Poetry is its own thing, and in the case of Sir Geoffrey Hill’s proclamations in lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, listeners became aware that poetry is its own world that is a vibrant part of the real world: it is not a subset of reality, but reality itself. The complete works of Hill also demonstrate that poetry does not stand alone. As an art form, it incorporates into itself not only a variety of intellectual disciplines such as philosophy, political thought, history, and theology, but also a wide breadth of other art forms such as music, painting, photography, sculpture, and film. Hill’s essay ‘Our Word is Our Bond’ (1983) posits, in contrast to J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words
(1962), that poetry is performative. Because the forms of poetry are partly what make it what it is, the reader is invited to take a journey of forms.
The dominant forms of For the Unfallen
(1959) were quatrains and sonnets, yet the fifth section of ‘Genesis’ had offered tercets (4)1
and there were already form experiments, with rhyme in the tetrameters of ‘The Bidden Guest’ (8), and in the blank verse in ‘To the (Supposed) Patron’ (35). King Log
(1968) took more liberties with form. It began with two sonnets, but several pages into the volume, the sonnet form broke in ‘September Song’ (44), and then was again predominant, in the sequence ‘Funeral Music’ (47-54). But even these sonnets brought something new. Jeffrey Wainwright, in his memorial speech for Hill at Keble College (October 22, 2016) recalled the ‘shock effect’ when he first heard Hill read:
‘“In honorem Trinitatis”. Crash. The head / Struck
down into a meaty conduit of blood.’ Crash! like a
cartoon caption, how did that appear in a sonnet
sequence, and next door to Latin?
Most other poems of King Log
make use of quatrains or tercets (which are considerably more numerous than in For the Unfallen
), but the emblem poem, ‘A Prayer to the Sun’ (56) is altogether different, setting up a visible golgotha for the poet on the page, and using the inclusive pronoun ‘us’, in a poem that incorporates Herbert’s great theological pun (‘Son/Sun’, as Paul Volsik once quipped, ‘is God’s gift to the English language’). Stanzas of different lengths are a feature of ‘The Assisi Fragments’ (60). ‘A Letter from Armenia’ (76) adds the touch of a prose poem, suggesting a new orientation in form that would be taken up in the next collection.
(1971), a series of short prose poems, plays with line-breaks and compound words. Whereas the Selected Poems
had not kept the line-breaks of the original edition, Broken Hierarchies
precisely reprinted them, illustrating that the prose poem may take some properties of verse, in the play of enjambment: ‘They struck with account-/ able tact.’ (93).
(1978) explores the dark side, with the epigraph by Sidney Keyes suggesting ‘This is a very ancient land indeed’ as though pointing to a kind of original sin. The collection draws some of its vision and tension from the juxtaposition of epigraphs by W.B. Yeats and Simone Weil (115). ‘The Pentecost Castle’ employs dimeters, as though Hill were playing a game of Yeats and MacNeice to see how many syllables could be fit into the two-beat lines in a lost-love poem that bears at least some thematic resemblance to The Song of Songs.
Yet the collection reads almost as a declension of the various forms of contrition, moving in reverse through the liturgy, from Pentecost to Lachrimae. ‘Lachrimae’ as a seven-sonnet sequence of four stanzas each, takes place during Holy Week, leading on to ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, a thirteen-sonnet sequence in the same form—the dominant form of the volume. Yet some of the other poems look quite different, such as the quintet of ‘Florentines’ (136) or the supremely rhyming tercets of Hill’s first poem about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the facing page.
The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy
(1983) is written in pentameter quatrains, which is as close as Hill could get to the alexandrines of Péguy’s Ève
(1913), and the Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres
(1985-2012) maintain the quatrains, while varying the rhythm between pentameters and tetrameters.
Many poems of Canaan
(1996) offer a whole new look, with some pages visually resembling poems by Frank O’Hara or Jorie Graham who, beginning with The End of Beauty
(1987), considerably varied her line lengths and left hand margins, such that Hill’s ‘the slither-frisk / to lordship of a kind’ stands out not only as a loudly hissing enjambment, but also because it is indented in lien (171). The title poem ‘Canaan’ (180) is remarkable for its short lines of only two beats that are matched in ‘Respublica’ (197). The sonnet returns also, in extremely varied formats that sometimes are a tease to the form, with ‘Mysticism and Democracy’ (183, 210, 220, 234), ‘Parentalia’ (196), the sequence ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ (198-205), ‘Parentalia’ (209), ‘Pisgah’ (217), ‘To John Constable: In Absentia’ (218), and ‘Of Constancy and Measure’, dedicated to Ivor Gurney (231). The second ‘Mysticism and Democracy’ seems to incorporate several forms simultaneously (210).
The Triumph of Love
(1998) begins with a gradual increase in stanza length, from one to five lines in parts I-VI (239). The one hundred and fifty poems numbered with Roman numerals, that form the volume were compared by critics to psalms, and the circularity of the final section led some readers to reminisce about Eliot’s ‘East Coker’ where ‘In my beginning is my end’ evolves into ‘In my end is my beginning’. Hill’s opening line, ‘a livid rain-scarp’ (239), becomes in CL ‘the livid rain-scarp’ (286). Here the imprecise becomes definite, in part because it was observed by the poet: that is, yet again, ‘how to do things with words’, Speech! Speech!
(2000) draws its title from a phrase in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love
, and gives the impression of being much more unhinged in its use of language, moving from classics through to rap. Yet the visual forms of the sections vary little: each is composed of twelve-line stanzas with lines of varying length, where typographic details stand out, such as the use of many capitalized words (346-347). Hill’s turn-of-the-century trilogy that has more than once been compared to Dante’s Divine Comedy
concludes with The Orchards of Syon
(2002) which uses 24-line stanzas in each of its sixty-eight sections: is it a paradiso
after all? It definitely looks to the future, with the dedication, ‘To my children and grandchildren’
Hill’s work nudges into a new space yet again in Scenes from Comus
(2005). The final line coming after three tercets in the opening poem reads, ‘contra tyrannos’ (421). While terza rima is rarely if at all present in the series of tercets composing ‘The Argument of the Mask’, the play on the opening words of the opening lines in the first poem does seem to allude to it. ‘Courtly Masquing Dances’ changes form, as does the third part, ‘A Description of the Antimasque’ — returning to the tercet, in four three-line stanzas.
Like the volumes it precedes, Without Title
(2006), written in homage to Eugenio Montale (481), engages with civics around the globe. The first poem of seventeen lines is an improvisation on the Bach cantata, ‘O Welt ich muss dich lassen’ (Oh world, I must leave you). It uses italics to shed light on an allusion to the NBC series The Apprentice
which began in 2004, and featured the ‘cheap comedians’ of the fourth line to say, in closing ‘You’re fired
still crisp, pristine.’ (483). The Pindarics
(2005-12) are written with Pavese and slapstick in mind (522), all in the same strong formal sequence of three stanzas: an opening, a strophe, and anti-strophe, as Pindaric odes are want to do.