Language gravitates and exerts a gravitational pull[i]
Poetry is the experience of being, an experience of disclosure in which being is unveiled.
Uncompromising adherence to the harsh truth of humanity, self responsibility and the difficulty encountered when one seeks to express this in poetry, are major themes throughout Geoffrey Hill’s poetic. What the reader comes to know through the poetry is a call for a responsibility to the self, which does not seek defence through history, faith or nationhood.
Willingness to participate within the place of difficulty shows itself in connections with landscape, with history and with those figures who exemplify aspects of Hill’s poetic thrust. Hill is a late romantic poet and is best read through French and German writers. With this framework his work can be read without recourse to external references (even if the poem might seem to lend itself to a literal history of certain figures from the past). His poetry creates from figures of history and from myth a means through which ‘a discovery of oneself’[ii] can occur as Novalis considers:
The sense for poetry has much in common with the sense for mysticism. It is the sense for the particular, personal, unknown, mysterious, for that which is to be revealed, what necessarily happens by chance. It represents that which cannot be represented. It sees what cannot be seen, feels what cannot be felt etc…The sense for poetry is closely related to the sense of prophecy and the religious, the seer’s sense itself. The poet orders, combines, chooses, invents—and even to himself it is incomprehensible why it is just so and not otherwise.[iii]
Hill’s notes provide sources to the reader, acknowledging a process undertaken in the act of poetic creation, not as a means of providing clues to possible meaning. The notes are not the poem, as August Wilhelm Schlegel tells us in the Philosophical Fragments, ‘Notes to a poem are like anatomical lectures on a piece of roast beef…’[iv]. The notes to a poem may make their contribution as Derek Attridge states ‘Further information…may all feed into the singularity I both create and undergo when I next read it’[v]. Hill’s poetic is a search for origins that go beyond representation. The origin of his thought (the references he makes use of, the myths he alludes to, the real or imagined characters) as expressed in his poetry, contains another origin that has no origin - a longing or search for beginnings expressed in opposition to ‘common speech’ and ‘everyday language’. The poetry is a search navigating the original idea of humanity through the density and impossibility of language. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe writes in The Subject of Philosophy:
Poetry thus occupies, if we may say so, that zero space or this nonlocus (but which constitutes perhaps all of space, that is the whole 'internal' spacing of language) which is the dividing line 'itself' between the external and the internal, outside and inside, manifestation and thought. It is a plastic (fictioned) use of language (hence its strength and liveliness, its animating power), but this figuration (this fictioning) is essentially already turned towards the inside, and affecting ultimately (that is, also, at the limit of the concept itself) the ‘signified’ alone.[vi]
The poems of Canaan[vii] seem to address the charge of difficulty, encouraging and directing us to allow the power of the poetry to communicate itself through itself. David Gervais writes concerning accusations of ‘difficulty’:
One understands what makes a new reader use the word - Hill's range of reference is formidable - but the notion itself is in many ways a red herring that serves only to make the poetry less approachable. Poetry is difficult because living justly is difficult. Our priority is to hear the poetry's music clearly, not just to explicate it.’[viii]
Words can surprise by their position in a poem, and by their dislocation from the sense one gathers as one reads; this possibility is created both from the position and from the meaning of the word. It is here that difficulty is situated; it is in this occurrence that one struggles to apprehend the experience of language that is taking place and at this juncture the reader calls upon the power of language as a capability, leading towards a possession of meaning as it is perceived to have been written. Together with this moment there exists a possibility which is also an impossibility, containing or participating within, a willingness to be open to the darkness, to that which is not manifest to the mind, to that which is remote, to obscurity. In this one can meet with language as ‘non-power’ which Maurice Blanchot refers to as an ‘entirely other experience’,[ix] an experience that:
allows no mediation, the absence of separation that is absence of relation as well as infinite separation because this separation does not reserve for us the distance and the future we need in order to be able to relate ourselves to it, to come about in it.’[x]
An element of time exists within this experience of language; there is a suspension whereby a gathering occurs which is immediate. In this suspension of time and space, both enfold and leap beyond the apprehension of the work. Consciousness escapes the concept of time’s linearity, becoming in a continuum which becomes in the reader, opening an ‘inner sense of time’ rather than an extrinsic and mechanical entity measured outside of the self. [xi] A sense of the future as ‘open’ occurs as one reads, and through this encounter with the obscurity in poetic language an experience beyond understanding is accomplished. This accomplishment is not an attainable entity which can be placed there but is an achievement of poetic language.
For Hill, the figure of gravity, as the epigraph to this essay reflects, is important in the context of the poet and language. Hill knows the gravity of language cannot be overcome, but the hope of the poem is that it seems to have been ‘I take no cynical view of those rare moments in which the inertia of language, which is also the coercive force of language, seems to have been overcome’[xii]. This is not an act of combat or struggle, but a willingness, an openness, to be acted upon under language’s gravitational pull, to create poetic language stretched to the limits.
In his essay, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’ Hill writes on the weight of poetic language and the words used within it:
…there is something ‘mysterious’, some ‘dark and disputed matter’ implicated in the nature of language itself. But the mystery is nothing more nor less than ‘ordinary circumstances’, ‘habitudes and institutions’, ‘cultivated opinion’, ‘traditional pieties and naïve beliefs’, what Locke termed ‘the audible discourse of the company’ and Austin designated as ‘the conducts of meetings and business’. ‘Our word is our bond’ (shackle, arbitrary constraint, closure of possibility) is correlative to ‘our word is our bond’ (reciprocity, covenant, fiduciary symbol). ‘Mastery’ is as much is as not servitude.[xiii]
Words have the capacity for closure and for a promise and agreement. This ‘closure’ is not one in which an end comes to the possibility of meaning, the ‘closure’ is in the decision taken to place a word, to choose a word and place it in use. The weight of words and their import contain this double responsibility of which Hill remains acutely aware; there remains a control, a power and an authority in the use of language that contains within itself a dependence for language which cannot be evaded. There remains a ‘play’ in words and poetic language which evades closure whilst still being accountable. The ‘everyday’ of language contains within it the possibility of another mysterious quality.
The mysterious quality of language might be related to the field of quantum physics. Nils Bohr famously commented, ‘We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry’.[xiv] Objects in the universe attract other objects. Masses move toward each other, achieved through the pull of gravity, though there is no known scientific explanation for gravitational attraction. Quantum physicists hypothesise that gravity’s force is transmitted by the graviton. The graviton can’t be seen in the act of observation, but shows itself in what is left over. The energy that comes from the creation and annihilation of matter and anti-matter, appears to disappear, moving to a place beyond our reality, to an unseen extra dimension. What is left over is what is known, but, interestingly, in the measurement of the energy left over, the sum of this energy is greater than the addition of both. The experience of poetry is the power, force and energy discerned beyond the meaning of words and what they might refer to, not goal or intent, but rather, an essence that is sensed in another dimension. Poetic language is the hopeful expression of existence, an intuition that there is a possibility of expressing what it means to exist.
Canaan begins with a long epigraph consisting of three quotations from the Geneva Bible of 1560. These, together with the title of the collection, inform the reading and draw attention to Hill’s recurring consideration of Christian faith and doctrine.
The quotations refer to the wrath of God upon the exiled children of Israel because they have turned their back upon him to worship ‘idols of Canaan’. The epigraph highlights the ambiguous nature of religion and the influences which were brought to bear on the Israelites by their conquering of Canaan. Canaanite religion was deeply influenced by magic, ‘In Canaanite religion the Israelites encountered forms of ritual and mythology that had wide currency throughout the ancient East.’[xv] It was agriculturally based with a deep connection with the land and its replenishment. Fertility gods, Baals and the cult of Ashtoreth (referred to in the epigraph) were intrinsic to the religion. From the point of view of Hill’s themes of landscape, religion, myths of belief and his poetry’s influence by and connection through history, the title and epigraph of Canaan are not surprising, but are nonetheless intriguing. The conflict which the epigraph alludes to is a conflict between a religion founded on deep connections with the land, magic, myth and ritual and a religion of monotheism with ‘one jealous God’[xvi] provides a challenging opening to the poetry, deepening and expanding upon themes from Hill’s poetic oeuvre. The idea of exile, oppression and sacrifice and the relationships between the people these actions affect is also inherent in the quotation, with conflicts of supremacy and various forms of belief being bound up in this.
Hill’s use of sequence in this collection is interesting. Where some poems have been collected in chronological order within a collection, ‘An Apology for the Survival of Christian Architecture in England’ or ‘Lachrimae’ for example, or as a complete collection such as, Mercian Hymns or The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, Canaan contains sequences of poems that bear the same title. The poems ‘To the High Court of Parliament’ begin the collection and end it, with another in the body of the text. Another set of five poems entitled ‘Mysticism and Democracy’ are dispersed through the collection. Poems address figures from England’s past ‘In Absentia’ for example and three are entitled ‘Dark Land’. These sequences are sequences within sequences, relating to each other and creating a sense of wholeness, reaching an endpoint where two sequences are completed in completion of the collection. The dispersal of the poems in each sequence highlights and guides our reading, they take account of the collection’s title and the substantial quotations which open it. Each poem reads as a gathering force from the poems that come before and after, creating contexts for each. In a more stated and overt way (by using the same title for several poems) the poems of this collection offer the possibility of relation within each other bound by parameters created by Hill.
Understanding is possible and can be advanced by remaining within the focus of the textual creation of the poems in their contexts. There is a different form of development in the creation of these poems which goes further than previous Hill sequences. Understanding is accommodated through a complex weaving of possibilities. This accommodation is a harmonization of gathering strength through the poems in growing development of meaningful expression. It is not a compromising move in order to evade the slippery and elusive qualities of language (the knowledge of which is important to Hill and any reading of his work). Accommodation is not a peril for Hill, but rather he eludes any act of compromise in the language of his poetry. He refuses approximation. The poems follow the path where words open together in their inter-connective force, to open up a space where the possibilities for intuitive understanding, the experience of the poem, can be heightened.
The poems of Canaan have a different appearance from the earlier work. Some adhere to a less formal stanzaic and line structure with a substantial use of the hyphen in line endings. The hyphen is not used as a conjunction of words, as Christopher Ricks discusses ‘To join two words by a hyphen effects a union, a closeness, to which the two may happily agree or from which the two may strain to break free.’[xvii]. In the poems of Canaan the hyphen is present as a more stated breaking free, in order to create a break and a silence, effecting a pause for reflection and reinforcement. This is also present in the line breaks and the word’s presence upon the page. The punctuation serves to heighten the impact of the words and make the eyes work harder, reinforcing the notion of the difficulty of language and words, working through and with this difficulty, producing the familiar tensions and ambiguities the reader expects from Hill.
The poems entitled ‘To the High Court of Parliament’ question and address an idea of England and its power as a nation in impatient and disillusioned terms. Reading this in relation to the land of Canaan, a warning of retribution and loss is expressed. The justice and integrity of those in authority is shown to be to the detriment of a nation. The leadership of those in parliament is depicted as one gained from an act of plunder and whose capitalisation ‘privatize to the dead’ has been a theft from the nation. In the first of these poems the lines read as if the words are jarred on the page, reinforcing the idea of an injured nation slowly disappearing ‘like quicklime’ into ‘oblivion’. The integrity of lordship and the desire for such is considered with the lines, ‘the slither-frisk/to a lordship of a kind’. The combination of the letters in the words slither and frisk, and with the words hyphenated, makes articulation extremely difficult. The snake-like allusion of ‘slither’ incongruously joined with ‘frisk’ evokes a bitter disregard for the desire for lordship, one which is defined as ‘of a kind’. Both rulers and peers are included in this, with the ‘as rats to a bird-table’ depicting an inappropriate, unjust system of scavenging. The second poem of the same title has an epigraph from the Old Testament which reflects retribution ‘Amos 3:8-11’. This develops the theme of nationhood and its ruling class with the final three stanzas characterising, but with greater detail, the rulers of the nation. The final poem of the collection and of this sequence reflects back upon the names of those who have contributed to the English heritage in the time of the English Renaissance and compares this to ‘You: as by custom unillumined/masters of servile counsel’ who practice ‘sovereign/equity, over against us’. This more explicit call to social justice and the overt sense of dissatisfaction is a new departure for Hill. These poems contain the familiar allusions to Christian faith and history but place a question mark on the future. The learned knowledge from history and the past which informs Hill’s poetry has been transformed and directed outwards in formal address to a present situation. From these three poems the character of the late twentieth century has been mapped, serving as an opening and closure to the collection. The poems that come between them may be regarded as broad reflections which enlarge their considerations. But perhaps more revealingly they engage with aspects of selfhood in a more stated way than in previous poems. The language retains the element of difficulty already apprehended in Hill’s poetic, but the reader can discern more clearly the creative moment of the poem in the poem.
This point is exemplified in the poem ‘That Man As A Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which is His Perfection’. Once again the poem’s irregular form and line breaks serve as reinforcement to the sense in which each word has been dragged to its finest point of communication. The ‘I’ of the poem creates as the poem is created, with the words opening up towards the final two lines, ‘and know/innocence of first inscription’. The work of words and poetry are shown to be ‘reason and desire on the same loop’ with the imagination striving towards the possibility ‘of sensuous intelligence/entering into the work’. The desire of this poem is the return to the sense of purity which comes from awakening to knowledge informed through and from the senses. The knowledge which is man’s perfection is not that which is contained within the rational or factual areas of knowledge but comes from the imaginative capability of ‘getting it right’ in the created word. This poem expresses poetry’s capability to make sensuous possibilities from knowledge and create an approach towards this. The expression of the ‘spontaneous happiness as it was once’ is also that with which the reader engages in the immediate experience of the poem. The experiential moment when ‘our sleeping nature’ is awakened is the mutual event of the poet the poem and the reader. A reading which is open to this is one which can finely balance the ‘desire and reason’ of poetic utterance and reception, a capability which is possible in the immediacy of the work at the moment of apprehension.
The notion of self-hood is explored in the poem ‘Whether the Virtues are Emotions’. The ambiguous relation between virtue and emotion expand the considerations of the rational, and the spiritual aspects of being human in ‘That Man As A Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which is His Perfection’. An awakening towards ‘mystic equity’ is possible through the ‘inmost/self made outcast’. In this an awareness of Being, where the ‘carnal’ is in disuse and is sacrificed, brings another union, ‘the new bride brought forth’. In forsaking and out-casting the ‘common’ elements of the divine and of love, awakening to the singular and deeply spiritual aspects, another approach can be made towards ‘the Tree of Heaven’, a tree which alludes to the tree of knowledge and to the crucifixion. The sacrifice of self is contained within this bringing forth, knowledge of death and knowledge of good and evil. A virtue is shown to be possible beyond rationalisation and comes from a suspension and sacrifice of self. The expression of this poem echoes through Hill’s poetry, but it is expressed without recourse to figures in history. The words and their form in the poetry have become simultaneously opened out, expressing deeply felt emotions in a more abstract way. In ‘Whether the Moral Virtue Comes By Habituation’ the consideration of virtue is deepened, moving towards the question of the possibility of its being sustained whilst retaining its pure essence, not becoming the ‘common numen’. This is also a consideration for the expression of virtue as the lines ‘…self/expression - you could argue - the first to go -/immolated/selfhood the last’ show. The consideration of love, desire and sacrifice (a consideration close to the heart of Hill’s poetic) has developed, but still retains an ambiguous sense with the words ‘you could argue’. There is no answer to the doubt of the title since this is what creates the poem’s thrust, it is a hopeful meditation upon the possibility of being able to lose oneself for the other. The self opens to the alterity of the other in ‘a rise’ towards ‘deprivation therefore/ dereliction even’ connected with and joining with the natural forces of the earth. These poems open out towards the possibility of a giving which is also related to the act of poetic creation. The giving is a movement towards and a responsibility for the other, there is a sacrifice and loss of self in this movement, a death to life creating the possibility of communicative poetic language. In this volume, what has been evident as a force in much of Hill’s poetry is given a possibility for expression, cutting through to the act of creating and to the aspects of being human in a more manifest expression of his concerns.
In ‘Song of Degrees’ Adonai, the ancient Jewish god is addressed. The possibility of the word and that which lies hidden is considered (a theme which finds a close relation with the word of Hill). There is a more stated relation, with implications for the title of the collection:
It is said Adonai your hidden word
even from security
through energies dispersed
fallen upon stasis
brought by strangers to interpretation,
aspirant to the common plight.
The word, even when obscure, has the capability to ‘declare’ itself. This possibility comes from ‘dispersed energies’ and ‘stasis’ which is a gathering and connection of what might appear to be mutually exclusive and ambiguous terms. The double capability of dispersal and equilibrium are the forces present within words and language and are the hidden essence of poetic creation of which the reader is aware. This awareness is poetry’s power of expression which alerts the reader towards another mode of being, one which can become covered over in the everyday of existence. The ability to awaken towards Being which poetry offers is its secret. The ‘strangers’ who interpret are the readers whom the poets never know but to whom every poem is addressed.
The second stanza moves from the word to a consideration of the ancient people who worshipped the god. They are both ‘unholy’ and ‘prodigal’ which is from the perspective of the Old Testament, but still the words express their foolish recklessness in a way which the reader perceives is one of affection. With the passage of time the habitual betrayal and misfortune of the Jewish nation is linked to their worship and the suffering and exile which comes as a result. The dispersal of the word is also the dispersal of the people, a faith which is searching for equilibrium in the face of habitual misfortune, alluding to the fate of the Jews in the Second World War.
The ambiguity of faith and the ambiguity of the word are brought together in a creative flow, exploring the question of justice, history and sacrifice. This poem has less tangible qualities with which the reader can engage. Without an apparently overt use of figures from history or other texts, it encourages a reading which doesn’t look for the possibility of understanding from sources beyond the poem, the word speaks through the poem and the context it creates.
The poems entitled ‘Mysticism and Democracy’ show a close link with the poems considered so far, considering the political and the spiritual, the inner life and the outer life of humanity, the singular and the communal. The first of these has an epigraph from the bible which concerns righteousness and a call for the possibility of attaining this. Democracy, which is the belief in freedom and equality between people, is linked with mysticism, bringing together once again the contemplation of the rational with the spiritual. The land and territory are connected here in a metaphor of political supremacy, with the mobilisation of people in ‘night marches’, linking with the Canaan of the title. But there is also the sense of meditation where the mind engages in ‘a retreat’ to ‘that furthest point where lines of vanishing converge’ where ‘obscurities’ in the name of democracy can be understood as:
…the Veil of the Nations, the Final
The politics of democracy and nations can be seen as a fiction, as expressed in Hill’s The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (Hill, 1983). The theatrical connection with the idea of ominous prophesy and vision is introduced as a call towards seeing more clearly the truths behind political mobilisation from the ‘intolerable elect’.
The next poem under the title ‘Mysticism and Democracy’ develops the theme of the first. There is a consideration of the misuse of power and a call for justice, which the third section of the poem responds to:
Is it then default that we do not
stoop to their honours? It is not wholly true
that what the world commands is a lesser thing.
Who shall restore the way, reclaim lost footage,
achieve too late prescient telegraphy,
take to themselves otherness of common woe,
devotion brought from abeyance,
fortitude to be held
at the mercy of door-chimes?
The rebelliousness of this call for justice is more stated and more assured with the ‘retreat’ to mysticism of the first poem reinforced with the words ‘reclaim lost footage/achieve too late prescient telegraphy’. The responsibility of individualism and the ethical call towards the ‘common woe’ is a rendering of the justice and human responsibility frequently encountered in Hill’s work, but here, not stated through figures in history or alluding to past historical events.
The epigraph to the third poem in this sequence introduces a more personal voice with its reference to birth and ‘Father and Mother’. There is also a more stated sense of place with reference to the ‘Dark-land’ (a title for three poems in this collection) and a connection which takes the generalised call for social justice in the previous poems of this title towards a sense of personal responsibility. The sense in which Hill expresses a deep connection with the land as an empowering force in humanity reveals itself most fully in Canaan and is developed most fully in these three poems. Once again nature is introduced as a return to the cyclical and regenerative forces which industrialised civilisation has forgotten or left behind in the name of advancement and economic accumulation. Virtue here is ‘difficult to follow’ and one which as ‘English’ is ‘peculiar’. There is a tone of apathy and weariness in the final lines, in which the poet wonders ‘what song has befallen those who were laggard/pilgrims, or none’. The final words, ‘I would not/trouble greatly to proclaim this./But shelve it under Mercies.’ expresses a hope that what has been written will find its place in the future. With ‘Mercies’ the poem calls towards a sense of compassion, pity, charity and benevolence towards England, with her mixture of ancient mysticism and sense of democracy and justice.
With the fourth poem in the sequence there is engagement with the act of writing, expressed as ‘heart’s rhetoric’. The two terms of mysticism and democracy become more interconnected as ‘mystical democracy’, shown to be ‘ill-gotten, ill-bestowed’. The self-reflexivity of the poem shows the hope for the possibility of the two terms being connected and shows that this has failed. The possibility of creating this has been ‘ill-conceived, ill-ordained’, a repetition developing from the words describing the creation of the ‘heart’s rhetoric’. The bitter truth of ‘righteous masters’ is that the cost of democracy has been a lost spiritual freedom. This is not to be attributed to the ‘native’ sense of ‘obdurate credulities’, but democracy as doctrine has the capability of existing beyond those who create it. It exists as a set of rules to which the community adheres ‘as votive depositions’ where its official author which has been elected cannot undo the structure from which it emerges. The restrictive nature of this is echoed in its having been written in the poem in densely compacted words which create in themselves a restrictive quality. The final poem of the sequence, as a consequence of the considerations of the previous poem in the sequence, expresses a felt loss for the neglected spiritual aspects of being human, with ‘Great gifts foreclosed on’ and ‘Piety is less enduring though it endures much’. The grace and humility which comes from a sense of the spiritual is mourned. The lack of comfort and the loss which comes from ignorance is expressed through reference to a time when people would know that ‘Ebenezer means stone of help’. The guiding forces of democratic society are created in a structure which is informed by a self-propagating and ultimately de-spiritualised world. At the expense of belief in the mysteries of life, humanity has become ruled by a rational structure which it has created and from which it cannot escape. The cost has been a ‘vacancy’, a mythless society which for George Bataille is the ‘suppression of particularity’ going on to state, in comments close to the heart of this sequence:
…what is of a sacred nature founds the social bond in an authentic society, but with an aggregate that is no longer founded on social bonding but in personal interest it tends, on the contrary, towards its destruction. [xviii]
Canaan engages with ideas of poetry and identity in a way which diverges from the poetry in earlier collections. Robert Macfarlane views Canaan as the beginning of Hill’s ‘epoch of grace’, ending a ‘twelve-year poetic silence’.[xix] The sense of history, landscape and myth continue to be deeply felt, but are expressed in figures of mood in a more engaged way. The transformational qualities in the power of poetry are held up for investigation with a more stated sense of human responsibility. The poems engage with familiar themes but their poetic voice seeks to go further, to go beyond the point of reference. In this they cut through the familiar devices in a scope that is broad, more overtly denying the necessity for cross referencing. The experience of poetry is where one engages with the words and remains faithful to their import by recognising their relation to each other in the lines. Through this act a more deeply personal evocation is perceived, allowing the reader to participate in their full communication. This ‘communication’ is an opening, it is more than comprehension, which isn’t ‘to say that the poetic works seeks out obscurity’[xx] but is:
…a violent rupture: the passage, that is, from the world where everything has more or less meaning, where there is obscurity and clarity, into a space where, properly speaking, nothing has meaning yet, toward which nevertheless everything which does have meaning returns as towards its origin.[xxi]
As Novalis tells us, poetry seeks to divulge and communicate the most inscrutable ‘revelation of the spirit’[xxii] and the mystery of existence through a shared moment of clarity within the indefinite universe of language.
‘Concerning Inheritance’ exemplifies the complex relations made possible by poetry. The poem considers inheritance in all its possibilities, monetary, literary and traditional inheritance which stands guard and preserves as a ‘…divine shield/over the city’. The words create a paradox of meaning which offer a cynical view but which nevertheless do not deny the importance of cultural inheritance. What is created is a sense of participation and belonging, accommodating a wide and diverse body of people. This accommodation can be reflected under the title and opening epigraph concerning Canaan. A legacy of faith and matters involving the community create a paradox of consequences and an openness for both ‘professors of strict canon’ and ‘enthusiasts of sublime emptiness’. The view is not entirely positive since inheritance can, ‘grant inequity from afar to be in equity’s covenant,/its paradigm drawn on the fudicial stars’, alluding to favouritism and preference bought with ‘half-crowns’ being transformed as being fair and impartial in a system which accommodates such inequality. As the restrictive and dominant faith of monotheism is to be adhered to, there is also a cost involving the accommodation of all views within tradition, especially when it becomes part of capitalist economy. Inequity becomes equity in a society where money is valued and there is no sense of transgressing traditional authority.
The poetry in Canaan traverses the sense in which communities are responsible for their history and traditions. The poems take as their point of departure, rather than overtly alluding to and engaging with moments, events and characters from the past (although these are not completely excluded) an exploration of the essence that might capture what it is to be human, both as an individual and as a participating member of society and of humans as creators of society. A sense of loss is conveyed, coming from a movement towards power that is not ultimately held accountable to a higher being, and a sense of nostalgia for a world which was once in closer connection with the spiritual and mystical elements of existence. Engagement with the rational has encouraged a loss of spiritual belief systems and has been at the expense of the human capacity of justice, grace and charity. In some ways this poetry marks a conclusion for the volumes of poetry that have come before. As an invocation of its time, the poetry remains true to Hill’s desire to engage with the place of difficulty, and with the slippery nature of language by searching though the impossible to define, and hidden aspects which make up human nature and the nature of human communities. The engagement with the past has not been suspended but the engagement has been made to illuminate the transient qualities of contemporary human existence. As Peter Walton writes:
[Hill] is different: partly through the quality of his diction; partly because of the way he fuses past and present. For him the past is not dead. It lives and suffers on.[xxiii]
[i] Geoffrey Hill, The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas (London: André Deutsch, 1984) 87.
[ii] Novalis, Philosophical Writings, trans. and ed. Margaret Mahoney Stoljar (New York: State University Of New York Press, 1997) 26.
[iii] Novalis, Philosophical Writings, 162.
[iv] Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter Firchow, foreword Rodolphe Gasché (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) 23.
[v] Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Language (London: Routledge, 2004) 70.
[vi] Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, The Subject of Philosophy, ed. and foreword Thomas Trezise, trans. Thomas Trezise, Hugh J. Silverman, Gary M. Cole, Timothy D. Bent, Karen McPherson and Claudette Sartiliot (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) 148.
[vii] Geoffrey Hill, Canaan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996).
[viii] David Gervais, ‘The Late Flowering of Geoffrey Hill’, PN Review, v.35.1 (Autumn 2008) 32.
[ix] Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. and foreword Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1993) 44.
[x] Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, 45.
[xi] Paul Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995) 276.
[xii] Geoffrey Hill, The Lords of Limit, 2.
[xiii] Geoffrey Hill, The Lords of Limit,151.
[xiv] Steve Giles, Theorizing Modernism : Essays in Critical Theory ( London: Routledge, 1993) 28.
[xv] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind (Glasgow: Fontana, 1971) 348.
[xvi] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, 348.
[xvii] Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) 336.
[xviii] George Bataille, The Absence of Myth: Writings on Surrealism, trans. and introd. Michael Richardson (London: Verso, 1994) 81.
[xix] Robert Macfarlane, ‘Gravity and Grace in Geoffrey Hill’, Essays in Criticism, v.58.3 (2008) 239.
[xx] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. and intro. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)195.
[xxi] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, 196.
[xxii] Novalis, Philosophical Writings, 81.
[xxiii] Peter Walton, ‘Towards Stasis: A Reading in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill’, Agenda, v. 34.2 (1996) 68.