A Treatise of Civil PowerGeoffrey HillYale University Press, $16, 64 pp.
Geoffrey Hill’s new book takes its title from Milton’s Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes (1659), but it might just as well be called Recent Poems. Milton is a presence in the book, but only one of many: the summoned ghosts include Wyatt, Bacon, Surrey, Oliver Cromwell, Milton, Holbein, Handel, Edmund Burke, Blake, Brahms, Hopkins, John Cornford, Elias Canetti, Olivier Messiaen, Gabriel Marcel, and Gillian Rose. Hill assembles large companies these days.
Most of the poems are short, and generally lyrical or meditative. Hill recalls with affection and sorrow the English landscapes that have meant much to him, the villages in Worcestershire where he was born: they are different now, sadder places, apparently. His themes are those the readers of his earlier books are familiar with: poetry as a means of survival and in that sense a mode of moral life, the wrenching of truth and meter, language as enemy country, the quest for political justice, the babble of fame, “the things of earth snagging the things of grace,” as he wrote in Canaan (1997).
In “History as Poetry” (from King Log, 1968), Hill refers to “the tongue’s atrocities,” a phrase that must appear lurid unless we assume that language is corrupted, like the other constituents of human life, by original sin. But that indeed seems to be Hill’s convinced judgment. T. S. Eliot referred to “the natural sin of language,” another phrase that assumes language is not exempt from the first catastrophe. But Eliot did not think that faith and writing are one and the same. Hill exerts more literal pressure on the motif. His poems would have us think that language is the expressive form of that first sin, etymology the irregular history of its consequence. He writes as if writing were prayer, a bleak skill but an increasingly weighed and weighted practice, its failure not certain but more than likely in the absence of descending doves and pillars of cloud. But occasionally, as in his previous collection, Without Title (2007), Hill allows a glimpse of hope to appear in the intricacies of language:
Our well dug-in
language pitches us as it finds—
I tell myself
don’t wreck a good phrase simply to boost sense—
granted its dark places, the fabled burden;
its loops and extraordinary progressions;
its mere conundrums forms and rites of discourse;
its bleak littoral swept by bursts of sunlight;
its earthen genius auditing the spheres.
(“Discourse: For Stanley Rosen”)
Auditing: measuring, assessing, but also—just audible—hearing the music of the spheres. For once, Hill alludes almost casually to the dark places of language and its fabled burden, as if (in passing) to those extraordinary progressions. More often, the play of language, rarely playful in an easy sense, seems to be a needy substitute for church and the sacraments. His allusions are intended as spiritual readings, evensongs, litanies, repetitions. When the issues are political, Hill’s references to his ghosts are recognitions of tradition—English but often European, too, especially German—where the past is alive (or dead, alas) in the present.
Several poems in A Treatise of Civil Power are unburdened by these considerations. As a result, they move freely and lucidly on their own momentum: “Masques,” “Harmonia Sacra,” “An Emblem,” and “The Peacock at Alderton,” this last a poem for the anthologies even though it was not designed for that residence. But I find some of the poems hard. Tim Kendall, reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement (October 12, 2007) assured readers that nothing in the new poems “would confound an Internet search engine for more than a second or two.” I haven’t put this to the test, but meanwhile it seems a harsh requirement, that we should sit at a computer and Google our way through a book of poems. Maybe it doesn’t differ much from having the Oxford English Dictionary and a university library at hand, but I haven’t got used to the notion of reading a book in front of my PC.
In The Force of Poetry (1984) Christopher Ricks said “what would be better than any critical study” of Hill’s Tenebrae, published in 1978, “would be a truly annotated edition.” Hill has now written twelve books of poetry, all of them requiring true annotation. Here, for example, is the second, numbered passage of one of the new poems, “On Reading Milton and the English Revolution”:
Radiant urim; also the discreet
seraphic viscera. I say again it
can seem too much. The seeds of virtue
implanted by some mystical generation:
He that hath obtained to know this
goes without answer.
In default of a search engine, I can only report that “Radiant urim” is from Book VI of Paradise Lost, where we read of the Son of God:
He in celestial panoply all armed
Of radiant urim, work divinely wrought,
Ascended, at his right hand Victory...
The Norton Anthology of Poetry notes that the radiant urim were “gems worn by Aaron in his ‘breastplate of judgment’ (Exodus 28:30).” In Milton and the English Revolution, the historian Christopher Hill reports that the Messiah was armed with radiant urim, the stone that in Robert Fludd’s philosophy mediates between God and the material world. The line “He that hath obtained to know this” comes from the second book of Milton’s The Reason of Church-Government Urg’d against Prelaty:
...certain it is that he who hath obtain’d in more than the scantest measure to know anything distinctly of God, and of his true worship, and what is infallibly good and happy in the state of mans life, what in it selfe evil and miserable, though vulgarly not so esteem’d, he that hath obtain’d to know this, the only high valuable wisdom indeed.
Part IX of “On Reading Milton and the English Revolution” reads:
Everything is holy and we will reign
in our young bodies and make good our age.
O earth, earth, earth, Fairfield and Wribbenhall
shall resurrect like Cookham; Bagshot Heath
grow vines: for us—how else should I prophesy,
misguided, misconceiving, mis-inspired?
This alludes to Milton’s The Readie & Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660):
Thus much I should perhaps have said though I were sure I should have spoken only to trees and stones; and had none to cry to, but with the Prophet, O earth, earth, earth! to tell the very soil it self, what her perverse inhabitants are deaf to.
The prophet referred to here is Jeremiah at 22:29.
Such annotations are necessary but not sufficient. Scholars of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound have explained nearly all the references in their poems, directed to the sources often by the poet—as in Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land and more informal pointing by Yeats and Pound. Marianne Moore has given her sources, too. The first necessary phase of reading the obscure poems is annotation: lacking that, we are in a mist. I have no idea what form the resurrection of Cookham has taken. But no amount of such annotation can tell me what the relations are among the several references in the second stanza of Hill’s poem. I doubt that an Internet search engine could lead me securely from “Radiant urim” to “without answer.”
The Treatise of Civil Power ends with “Nachwort,” one of the book’s most straightforward poems, though I believe its claim only in part:
Somehow, with a near-helpless cry, I sháll
wrench out of this. I don’t much have
the patience, now, of the artificer
that so enthralls itself, impels
mass, energy, deep, the stubborn line,
the line that is that quickens to delay.
—Urge to unmake
all wrought finalities, become a babbler
in the crowd’s face—
(For “crowd,” see Canetti’s Crowds and Power, passim.) I can imagine Hill becoming weary of his wrought finalities, but I don’t believe his final protest. I think he would rather cry to trees and stones than be anyone’s babbler.