August 7, 2004


Poets can give us the best picture of the past (A.N. Wilson, 8/02/04, Daily Telegraph)

Having done not much else for years except read historical books about the 20th century, I am in awe at the scholarship and industry of the many authors I have read, but, in general, I am less impressed by their sense of perspective, by their take on events. Neither the dons nor the popular historians weighing in at 700 pages know much about distillation. Even clever writers seem to be terribly insensitive to the sheer appallingness of the lives thatmost human beings, thanks to politicians and Fate, have lived in the 20th century. I turn for consolation to Geoffrey Hill, who is more and more not just my favourite modern poet but favourite poet.

Historians strike attitudes and posture. They make a lot of noise and they cover a lot of pages, but they don't very often give me a sensation of the drill touching the nerve. Hill's poetry does this to me all the time. He does not give us History as Journalism, making points. He gives us history as felt life, history as palimpsest. Take an impressive volume, Mercian Hymns. The only other author I know who has quite so vivid a sense of England's past - the here and now, the Second World War, and the medieval past, stretching back into mist - is our own Michael Wharton in this newspaper, aka Peter Simple.

Hill, however, is a great poet, who again and again evokes "coiled, entrenched England". His Mercian Hymns take us back to the friend of Charlemagne who built the dyke - Offa. But they are seen through the layers of Hill's own personal memories - the coronation of George VI, or of his grandmother, "whose childhood and prime womanhood were pent in the nailer's darg". Hill's own childhood in the West Midlands, and that of his children, even their play, turn up the past. "We have a kitchen-garden riddled with toy-shards, with splinters of habitation."

Anglo-Saxon poetry was not written out in verse, you felt, but in lines and rhythms. So here. This, it strikes me, is what history ought to be able to do and almost never does. Before history was the new gardening, it was an Enlightenment invention designed to set the past in order. It is always in danger of making the past in the image of the present, or using the past to make points. The first writers who evoked the past were not enlightenment historians but poets; and Hill's Mercian Hymns remind us of why the poets are sometimes surer guides than the historians, however admirable their research and however paradoxical their prose.

Here's one of his most accessible pieces, which tells you everything you need to know about modern Britain's lowly state:

Wherein Wesley stood
up from his father's grave,
summoned familiar dust
for strange salvation:

whereto England rous'd,
ignorant, her inane
Midas-like hunger: smoke
engrossed, cloud-encumbered,

a spectral people
raking among the ash;
its freedom a lost haul
of entailed riches.

We can't recommend Mr. Hill highly enough.

In a similar vein, I just happened to read P.D. James's book The Children of Men. It's a departure for one of the great mystery novelists, a dystopian meditation, almost Orwellian, about a future where people have lost the ability to reproduce. As 1984 was not predictive but descriptive, so too does Ms James presents a devastating portrait of the kind of anti-human place Europe is fast becoming. It is literature no history can surpass.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 7, 2004 10:46 AM

When did Hill write? That poem sounds Dickensesque, mid 19th century?

An excellent poem from that period is "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold. Here it is:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 7, 2004 12:14 PM

Hill's writing now, but would be at home with Arnold.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2004 2:17 PM

What do you think of Hill's recent poems, written under the influence of Prozac?

Posted by: carter at August 7, 2004 3:39 PM

Oh, no! He hasn't gone happy has he?

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2004 3:45 PM

"What could turn a constipated poet like Geoffrey Hill, after poems famously given to grimaces, into a poet who gibbers with fury, who canít reach the page fast enough? Speech! Speech! [6] closely follows The Triumph of Love (1998) and Canaan (1996), completing the development of a voice hoarse with its own angers, its fraught attempts at communication, but jabbering like a maniac. Hill let the cat out of the bag in an interview last spring: the catís name is Prozac."

Posted by: carter at August 7, 2004 5:28 PM

Canaan is quite good.

Posted by: oj at August 7, 2004 5:58 PM

"[T]he sheer appallingness of the lives that most human beings, thanks to politicians and Fate, have lived in the 20th century..."

Say what ?

Is he speaking of Africa ?

Everywhere else, the 20th century was pretty kind, by the appalling standards of world history.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 8, 2004 2:57 AM


Kind? We killed 40 million Americans ourselves.

Posted by: oj at August 8, 2004 8:02 AM

Yeah, ever since the labouring poor stopped tugging their forelocks when the aristocrats favored 'em with 'arf a crown for cringing, it's been downhill all the way.

No one who actually lives in Britain thinks things are worse now than they were 50 or 75 or 100 or 150 years ago.

Or only poets, but Britain hasn't produced any good ones since Noyes.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 8, 2004 2:58 PM


Every European thinks their Golden Age ended in Flanders fields.

Posted by: oj at August 8, 2004 3:12 PM


By the standards of world history.

Global population swelled by four billion, from 1900 to 2000, more than tripling in size.
Does that sound like a particularly unkind century to you ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 8, 2004 5:23 PM

There was once a man whose wife had twins but then was brutally murdered. When asked how his year had gone he didn't say "great!"

Posted by: oj at August 8, 2004 5:33 PM

There are no kind centuries.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 8, 2004 11:53 PM

Only the aristocrats and wannabes think that, Orrin.

You need to get out more.

In particular, there's a book called, I think, 'Slums,' by an author whose name I cannot recall. I do recall his story about his father taking his father to the workhouse.

The young family was large, the pay was low and the effort of feeding and clothing the old man was a burden.

The son took his old father on his back and started to carry him to the workhouse. Along the way, he sat on a milestone to rest.

The old man said, 'I rested on this stone when I took my old father to workhouse.'

The son picked up his father and took him back home. 'We'll manage,' he said.

No doubt you'll say that reflects a high spirit, but it was no golden age.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 9, 2004 3:08 PM

They managed. They don't anymore. That's not progress.

Posted by: oj at August 9, 2004 3:22 PM

It's a failure of religion, due to the failure of religious organizations.

Mormons, the Amish, and Seventh Day Adventists seem to do better by family than society at large.

The Catholic Church has decided to go to war with families, at least in the US, which I expect will serve them poorly.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 10, 2004 1:49 AM