We are accustomed to hearing that Geoffrey Hill makes few concessions to readers, that he bristles at accommodation, compromise, and accessibility. And indeed he does in many circumstances. But in other regards, he is astonishingly accessible and accommodating; his poetry opens for a reader, as no other poetry no, a particular, convincing and moving experience of language, one that allows for readers to feel the gravity of words, their pull against and upon one another, and against and upon the self that masters them; the late poetry especially is beautiful in its extreme disjunctures and tenuous conjunctions, whereby we are made aware of the polyphony that resides in the most mellifluous verse.
But the gravity of language can be difficult to reckon with and tolerate if we are left without a sense of the center of gravity of the poetry; the challenge in late Hill is often remarkably simple: what is this poem about? If an answer to that question resides in direct statement, the statement will be undistinguished from others nearby; and it may be apparently only in gleaming and flickering dispersed through poems.
In the case of The Orchards of Syon, the most sensual, passionate, and X of Hill’s late poetry, the poems are about a return of the self to its proper residing—God, I am tempted to say, though the theology is nowhere so overt, and the paradisal dwelling that the voice of the poem conjures, glimpses, yearns and strives for is edenic without the orthodoxy (the Orchards are that place; they are also localized in the geography of England, of Hill’s past, and in the geography and words of the poets, like Ivor Gurney, who Hill takes to have been granted a vision of them too). In a vein more palatable to the secular (albeit metaphysical) imagination, the poetry is about the self’s return to itself, to the more essential being of which it is an extension. In his critical essays, Hill decries a particular form of self-expression, preferring instead the version articulated by Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (in “The Theology of the Symbol” especially): for Rahner, self-expression is an furthering of God’s creation, wherein, contrary to Hill’s hero Karl Barth, God is imminent in the world, though alienated from it.
One of the most difficult things about The Orchards of Syon is the pronouns: the second-person quivers ambiguously between the reader and self-address. That ambiguity of referent derives from a fractured self that is found also in the clash and confluence of voices, quoted and acknowledged, heard and parroted, in the poem’s sections. These other voices provide Hill with support and direction in the movement to return, even as they embody the alienating dissipation of self that he writes to overcome.
The Orchards of Syon is, along with The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech! a long sequence of poems from the 1990s. It has been suggested that it stands to those as Paradise stands to Purgatory and Inferno, but the Dante parallel should not be forced; they are three modes, three vantage points of self-assaying.
Take a section of the poem where clear concatenation of vision is afforded, not only the reader but Hill (I quote from the first edition, rather than from the poems revised for the Collected Poems )
Might gain eras of promise, collages
of dashed peace, many-headed the field
rose, dog rose, tossing in bright squalls,
all things self-verifying. A ferrous
atmospheric tang between lightning-bouts
has similar potencies, its presentiments
in the instant abundance, superflux,
familiar chill inspiration, self-
charged shock beyond shock Show how many
succeed, rising again undiscovered,
turning at a breath: exhalation,
threshold and lintel, the unknown
to be entered, yet to be desired;
on a timekeeper’s schedule if need be.
Exhalation, ah, not inspiration! the Orchards
of Syon exhaling green into gold,
gold to candescent red. Like ancient
rhetoric, both florid and threadbare,
showing the stemma. Light-endowed
among the natural shades and shadows; heavy-
browed barbed rugosa, rain-hackled, a streaming
instant unrecoiled, magnificently
thrown off—the coda,
the invoked finality | the setting-out.
“Self-verifying” not only because they verify themselves, but because they verify the poet’s self; similarly “self-charged” recalling Hopkins inscape and instress, where the self-hood of things is made apparent in their form when they are charged with God, and where the recognition of the world charged with God is an encounter with one’s own self. The act of recognition, of vision of the Orchards “exhaling green into gold” and “cold to candescent red” cannot be divorced from language: “like ancient | rhetoric, both florid and threadbare.”
The Orchards of Syon is the collection where Hill first revels in the magnificent descriptions of nature (William Logan calls them “radioactive”) that, for some readers (William Logan is one), represent the high-points of the late verse. It is also the collection that offers sustained reflection on what such descriptions are worth, and also on whether they are worth much.
No mystery I tell you, though in the first
instance it is a gift, one that you owe me,
the square-stemmed windward I have been brought
to consider, precious as peppercorn
once was. No description
merely for beauty’s sake, so Flaubert said,
or wounded Maupassant, or someone poisonous.
You owe me, Albion, I should have added
in Ivor’s name not mine. Let them be:
tenacity of accent, leaching phosphates,
stringy Welsh poppy, its alien yellow. Is it
anything of significance that I
ceased to attend? Headlands are where ploughs turned
back over Batty’s durance. As I recall.
The labour of the months are now memory,
indigent wordplay, stubborn, isolate
language of inner exile.
The curlew’s pitch distracts us from her nest.
But: end this for all in some shape other
than vexed bafflement; each triangular
wall-cope cladded with tight moss
springy as a terrier’s pelt, buttonhole
emerald polypodae, sprung tremblers
within the burring air of the fell?
Here is a nexus of the concerns that will dominate the collection and Hill’s late poetry (and his early too). The question, “Is it anything of significance that I ceased to attend?” can be read two ways: is what he ceased to attend of significance, and is the fact that he ceased to attend itself of significance? The faculty of attention, which Hill praises in Ruskin, in Hopkins, in Wordsworth, and in George Eliot, is manifest in the powers of description that are not for beauty alone, not for demonstrating what Hill in his essay “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’” disparages as pure mastery and control of language, but in order to return from inner exile, to a landscape of creation, or at least a landscape that implies creation’s consequences and potential. “The curlew’s pitch distracts us from her nest” but the “pitch” of language (“pitch” is a key-word in Hill’s criticism, to be juxtaposed against “tone”) can be turned to return us to a nest, to a dwelling place—but the poet can be distracted by the bird’s “pitch” and by the “pitch” of his own words to attending to the proper object. Ivor is Ivor Gurney, whose exile was real; his poems from the Somme during the Great War recall, in the labour of memory, Gloucester as an idealized country, an equivalent of Hill’s Orchard of Syon or Hopkins’ Goldengrove. But Hill’s hope in attention is irretrievably commingled doubt: he seeks to end in some shape “other than vexed bafflement” and to that end turns to the description of final blazing scene, but the poem ends on a question, throwing into doubt both the accuracy of the words and their capacity to overcome inner exile.
Theology and spiritual writing, for Hill, may be provide one of the chief resources of grammar and rhetoric for his aspirations. He must, as he says in the closing line of LIXIX: “Dig the—mostly uncouth—language of grace.” But his commitment to the Christian narrative and orthodoxy is less sure:
In due consideration of the world’s
bulk and selvage, I envision the Orchards
of Syon in terra cotta and yellow brick;
tracts of juniper; beauty still thriving
on squatters’ rights. What was Lawrence’s
view of The Blind Girl if he ever saw it—
he must have—the two rainbows, the young
woman, unseeing herself, but taken
out of body, as we are, blindly,
by self-forgetting? the sun, the sudden
prism, rediscover their own time,
whenever that is; bending to our level
they lift us up. Hopkins, who was self-
belaboured, crushed, cried out being uplifed, and he
was stronger than most. He said that creatures
praise the Creator, but are ignorant
of what they do. Imagine your own way
out of necessity; imagine
no need to do this. Good story, bad
ending, if narrative is the element
that so overreaches. Providence
used to be worked-in, somewhere. I, at best,
conjecture divination. The rainbow’s
appearance covenants with reality.
I take the final six lines as reflecting Hill’s un-easiness with Providence, with the world story of Christianity; the last two lines suggest that Hill looks only (only!?) to the possibility of an intersection of the sacred and the worldly—God’s presence manifest suddenly—but in so doing, they differ crucially from the Biblical narrative. “The rainbow’s appearance” ought to covenant with man: Hill extends the range to all reality, to all of creation. A more radical statement: all of reality is fallen. A less Christian statement: the incarnation and sacrifice of God-as-man for man is no longer the emphasis.
As impressive as anything in the poem is that Hill remains true to his ambition: for 72 sections, each 24 lines, Hill quarries beauty from memory and attentiveness, returning again and again to retrieve and summon a vision of the blessed landscape; and the poem does not become repetitive because Hill persuades us, through the enactment of his task, that it demands he not only persistent quarrying, but also insistent querying: can the language bear the weight he sets on it, or will he be overcome by its gravity? can he come near to real success? does he project an illusion like a film from Silvertown, or is such an illusion all that can be asked, an aid to assent, to the attention, and to the imagination? and, though it is not as present on the surface of these poems as it is elsewhere, can these landscapes, freighted with history, abused or neglected in the present day, sustain the visionary impulse? Hill would not turn a blind eye to the intersection of politics and history with the aesthetic impulse. And, a third element of the poem, a third source of its renewed energies, are Hill’s interlocutors: other authors who have accomplished or at tempted something similar to him. Not only Hopkins and Gurney, but Celan, Petrarch, Wyatt, Lawrence, Coleridge, and, most powerfully, Mandelstam, a longtime presence in Hill’s imagination, features centrally as an inspiration:
This should be called The Second Book or Book
of Stone maybe, or Tristia, or
You, Mandelstam. More alive than ever,
the barren land abruptly blazing through
with common flowers. How they oblige us;
it is no mystery to them, nor privilege.
Winter is not the same | but, again, we
knew that. Where the sun
reels out slow laden rivers, the genius
of the birches there builds its shadow.
Beryozka, I know this, this remission,
and shall confront my own witness
like a man with a chain-saw, delicately.
Kamen does mean stone, the word
to be proven, as a moving light
narrowly outruns itself on a rail curve;
as the dimmest among us carries his torch
into and beyond the terminus of remembrance;
as the canniest in turn misplaces tape-
records of innocence and guilt, the tundra’s
unnameable lichens—meaning that I
have not found and betrayed them—attestations
bled of all secrets but the first or last
secret of survival.
Mandelstam is thrust to the center, and through the landscape that Hill sets around him, and sets before us, the disappearances, torture, and violence of Stalin’s regime: the description of the landscape yields to, but is not displaced by or simply a metaphor for, the atrocities Mandelstam suffered and witnessed; instead, that landscape contains them, through (I almost wrote “while” but “through” is right) preserving its own identity; to describe it accurately, to see what grace it possesses (the “secret of survival”) means recognizing the history that is a part of it.
Here also is one of the extremes between which Hill’s vision of Syon moves: a landscape that endures, with us and for us, despite us, and a landscape that abounds, for us, through us, and despite us; the drama between the two is played out not only across the poem as a whole, but within any single description:
Black, broken-wattled, hedges appear
thinned through, fields an irregular patchwork,
the snow businesslike. I can record
these elements, this bleak satiety:
accustomed ratios of shine to shadow
reversed; inflected when not reversed.
Closer to nightfall the surface light is low-toned.
This is England; ah, love, you must see that;
her nature sensing its continuum
with the Beatific Vision. Atemwende,
breath-fetch, the eye no more deceived,
beggars translation. Her decencies
stand bare, not barely stand. In the skeletal
Orchards of Syon are flowers
long vanished; I will consult their names.
Climate, gravity, featherlight aesthetics,
pull us down. The extremities of life
draw together. This last embodiment
indefinitely loaned, not quite
the creator’s dying gift regardless.
Clear sky, the snow bare-bright. Loud, peat-sodden,
the swelling Hodder. Of itself
age has no pull. Be ease. With immense
labour he can call it a day.
The poem will persevere another forty sections before calling it a day, and when it does, it is with a blank declarative, to state that a place, the place, the Orchards of Syon, has been reached—but that arrival imposes on us: on our faculties of attention, on our capacities for recognizing creation in our capacity to create:
Here are the orchards of Syon, neither wisdom
nor illusion of wisdom, not
compensation, not recompense: the Orchards
of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.