A Treatise of Civil Power
Yale 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 “...