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Reading Geoffrey Hill's 'The Triumph of Love'

This is Hill's most innovative and experimental piece of work, it is both wide-ranging in subject matter and deploys many different tones. Such is the range of the work that it is quite hard to encapsulate without going through all 150 poems in the sequence but I'll try. The title encapsulates the main thesis, that, by means of love in the religious, spiritual sense we have come through the horrors of the twentieth century and the Second SWorld War in particular. The sequence has been condemned by some critics who find the individual poems to be better than the whole. The wilful obscurity has also been held up as an example of Hill's contempt for the reader. However, I'm of the view that this, along with Mercian Hymns is Hill's finest piece of work. Of course it is incredibly ambitious and small bits of it don't work very well but the vast majority is both provocative and breathtakingly adventurous.

It contains some of Hill's most exqisite lines and manages to cover most of his disparate, career-length, themes. I've been paying attention to it for about five years and it still makes me smile a lot as well as striking chords of personal recognition.

Other Hill pages on arduity.

Geoffrey Hill home page

On Not Liking Geoffrey Hill's Speech! Speech! very much.

Mind-altering verse II: Mercian Hymns and The Maximus Poems (for example).

Poem 66 from Geoffrey Hill's Al Tempo de' Tremuoti.

Geoffrey Hill, mysticism and Gabriel Marcel.

Ludo: Sir Geoffrey Hill at Play.

Is Hill difficult?

Geoffrey Hill's Work

Geoffrey Hill's Scenes from Comus

Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love

Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns

Hill on poetry

Hill's 'Expostulations on the Volcano' and the Poetic

The main device to take note of is the use of a false 'editor' who makes less than helpful comments and tries to be funny (never Hill's strong point) within the body of the text.

The poet himself is a central element of the sequence which starts and ends with this one line poem;


      Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain scarp.

Romsley is a village in Worcestershire, not far from Bromsgrove where Hill spent his childhood and adolescence.

The second poem takes further into the confessional;


     Guilts were incurred in that place, now I am convinced:
     self-molestation of the child-soul, would that be it?

I don't want to dwell on this but Hill has experienced mental health problems which were being successfully treated by the publication of The Triumph of Love (1998) but this sequence also ccan be read as the poet's ongoing struggle with himself.

Last things first; the slow haul to forgive them:
Chamberlain's compliant vanity, his pawn ticket saved
from the antepenultimate ultimatum; their strict
pudency, but not to national honour; callous
discretion; their inwardness with things of the world;
their hearing as a profound music
the hollow lion-roar of slammed vaults;
the decent burials at the eleventh hour:
their Authorized Version - it has seen better days -
'nation shall not lift up sword against nation'r
or 'nation shall rise up against (a later
much-revised draft of the treaty). In either case
a telling figure out of rhetoric,
epanalepsis, the same word first and last.

Hill is of that generation that are still quite angry at Chamberlain's policy of appeasement and still hero worship Winston Churchill as our national saviour and this would appear to be an expression of those feelings. As is usually the case with Hill, there are a couple of words that should be clarified first - 'pudency' is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as "modesty, bashfulness, or reticence; embarrassment; an instance or expression of this", the OED also observes that the word is often used as an allusion to a line from Act II of Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline'= " She..did it with A pudencie so Rosie..That I thought her As chaste, as vn-Sunn'd Snow". The 'she' referred to is Imogen, the much wronged heroine of the play. Hill has written with great insight about Cymbeline and how it deals with nationhood and kingship. He also makes it clear that Imogen is one of his favourite dramatic characters. Of course, you don't need this background to get the satirical edge contained in 'strict pudency' but the allusion does help to signal Hill's recurring concern with Englishness which is reinforced by the almost archaic notion of 'natonal honour'.

The incredibly useful Sylva Rhetoricae site defines epanalepsis as "Repetition of the same word or clause after intervening matter. More strictly, repetition at the end of a line, phrase, or clause of the word or words that occurred at the beginning of the same line, phrase, or clause" which would suggest that Hill is using the term in its less strict sense.

"Last things" is more than a device - it also refers to death and the Last Judgement which is an abiding concern throughout Hill's work and in this setting it may refer to the kind of judgement that will be applied to Chamberlain and those who supported appeasement in the face of Hitler's increasingly aggressive stance. This would tie in with the 'slow haul' towards forgiveness. As a reasonably devout atheist, I'm not sure whether Anglican theology people to forgive or whether it feels that this can only be done by God. Either way, Hill is saying that it is quite difficult to forgive this particular 'sin'.

It is possible to get a little irritated at the less than clear flamboyance of the middle section, the play on 'hearing' and 'music' and the questions about why the vaults are closing and on whom or what and why would the appeasers need a specifically decent burial? This irritation is however overcome by the poem's confidence in itself and the brilliance of "their inwardness with things of the world" which manages to be startingly accurate and technically 'efficient'. It also reflects Hill's concern with ideas of the self and self-being.

One of the sequence's reference points is the breaking of the Germans' Enigma code during World War II. The computer pioneer, Alan Turing worked on this at Bletchley Park. Poem XVI makes this point in the form of a rhetorical exercise:

Turing played well in defence.
Turing did not
play well in defence. Attack both
positions. Admit defeat.

Alan Turing was a foundational figure in what is now known as computer science, he was a leading light at Bletchley Park, the secret unit that worked on cracking the German military codes. In 1952 he was prosecuted for having a sexual relationship with a younger man. He wasn't sent to prison but instead agreed to have oestrogen injections for the following year. As a result of his conviction, Turing was no longer consulted by the British security services who now viewed him as a security risk. He committed suicide in 1954. So, the 'defence here probably relates to Turing's work on the German codes and the instruction to 'attack both sides' is charcteristic of debate in the schools of philosophy in Ancient Greece. These gnomic four lines follow a longer poem about the role of the Poles in cracking codes. What Hill is trying to do here eludes me - although it may be yet another 'weak' attempt at making a joke.

The following is an example of Hill's abiding interest in aspects of British popular culture and then relationship between these and the 'bigger picture':

Poem XLVII

Movie-vocals cracked, her patter still
bright as the basement gents' brass taps at the Town Hall.
Benevolent, like a Young Fabians' Club
vision of labour; invariable routine
produced the same hot water, brought to the boil
her honest yodelling. So she fetched home the lads
from France, as once she marched the lasses back
to a silent mill. She, and her armed
aspidistra, last off the beaches.

Poem XLVIII

Sir, your 'Arts/Life' column claims that Gracie
Fields sang at Dunkirk. Is this
a misprint? For sang read sank? [Phew,
what a 'prang'! -Ed]

I don't care whether this is too light-hearted or not, I think it's brilliant from its evocation of those Town Hall faclities that most of my generation have made use of to the play between Gracie Fields the pre war working class star and the eponymous paddle steamer- which made one successful trip to and from Dunkirk to evacuate British troops before being sunk on the second trip. The 'editor's' intervention plays on the prang / prank variation and, in my view, detracts from the intelligence and sheer elan of the rest. I'm particularly fond of the allusion to civic pride in terms of the shine on the taps and the very real adulation of a Northern working class woman made good. Fields suffered a dip in popularity at the beginning of the Second World Way by accompanying her Italian husband to North America so he could obtain a US visa.

Now we've dealt with some of the Hillian foibles, I'd like to include the poem that speaks to me with the clearest voice:

Poem LXxVII

By what right did Keyes, or my cousin's
Lancaster, or the trapped below-decks watch
of Peter's clangorous old destroyer-escort,
serve to enfranchise these strange children
pitiless in their ignorance and contempt?
I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,
coarse efflorescence over the dead
propietries; of Christian hope,
sub rosa, the unmentionable graffiti.

As the member of a family that has stood in this manner (through successive generations) since the Somme fiasco of 1916, I can personally vouch for the defiant and brilliant accuracy of this term which is further enriched to joining of self to unself. There are some circumstances as a reader where you know that some lines are simply true and enunciate what this reader has been trying to express for the last fifty years. It might be argued that my familial circumstances make the poem fitting to me and other few 'howlers' but I would guess that all families have, in some way, been adversely (to put it mildly) by the savagery of vothe ways. It's also fitting that the poem should start off with the real names of some of the real people that we have lost and that this should be done in an unsentimental and factual way. Given that Geoffrey Hill and I are ideologically and culturally miles apart, I would like to take issue with the pitilessness of these 'strange children' although I also recognise that this may well be used to shock me out of my Guardian-reading complacency. Of course, there are many reasons for this ignorance and contempt which have little to do with what Hill regards as our national decline but his point is forcefully made.

Wikipedia tells me that 'sub rosa' carries connotations of secrecy and is increasingly used by the military to describe covert operations such as those carried out by the Special Boat Service. I'm sure that a careful reading of the above will demonstrate its complexity and Hill's ability to do genuinely profound things in just twelve lines.

Given the bloody and quite savage nature of the subject matter, it may be difficult to see why the sequence is called 'The Triumph of Love' but poem LI goes into a bit more detail:

Whatever may 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
indivdual love, decency, endurance,
are traceable across the faults.

So, the thesis would appear to be that the twentieth century has been horific with millions of needlessly destroyed but that humanity has survived because of these particular qualities that run through and across our 'faults'. However, Hill cannot resist putting a typically brilliant spanner in the works. This is Poem LII, the next in the series:

Admittedly at times this moral landscape
to my exasperated ear emits
archaic burrings like a small, high-fenced
electricity sub=station of uncertain age
in a field where the flies gather
and old horses shake their sides.

Hill is endearingly wonderful in grumpy / bad-tempered mode- the 'admittedly' transforms what follows from a hard-nosed caveat into a personal confession and self-disclosure which (whether he likes it or not) adds a kind of humanity to the work as a whole.

There are many aspects and idiosyncrasies that I haven't mentioned (the response to critics, the musings on poetry, the ongoing interest in and validation of martyrdom to name but a few) but hopefully this has given sufficient flavour to encourage others to be enraptured by this wild and improbably panoptic piece of work.

The Triumph of Love is on sale for next to nothing at the usual second-hand book sites and is included in Hill's Collected.