Triumph demands a procession and in Geoffrey Hill’s new collection—in reality, a single long poem in 150 sections—a throng of notables from all epochs ambles in jostling simultaneity past our gaze.[1] Not surprisingly, poets predominate, especially Petrarch who invented and perfected the genre (in his Trionfi of around 1340), but painters, composers, and historical personages also step into position in Hill’s dense stanzas. Twice in the poem Hill invokes Oskar Kokoschka’s 1936 portrait of Thomas Masaryk (now in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh), itself emblematic of historical asynchronism: Masaryk’s outsized countenance floats, against the backdrop of the Prague Castle and Charles Bridge, alongside that of the seventeenth-century polymath Jan Amos Komensky, or Comenius, also magnified (in his 1996 collection Canaan, Hill has already celebrated “huge-fisted, visionary Comenius”), while to the left of both, dramatically miniaturized, the fifteenth-century Jan Hus endures immolation within an acetylene corolla of martyr’s flame. The Kokoschka portrait abolishes historical chronology, and Hill too aspires to such atemporal immediacy. “All things are eternally present in time and nature,” he proclaims in the poem’s climactic section.

The Triumph of Love is unusually capacious in its historical and spatial scope. (Hill’s poetic atlas, refreshingly, takes in and assumes Central and Eastern, as well as Western, Europe.) Even to list all of the names, famous and infamous, Hill inventories in this ambitious work would consume a review. The poem strides beneath the conflicting auspices of two diametrically opposed tutelary spirits: the buffoonish and swilling Trimalchio, from the Satyricon of Petronius, and the seventeenth-century German mystical poet and Counter Reformation agitator Johann Scheffler, whose nom de plume was Angelus Silesius. The device permits Hill not only to play one opposite against another on both the conceptual and verbal levels, but also to adopt a wide range of tones, from the savagely stately (his more characteristic voice) to the petulant and even squalid—new and rather surprising timbres in his register.

Hill is also much concerned with praise and blame, or laus and vituperatio as he loftily terms them. Little escapes his scorn, whether it be journalism or the entertainment industry or high finance or the unworthy among his poetic rivals or, most laceratingly, himself. For all his curmudgeonly wrath, however, Hill remains better at praise than blame, even if his tributes and accolades—they range from figures as disparate as Petrarch, Leopardi, and Montale (to cite only the Italians), to the German opponents of National Socialism, including Carlo Mierendorff and the conspirators against Hitler, to medieval English mystics and theologians, such as the Doctor Profundus Thomas Bradwardine— threaten more than once to overwhelm the wiry but delicate lyric voice that gives the book its unifying grace.

The Triumph of Love, in accord with its double aegis, is at once grandly ambitious and wincingly abject, and Hill’s admirers may recoil from certain passages. He knows his propensity to grandiosity and mortifies himself without mercy. His self-scourging does not stop at an exposure of his own personal resentments, follies, and fumblings, but extends even to his aging body. He is senex sapiens, the knowing old man, but also a stock figure in Roman comedy. Thus, section 31 (in its entirety) reads:


Scab-picking old scab: why should we be


salted
with the scurf of his sores?

Elsewhere, this figure is depicted as a “rancorous, narcissistic old sod,” a grotesque individual much given to obsession, to fidgeting for words, to louche and ineffectual puns (too lame, indeed, even to cite). In a poet of such classical aplomb this proves startling. And yet, Hill has always drawn on his own foibles, as readers of Mercian Hymns, his masterwork, will remember. The difference in The Triumph of Love lies in an unexpected rawness of tone coupled with a sporadic attempt on Hill’s part to incorporate American accents into his repertoire.

Perhaps this effort, fortunately infrequent, is the ineluctable consequence of Hill’s by now decade-long residence in the United States. I for one do not find Hill’s occasional American voice authentic, even if it is intimately allied with his quest for what he calls “a noble vernacular.” But in section 125, Hill writes:



Then there is this
Augustinian-Pascalian thing about seeking
that which is already found.

This is probably meant as parody, perhaps of his Boston University students’ chatter, but that it is not entirely satirical the tone of the entire section makes all too plain. There are a few other such false notes sprinkled throughout the poem, such as this cant:

African new-old
holocaust suffers up against
the all-time Hebrew shoah.
Because he has no instinctual feel for American colloquial inflections, Hill leaves the reader puzzled as to his object in including such asinine parlor-games of victimhood. Indeed, beyond a purely English register, Hill generally finds himself, unarmed, in what he has elsewhere termed “the enemy’s country.”

Even from these cursory remarks it will be clear that The Triumph of Love is not beach-reading. Geoffrey Hill is a poeta doctus in the grand tradition of Callimachus, Petrarch, Milton, and Eliot. His learning is as much the stuff of his poetry as is raw feeling. That both polished erudition and rasping emotion wrangle for supremacy in these pages gives the verse at its best tremendous force. Hill intertwines his long sequence with canzoni that represent his accolade not only to Dante and Petrarch but also, by a subtle slant of voice, to T. S. Eliot. In section 55 he begins,


Vergine bella—it is here I require
a canzone of some substance. There are sound
precedents for this, of a plain eloquence
which would be perfect. But—
ought one to say, I am required; or, it is
required of me; or, it is requisite that I should
make such an offering, bring in such a tribute?
After such Prufrockian vacillations, he makes the canzone his own by evoking a statue of the Virgin disfigured by a wartime bomb:

Nor is language now, what it once was
even in—wait a tick—nineteen hundred and


forty-
five of the common era, when your blast-


scarred face
appeared staring, seemingly in disbelief,
shocked beyond recollection, unable to


recognize
the mighty and the tender salutations
that slowly, with innumerable false starts,


the ages
had put together for your glory
in words and in the harmonies of stones.

Without mentioning Eliot directly, Hill comes to terms with him in these canzoni, the most impressive sections of the entire work. How to write credibly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition with the immense shadow, and shade, of Eliot looming immovably over his shoulder must have represented a considerable obstacle for Hill, both on the technical and on the conceptual —or even doctrinal—plane. He accomplishes this by the invention of a voice that echoes Eliot lightly while managing to falter so expertly as to interrupt the echo just as it undulates outward. Even Eliot’s own uncertainties are too certain for Hill and so he stammers, or (since it is hard to imagine Hill impeded in any way having to do with words) feints a stammer, as a kind of prosodic courtesy.

Hill’s erudition may disguise from the casual reader that this is an unusually personal poem, rooted—as so often with this poet—in childhood. The poem begins with observation of a natural phenomenon: “Sun-blazed, over Romsley, a livid rain-scarp.” And it ends, eighty-one pages later, with the same line, slightly but definitively revised: “Sun-blazed, over Romsley, the livid rain-scarp.” This epanalepsis—or, as Hill says in section 10, “the same word first and last”—is the same device Joyce used to unify Finnegans Wake (and is one of several ways in which Hill pays tribute to Joyce in the poem). Between “a” and “the” the entire triumph of Hill’s poem unfurls, and not solely to thunderous drums and preening cornets but to lesser, harsher, more squirmy voluntaries. But while these circular lines evoke some instant of perception in Hill’s wartime childhood—he was born, in 1932, in Bromsgrove, southwest of Romsley— they also echo Petrarch who wrote, in Lord Morley’s 1553 translation of the “Tryumphes” (the dust jacket of Hill’s book reproduces the title page of this rare edition):


And there on the grene, as I reposed fast,
Sodenly me thought, as I myne eyes up cast,
I sawe afore me a marvelous great lighte… .
A “rain-scarp” denotes the steep, wall-like aspect of a downpour lit up by the sun, as it might appear to a child, but the word “scarp” has military and heraldic overtones too. It is one of those dense, polysemous vocables Hill has always loved and used in his verse; immediacy combined with covert, if not secret, allusion has fortified Hill’s work from the outset. For all his erudition and unabashed pleasure in other languages (he quotes here from Latin, Greek, French, Italian, German, Dutch, and Hebrew), Hill is preeminently what the Germans call an Erlebnisdichter (somehow only a German compound seems sumptuous enough for Hill), that is, a poet who draws mercilessly upon his own lived experience. Hill’s learning, after all, is not what makes him an extraordinary poet (in my view, he is the finest poet now writing in the English language); rather, his stubborn loyalty to the phenomenal in its historic, human depth and its rendition in just and melodious measure lifts him above all his contemporaries. By loyalty to the phenomenal I mean the patterning of objects and events within commemorated time and cherished place:

Widely established yet with particular
local intensities, the snow
half-thawed now hardens over again,
glassen-ridged, or pashed
like fish-ice: refracted light
red against copper. The hedged sun
draws into itself for its self-quenching.

The Triumph of Love contains several such compact, evocative lyrics in which natural phenomena are captured in such a way as to suggest the numinous without betraying of the original object, a sort of lyrical transubstantiation, as in this section on the wind:


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.

The Triumph of Love is a poem of enormous, even overweening, ambition. Hill, who proudly professes his allegiance to the medieval Scholastics, has here attempted his summa. The work encompasses a veritable polyphony of individual voices: the poet himself, an intrusively nudging editor, a grouchy, self-loathing “old fart,” a Nazi officer, a suavely Dantean worshipper, a crass punster, a strict schoolmaster, a dogmatormented theologian. In addition, a jangling welter of themes, ranging from human brutality, especially as embodied in the Holocaust, to pettier injustices, such as the awarding of the Nobel Prize to unworthy poets (identified only as “N. and N.” —fill in the blanks), to matters of chess and canon law, Canary Wharf, Chickamauga, choreography, and even Dutch liverwurst. The poem is a swarming omnium-gatherum of all (one hopes it is all) of Hill’s major and minor preoccupations for the past several decades. At moments, unfortunately, there is something tiresomely Poundian about Hill’s enterprise, as though every chink of every stanza had to be morticed with yet another daub of learned spackle. And yet, Hill’s old ferocity, which together with his magnificence of language has always distinguished him so decisively from his rivals, is still much in evidence.

Towards the close of The Triumph of Love, Hill terms poetry itself, four times in chimed succession, “a sad and angry consolation.” And it is true that sadness and anger are more prominent throughout than joy or reconciliation or even love itself. Given Hill’s tacit subject matter—what he names “unselfbeing”—how could it be otherwise? The love Hill celebrates is a hard, baffled, stubborn, and searching love. Amid yet another busy flurry of illustrious names, Hill notes “the hatred that is in the nature of love.” This ancient paradox (odi et amo …) is meant, I suspect, to afford some reconciliation of the extremes that govern the poem, as though they might coincide, somehow, along Hill’s cortege of words. I am not sure that I find this persuasive. Hill is most superb at what he characteristically terms Trauermusik, “funeral music.” His gaze is not circular, like his master Bradwardine’s, but rooted in the past, and it is there that he is strongest, as in section 77:


I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,
coarse efflorescence over the dead
proprieties; strong words of Christian hope,
sub rosa, the unmentionable graffiti.

No living poet, certainly not “worthless N. and N., now Swedish millionaires” (I take the coyness of the initials to be Hill’s way of reserving space for future unworthy winners), can match Geoffrey Hill at his best, in such “humming vortices.” To have been granted the privilege—one wants almost to say, in Hill’s own terms, accorded the grace—of writing Mercian Hymns or Tenebrae, or even the present poem, cranky and audacious as it is, makes any number of Nobel Prizes appear trivial by comparison.

 

Notes
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  1. The Triumph of Love, by Geoffrey Hill; Houghton Mifflin, 84 pages, $22. Go back to the text.