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  Poetry

The Triumph of Love

Geoffrey Hill

Houghton Mifflin, $22


by Andrew Zawacki

One seeks sources for Geoffrey Hill's work not least because of his not-so- latent late Modernism. What one finds is often red herrings. The 11 poems comprising his 1968 collection The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz in King Log, for instance, are supposed translations of an apocryphal Spanish poet who died the year The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. Likewise, as Peter Davidson illustrates in a 1992 issue of Agenda dedicated to Hill, the "Lachrimae" poems of Tenebrae (1978) are an act of ventriloquism, contrafactions of contrived seventeenth-century English poems. In his latest critical study, The Enemy's Country, Hill states, "What we call the writer's "distinctive voice" is a registering of different voices."

The Triumph of Love is also in part what Hill calls, in the prepenultimate canto of Mercian Hymns (1971), "a solitary axe-blow that is the echo of a lost sound." H. B. Hoffman published an "Epic of the Great Northwest" titled The Triumph of Love in 1923, and while Hill might agree with aspects of the author's zealous preface ("With the removal of Divine Providence from the affairs of life, we turn to ego, selfishness, aggressiveness, and the very many other insanities of life"), the prosy narrative is didactic and reaches rosy conclusions about the efficacy of piety. More intriguing is Edmond Holmes's 1902 sonnet sequence of the same title. Like Hill, Holmes was concerned with paradoxes of disgrace and grace, believing that "when with Fate I wrestle for love's sake, / God's kingdom-lost or ransomed-is my stake." But the sequence lacks the formal and intellectual rigor that Hill so capably displays, for instance in the severe compression of "Lachrimae": "I founder in desire for things unfound. / I stay among the things that will not stay." Unlike Hill, Holmes trusts one's ability to "reap as rapture" what Love "sowed as pain."

Most plausible as a source for Hill's collection is Pierre Carlin de Chamblain de Marivaux's Triomphe de l'amour, first performed in 1732. In the introduction to his elegantly translated Three French Comedies, James Magruder recalls Marivaux's pronouncement that the purpose of his art was to make humanity "plus sages et plus humains." Resisting Voltaire's culture of luxury, pleasure, deception and self-deception, Marivaux believed that love alone would render people rational, sensitive, civilized. He allowed characters the space "to know themselves, and to proceed from there."

What may link Marivaux to Hill's seventh and latest individual collection is first the question: Where am I? Like Marivaux's love-baffled protagonists, Hill asks himself this question throughout The Triumph of Love in order to locate himself among the sprawl of its 150 cantos. More important is the spirit of indignation that Hill shares not only with Marivaux, but also with other masters informing this long poem, which Hill describes as Laus et vituperatio, or praise and opposition. Among them is Dryden, who, as Hill argues in The Enemy's Country, demonstrates that "a poet's rhythms are not his utterance so much as his resistance." Likewise, Hill credits Sidney and Milton, saying, "I am glad to have learned how it goes: your voices pitched exactly- / somewhere-between Laus Deo and defiance." He places Montale "high among the virtuous avvocati," based on his "decorum / aloof from conformity" and his "civic conscience / attested by comedy." Elsewhere he acknowledges "radical" Hobbes, Peguy (subject of Hill's 1983 collection The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy), Bernanos, Blake, Radnoti, Wat, Picasso, Goya, Haydn, Holst, Bartok, and biblical figures from Isaiah and Ezekial to Ruth and especially Daniel.

While Hill claims that Laus et vituperatio is "the worst / remembered, least understood, of the modes," his poem is an impressive apology for the obscured form extending from Menippus and Petronius Arbiter, whom Hill asks in the third canto to "carry us with you to the house of correction." He refuses to allow the mode to become like "the moral / imagination an eccentric failure":


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
Laus et vituperatio, lost, rediscovered,
renewed on few occasions this century (XXVI)

In attempting to situate himself in his poem, and his poem within the form's genealogy, Hill imagines criticisms of himself as a "rancourous, narcissistic old sod," "scab-picking old scab" and "obnoxious chthonic old fart." He levels invectives intended to criticize the critics (whom he encodes MacSikker, Sean O'Shem, and Croker) telling them to "bugger you," "up / yours" and "eat / shit." Despite the encouragement of divagation in Menippean satire, Hill's defensive satyricondescension, however humorous, can be distracting and petty, even if his critics are misguided. He might have better minded Pound's chapter "On Answering Critics" in Guide to Kulchur: "If wrong, the critic is possibly an ass, in any case the work outlasts him, and he is not worth a reply."

Hill's more urgent and compelling vituperations are directed at the bestial acts and omissions of this and every century, not least the World Wars, the Holocaust, and a sordid history of English colonialism. He has a litany of names for the guilty: "illuminati of smoke and stench," "market-place charlatans and gross sibyls, / guilds of inclusive debasement," "vassal- / lord-puppet-stutterers" accompanied in "sacral baseness" by henchmen "like kings at stool." Interrogating "by what authority such things are committed," Hill blames organized religion for much cruelty and incredulity, destruction and denial. He admits surprise that the "comedy" of Christ's ritual resurrection not only "never self-destructs," but also that "actually it is strengthened-if / attenuation is strength." Consequently, Hill finds it difficult, if not impossible, to avow a Church representing "synchronized genuflection" and genocide. While nothing in The Triumph of Love articulates Hill's resistant spirituality as precisely as the opening of "To William Cobbett: In Absentia" from his previous volume Canaan-"I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site"-he bears witness to the fallen with newfound intensity:


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
committed in absentia to solemn elevation,
Trauermusik, musique funebre, funeral
music, for male and female
voices ringingly a cappella
like glassblowers, inventions
of supreme order? (XIII)

Hill attempts a "slow haul to forgive," but his righteous anger at what Burns termed "man's inhumanity to man" tends to be ameliorated not by absolving the aggressors, but by sympathizing with the countless thousands who mourn: "you cannot / cease feeling their uncouth terror, whose flesh / is our own." Recalling that the root of martyr is witness, Hill arrogates "daily acknowledgment / of what is owed the dead." He laments the erosion of collective recollection, chastising England as "a nation / with so many memorials but no memory," where, absurdly, war veterans are treated with ingratitude or amnesia while rare deer and cattle are coddled. Struggling to reconcile "Pity or Terror with the justice / of their dereliction" while understanding the potential danger of making art out of the exterminated, he responsibly engages Adorno's admonition, saying that in attending atrocity "we must be brought / hard up against the unlovely / body of Aesthetics." In his motions toward a "noble vernacular," he asks Vergine bella collective forgiveness for "over- / righteous indignation, the self-approving / obtuse wisdom after the event, / our aesthetics and our crude arrangements"; yet he never relinquishes the admirable conviction that "shaping, / voicing, are types of civic action."

As critic Henry Hart has argued, Hill has always questioned Eliot's purgative imperatives, believing that metaphysical quietism is suicidal where slaughter is endemic. Hill reasons, "Suppose I cannot / unearth what it was they buried: research / is not anamnesis," just as in The Lords of Limit he had wisely dismissed H. A. Williams's assertion that "the academic study of prayer may lead a man to pray." Yet in this volume he continues to pursue an apparently absent Creator's grace in the hope of "our arrival / at a necessary salvation." In seeking to "grasp once, in emulation, / work of the absolute, origin-creating mind" through language and its devastating, empowering silence, Hill turns his "kermesse of wrath" into a song of praise, though he never concedes that poetry is more than "a sad and angry consolation." His faith, while often faint, is never feigned: "The grasp of true religious experience is a privilege reserved for very few," he observed in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation; so the poet must "make lyrical poetry out of a much more common situation-the sense of not being able to grasp true religious experience." With the aid of invoked Angels, Hill alights on an experience as close to visionary as possible in this secular century:


On chance occasions-
and others have observed this-you can see the wind,
as it moves, barely a separate thing,
the inner wall, the cell, of an hourglass, humming
vortices, bright particles in dissolution,
a roiling plug of sand picked up
as a small dancing funnel. It is how
the purest apprehension might appear
to take corporeal shape. (IX)

In finally asking "Where / was I?"-in history, within language and the poetic tradition-Hill submits his agenbite of inwit to a commodius vicus of recirculation, as the last canto ends the poem where the first began. Hill negotiates his awesome, uncomfortable themes by means of a poetic mode which, while premised on accretion, rarely rescinds the stringency of its individual cantos. Like the snow he describes as a modality of faith, Hill's The Triumph of Love is "widely established yet with particular / local intensities," a marriage of spirit to form he has elsewhere characterized as "at-one-ment"-or atonement. His austere compassion is "turbulently at rest" and, at its acute angle of repose, moving:


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, decay, endurance,
are traceable across the faults. (LI)

Originally published in the February/March 1999 issue of Boston Review



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