Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012
by Geoffrey Hill

Reviewed by Caleb Caldwell


Published by Oxford University Press, 2013   |   992 pages

Offering pithy lines on the definition of poetry has been de rigueur since William Wordsworth famously identified it as the spontaneous outflow of powerful feelings, although the practice has, perhaps, fallen off lately. Sir Geoffrey Hill, deep in Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, stages a more ambivalent possibility for poetry than Wordsworth offered:

ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That’s
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry

The stanza first seems to define poetry without equivocation, only to ultimately strand us in the complicated doubt of its deliberate confusion of voices. Can a poem actually communicate the weight of history? If not, what is its purpose? Merely to provide a palliative? Or to “prod dead men from their stone,” as Hill writes in King Log (1968)? Is language completely compromised (“fallen,” in Hill’s terms)? These are serious questions, and Hill’s self-mockery (a constant feature of his late work) does not undermine them so much as warn of the dangers of redemption made axiomatic. Such is the characteristic tension of Hill’s poetry – his suspicion of misapplied lyric eloquence pushing against his staggering lyric ability.


Hill’s first five collections, published between 1959 and 1983, take elegy as their primary mode, often depicting barbarous episodes in British and European history. Technically accomplished from the first, these volumes include some of the finest, most astringent verse of the twentieth century (Hill shows a particular concern with atrocities committed against Jews in his early poems, chief of which is the slight, broken sonnet “September Song”). His particular obsession with the violence of the twentieth century is not motivated purely by a deep sense of historical responsibility. It’s also personal. Hill has said that one of his most formative memories was seeing German bombers flying over Bromsgrove: “I can still remember the peculiar frisson of it. Strange as it sounds that incident – which can’t have lasted more than a minute and a half – has dictated for the rest of my life the way I have perceived certain juxtapositions of the real and the surreal.” That strange image, the realization of the mechanics of war as a kind of modern metaphysics, captures the same conjunction of the ordinary and extraordinary that one finds in Kafka, and also in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, the “banality of evil.”

In fact, it is precisely in his rejection of political banality, what Hill calls “tyrannical simplification,” that one finds the primary reason for Hill’s famous complexity of language. He has said that “any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence . . . an intelligence working in qualifications and revelations . . . resisting, therefore, tyrannical simplification.” For Hill, the essentially flawed nature of linguistic endeavor has a social and moral valence. Especially in his poetics of witness, Hill concurs with Derrida’s claim that “violence appears with articulation”: “How certainly words are at one with all/corruptible things,” Hill writes in “On Reading Milton and the English Revolution.” For Hill, issues of style and issues of justice come inextricably bound together. This struggle between “moral commitment” and “moral scruple,” as one scholar wrote, informs the dense and snarling lines of Hill’s early poetry. Poetry of moral integrity – poetry that guards against moral and stylistic solecism – is poetry that inevitably contains a “menace.”

An awareness of the menace of language can convert passive acceptance into acts of attention, which manifests most centrally in Hill as equivocation – especially in the sequence of books that runs from For the Unfallen (1959) to Canaan (1996). I am not thinking of equivocation in the sense of logical fallacy – although Hill does frequently yoke such rhetorical ambiguity to ethical concerns and also draws heavily on the philosophical and theological traditions of paradox – but of the rhetorical sense of the word. Take, for instance, the central line of an exemplary early lyric, “Annunciations,” from King Log (1968). The line reads, “Our God scatters corruption,” which suggests at once that a) the Christian God is all-powerful, stamping out evil as one would a swarm of ants and bringing on the City of God and the saints, and b) that this same God makes the Earth more corrupt, sowing and reaping the complacency, violence, and immoral practices of the Church, through crusades, political collusion, and sexual abuse. The ambiguity here is an effort to take hold of the thorns present in the issue at hand and in the issue of speech itself.

Hill’s treatment of faith, theology, and the Christian tradition, central to his work, is marked by such measured ambivalence (his wife, Alice Goodman, a Jewish-born Anglican priest, has described him as “communicant but resentful”). Hill is deeply invested in how Christianity has shaped the English language, which subsequently shaped the English-speaking world. Language exerts its influence, Hill has written, like an atmospheric pressure. The Psalms of the King James Bible are perhaps the greatest and most persistent of his poetic models – but rather than a Christian or mystical poet, he is a poet of the doubts, delusions, and failures of religion, both personal and catholic:

I cannot turn aside from what I do;
you cannot turn away from what I am.
You do not dwell in me nor I in you

Hill, fascinated, persistent, never quite lets the matter stand. At the very least, Hill is a God-bothered poet, writing that “I say it is not faithless/to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.”

A nearly impeccable poet, Hill is also laborious in a literal sense. His poems resist casual reading almost completely, requiring significant work on the part of the reader. Capacious in its historical and spatial scope, his work ranges across foreign cinema, Origen, madrigals, mining, Karl Rahner, Boethius, the Turner Prize, trigonometry, Vico, seventeenth-century torch-songs, neglected martyrs, Prospero, Welsh history, surrealism [described as “songs of reft joy upon another planet”], minor prophets, numerology. He draws from the fields of theology, philosophy, history, architecture, art, politics, music, sociology, etc. Latin, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Welch phrases pepper the collection. At every turn I felt the desolation of my own learning, which is part of Hill’s point: to uncover the criminal amnesias of our popular histories.

Hill’s “late” period has proven more divisive than his first collections, a fact Hill cedes mockingly in Odi Barbare (2012): “Not again those marvellous early poems/Lately acknowledges.” Hill offends not with his avant-garde novelty, but with his unrelenting insistence that history, recent and distant both, must have a living relation with the present. For Hill surely offers one of the greatest late careers since Yeats, who, Hill reminds us, he has “outlived,” although his recent work finds a closer analogue in Pound’s Cantos, with which he occasionally explicitly grapples. Like the Cantos, Hill’s late work is densely allusive and dizzyingly associative, making the lyric swallow the encyclopedic epic, alternating oblique and stylized lines with directly personal observations. Unlike the early poems, which hewed closer to Eliot’s dictum that poetry is not the expression of personality but its escape, the first person pronoun appears more frequently – although never given a neo-confessional timbre – and it would be a grave error not to recognize the moments of deep personal feeling, of loss, grief, joy. Along with moments of petty squabbling and self-interest (“Dump my clavic books in the mire/And yes bid me strut myselfoff a cliff”), Hill also writes movingly of old age, the persistence of sexual desire, and his struggles with depression, which may have been responsible for the long period of silence after The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Pèguy (1983), broken by Canaan in 1996. (In Speech! Speech! (2000), Hill asks, “How is it tuned, how can it be unturned,/with lithium, this harp of nerves?”). His laments and ubi sunts, his gripes and screeds, and the nagging sense that Hill’s triumph of love has gone rancid with hate (rendering him part “tragic figure,” part “clown,”) may draw more attention, but Hill’s tributes and accolades also deserve notice. With a keen and human generosity which never strays into hagiography, Hill celebrates figures both famous and forgotten, from Francesco Petrarch and Eugenio Montale to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and Welsh hymnist Ann Griffiths to theologians Thomas Bradwardine and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is a fierce champion of certain of his contemporary poets, such as Tony Harrison, and many poems are preceded by the humble little letters “i.m.” and a name, like a lapidary inscription.

Hill, quoting Milton, has called himself a “simple, sensuous, and passionate” poet; so too, the frustrated reader might object, is the belly of a porcupine “simple, sensuous, and passionate.” Common to both the porcupine and Hill is the trouble of getting past the needles. As Hill writes in Clavics (2011), “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.” Complaints of Hill’s difficulty, however, have become rather worn and petulant; the poetry’s reputation alone has certainly dissuaded some from attempting it, forgoing its occasional but great pleasures. For beneath or amongst the density Hill is also an immensely sensuous poet, as when a poet-figure recalls his wife’s touch in King Log: “Your mouth, and your hand running over me/Deft as a lizard, like a sinew of water.” His staggering lyric ability itself lends the poems a higher level of sensuousness (exemplary passages are manifold: “the sky cast-iron, livid with unshed snow/I cannot say what it is that best/survives these desolations”; “The angular/sun on windows or windshields like swans/taking off and alighting”; “to bear the heavy,/The rinded, moon, sullen above your journey”). The tactility of Hill’s words only amplifies his great love and sensitivity toward landscapes, which are laden with history and import, though rarely overtly symbolic. Hill, a peripatetic poet, often takes the position of a keen, though distant observer: “How the sea-lightning with a flash at hazard/Cleft the lanterned yard into pelting angles . . .”; and again: “Every few minutes the drizzle shakes/itself like a dog.” At other times, his tone is like that of a parochial Cassandra:

Later, as in late autumn, there will be
The mass-produced wax berries, and perhaps
An unearthed wasps’ nest like a paper skull,
Where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine.
Where the quick spider mummifies its dead
Rage shall move somnolent yet unappeased.

Hill’s most recently works are included in the six books that make up the series The Daybooks (2007-2012). Hill has said that a poet “is first-rate to the extent of having realized, often with very great difficulty, the personal note amid the acoustical din that surrounds us all,” and The Daybooks seem to reproduce that acoustical din. A daybook, according to the OED (a necessary and constant companion for both Hill and his reader) is “a book containing the daily record of . . . transactions,” usually commercial, before their transfer to a more permanent account or ledger. As such, much of the contents of Hill’s Daybooks are deliberately pro tempore, poems occasioned by historic public loss and also whatever Hill happened to be reading at the moment. The death of William Lawes, a 17th century composer, provides the impetus for Clavics, with appropriate punning on both “laws” and “will”; Oraclau/Oracles, the “struggles of entanglement with incoherent roots,” draws on Hill’s Welsh heritage as well as that country’s history, art and coal fields; Expostulations on the Volcano engages at length with Malcom Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano; the classical odes of Giosuè Carducci pollinate Odi Barbare (which Hill translates as “I/Hate barbarians”); the marvelous closing Al Tempo De’ Tremuoti is, in part, an ekphrastic sequence treating Donatello’s Habakkuk.

The poems of Hill’s Daybooks are highly formal, with most following a fixed metrical pattern, even neglecting Hill’s typical blank verse in favor of rhyme or half-rhyme. Each double-decker poem in Clavics looks like a modification of George Herbert’s poems “The Altar” and “Easter Wings.” Odi Barbare is written in saphhics, stanzas composed of three long lines and a shorter fourth, and final, line, called an “adonic.” Abrupt shifts in register and virtuoso recreation of the lyric rhythms, measures, and concerns of other ages are ubiquitous. Such a slurry of times and tones frequently begets delightful, offhand insights (“Everything that is not God is tourism,/Dante so nearly said”) but I also worry that at times one feels that Hill has neglected a full transfer of his intellectual, emotional, and moral transactions – foreign influences have not been digested fully, and many of the references feel overly circumstantial, at the mercy of formal cadence. The exhausting parade of proper nouns occasionally snuffs out any trace of lyric grace, as if the agitation of history has finally overwhelmed any poetic notion of “theme,” leaving only dense and recurrent glossorial and textual notes:

You who have edited Ben Jonson’s masques
All credit to your endeavours.
(Coelum Britannicum
Is not Jonson’s.)

However, keep in mind that, for Hill, overly-successful art runs the risk of moral and religious distraction: “Words/Render us callous the fuller they ring.” Not for Hill the frequent claim that art makes us better, more empathetic persons. This may be one reason why Hill has largely given up his pristinely balanced double-yoked words for gauche, frequently ineffectual puns (cf. “Meritocrats are crap meteorites”; “my clique, your claque”). Many are truly, spectacularly lame and limping, but they avoid what Hill calls (with sly dart thrown at MFA programs) the insidiousness of “the epiphanic spill.” Nevertheless, as we read in the last poem in Broken Hierarchies, Yahweh himself is “not wholly disabused // of procreation.” And so the poet, in the very act of making the poem, displays his own belief, however hedged, in language and its production, in poetry:

But when I
Say poetry I mean something impossible
To be described, except by adding lines
To lines that are sufficient as themselves.

Caleb Caldwell is a Ph.D. student at Washington University – St. Louis. He reads and writes about many of the usual suspects. His work, scholarly and otherwise, has been published in several print and online publications, including Religion & Literature.

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