October 27, 2004


Satire and Elegy in Geoffrey Hill’s “De Jure Belli Ac Pacis” (Steve Harris, Alsop Review)

Geoffrey Hill’s long poem “De Jure Belli Ac Pacis” ("The Law of War and Peace") is based upon the same titled 1625 work by Hugo Grotius. In his treatise, Grotius emphasized the importance of moral laws and how such laws should rule both the individual and the state. Hill’s poem appears in his 1995 collection Canaan, and is one of the strongest poems in that critically acclaimed collection. With its emphasis on faith and martyrdom, along with a rightly rooted but spiritually infused national pride, “De Jure Belli Ac Pacis” brings together those traits that work best in Hill’s poetry. Also present, however, is the bitter voice of a satirist. The way the poet plaits both elegy and satire makes for an unusual, but accomplished, poem that aims for the highest stakes through both song and sneer.

Hans-Bernd von Haeften is the subject of the poem’s elegy. Haefton was part of the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Hitler. He was associated with the Kreisau group, whose own motivations for Hitler’s removal were multiple. Art, literature, religion and socialism were all topics of interest (and debate) for the group. Compared to other anti-Hitler groups (others were involved in the plot), the Kreisau group in particular embraced various utopian ideas of what they hoped would be a new Germany after the monster’s death. They were the dreamers. Whatever the Kreisau group’s differences, they were united in their disgust with Hitler and sought desperately some sort of deal with the Allies before their country was burned to a cinder. Some, such as Haefton, a member of the Confessing Church, instilled their mission to strike down Hitler with religious necessity. The plot failed, and most of the plotters were rounded up and executed — some in a horrible manner. Haefton was executed August 15th at Plotzensee Prison. He was hung with piano wire from an iron beam. The execution may, as with others, have been filmed for Hitler’s enjoyment. This flawed but real heroism is juxtaposed throughout the poem with Hill’s sense of where Europe, in all its current gray ambiguities, now finds itself.

Hill begins the poem with a compressed parody of Genesis - a sonorous proclamation from Europe’s new “assessors” that the “people moves” now as “one spirit.” The satiric play on the socialist and singular “people” is followed immediately by the verb “moves” which is hardly singular in the directions it suggests. Clearly, Hill sees hypocrisy at the moment of new creation, with creation here being the Europe of the Maastrict Treaty. Further compounding the satire, the use of “spirt” is meant to recall, through contrast, the Trinitarian God moving across the waters in the early part of Genesis. Hill concludes this inversion with “water is no longer found” in this New Europe. Hitler’s violent dream of a unified Europe has to some extent come into bland being - one that blurs borders and sucks away national identity:

The people moves as one spirit unfettered
claim our assessors of stone.
When the nations
fall dispossessed such conjurings possessed them,
elaborate barren fountains, projected
where water is no longer found.

Such bitterness and black humor over modern day politics is probably more in keeping with the savage, and equally allusive, spirit of a Donne satire. At the end of the section, Hill asks — with gallow’s humor (“high strung”) — the question which fuses together elegy and satire, forcing the reader throughout the poem to look outward to the historical and political landscape (past and present), but also inward to weigh within Time’s balance the recurring costs of discipleship:

Could none predict these haughty degradations
as now your high-strung
martyred resistance serves
to consecrate the liberties of Maastrict?

Sadly they martyred themselves for a West that then refused to pay the costs of discipleship.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 27, 2004 3:59 PM

What a joke.

Literary discussion groups were not opposition to Hitler.

They didn't martyr themselves. They were killed by mistake, the Nazis imagined they were their enemies.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 29, 2004 5:32 PM

Out, reality! I cast you out!

Posted by: oj at October 30, 2004 8:39 AM