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Crying the miracles of God in poetry

01 August 2014

Fraser Steel on the work of a prolific and thoughtful Christian wordsmith


Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012

Geoffrey Hill

Kenneth Haynes, editor

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IT MAY be of interest to readers of the Church Times that Geoffrey Hill - now Sir Geoffrey - is married to an Anglican parish priest (and not just any parish priest, but the librettist of Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer). It should be of more interest that he is a poet deeply engaged with Christianity (which is not necessarily the same as saying "Christian"), and widely regarded as the greatest such poet now writing in English.

From the opening of the first poem of his first collection (For the Unfallen, 1959) a commanding voice was audible: "Against the burly air I strode Crying the miracles of God…" . Read with hindsight, For the Unfallen can be seen as marking out many of Hill's characteristic preoccupations, perhaps none more clearly than what Nicholas Lezard has termed "the culpability of words and the responsibility to use them with immense and utmost care". Repeatedly, the poems remind the reader that language is not a transparent medium, but one fraught with its previous uses - hence, perhaps, Hill's extraordinary deploying of well-worn coinages in a way that at once exposes them as metaphors and invokes their pre-metaphorical meaning ("Naked, as if for swimming, the martyr Catches his death in a little flutter Of plain arrows").

Perhaps, also, his alertness to the aural harmonies between words of sometimes dissonant meanings - is "martyr/flutter" not exactly a rhyme, or exactly not a rhyme? It is a kind of word-play which is the reverse of playful.

This preoccupation seems to have led naturally to his engagement with British and European history (and so, inescapably, with Christianity), with earlier, exemplary users of language, and with atrocity, both recent and historic: the necessity of addressing it, and the moral ambiguities that bedevil the attempt to do so.

King Log, when it appeared in 1968, seemed like a further expansion into that terrain, notably with the sonnet sequence "Funeral Music", evoking the Wars of the Roses in what Hill has called "a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks".

Mercian Hymns (1971) came as a bit of a surprise from a writer who had largely confined himself to traditional verse forms - a sequence of 30 prose-poems, melding the poet-as-child with Offa, presented not only as the historic King of Mercia but also as tutelary deity of the region in which Hill was born and brought up. But, while the form was novel, the content was as dense and allusive as ever, and the word-play was pushed, on occasion, to new levels of virtuosity.

Tenebrae (1978), with its return to traditional forms, seemed more of a consolidation than a development, though it contained passages of lucid and poignant lyricism which, to my ear, sounded a new note in Hill's work.

The real surprise, in 1983, was The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, a book-length verse reflection on the writer and the times that led Europe to war in 1914 (and him to death in the first Battle of the Marne). As the poet Robert Wells remarked, it was as if someone whose previous works resembled the products of a car-crusher had suddenly written an entire Rolls-Royce, paintwork gleaming and engine purring. The moment in my office in BBC Manchester when I opened the envelope containing the typescript (and a handwritten card from Hill saying "I thought you might like to see this") remains the most exciting of my BBC career to date, and I was not the only one left in awed expectation of what we might see next.

The answer appeared to be "nothing much". Those five volumes, together with the three "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres" (a kind of pendant to "The Mystery…") formed the contents of the Collected Poems of 1985, and Hill published no more poetry until 1996. Then came Canaan, which was only the first of nine books to appear between 1996 and 2011. To these, Broken Hierarchies adds four previously unpublished books, plus "greatly revised and expanded" versions of two of the earlier books and "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres", of which there are now 21. More than four-fifths of the book is taken up with work written since the Collected Poems, which represents productivity on a prodigious scale for a poet of any age, let alone one in his later years.

The reaction from admirers of the earlier work, however, has been generally guarded. Sean O'Brien wrote recently in The Guardian: "The case in favour is yet to be convincingly made: the case against might object that the later poetry is often indulgent, diaristic and inclined to confer on itself powers of perception and prophecy which are not in fact manifest in the texture and control of the writing."

It is probably too soon to marshall adequately the case in favour, there having been little time for the feat of digestion which such productivity requires. Nevertheless, it can already be said of the more recent work, including what appears in print for the first time, that there is no sign of Hill's hand losing its cunning, nor his ear its extraordinary acuity. One might agree that there has been some slackening of tension compared with the earlier work, but the same may be said of Eliot's Four Quartets, which has hardly fallen into critical disregard.

And, however "indulgent" or "diaristic", the writing still engages with profound themes in the way that has made Hill's voice an important one in relation to the public realm, as well as for lovers of poetry. What the late Seamus Heaney said in 2009 (in an interview with Samir Rahim) still holds: "He has a strong sense of the importance of the maintenance of speech. . . a deep scholarly sense of the religious and political underpinning of everything in Britain." In the context of the current, and often superficial, debate about whether ours is a Christian country, perhaps Hill's voice should be particularly attended to.

Fraser Steel is Head of the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit.

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