Is Hill the greatest living English poet? Many critics (including Harold Bloom) have said as much, since the 1970s, when a few dense books inspired transatlantic admiration. After four decades with just five books, the past 10 years have seen Hill offer six more, including a trio of long works some liken to Dante and Blake. This first selected since 1994 (and first since his move to Yale as his U.S. publisher) should get instant critical attention (and sustained academic adoption) even though it contains no new work. Here, entire, is Mercian Hymns, with its gorgeously medievalized evocation of a rural English upbringing. Here, complete, are all three recent long poems, with their erudite mix of elegy and jeremiad: "Age of mass consent: go global with her," Hill admonishes himself in "Speech! Speech!" "Challenge satellite failure, the primal/ violent day-star moody as Herod./ Forget nothing. Reprieve no one." Here are his late intimations of mortality: "Last days, last things, loom on: I write/ to astonish myself." Here, too, are the descriptive beauties that sparkle through even Hill's most rebarbative works: in a rural lane, "the mass-produced wax berries, and perhaps/ an unearthed wasps' nest like a paper skull,/ where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine." (Mar.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Selected Poemsby Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill’s poetry comprises one of the most uncompromising and visionary bodies of work written over the last fifty years. Imbued with the weight of history, morality, and language, his work reveals a deeply religious sensibility, a towering intellect, and an emotional complexity that are unrivaled in contemporary letters. Now, for the first
Geoffrey Hill’s poetry comprises one of the most uncompromising and visionary bodies of work written over the last fifty years. Imbued with the weight of history, morality, and language, his work reveals a deeply religious sensibility, a towering intellect, and an emotional complexity that are unrivaled in contemporary letters. Now, for the first time ever, readers can observe in one volume how Hill’s style took shape over time. This generous selection spans his career, beginning with poems from Hill’s astonishing debut, For the Unfallen, and following through to his stylistically distinct and critically acclaimed work Without Title. Including some of the poet’s strongest, most sensitive, and most brilliant pieces, this collection will reaffirm Hill’s reputation as “England’s best hope for the Nobel Prize.”
“Hill is without question the strongest British poet currently writing, and his Selected Poems is an import of significance for American readers.”
—The New Republic
- Yale University Press
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By GEOFFREY HILL
Yale University PressCopyright © 2006 Geoffrey Hill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFor the Unfallen
Genesis God's Little Mountain Holy Thursday Merlin The Turtle Dove Solomon's Mines The Distant Fury of Battle Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings Two Formal Elegies Picture of a Nativity Canticle for Good Friday The Guardians After Cumae Little Apocalypse from Of Commerce and Society The Apostles: Versailles, 1919 Ode on the Loss of the Titanic In Piam Memoriam To the (Supposed) Patron
Against the burly air I strode Crying the miracles of God.
And first I brought the sea to bear Upon the dead weight of the land; And the waves flourished at my prayer, The rivers spawned their sand.
And where the streams were salt and full The tough pig-headed salmon strove, Ramming the ebb, in the tide's pull, To reach the steady hills above.
The second day I stood and saw The osprey plunge with triggered claw, Feathering blood along the shore, To lay the living sinew bare.
And the third day I cried: 'Beware The soft-voiced owl, the ferret's smile, The hawk's deliberate stoop in air, Cold eyes, and bodies hooped in steel, Forever bentupon the kill.'
And I renounced, on the fourth day, This fierce and unregenerate clay, Building as a huge myth for man The watery Leviathan,
And made the long-winged albatross Scour the ashes of the sea Where Capricorn and Zero cross, A brooding immortality - Such as the charmed phoenix has In the unwithering tree.
The phoenix burns as cold as frost; And, like a legendary ghost, The phantom-bird goes wild and lost, Upon a pointless ocean tossed.
So, the fifth day, I turned again To flesh and blood and the blood's pain.
On the sixth day, as I rode In haste about the works of God, With spurs I plucked the horse's blood.
By blood we live, the hot, the cold, To ravage and redeem the world: There is no bloodless myth will hold.
And by Christ's blood are men made free Though in close shrouds their bodies lie Under the rough pelt of the sea;
Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight The bones that cannot bear the light.
God's Little Mountain
Below, the river scrambled like a goat Dislodging stones. The mountain stamped its foot, Shaking, as from a trance. And I was shut With wads of sound into a sudden quiet.
I thought the thunder had unsettled heaven; All was so still. And yet the sky was cloven By flame that left the air cold and engraven. I waited for the word that was not given,
Pent up into a region of pure force, Made subject to the pressure of the stars; I saw the angels lifted like pale straws; I could not stand before those winnowing eyes
And fell, until I found the world again. Now I lack grace to tell what I have seen; For though the head frames words the tongue has none. And who will prove the surgeon to this stone?
Naked, he climbed to the wolf's lair; He beheld Eden without fear, Finding no ambush offered there But sleep under the harbouring fur.
He said: 'They are decoyed by love Who, tarrying through the hollow grove, Neglect the seasons' sad remove. Child and nurse walk hand in glove
As unaware of Time's betrayal, Weaving their innocence with guile. But they must cleave the fire's peril And suffer innocence to fall.
I have been touched with that fire, And have fronted the she-wolf's lair. Lo, she lies gentle and innocent of desire Who was my constant myth and terror.'
I will consider the outnumbering dead: For they are the husks of what was rich seed. Now, should they come together to be fed, They would outstrip the locusts' covering tide.
Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone Among the raftered galleries of bone. By the long barrows of Logres they are made one, And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.
The Turtle Dove
Love that drained her drained him she'd loved, though each For the other's sake forged passion upon speech, Bore their close days through sufferance towards night Where she at length grasped sleep and he lay quiet
As though needing no questions, now, to guess What her secreting heart could not well hide. Her caught face flinched in half-sleep at his side. Yet she, by day, modelled her real distress,
Poised, turned her cheek to the attending world Of children and intriguers and the old; Conversed freely, exercised, was admired, Being strong to dazzle. All this she endured
To affront him. He watched her rough grief work Under the formed surface of habit. She spoke Like one long undeceived but she was hurt. She denied more love, yet her starved eyes caught
His, devouring, at times. Then, as one self-dared, She went to him, plied there; like a furious dove Bore down with visitations of such love As his lithe, fathoming heart absorbed and buried.
To Bonamy Dobrée
Anything to have done! (The eagle flagged to the sun) To have discovered and disclosed The buried thrones, the means used;
Spadework and symbol, each deed Resurrecting those best dead Priests, soldiers and kings; Blazed-out, stripped-out things;
Anything to get up and go (Let the hewn gates clash to) Without looking round Out of that strong land.
The Distant Fury of Battle
Grass resurrects to mask, to strangle, Words glossed on stone, lopped stone-angel; But the dead maintain their ground - That there's no getting round -
Who in places vitally rest, Named, anonymous; who test Alike the endurance of yews Laurels, moonshine, stone, all tissues;
With whom, under licence and duress, There are pacts made, if not peace. Union with the stone-wearing dead Claims the born leader, the prepared
Leader, the devourers and all lean men. Some, finally, learn to begin. Some keep to the arrangement of love (Or similar trust) under whose auspices move
Most subjects, toward the profits of this Combine of doves and witnesses. Some, dug out of hot-beds, are brought bare, Not past conceiving but past care.
Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings
For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores, Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good, To sound the constitution of just wars, Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.
Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust, Their usage, pride, admitted within doors; At home, under caved chantries, set in trust, With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs They lie; they lie; secure in the decay Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted, Before the scouring fires of trial-day Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head, Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.
Two Formal Elegies
For the Jews in Europe
Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed: Subdued under rubble, water, in sand graves, In clenched cinders not yielding their abused Bodies and bonds to those whom war's chance saves Without the law: we grasp, roughly, the song. Arrogant acceptance from which song derives Is bedded with their blood, makes flourish young Roots in ashes. The wilderness revives,
Deceives with sweetness harshness. Still beneath Live skin stone breathes, about which fires but play, Fierce heart that is the iced brain's to command To judgment - studied reflex, contained breath - Their best of worlds since, on the ordained day, This world came spinning from Jehovah's hand.
For all that must be gone through, their long death Documented and safe, we have enough Witnesses (our world being witness-proof). The sea flickers, roars, in its wide hearth. Here, yearly, the pushing midlanders stand To warm themselves; men, brawny with life, Women who expect life. They relieve Their thickening bodies, settle on scraped sand.
Is it good to remind them, on a brief screen, Of what they have witnessed and not seen? (Deaths of the city that persistently dies ...?) To put up stones ensures some sacrifice. Sufficient men confer, carry their weight. (At whose door does the sacrifice stand or start?)
Picture of a Nativity
Sea-preserved, heaped with sea-spoils, Ribs, keels, coral sores, Detached faces, ephemeral oils, Discharged on the world's outer shores,
A dumb child-king Arrives at his right place; rests, Undisturbed, among slack serpents; beasts With claws flesh-buttered. In the gathering
Of bestial and common hardship Artistic men appear to worship And fall down; to recognize Familiar tokens; believe their own eyes.
Above the marvel, each rigid head, Angels, their unnatural wings displayed, Freeze into an attitude Recalling the dead.
Canticle for Good Friday
The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top Thomas, beneath its burden, stood While the dulled wood Spat on the stones each drop Of deliberate blood.
A clamping, cold-figured day Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched, Watched Smelt vinegar and blood. He, As yet unsearched, unscratched,
And suffered to remain At such near distance (A slight miracle might cleanse His brain Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)
In unaccountable darkness moved away, The strange flesh untouched, carrion-sustenance Of staunchest love, choicest defiance, Creation's issue congealing (and one woman's).
The young, having risen early, had gone, Some with excursions beyond the bay-mouth, Some toward lakes, a fragile reflected sun. Thunder-heads drift, awkwardly, from the south;
The old watch them. They have watched the safe Packed harbours topple under sudden gales, Great tides irrupt, yachts burn at the wharf That on clean seas pitched their effective sails.
There are silences. These, too, they endure: Soft comings-on; soft after-shocks of calm. Quietly they wade the disturbed shore; Gather the dead as the first dead scrape home.
The sun again unearthed, colours come up fresh, The perennials; and the laurels' Washable leaves, that seem never to perish, Obscure the mouthy cave, the dumb grottoes.
From the beginning, in the known world, slide Drawn echoing hulls, axes grate, and waves Deposit in their shallow margins varied Fragments of marine decay and waftage;
And the sometimes-abandoned gods confuse With immortal essences men's brief lives, Frequenting the exposed and pious: those Who stray, as designed, under applied perils,
Whose doom is easy, venturing so far Without need, other than to freeze or burn; Their wake, on spread-out oceans, a healed scar Fingered, themselves the curios of voyage.
Little Apocalypse Hölderlin: 1770-1843
Abrupt tempter; close enough to survive The sun's primitive renewing fury; Scorched vistas where crawl the injured and brave: This man stands sealed against their injury:
Hermetic radiance of great suns kept in: Man's common nature suddenly too rare: See, for the brilliant coldness of his skin, The god cast, perfected, among fire.
from Of Commerce and Society
THE APOSTLES: VERSAILLES, 1919
They sat. They stood about. They were estranged. The air, As water curdles from clear, Fleshed the silence. They sat.
They were appalled. The bells In hollowed Europe spilt To the gods of coin and salt. The sea creaked with worked vessels.
ODE ON THE LOSS OF THE TITANIC
Thriving against façades the ignorant sea Souses our public baths, statues, waste ground: Archaic earth-shaker, fresh enemy ('The tables of exchange being overturned');
Drowns Babel in upheaval and display; Unswerving, as were the admired multitudes Silenced from time to time under its sway. By all means let us appease the terse gods.
In Piam Memoriam
Created purely from glass the saint stands, Exposing his gifted quite empty hands Like a conjurer about to begin, A righteous man begging of righteous men.
In the sun lily-and-gold-coloured, Filtering the cruder light, he has endured, A feature for our regard; and will keep; Of worldly purity the stained archetype.
The scummed pond twitches. The great holly-tree, Emptied and shut, blows clear of wasting snow, The common, puddled substance: beneath, Like a revealed mineral, a new earth.
To the (Supposed) Patron
Prodigal of loves and barbecues, Expert in the strangest faunas, at home He considers the lilies, the rewards. There is no substitute for a rich man. At his first entering a new province With new coin, music, the barest glancing Of steel or gold suffices. There are many Tremulous dreams secured under that head. For his delight and his capacity To absorb, freshly, the inside-succulence Of untoughened sacrifice, his bronze agents Speculate among convertible stones And drink desert sand. That no mirage Irritate his mild gaze, the lewd noonday Is housed in cool places, and fountains Salt the sparse haze. His flesh is made clean. For the unfallen - the firstborn, or wise Councillor - prepared vistas extend As far as harvest; and idyllic death Where fish at dawn ignite the powdery lake.
Chapter TwoKing Log
Ovid in the Third Reich Annunciations Locust Songs September Song The Humanist Funeral Music Four Poems Regarding the Endurance of Poets The Imaginative Life The Assisi Fragments History as Poetry Soliloquies Three Baroque Meditations from The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz
Ovid in the Third Reich
non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare, solaque famosam culpa professa facit. (AMORES, III, XIV)
I love my work and my children. God Is distant, difficult. Things happen. Too near the ancient troughs of blood Innocence is no earthly weapon.
I have learned one thing: not to look down So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere, Harmonize strangely with the divine Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.
The Word has been abroad, is back, with a tanned look From its subsistence in the stiffening-mire. Cleansing has become killing, the reward Touchable, overt, clean to the touch. Now at a distance from the steam of beasts, The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn (Each specimen-jar fed with delicate spawn) The searchers with the curers sit at meat And are satisfied. Such precious things put down And the flesh eased through turbulence the soul Purples itself; each eye squats full and mild While all who attend to fiddle or to harp For betterment, flavour their decent mouths With gobbets of the sweetest sacrifice.
O Love, subject of the mere diurnal grind, Forever being pledged to be redeemed, Expose yourself for charity; be assured The body is but husk and excrement. Enter these deaths according to the law, O visited women, possessed sons. Foreign lusts Infringe our restraints; the changeable Soldiery have their goings-out and comings-in Dying in abundance. Choicest beasts Suffuse the gutters with their colourful blood. Our God scatters corruption. Priests, martyrs, Parade to this imperious theme: 'O Love, You know what pains succeed; be vigilant; strive To recognize the damned among your friends.'
To Allan Seager
So with sweet oaths converting the salt earth To yield, our fathers verged on Paradise: Each to his own portion of Paradise, Stung by the innocent venoms of the earth.
Out of the foliage of sensual pride Those teeming apples. Summer burned well The dramatic flesh; made work for pride Forking into the tender mouths of Hell
Heaped windfalls, pulp for the Gadarene Squealers. This must be our reward: To smell God writhing over the rich scene. Gluttons for wrath, we stomach our reward.
SHILOH CHURCH, 1862: TWENTY-THREE THOUSAND
O stamping-ground of the shod Word! So hard On the heels of the damned red-man we came, Geneva's tribe, outlandish and abhorred - Bland vistas milky with Jehovah's calm -
Who fell to feasting Nature, the glare Of buzzards circling; cried to the grim sun 'Jehovah punish us!'; who went too far; In deserts dropped the odd white turds of bone;
Whose passion was to find out God in this His natural filth, voyeur of sacrifice, a slow Bloody unearthing of the God-in-us. But with what blood, and to what end, Shiloh?
Excerpted from Selected Poems by GEOFFREY HILL Copyright © 2006 by Geoffrey Hill. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Geoffrey Hill is the author of eleven books of poetry. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Hawthornden Prize, the Heinemann Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. He resides in Cambridge, England.
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