many critics in the work of Geoffrey Hill.
I admit that Hill’s unabashed expressions of faith were an obstacle for me as well. Because of the religious themes, I was disinclined to return to the poems, to struggle with the difficulties of a poet whose philosophical premises were so unlike, even antithetical to, my own. However, I did eventually come to realize that my irreligious disposition is a prejudice to be overcome, not unlike any other. It is foolish to wish that the work were otherwise, as Donoghue seems to do of Hopkins. Hill’s work can as little be separated from his religious nature as wetness could from water: one is the essence of the other, the texture of its existence. What I happily discovered, once I overcame that dissonance in myself, was the sheer power of his work. This is not the story of a religious conversion. I remain now the way I began, but I had to forcibly open myself to the possibility of an engagement — intellectual, emotional, aesthetic — with such spiritual and religious poetry. Like his great influence Gerard Manley Hopkins before him, the value of Hill’s work is as much in the elaboration of a brilliant mind considering matters of faith as it is in his poetic language and its willfully crafted power.
Still, it is true that the poems are extremely dense, difficult, and complex. What ought to give readers hope in the face of their confusion is that the density one finds in this work is not ad hominem, does not refer to an inaccessible interior life. As W.H. Gardner wrote in his Introduction to the Fourth Edition of Hopkins’ complete poems, “His dark passages are never entirely opaque, and the meaning, when it is made out, will usually (as he said it should) ‘explode’.” It was true of Hopkins as it is of Hill, and in this way Hill's work stands apart from that of his contemporaries: the impenetrability of many modern poets is due in large part to the use of language as an abstract medium like paint, clay, or music; Hill remains emphatic that the fundamental role of language is communication and expression, no matter how difficult the form.
As is the case with so many artists, the best preparation for grappling with Hill’s poetry can be found in his own critical writing, particularly in the new Oxford edition of his Collected Critical Writings . Like his verse, the essays are examples of a brilliant, encyclopedic mind at work. They often require having read more than some of the classics and make liberal use of any number of lesser-known theologians, poets, and thinkers. They are not guides to his poetry in any sense — Hill does not explain or annotate his own work — but they do engage with the same problems of language and value as the poems, and many of the same key concepts. On several occasions I found that an essay's explication of a concept could have easily applied as well to a poem or collection. In the essay “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’,” I came across a particularly useful passage for a reading of Hill’s entire corpus. He writes, “the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense — an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony.” In other words, the reconciliation of content with form, the painstaking act of expression contained in verse, the “at-one-ment,” is the moment at which the content and form are as one, perfectly fitted to one another in terms of the words and their arrangement into lines and stanzas.
It is similar to Hopkins’ idea (itself perhaps the basis) of “inscape,” but where the inscape of a poem seems to be drawn from the essential, almost Platonic, forms in the world, and is thus mimetic, Hill’s atonement is a wrought thing, man-made, constructed of language with the mind, heart, and will. Hill further expands his idea to take on an ethical bearing,
I would suggest, however, that the proof of a poet’s craft is precisely the ability to effect an at-one-ment between the "local vividness" and the "overall shape," and that this is his truth-telling. When the poem "comes right with a click like a closing box," what is there effected is atonement of aesthetics with rectitude of judgment.
At both his best and at his least successful, Hill’s concept of atonement can always be detected as an attempt to atone whatever disparate elements are under scrutiny in the poem. It is only a guiding premise, however, not a skeleton key to grasping every implication and meaning. Once understood, there is almost always still work to be done. But coming to understand Hill's concept of atonement will alleviate, to some degree, the frustrated encounter with a poem that treats historical moments or religious faith with equal focus and imagination as personal emotions and biographical events.
Hill’s career began in 1959, with the publication of his remarkably accomplished For the Unfallen. It was the middle-age of modern literature, an uncomfortable moment of cultural schism, and the height of the influence of New Criticism. It was an era in which biography was finding acceptance in verse and in which formal mastery, erudition, and ambiguity were the unparalleled, semi-scientific standards by which poetry was being judged. Between the vaunted ambiguity of William Empson, Hopkins’ inscapes, and Hill’s atonement, there is a certain affinity of unification that seems more than accidental. All of these are reflected in the two early volumes by Hill and all remain at least in echoes throughout Hill’s career. Yet even the very early work seems to overcome the sterility and melodrama that is associated with the clinical New Critics or the confessional poets of that age, and I tend to think it was the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins that pushed him away from the tropes of that era. Consider sections one and two from Hill’s “Genesis,” which opens both this selected edition as it did his first major collection, For the Unfallen,
Against the burly air I strode,
crying the miracles of God.
And first I brought the sea to bear
Upon the dead weight of the land;
And the waves flourished at my prayer,
The rivers spawned their sand.
And where the streams were salt and full
The tough pig-headed salmon strove,
Ramming the ebb, in the tide’s pull,
To reach the steady hills above.
The second day I stood and saw
the osprey plunge with triggered claw,
feathering blood along the shore,
to lay the living sinew bare.
And the third day I cried: “Beware
The soft-voiced owl, the ferret’s smile,
The hawk’s deliberate stoop in air,
Cold eyes, and bodies hooped in steel,
Forever bent upon the kill.”
One can hear the influence of Allen Tate, to a degree. The opening lines of Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” — “Row after row with strict impunity / The headstones yield their names to the element” — are echoed slightly in the cadences of “Genesis.” The word “burly” strikes me particularly as echoing Hopkins’ line from “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” “Burdened, in wind’s burly and beat of sea.” Hill was young, of course, and it is common to see young poets struggle with their influences. There is a nascent concept of atonement, though not as completely integrated as it would come to be, in the merging of first and final act here, and especially in “bodies hooped in steel” that gracefully encompasses both human and serpent, murder of both body and soul.
In this debut collection, and this poem in particular, we find a mastery of form finding the “at-one-ment” with content: the violence of nature breaking rhymes strongly inferred by “saw” and “claw;” the serpent described but yet-unnamed, “hooped in steel, / forever bent upon the kill,” a choice which reinforces the newness of the “miracles” of existence and their unification with the ultimate miracle, evoked later in the poem with “where Capricorn and Zero cross” and “the phoenix burns as cold as frost,” finally given expression in section five with, “by Christ’s blood are men made free / though in close shrouds their bodies lie / under the rough pelt of the sea.” Every choice of image and form engages the overall theme, and each other.
The four early collections, For the Unfallen, King Log, the astounding Mercian Hymns, and Tenebrae, are Hill’s most accessible work. The poems of these four books are intelligent and dense, but lyrically pleasurable without any need for comprehensive understanding of allusion or analysis. The Mercian Hymns won Hill his first universal critical acclaim. The collection is a series of short prose-poems that meld Hill’s own life with that of Offa, medieval king of Mercia, the region where Hill was raised.
For the Unfallen, King Log, and Tenebrae are more traditional collections of lyric verse, in which Hill’s vivid language and erudition are well-balanced by his ear for meter and use of traditional forms. His “Lachrimae” sequence of sonnets from Tenebrae, in which the poet grapples with issues of faith and pathos, is a particularly moving example of this balance of intellect, emotion, and musicality — the finale, “Lachrimae Amantis,” is on par with any sonnet in the language, yet incomprehensibly not included in the Selected Poems,
What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and the icy dew
seeking the heart that will not harbour you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must breed anew.
So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered “your lord is coming, he is close”
that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
“tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy and, more emphatically, Canaan, represent a shift in Hill’s poetic approach. Where before the poems were, in the most basic sense, personal lyrics, they become at this stage of Hill’s career a type of public lyric; they solidify around the concept of “at-one-ment,” making the immediacy of societal and historical elements as central as the traditional lyric self. Peguy is a short but masterful poem sequence that considers the life of Catholic thinker Charles Peguy, and by extension the conflicts between personal and public: the way “history commands the stage” and the “violent contrariety of men and days.” There is still a lyric voice here, an occasional moment of reflection by the speaker that winds its way through the work, as in, “No wonder why we fall to violence out of apathy.” But it is fainter than before, and under a new type of critical scrutiny: “who are ‘we,’ since history is law.”
Canaan solidifies Hill’s new approach, and took more than ten years to complete, for reasons personal as well as poetic. It is a jarring collection, one that is specifically English in its cultural touchstones. Canaan is certainly not “political,” although one can see from even a quick gloss of his titles — “Mysticism and Democracy,” “Churchill’s Funeral,” “Of Constancy and Measure” — that it does deal with issues of a political nature, in the Aristotelian sense of human interaction, organization, and ethics. Hill coins this public world “respublica,” after the Roman term for the state, and the Selected Poems includes his poem of that same name,
The strident high
of misrule. It is
what we stand for.
of common men:
spent in the ruck
their remnant witness
is granted them
like a pardon.
And other fealties
broken as named —
its archaic laws
and destroyed hope
that so many times
is brought with triumph
back from the dead.
Like so much of Canaan, the poem is both an admonition and a corrective, leaving open the possibility of a Christian-esque redemption. The lines are short, enjambed both for unease of reading — reinforcing the strain of speech — and also to create poignant lines such as “of misrule. It is,” and “distinction. Courage.” The poem, despite its apparent prosaic nature; despite its essayistic formulations, is yet unclear. Clearly there is a technicality of meaning in words such as “witness,” which seems to stand in this poem as the crux of possible redemption. In his essay, “Language, Suffering, and Silence,” Hill discusses “witness,” which in this poem is “granted them / like a pardon,” a “remnant” of their former “courage.” He writes in the essay, “the achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness,” and goes on to elaborate a “theology of language” which would examine the claim that “the shock of semantic recognition is also the shock of ethical recognition.”
Whether Hill actually achieves either this proposed theology or the effect of semantic and ethical shock in either this poem or the whole of Canaan is for each reader to discern (I believe that the poems vary in quality, but the collection is greater than the sum of its parts). It seems certain that this is his goal: a radical act of witness through poetry, a specifically public act, one that can bind semantics and ethics. Yet this high-concept premise, this engagement with the less beautiful aspects of human nature, does not, as might often be the case, necessarily preclude moments of gorgeous verse; such as these lines from the second section of “De Jure Belli Ac Pacis” (or, “Law of War and Peace”),
The iron-beamed engine-shed has chapel windows.
Glare-eyed, you spun. The hooks are still in the beam;
a sun-patch drains to nothing; here the chocked
blade sluiced into place, here the abused blood
set its own wreaths.
Time passes, strengthening and fading.
The following three collections — The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon — remain fully engaged with respublica, if obliquely. It is worth noting here that, in a matter of just a few collections, Hill has completely revolutionized his formal approach. Seeing this transformation unfold in a volume such as this is one of the real joys of a slimmer, more readable selected edition. In Tenebrae, we encounter traditional lyric forms, sonnets and short free-verse pieces in standard, if complicated, syntaxes; in Canaan, Hill shifts to the uncomfortable semantic structures of postmodern free-verse. He incorporates the gaps of semantics and logic that are a hallmark of postmodern poetry, and that would only intensify from here forward.
The Triumph of Love strikes one as being uncomfortably personal at times — yet, in its syntax and range of allusion, in its allegorical motifs, it is a heightened form of the respublica. Traversing Hill’s leaps of logic and syntax are necessary to engage this collection; whole passages make sense only if the reader’s mind is accosted by the movement from sentence to sentence and line to line, such as in section V:
Obstinate old man — senex
sapiens, it is not. What is he saying;
why is he still so angry? He says, I cannot
forgive myself. We are immortal.
Where was I? Prick him.
This is certainly a reflexive lyric meditation: Hill is taking on the voice of a critic or other observer, regarding himself and his own work. It is public in that the gaze originates in many different points of view, many voices; yet it is of course still personal, a self-critical and dramatic mind at work. On one hand there are ample instances of this postmodern meta-textual self-criticism; on the other hand, there are also permutations of lyric choruses such as “I lose / courage but courage is not lost,” descriptions of the English countryside, including the haunting “a livid rain scarp,” as well as references to Augustine, Angelus Silesius, Bach, and Mierendorff. The modes of these disparate elements seem too incompatible to succeed in a single work, and yet they coalesce through the breadth of Hill’s imagination and control. The variety of modes are mediated by the attempt to overcome and transcend both Modernism and Postmodernism through a refiguring of the Biblical psalms, whose content is as various as Hill’s is. He writes, in section XXIII,
What remains? You may well ask. Construction
or deconstruction? There is some poor
mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy.
But the psalms — they remain
This seems to me to be the very heart of this collection, yet it was one of the sections that were omitted. The editors seem to have failed to recognize this as a key, that it expresses the dynamic of Modernism and Postmodernism, of the persistence of the lyric and the religious. They focus instead on other repeated themes and motifs in the sequence. It’s an inherent weakness of selected editions: that one is a slave to the judgment of invisible editorial minds. In the case of Triumph of Love, their choices seem to have damaged the cumulative power of Hill’s moving sequence.
While Triumph of Love seems to be an honest, if still critical, reckoning, Speech! Speech! is a pastiche: a scathing comedy of the fatuitous language of our modern world. The collection is almost shockingly contemporary in its style. The poems incorporate silences and absences within their syntax and construction in a way that resembles the best of late twentieth century experimental verse, and Hill’s dark humor and penchant for puns is somehow reminiscent of Frederick Seidel as well as D.A. Powell, as in section 26:
No time at all really | a thousand years.
When are computers peerless, folk
festivals not health hazards? Why and how
in these orations do I twist my text?
APPLY FOR FAST RELIEF. Dystopia
on Internet: profiles of the new age;
great gifts unprized; craven audacity’s
shockers; glow-in-the-dark geriatric
wigs from old candy-floss (cat-calls, cheers).
Starved fourteenth-century mystics write of LOVE.
When in doubt perform. Stick to the much-used
CHECKMATE condom (laughter, cries of “shame”).
One can see the mind free-forming these connections, but the tissue is invisible; the thought process has to be inserted by a reader. There is a whole new, ecstatically contemporary set of references in this passage: the pun on peer-to-peer internet; an amusing brand of condoms; the advertisements for dyspepsia medicine. They are unserious by any standard, and alone any one of them would likely fail. Cumulatively, though, they attack our lazy use of language broadly so that it strikes a deeper criticism. The poems of Speech! Speech! also use an internal set of phrases, such as “living as they have to,” that appear and reappear in what could be considered a type of musical rounds. They assume the voice of a critic in postmodern times — “self-making otherness by recognition” — as well as the poet in rebuke at others — “ACCESSIBLE / traded as DEMOCRATIC, he answers / as he answers most things these days | easily” — and there are also a set of unfamiliar metrical markers: vertical lines that seem to indicate a pause (as in the previous passage, where it seems to mark a punch line) and stress marks that indicate a pattern for reading aloud (of course, the spoken word motif should be no surprise, given the collection’s title), both of which were used similarly by Hopkins before Hill.
In one of his essays, Hill explains what he sees as the relationship between language and society, “My language is in me and is me; even as I, inescapably, am a miniscule part of the general semantics of the nation; and as the nature of the State has involved itself in the nature that is most intimately mine.” Thus, a perceived sickness of language, a perversity in language, is thereby representative of and causing an illness of the society: the self is linked to, and made at-one with, the society through language.
Speech! Speech! boils over with an almost entirely unfiltered anger, a bitterness that cannot be entirely obscured by the humor and word games. It is the major long poem that is least injured by the work of the editors. What is lost in the process of editorial selection is not necessarily missed, which is not to say that it was inconsequential. For the uninitiated, or those whose philosophical outlook does not resemble that of Hill, the collection will be a stumbling block. A natural response will be frustration and confusion — if there is any consolation to be found in a first encounter, it is that your frustrations are both intended and shared by the poet.
The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, awards a welcome relief. This long poem sequence is still allusive — I’m sure at this point that hardly needs to be said — but Orchards is not “wantonly obscure,” as Hill charges himself to be in Speech. These represent a more grounded-in-the-world approach to the themes of value, freedom, and poetry. The premise is a consideration of the orchards at Syon House, London, a location intimately connected to British imperialism and national identity. Hill’s return to descriptions of the natural world provide the most brilliant and immediately enjoyable passages, such as section XIV,
The full moon, now, rears with unhastening speed,
sketches the black ridge-end, slides thin luster
downward aslant its gouged and watered scree.
Awe is not peace, not one of the sacred
duties in meditation. Memory
finds substance in itself.
The beautiful dynamic natural scene initiates and is balanced by an equally moving consideration of inner peace and the imaginative space of memory. The closing lines of section XXIII foreshadow Hill’s latest themes, of life’s twilight and the value there might be in a life’s work.
Last days, last things, loom on: I write
to astonish myself. So much for all
the plain speaking. Enter
sign under signum, I should be so lucky,
false cadence but an ending. Not there yet.
Perhaps due to considerations such as this, or maybe because in retrospect this is the last in a consecutive series of long poems, The Orchards of Syon strikes me at times strongly as the culmination of a larger project. If that were so, then it would prove to be the final entry of a trio that began with The Triumph of Love — all three volumes attempt to atone history and self, intellect and emotion, private recollection and public speech, imaginative space and natural spaces. It is worth considering as one makes their way through these three titles in the selected edition. Allow the phrases and references that you recognize to set the themes for your reading.
Believing those three collections are a unit means displacing Hill’s next collection Scenes from Comus, a tri-part poem sequence, meditating on the masque Comus, written by a young and yet unknown John Milton. The collection deals with, as Hill writes, “the personality as a mask; / of character as self-founded, self-founding; / and of the sacredness of the person.” Milton’s original masque dealt most directly with womanly virtue, or virginity, and Hill’s meditation does as well, if only obliquely via the expanded idea of the “sacredness of the person.” Even those who are well-read will not necessarily have encountered Milton’s work before, and it being so central to an understanding of Hill’s poems certainly deflates the potency of his verse. The sequence does not — as the previous three did — stand on its own. From the free-floating logic of many poems, one reckons that they represent Hill’s own mind while viewing the masque, as in section 26,
The corrupter, the abuser, the liverish
ravager of domestic peace. The soi-disant
harmless eccentric. Nobody’s harmless.
Neither is comedy. Maybe the polka
injured thousands. In this depleted time
revive me, take me to a blue
movie, hold my hand in the dark.
Presumably, the speaker views Comus on stage, the would-be ravager of our virtuous heroine, and from that sight begins a line of associations that leads him or her to desire escape from the ethical clarity of the masque out into our morally-unconfined contemporary culture. It’s really a deft narrative maneuver, with the touch of absurd humor; but neither the individual poems nor the sequence ever build enough emotional or intellectual depth to overcome the arbitrariness of the premise. Like The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (which appears entirely unedited), Hill’s Comus is an equation in which the reader must know the variable (Milton, Peguy) in order to reach a completely fruitful reading. Unlike Peguy, though, Hill’s consideration of Milton is so aslant, there is no enjoyment or narrative, as there was in the Peguy poem. In the end, it is arbitrary rather than frustrating, and the editors chose well in pruning it to barest stalk.
In the final collection to be included in this edition, Hill returns to the free-standing short lyric poems with which his career began: Without Title is full of sadness and grief, which burst through beautiful lyrics as if the poems themselves were sobbing. Take, for example, “In Ipsley Church Lane (I),”
More than ever I see through painters’ eyes.
The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them.
Clogged thorn-blossom sticks, like burnt cauliflower,
to the festered hedge-rim. More than I care to think
I am as one coarsened by feckless grief.
Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone.
But that’s lyricism, as Father Guardini
equably names it: autosuggestion, mania,
working off a chagrin close to despair,
ridden by jealousy of all self-healed
in sexual love, each selving each, the gift
of that necessity their elect choice.
Later, as in late autumn, there will be
the mass-produced wax berries, and perhaps
an unearthed wasps’ nest like a paper skull,
where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine.
Where the quick spider mummifies its dead
rage shall move somnolent yet unappeased.
The form and tone is reminiscent of “September Song” from King Log in its elegiac and self-conflicted turns, and the poem engages perfectly the questions it wants to ask: what is the connection between painterly distance and feckless grief? What type of beauty exists in spite of sadness? How is lyricism a form of madness? These are probably the least allusive pieces of the poet’s career — or, rather, these are the poems in which the connections to the past are least essential. The atonement here is not of the public world and the personal but of the way experience is both painfully individual and yet shared. It is another unexpected turn from a poet whose career seems to be, if nothing else, a series of dramatic shifts and successful remakings. Though essentially incomplete without A Treatise of Civil Power, the editors have done well enough in this edition to give readers a glimpse into the course of Hill’s long and multifaceted career.
I could have begun this review by reciting a chorus of critical praise from every corner of the English-speaking world, but that would have brought this essay to bear on just the surface of the issue at hand, occasioned by the Selected Poems. What lies beneath all the well-earned applause is something far more important: not the poet whose genius and erudition we admire and upon whose motives we postulate, but the work itself — too often forgotten in the praising of authors who live and breathe.
What will be left, when the reviews and the criticism are nothing but ink-blackened dust, will be the finest body of poetry produced in this age. This selected edition, despite its several omissions and flaws, bears this out. Geoffrey Hill is our great poet, as much as Whitman and Milton were to past generations. I make this claim not lightly, and not without overcoming my own suspicious, resistant nature: greatness is a claim too easily bandied about in critical reviews; too often it is claimed lightly that so-and-so is the most accomplished certain species of verse-maker in this particular ever-narrowing timeframe. If one has to erect too many qualifications to argue for greatness, they very likely are not.
Hill, however, may have no living peer; may even have no counterpart in the last century. There is no qualification necessary. This is not to say that he has never written a poem that was flawed, or failed — he is human, and one does not want to give the impression of infallibility. However, more than any other poet writing today, Hill’s vision of poetry is powerful, meaningful to every edge and nook of our society, and idiosyncratic: that radical atonement of emotion, intellect, history, and language, is an unparalleled achievement in our time.
I cannot help but seek a closest counterpart, in terms of the course of a career; and as I do so, I continually return to Milton. It is somewhat astonishing how similar the two are: both precocious, stern young poets; both, in their way, reconciling the workings of God to man; both masters of short lyrics and long forms; both known for their verse as well as their essays (Hill recently won the Capote Award for Literary Criticism for his Collected Critical Writings), and both attempt not only to make beautiful things but to make great and beautiful works, to produce a body of writing that would “explode.” It is likely — in fact it is almost certain — that Hill’s vision of poetry will affect future poets no less than Milton’s did. Yet, still, the comparison does a disservice to both poets, not by a paling in comparison, but because each of their singular accomplishments require no contrast, and because each have no equal.