Geoffrey Hill's Soul

In the light of Hill's recent demise, I thought I'd write something. I cast about for something to write about. My initial thought was to provide an overview of The Work in an attempt to identify the best bits from the best poems in an entirely subjective manner with even more self-indulgence thrown in. This was considered for some while and thrown out because others would be rushing to do the same. I then gave some consideration to England as a theme and started to cast about for England Stuff, discovering that there's far too much of it, especially in the good bits.

I've settled on the thread that's probably made the biggest impression on this particular devotee. One of the markers of Hill's otherwise inexplicable late respectability was an interview in the Economist (a rag not known for its poetic predilections) in which Hill stated that, looking back, he supposed that his abiding impetus came from a lifelong concern/anxiety as to the fate of his soul. I initially took this, as with most of his pronouncements with a pinch of salt until I realised that the workings of grace and things soteriological had kept me coming back to the work.

So, what follows is a briefish account of this particular 'having to do with' and its effect on me and my View of Things in General. As a non-Dawkins atheist I don't share this concern. It seems more than a little bonkers to me to expect anything at all after death and doubly so to expect that there is this Grace Thing at work in the world. However I find myself reading a lot of church history and getting immersed in some of the tinier 'points' of theology, an immersion the started with Hill, was furthered by David Jones, George Herbert and then Simon Jarvis. I don't understand this unless it is to do with something else to think about other than the linked and ongoing iniquities of Capital and Empire.

Triumph of Love was published in 1998 and the blurb on my copy indicates that it's a delving into and meditation on the events and effects of the Second World War. This is the case but it also has to do with much else. On my first read through this, from Poem CXXV, in particular caught my eye:

........................the intellectual
beauty of Bradwardine's thesis rests
in what it springs from: the Creator's grace
praecedentum tempore et natura ['Strewth!!!
already present in time as in nature'? - ED]
and in what it returns to - our arrival
at a necessary salvation. So much
for the good news. The bad is its correlate -
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.
Wycliffe and Dame Julian would have raised
few objections or none to those symmetries.
The Church's first martyrs, the Holy Innocents,
unbaptized Jewish infants, surrogates
of the Jewish Child we call our Child-King -
small impediments that policy deals with,
takes care of; baptized in blood. But surely
every new-born child is born in blood.
Still they they are: crying shame to the cant,
the unending negotium,
the expediencies, enforcements, and rigged evidence.
Vergine bella, forgive us the cunning
and the reactive, over-righteous
indignation, the self-approving
obtuse wisdom after the event,
our aesthetics and our crude arrangements.
I have been working up to this. The Scholastics
mean more to me than the New Science. All
things are eternally present in time and nature.

Before we get to the names, I'm thinking of 'negotium' in this sense as 'rigmarole' because it conveys something complex but also quite difficult to resolve and/or to get a firm hold on.

Starting with the least obscure, these are the individuals referred to:

The faux editorial notes are an ongoing conceit through the sequence.

This a reasonably obscure reprise of the Medieval kerfuffle over whether or not unbaptized babies would go straight to hell. Hill seems to be saying here that they do and that the various attempts to deny this, given the nature of grace and salvation, as fundamentally flawed. Now, I obviously don't care what Bradwardine had to say, nor am I overly bothered by why he said it. What interests me is why Hill puts this piece of esoterica in a sequence ostensibly having to do with WW II and its aftermath.

There's also the final statement about preferring the Scholastics to Giambattista Vico's essentially humanist Scienza Nuova which was published in 1725.

We now come to the Obscurity Problem. My distaste for obscure references and affectations has dissipated a little with the increasing reliability of the interweb but it has to be said that the use of such names and phrases interrupts the reading through of the argument and its context. However, we've come to expect this from Hill who has said in his defence that he doesn't want to 'insult the intelligence' of his readers. This kind of glib, presumptive justification is probably more reprehensible than the practice. Be that as it may, Bradwardine was a conservative and conforming theologian who saw himself as defender of the Truth against those who felt that people could 'earn' salvation rather than by the gift of grace. This is a pathetic attempt to compress some complex god stuff but I don't want to dwell too much in the 14th century.

The mystical thread in Julian of Norwich's account of her visions is of interest here because of a similar tendril throughout the work of our poet. I can't source the Latin above but it does appear to be at the mystical end of the Christianity spectrum. Prior to giving any attention to Hill, I had become intellectually intrigued by mysticism because it's clearly bonkers yet has had a hold on very many clever people down the centuries. I was thus further drawn to the above because of this particular element.

I then gave this some thought and realised that the Virgin Mary is addressed at sporadic intervals throughout the sequence as a kind of benign but despairing presence and in this instance is asked to forgive the various Christian attempts, as with the children slaughtered by Herod, to skirt round the implacable workings of God within 'obtuse wisdom after the event'.

The fate of these innocents has been a central arguing point within Christianity as an extreme example of the idea of all unbaptised babies suffering eternal damnation because they haven't undergone that particular ritual. So it may be that this doctrinal rigidity, which Hill appears to accept, might heighten his concerns as to his own fate.

It's not these concerns that I find to be Generally Applicable to the wider world but the listed failures for which we are asking forgiveness. I could argue that these traits are all the product of a modernity that Sir Geoffrey isn't too keen on but I have to own up to the way these resonate with me. I recognise only too well this smug and unsubtle false wisdom as something I'm really quite good at, in fact I've been exercising it for the last few weeks in an attempt to impose some personal coherence on the UK's current disaster. I'll happily deny any penchant for evidence rigging until, of course, there's some evidence to be rigged, poets aren't good at much but they are great at presenting the evidence from an Angle of Choice. We'll get on to the bundle of difficulties that is Sir Geoffrey shortly, suffice it to suggest here that we may need to replace / conjoin 'us' with 'me'.

I have to confess that this over-identification stretches to the current Decline of the Poem. We are at the opposite ends of most spectra but on this particular matter we are in uncanny agreement. Most of these, as the reader might guess, are a things that we are both against but Hill's baseline view as to what poetry might be about (memorialisation, "a sad and angry consolation") resonates with me in a Very Big Way. There's also a shared perspective on most of the major 20th century poets but not on Hopkins. One of Hill's personal complexities was his lifelong experience of mental health 'issues' and, as a fellow mad person, I share some of his perspective although I don't think I throw as much into my work.

Before I leave Triumph, I have to highlight aesthetic value. This is poem LI in its entirety;

Whatever might be meant by moral landscape,
it is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in cross-section: igneous, sedimentary,
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,
individual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

This never fails to send me into swoons of gobsmacking delight. It says things that are crucial and fundamental, whether you have a shred of faith or not, and does so with an impeccable elegance. The above, for me, is a supreme example of what the Poem can and must do. I could burble on in this vein for a very long time but I'm going to leave it there in the hope that others might feel the same.

Hill's earlier work is much less exuberant, much more sparse and difficult in a different way. Hill greatly admired the work of George Herbert and of R S Thomas, both of whom wrote very personal verse about their quite turbulent and troubling experience of faith. Sir Geoffrey returned time and time again to this experience as a kind of (I'm guessing here) working through of these keenly felt difficulties. This is the last poem from the Funeral Music sequence which is part of the King Log collection, published in 1968:


Not as we are but as we must appear,
Contractual ghosts of pity, not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequence what we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us - or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying in the end 'I have not finished'.

Hill was 36 when King Log was published and was thus written some time in the previous decade. For most of us it would be reasonable to suppose that mortality and the afterlife doesn't begin to loom large until much later in life. This is not the case with Hill who is here concerned in a major way as to the nature and implications of death at a much younger age. This is doubly remarkable because most of us clinically disturbed types tend not to be overly bothered about dying or What Happens Next, assuming that eternal damnation is reasonably similar to the hell we experience, albeit episodically, on earth.

I detect a kind of theological despair in the above again 'about' the thorny issue of grace and whether or not this particular gift can be earned by good or charitable deeds. There's also this craggy description of dying. The answer to the comfort question is that it doesn't and, for Hill, that comfortless existence, I'm guessing again, is the central point of his concern as to the fate of his soul. The last two lines do, however, carry a more general anxiety about death cutting short objectives, goals, tasks, of denying us the future. For a whole range of reasons, currently perceived as annoying unreasonablenesses, I've had cause to give this some rumination and maudlin discussion. It turns out that I'm not that bothered about the fact that what I aimed to do might be curtailed because death strikes me as fairly random anyway but I know of many younger friends for whom this is a very real and ongoing concern. I identify much more with the sensation of being dragged unnerved out of a world that contains a set of assumptions about longevity.

There are many other truly wonderful poetry things in the above doing compression and precision with a stunning lyricism that I don't find elsewhere amongst the late / high Moderns. I'll just draw attention to the seriously (in all senses) thought provocation inherent in these contractual ghosts. There's also the inherent spiritual angst involved in to 'bear witness / despite ourselves'. The most brilliant are, to my entirely biased ind at least, these unanswerable spheres and the identical echoes.

It is the mark of greatness that all these complex difficulties are compressed with great skill and beauty into just 14 lines. Isn't it?

I want to finish with something from the later work which seems to reiterate these anxieties. I think I need to point out here that Sir Geoffrey's various defences of his allegedly difficult work was that life is difficult and his poetry is a reflection of that fact. Without psychopathologizing too much, I think it's reasonable to suggest that the verse shows that Hill in particular experiences his life as difficult and it is this that he's referring to more than humanity as a whole.

The Day Books, dated 2007-12, are variable in terms of quality and I'll freely confess that I haven't yet had the opportunity to attend closely to all of them. Hill was reportedly pleased with his new-found productivity, these take up more than 300 pages of his Collected, but unfortunately the adage that more isn't always better applies here. There are however gems along the way, this is poem I from the Al Tempo de' Tremuoti book:

A signal pre-election to free choice:
The mother's face foresuffering, the child,
Big, almost unimaginably held,
Such attestation of God's passive voice.

The seraphs chime their wings of florid stance,
Things are as strange as need be, never rise
Up from this blur and cleave of centuries;
Grace condescending to things framed in chance.

Humility can afford the brutal
Splendiferousness of those Medici tombs,
Let the brain empty its own catacombs,
For love only one might hazard souls immortal.

Or in alert idleness build a tower
Of Fibonacci numbers where each term
stands in its self-reflection as its sum
Of those two that precede it: the sunflower

Head is packed with them, and the pine cone,
Odd symmetries holding the mind at gaze
Unlike the solipsism of the maze
Circling the focus of self will alone.

So, here we have this passive God, the gift of Grace given by chance. the explanation of a number sequence and the juxtaposition of the natural and the fabricated. For me this doesn't come up to the quality of the work up to and including the A Treatise of Civil Power collection (2007). This seems, subjectively and provisionally, to be a bit forced and overly portentous.

Be that as it may, there is still the same grace and salvation anxiety at work here, with the passive voice and the gift of grace being bestowed by chance rather than design. The other lifelong theme here is love's unique powers, although the deployment here is more than a little clunky cadence-wise. The last two verses lose me in the context of those preceding, I'm grateful for the brief explanation of the Fibonacci sequence but I don't understand what it's doing here other than to sound poetic and pointful. There are nevertheless Good Things within:

Having had a third and more careful read, a justifiable guess may indicate an argument for things spiritual as opposed to the scientific especially with regard to evolution. I'm not a fan of Dawkins' rabid certainty but neither do I think the Hill alternative has any merit. If these eight or so lines are a reprise of the creationist position then it's the weakest part of that argument and I still don't see what it has to do with the rest of the poem.

Of course, Sir Geoffrey can write whatever he wants because of the immense value and serious stature of his lifelong poetic brilliance. This particular aspect is masterfully expressed and provides us with a quite personal insight into the man as well as the poet.

in conclusion, I hope that I've shown the kind of rewards that can be obtained by attending to Sir Geoffrey and perhaps encouraged some others to attend for themselves.