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The Angel of History

THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE.\o7 By Geoffrey Hill (Houghton Mifflin: 96 pp., $22)\f7

September 20, 1998|JOHN HOLLANDER | John Hollander is the author of numerous books, including "Selected Poetry," "Tesserae and Other Poems" and the anthology "Committed to Memory." He is Sterling professor of English at Yale University and chancellor of the Academy of American Poets

Geoffrey Hill may be the strongest and most original English poet of the second half of our fading century, although his work is by no means either easy or very popular. Dense, intricate, exceedingly compact, his poetry has always had great visionary force, extending from the opening lines of his first book, "For the Unfallen," (1959)--"Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God"--through seven subsequent volumes and the powerful indictment of recent British history in "Canaan." His poems have immersed themselves in the matters of stones and rock, of permanence and historical change, martyrdoms and mockeries and, above all, history and the monuments and residue of its consequences in places, things and people.

"History as Poetry" is the title of a dense, somewhat enigmatic poem of Hill's from a book published 30 years ago. And aside from many shorter poems and sequences, there was his exceedingly impressive "Mercian Hymns" of 1971, celebrating the late 8th century king of Mercia in the British Midlands, Offa, who in the poet's words "might perhaps be most usefully regarded as the presiding genius of the West Midlands, his dominion extending from the middle of the 8th century until the middle of the 20th (and possibly beyond)" and who, as Harold Bloom, one of Hill's earliest American critics, has put it, "merges both into a spirit of place and into the poet celebrating him, particularly the poet-as-schoolboy." (Donald Hall was another such champion, and their very different tastes confirm that neither had a narrow agenda in his praise of Hill's poetry.)

Hill, who taught for some years at Cambridge and who has been living in the United States and teaching at Boston University since 1987, has now written a remarkable book-length poem. Its title, "The Triumph of Love," might suggest the tradition of the allegorical parade, unfolding the relations of some major moral abstraction to ancillary ones and to consequences in human life that proceeds from Petrarch's sequence of "Trionfi" through Shelley's "The Triumph of Life." But Hill is both too knowledgeable and too original a poet, and too concerned with the poetics of history, merely to extend that mode. Instead, the poem consists of 150 stanzas of beautifully and resonantly handled short free-verse lines ranging in length from one line to 57 but mostly from six to 25. The range of variation in diction, rhetorical level, degree and function of wordplay, and along that great spectrum from solemn to funny that true seriousness inhabits, provides in itself a kind of dramaturgy. The poem shifts from moments of densely allusive muttered epigram to more distant--yet always deeply related--moments of meditative lyric, such as Stanza 9:

On chance occasions--

and others have observed this--you can see the wind,

as it moves, barely a separate thing,

the inner wall, the coil, of an hourglass, humming

vortices, bright particles in dissolution,

a rolling plug of sand picked up

as a small dancing funnel. It is how

the purest apprehension might appear

to take corporeal shape.

Or, to get a better sense of one of the varying sorts of continuity between adjacent stanzas, consider what starts out as an insistence on diachronic, historical vision and how it moves from there:

51

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, decency, endurance,

are traceable across the faults,

52

Admittedly at times this moral landscape

to my exaggerated ear emits

archaic burrings like a small, high-fenced

electricity sub-station of uncertain age

in a field corner where the flies

gather and old horses shake their sides.

53

But leave it now, leave it; as you left

a washed-out day at Stourport or the Lickey,

improvised rainhats mulch for papier-ma^che,

and the chips floating.

Leave it now, leave it; give it over

to that all-gathering general English light,

in which each separate bead

of drizzle at its own thorn-tip stands

as revelation.

The particular matter of Love here in part distantly derives from the injunctions at the beginning and end of Part II of Hill's earlier "Annunciations":

O Love, subject of the diurnal grind,

Forever being pledged to be redeemed,

Expose yourself for charity . . .

O Love,

You know what pains succeed; be vigilant; strive

To recognize the damned among your friends.

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