On Geoffery Hill's The Triumph of Love

The Triumph of Love

by Geoffrey Hill

Penguin, GBP8.99, 82pp


Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love is a book-length poem – or a sequential set of millennial psalms (there are 150 parts to the sequence) – that is both terrifyingly brilliant and depressingly self-absorbed and bitter. The tensions that arise in Hill’s work between issues of “the Church”, of the movement of data between the material and spiritual worlds, the interstices and deflections between the private and public spaces, and the conscious and unconscious, are at their sharpest in this work. So is the tension between the lyric and rhetoric, vernacular density and statement, composition and reception.

At its best, The Triumph of Love challenges the certainties and bigotries of The Waste Land; at its worst, it allows laus et vituperatio to overwhelm the beauty of language itself. Not that Hill is unconscious of this. In a way he has made this his subject – the desire to examine the poetic and political/public voices, to assert a “triumph of love” in the face of a civilisation steeped in violence and atrocity. The twentieth century – its wars, the holocaust – works as a locus for his “self” and wider investigations. In a sense, it is a poem that must be bitter – it takes us from rapture to apocalypse in the space of mere lines. It’s also a poem about the place of poetry and art – there are constant references to art and literature – in such a world. The poet questions whether he has a responsibility to write in such circumstances – his most vicious barbs are aimed at himself in this context, though other individuals suffer as well.

The cycle begins and ends with the one-line poem: “Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp.” Meditations and attacks of spleen are anchored in place. Place is physical as in this line, but also conceptual – Western consciousness, Classical discourse, Christianity, Judaism, the State and the individual. The idea of “place” institutes a natural world against which the machinations of free will are played out. The horror of the holocaust, of war, of injustice – is focussed through a transcendental sublime. Hill allows himself the “honesty” of nature only briefly though – human brutality aims to undo both the delicate and the chthonic. The beauty of the natural world is challenged by notions of aesthetic beauty, and as a scholar-poet, Hill is as vulnerable to such protestations as the scientist or politician. He exempts himself from nothing.

For Hill, no moment can be read alone – it has a context. This may be historical, it may be personal, it may be part of the mosaic of “creation”. From the delicacy of: “On chance occasions o/ and others have observed this – you can see the wind,/ as it moves, barely a separate thing”, we journey to:

XIII


Whose lives are hidden in God? Whose?

Who can now tell what was taken, or where,

or how, or whether it was received:

how ditched, divested, clamped, sifted, over-

laid, raked over, grassed over, spread around,

rotted down with leafmould, accepted

as civic concrete, reinforceable

base cinderblocks:

tipped into Danube, Rhine, Vistula, dredged up

with the Baltic and the Pontic sludge:

committed in absentia to solemn elevation,

Trauermusik, musique funébre, funeral

music, for male and female

voices ringingly a cappella ,

made for double string choirs, congregated brass,

choice performers on baroque trumpets hefting,

like glassblowers, inventions

of supreme order?

In many ways The Triumph of Love is a European picaresque of secular and spiritual histories. It is a journey of the self, of moral decisions and recriminations. The physical focus for Hill is, in the end, the flesh of the body and the flesh of England. Poets such as Milton and Blake magnify the struggle between the corporeal and God, between history and prophecy. There is the Milton of the intensely private spiritual space, and Milton of the “people”. Hill writes:

Laus et vituperatio, public, forensic,

yet with a vehement

private ambition for the people’s

greater good – Joannis

Miltoni, Angli, pro Populo Angli-

cano Defensio: this and other tracts,

day-laboured-at, under great imposition:

as powers, far-radiant, inspiring

a broadly conceded European fame.


The gesture here to Milton’s great sonnet “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” qualifies Hill’s dilemma – the struggle between accepting what God has delivered, and the overwhelming inner need to use the “gift” of poetry for the greater glory of God. It isn’t surprising that the persona mentions Donne and Herbert and Hopkins. And it is no surprise that as the poem winds towards its end in Romsley again we read:

So – Croker, MacSikker, O’Shem – I ask you:

what are poems for? They are to console us

with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.

Let us commit that to our dust. What

ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad

and angry consolation . . .

This is an instance of the dark irony that pervades the book. But seen in the light of self-remonstration, it takes on a sad and compelling tone. In conversing with God, and arguing and admonishing himself throughout the work, Hill adds great humanity to his poetry. This is poetry at times distant – it is scholarly and assured, with not a line out of place – but always vulnerable. Even at his most conversational, Hill judges length and metre perfectly. We see an “old man” at the end of a dark century, confronting the implications of God in Western civilization. Having retreated from the public into the page, he is left to discourse with his “editor”, with the implications of language. And yet he is a poet in discussion with his God, his conscience, his learning, civilization, his country, the physical world, his potential public:

I have been working towards this for some time,

Vergine bella. I am not too far from the end

[of the sequence]. It may indeed be my last

occasion for approaching you in modes

of rhetoric to which I have addressed myself

throughout the course of this discourse . . .