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Uphill Both Ways

Nietzsche’s infamous declaration, in section 108 of The Gay Science, that God is dead harrowed twentieth-century intellectual culture. Thinkers desperately filled the voided empyrean with various theoretical compensations. On Sunday mornings, Wallace Stevens genuflected before his Supreme Fiction, and other poets and philosophers did likewise. But Nietzsche went on in section 108 to qualify his claim: he added that there may yet be caves in which the human shows God’s shadow. It is from such a cave that the erudite, cryptic, and grave English poet Geoffrey Hill rises. Born in 1932 and pedigreed at Oxford, where he now teaches, Hill is no stranger to the idea of godlessness, but godlessness is a stranger in Hill’s poetry, with its faith in the absoluteness of the psalms, its exquisitely brutal Christian iconography, and its fetishistic communion with the martyrs from Christ to Mandelstam and Bonhoeffer. And as the poet wars with his subjects of “the blood’s pain” and loss and difficulty, he bears a commensurately difficult poetics. 

The substance of Hill’s poetry is the God of the Miltonic and Blakean traditions. But Hill does not worship this substance as much as he does his own transmutation of that substance into verse. In “Genesis,” the first poem to appear in Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen (1959), the speaker says, “Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God.” But the miracles he cries are a daemonic revision of those in the Book of Genesis, created not by God but by the poet awakening to his own godlike light:           

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.

Such pretension-strained audacity assures us Hill sees that the light is good. Here he depicts Creation as a second diluvial destruction, flooding “the dead weight of the land” and so restoring sacrality to the earthly kingdom. Hill’s “waves flourished,” that is, the water boldly advanced over the earth, but the poet also romances the etonym, as it were, and so his waves come to brandish weapons; the sea of troubles has taken up arms in the spirit of absolution. The final line of the quatrain is characteristically difficult in its compression, but the rhyme on “land” and “sand,” seemingly amateurish and banal, reveals that as land phonetically gives way to sand, it also physically gives way: the rivers erode the land on which they run, thereby creating sand, the dust from whence we came and that the speaker renounces as “fierce and unregenerate clay, / Building as a huge myth for man / The watery Leviathan.” So Hill moves the waters, grinds the rock to dust…and this is but the fourth day in his week of Creation, into which he has miraculously crammed millennia of geological activity. If God were dead, Hill has certainly resurrected him, but only by assuming the burden of Creation himself.

Later in his work, Hill reveals why he’s so hell-bent on recreating the world in his imagery. This world, Hill descries, is a place where “Choicest beasts / Suffuse the gutters with their colourful blood” (the suggestion here is that we sacrifice life for the aesthetic of death, non-human and human life alike), where “The power / of flies distracts the working of our souls.” This is a place that has seen the Battle of Shiloh (fought by the red-bloodied soldiers who came “So hard / On the heels of the damned red-man” to the New World) and countless other battles, the oppressive British colonization of India, and, most centrally for Hill, the Holocaust. Hill obsesses over these atrocities. He hates them and the animals responsible for them. But in the second of “Two Formal Elegies,” inscribed to the Jews of Europe, Hill questions the morality of reminding people of past atrocity, and specifically of aestheticizing atrocity in poetry: “Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen, / Of what they have witnessed and not seen? / (Deaths of the city that persistently dies…?).” Hill declines to answer his questions (he usually does), but he obliquely suggests that in either case we must “ensure some sacrifice.” But then “at whose door does the sacrifice stand or start?”

Hill in part spends King Log (1968), his sublime Mercian Hymns (1971), and Tenebrae (1978) answering this question. Each of these is preoccupied with the past, each is complex, and each verges on a solipsism that seems to admonish readers to get the hell out. It’s as if Hill is undertaking some glorious and apocalyptic labor that only by his grudging dispensation we may witness. He has concluded that the sacrifice starts at his door, and he sets about inventing scapegoats worthy of sacrifice, specifically the loved and hated patria and the god. In “Funeral Music,” Hill conceives of “the ritual king” who, three years later in the Mercian Hymns, reproduced in its entirety in the Selected Poems, becomes Offa the King of Mercia. These hymns are “versets of rhythmical prose,” as Hill stodgily insists, and are sometimes flaccid. But in its entirety the Hymns is a masterpiece. Here Hill conflates his tyrannical child-self with the tyrannical Offa, an eighth-century Christian king and, as Hill has remarked in an interview, “a rather hateful man who nonetheless created forms of government and coinage which compel one’s admiration.” Sure, it’s difficultperhaps impossibleto trace the rise and fall of Mercia within the action of this collection, but to fault the Hymns on those grounds would be to miss the point, the dark and self-loving creation of self, as in the fifth hymn:          

So much for the elves’ wergild, the true governance of

England, the gaunt warrior-gospel armoured in engraved

stone. I wormed my way heavenward for ages amid

barbaric ivy, scrollwork of fern.

Exile or pilgrim set me once more upon that ground:

my rich and desolate childhood. Dreamy, smug-faced, sick

on outings—I who was taken to be a king of some kind,

a prodigy, a maimed one.

The obliqueness of such a poem pushes readers away. But aloof Offa doesn’t care—“‘I liked that…sing it again,’” he says. Hill is writing poems for Hill, who shares with Whitman an effusive egotism but lacks his omnivorousness. Hill’s lines internalize what Hill alone comprehends, and they fatten into delusions of grandeur that are also rather grand.

If Hill is making himself into a god-king and “martyrologist” in his first three books, both imaginatively and with his religiously pristine forms, in the latter ten he offers that god-king as a ritual sacrifice by becoming a kind of poetic martyr himself. Tenebrae gives us both the world of innocence, justice, and love worth saving (as in the elegantly simple “The Pentecost Castle”) and the salvific sacrifice. For instance, in the sonnet “Martyrium,” we are given the martyrdom of “the Jesus-faced man walking crowned with flies” who is not necessarily Jesus himself, who recalls the poet-creator of Hill’s “Genesis,” and whose mouth is “unstitched into a rimless cup,” a metaphor for the mouth-Grail of the poet-martyr and its promise of salvation-by-blood, here the lifeblood of poetry, the Logos.

The core of Hill’s project—to deify imaginatively the poetic self in preparation for self-sacrifice that the sins of the father may be absolved—strikes us, however beautiful its execution, as antiquated and hubristic. In his prodigality and his pride, Hill has annexed the universal of shared historical memory to the personal. He does not care that tight lips keep out readers. Maybe he is reader enough.

But this early Hill far surpasses the later Hill, who in Canaan (1998) vainly seeks absolution by means of some effectual Truth. These poems have titles that seem to be Borgesian rip-offs of obscure philosophical treatises, such as “That Man as a Rational Animal Desires the Knowledge which is His Perfection” and “Whether the Virtues are Emotions.” And as much as “That Man as a Rational Animal Desires the Knowledge which is His Perfection” promises, it only manages to deliver a consciousness weathered and weary of Knowledge:

            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.

Hill's later work will never regain his innocence and get it right like he did in “Genesis,” or the essential “Annunciations,” or the Mercian Hymns, and so his voice fades into an imagined voice, his singing into imagined singing. When in Speech! Speech! (2000) Hill attacks as his subject the “Age of mass consent,” his style self-consciously attacks itself. He rails against “Dystopia / on Internet: profiles of the new age…glow-in-the-dark geriatric / wigs from old candy-floss (cat-calls, cheers),” but his sense of humor and biting self-mockery betray his desire to not be here, to not contaminate his consummate art with the baseness of here. The poet wants to be in the breach brandishing his steel, or on a sandaled pilgrimage, or in the eternal heavens of the spotless mind; he wants to be then and there. Anywhere but here. By Scenes from Comus (2005), Hill is confessing that he is “tired now the whole time.” Yet still he wishes “to/ take up [his] bed and walk: / to Compostela, for example,” at the end of the Way of St. James.

That being said, Hill is without question the strongest British poet currently writing, and his Selected Poems is an import of significance for American readers. Hill’s strong early work is not represented as well as it should be (Tenebrae is lacking, particularly the excerpted Lachrimae sonnet sequence), and his later work is too well represented, though nothing appears from his latest book, the brilliant A Treatise of Civil Power (2008). While Hill continues to remind us that God is not yet dead, he also reminds us that He is at least over the hill, witnessed but not seen.

Joshua Wilson is a literary intern at The New Republic.