May 29, 2002


REVIEW : of The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill (Adam Kirsch, 05.16.02, New Republic)
More than any other living poet, Geoffrey Hill enjoys the glamour of centrality. He is a distinctly British poet--born in Worcestershire in 1932, though he now lives in Boston--at a time when most of poetry's vigor has emigrated to Britain's old colonies. More important, he consciously labors to extend the tradition of formal, complex, morally serious English poetry. As a confirmed modernist who treats Christian themes, he inherits both recent and ancient forms of poetic prestige. And he is one of the most distinctive verse stylists of the late twentieth century. By the mid-1990s, having published only five collections in thirty-five years, these qualities had earned Hill superlative praise: "the strongest British poet now alive," "the major achievement of late-twentieth-century British verse."

At the same time, Hill's work to this point--it can be found in New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992--inspires serious reservations. Describing it in a few words, at a high level of generality, one could not avoid calling it religious, historical, moral. But if one engages Hill more closely, it begins to seem that he writes about religion, rather than faith; about history, rather than experience; about morality, rather than conscience. That is, he addresses these things abstractly, as themes and subjects, but he does not succeed in making them live.

Geoffrey Hill is very difficult and I'll admit that much of his stuff goes way over my head, but here's one I like :

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 29, 2002 7:37 AM
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