The Angel of History

John Hollander is the author of numerous books, including "Selected Poetry," "Tesserae and Other Poems" and the anthology "Committed to Memory." He is Sterling professor of English at Yale University and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

Geoffrey Hill may be the strongest and most original English poet of the second half of our fading century, although his work is by no means either easy or very popular. Dense, intricate, exceedingly compact, his poetry has always had great visionary force, extending from the opening lines of his first book, "For the Unfallen," (1959)--"Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God"--through seven subsequent volumes and the powerful indictment of recent British history in "Canaan." His poems have immersed themselves in the matters of stones and rock, of permanence and historical change, martyrdoms and mockeries and, above all, history and the monuments and residue of its consequences in places, things and people.

"History as Poetry" is the title of a dense, somewhat enigmatic poem of Hill's from a book published 30 years ago. And aside from many shorter poems and sequences, there was his exceedingly impressive "Mercian Hymns" of 1971, celebrating the late 8th century king of Mercia in the British Midlands, Offa, who in the poet's words "might perhaps be most usefully regarded as the presiding genius of the West Midlands, his dominion extending from the middle of the 8th century until the middle of the 20th (and possibly beyond)" and who, as Harold Bloom, one of Hill's earliest American critics, has put it, "merges both into a spirit of place and into the poet celebrating him, particularly the poet-as-schoolboy." (Donald Hall was another such champion, and their very different tastes confirm that neither had a narrow agenda in his praise of Hill's poetry.)

Hill, who taught for some years at Cambridge and who has been living in the United States and teaching at Boston University since 1987, has now written a remarkable book-length poem. Its title, "The Triumph of Love," might suggest the tradition of the allegorical parade, unfolding the relations of some major moral abstraction to ancillary ones and to consequences in human life that proceeds from Petrarch's sequence of "Trionfi" through Shelley's "The Triumph of Life." But Hill is both too knowledgeable and too original a poet, and too concerned with the poetics of history, merely to extend that mode. Instead, the poem consists of 150 stanzas of beautifully and resonantly handled short free-verse lines ranging in length from one line to 57 but mostly from six to 25. The range of variation in diction, rhetorical level, degree and function of wordplay, and along that great spectrum from solemn to funny that true seriousness inhabits, provides in itself a kind of dramaturgy. The poem shifts from moments of densely allusive muttered epigram to more distant--yet always deeply related--moments of meditative lyric, such as Stanza 9:

On chance occasions--

and others have observed this--you can see the wind,

as it moves, barely a separate thing,

the inner wall, the coil, of an hourglass, humming

vortices, bright particles in dissolution,

a rolling plug of sand picked up

as a small dancing funnel. It is how

the purest apprehension might appear

to take corporeal shape.

Or, to get a better sense of one of the varying sorts of continuity between adjacent stanzas, consider what starts out as an insistence on diachronic, historical vision and how it moves from there:

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Whatever may be meant by moral landscape,

it is for me increasingly a terrain

seen in cross-section: igneous, sedimentary,

conglomerate, metamorphic rock-

strata, in which particular grace, individual love, decency, endurance,

are traceable across the faults,

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Admittedly at times this moral landscape

to my exaggerated ear emits

archaic burrings like a small, high-fenced

electricity sub-station of uncertain age

in a field corner where the flies

gather and old horses shake their sides.

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But leave it now, leave it; as you left

a washed-out day at Stourport or the Lickey,

improvised rainhats mulch for papier-ma^che,

and the chips floating.

Leave it now, leave it; give it over

to that all-gathering general English light,

in which each separate bead

of drizzle at its own thorn-tip stands

as revelation.

The particular matter of Love here in part distantly derives from the injunctions at the beginning and end of Part II of Hill's earlier "Annunciations":

O Love, subject of the diurnal grind,

Forever being pledged to be redeemed,

Expose yourself for charity . . .

O Love,

You know what pains succeed; be vigilant; strive

To recognize the damned among your friends.

The verse of the new book exhibits less of the wonderfully controlled high tone and diction of much of his previous poetry or even the diction and rhythms of "Mercian Hymns," written in a highly rhythmical prose, marked by the appositive style of Old English poetry in which variation of attributes works somewhere between metaphor and simile. Perhaps a seed of this powerful new book might be found in Hill's early "September Song" (its title alludes ironically to that of the great Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson song of 1938), which meditates on the fate of a Holocaust victim born the day before the poet himself (in June of 1932) and deported 10 years later and which contains a metrically startling allowance: "(I have made / an elegy for myself it / is true)". And certainly last year's very fine book "Canaan" seemed always to be approaching the condition of a long poem, rather than merely a book of related lyrics, some of whose recurring titles, such as "Dark-Land" (from John Bunyan) and "Mysticism and Democracy" suggest refrain-like passages in a through-composed work.

"The Triumph of Love" is unwilling to exempt itself from its own harsh judgments and never gives in totally to what it calls "self-pleasured Ironia . . . as retching on a voided / stomach pleasures self." The whole poem seems to parallel the dialectical transformations of history with a number of devices of textual self-scrutiny. These include the revisions of glossorial and textual notes--"Take out supposition. Insert suppository. / For definitely the right era read: deaf in the right ear" (the pattern "for X, read Y" is almost in itself a refrain), an almost Beckett-like gag: "For Cinna the Poet, see under errata." The false comforters and accusers named Croker and MacSikker and O'Shem are repeatedly addressed; there are also glossorial interjections and quibbles, as if from an unidentified editor. Later on in the poem, various angelic litanies emerge, such as the one that concludes:

From the Angel of the morning Gold-Fix

to the Angels Of Mandragora and rip-off.

To the Demotic Angels from the Angels

of Repulsion-Attraction, the loud-

winged Angels of Equal Sacrifice, the sole

Angel standing in for Hope and Despair.

The whole book's voice is that sole angel's; invoking Sir Philip Sidney and John Milton ("your voices pitched exactly-- / somewhere--between Laus Deo and defiance"), the poem speaks of and for itself. And while there were some sharply comical moments in "Mercian Hymns," I cannot feel that Hill has ever before so beautifully alternated high and low, solemn and funny. But even when funny has the last word, it is never a final one:

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Even now, I tell myself, there is a language

to which I might speak and which

would rightly hear me;

responding with eloquence; in its turn,

negotiating sense without insult

given or injury taken.

Familiar to those who already know it

elsewhere as Justice,

it is met also in the form of silence.

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You can say you are deaf in several languages--

lass es in Ruhe, mon vieux, his scriptum est.

Self-accusations are repeatedly raised and confronted throughout the poem:

. . . incontinent

fury wetting the air. Impotently

bereft satire. Charged with erudition,

put up by the defense to be his own accuser.

Certainly the matter of "erudition" is prominent in "The Triumph of Love"--it is full of allusions to history and literature, some of them recurrent, such as the phrase a se stesso ("to himself"), the title of Leopardi's (early 1833) poem of ultimate despair; significantly here, love is l'inganno estreme--the last deception--he had believed to be eternal; now he knows not only "In noi di cari inganni, / Non che la speme, il desiderio e spento" ("in us not only the hope but the desire for dear delusions is gone"). On the other hand, the word Boerenverdriet, which he parses literally as peasant sorrow or affliction, turns out later in the poem to be something else: " . . . You eat it--it's Dutch liverwurst," and fact can redeem, in some kind of comedy, our devout attentions to suffering.

But these allusions are never the sort of name-dropping that often besets minor late-modern verse; when Hill's are followed, they are always significant. Unbibled readers, puzzled by the point of the book's epigraph from Nehemiah 6--given in Hebrew, the Latin Vulgate and Luther's German--might need reminding of how Nehemiah, rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, is invited to meet Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, who seeks to halt the restoration, in what would clearly be an ambush: "And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great worke, so that I can not come down: why should the worke cease, whilest I leave it, and come downe to you?" The poet's work is not the rebuilding with stones but with words, and in this epigraph Hill announces that he will neither descend nor condescend in the course of his present work.

"Even so," he maintains later on, "I propose to / stay with this, perhaps to carry some meaning / to our imperfection." And these allusions to utterances, writers, composers, historical figures invoke what has mattered most to the poet in his mental life; they are as much part of his moral landscape as the geological formations. Thus he rebukes the poem's own self-generated accusers:

And yes--bugger you, MacSikker et al.,--I do

mourn and resent your desolation of learning:

Scientia that enabled, if it did not secure

forms of understanding far from despicable,

and furthest now, as they are most despised.

By understanding I understand diligence

and attention, appropriately understood

as actuated self-knowledge, a daily acknowledgment

of what is owed the dead.

Yeats wrote in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley "I begin to see things double--doubled in history, world history, personal history. Perhaps there is a theme for poetry in this 'double swan and shadow.' " Hill's version of doubling is more complex and less schematic than Yeats'--even as his ways of being allusive contrast strongly with the citational agitations of Ezra Pound's major work (and, indeed, with the self-recrimination of "The Pisan Cantos" as well). And there is certainly more to the poetic substance of history than the rather expository concept of "theme."

"The Triumph of Love" itself works through historical moments, gusts of regret, disgust, rage and sorrow and, formally at least, can return to its own origin in its opening line. That rondure of opening vision--perhaps recalled from a Worcestershire childhood "[s]un-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp" (Romsley is six miles north of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where the poet was born)--ends with the same line but for "the livid rain-scarp." It is as if the poem itself had said "for 'a' you can now read 'the,' " as if it took the work of the poem itself, its acknowledgments, judgments and rebukes of itself and its pressing but inauthentic interlocutors, its struggles with all-too-easy definition, to entitle it at last to that most definite of articles.

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