Welcome to the wonderfully plangent yet stately formal world of Geoffrey Hill's Selected Poems, the representative gathering of many of the Scot's finest works. Spanning five-plus decades, its contents comprise a generous compendium of definitive verse culled from a dozen now-classic volumes including 1958's For the Unfallen, Mercian Hymns (1971), Tenebrae (1978) and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983).
Canaan (1997)? Check. The Triumph of Love (1998)? Check. Or 2006's Without Title? Check. A Treatise of Civil Power (2005)? Nope. No matter. Despite that late-life bedazzler's curious omission, the collection's wide-ranging offerings (just released in paperback) showcase the formidable skills and ever-evolving imaginative strengths of one of the planet's pre-eminent purists.
Intimately familiar with the mechanics of the miraculous, the 78-year-old versifier many consider the UK's best hope for Literature's Nobel Prize consistently tackles the grand themes - good and evil, war and peace, sorrow and joy, reparation and separation - in his reconciliation of opposites yoking the poetry of reciprocity, a feature of his writing most keenly evidenced in the gorgeous Pavana Dolorosa:
Loves I allow and passions I approve: Ash-Wednesday feasts, ascetic opulence, the wincing lute, so real in its pretence, itself a passion amorous of love.
Self-wounding martyrdom, what joys you have true-torn among this fictive consonance, music's creation of the moveless dance, the decreation to which all must move . . .
Hill's oeuvre, considered by some unfashionably difficult, allusively dense and intransigently religious, compares most favourably with the masterpieces of Eliot ( Four Quartets), Hopkins ( The Wreck of the Deutschland) and Milton ( Paradise Lost), all of whom customarily address issues surrounding what the speaker in History as Poetry, musing upon the art "as salutation," terms "Pentecost's ashen feast. Blue wounds. / The tongue's atrocities."
Later, in Loss and Gain, the poem's narrator deftly illustrates its author's profound understanding of the dualistic nature of forces working at cross purposes in the lives of most human beings through the transcendence of poetry's near-prayerful power:
Vulnerable to each other the twin forms // of sleep and waking touch the man who wakes / in sudden light, who thinks that this becalms / even the phantoms of untold mistakes.
Recently, in a rare interview he granted The Oxonian Review, Hill astutely remarked that "the poet's public role is to be first and foremost a poet . . . it all turns on the matter of intrinsic quality. The public role of the poem is to be a stronghold of the imagination," a fact which may, in part, explain the glare-piercing intensity of the author's photograph adorning the 2009 hardcover edition of Selected Poems. An unforgettable image, it simultaneously attracts and repels, almost as if to say, "Read my work, savour my writing; but, beware - although I am palpably here, seducing you from this cover - do not seek me in the poetry for you shall not find me there."
True; however, what readers shall uncover, discover or, perhaps, rediscover? An extraordinarily rich body of work that rarely, if ever, fails to delight, instruct, amaze and astonish "in abundance":
O Love, subject of the mere diurnal grind, Forever being pledged to be redeemed, Expose yourself for charity; be assured The body is but husk and excrement.
Enter these deaths according to the law, O visited women, possessed sons. Foreign lusts Infringe our restraints; the changeable Soldiery have their goings-out and comings-in Dying in abundance. . . .
As this excerpt from "Annunciations" makes clear, Hill gauges the value of a life by its ability to "[i]fringe our restraints" in pursuit of truth and beauty which, by logical extension, additionally involves the neo-classical notion of attaining a gloriously human perfectitude against all odds via resurrection. In their radical sensuality, plain-spoken sophistication and exotic elegance, these poems - these psalms - most assuredly succeed beyond (or because of) belief: What remains? You may well ask. Construction or deconstruction? There is some poor mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy.
But the psalms - they remain . . .
Indeed they do.
Contributing reviewer and In Other Words blogger Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is completing her 30th work, a poetry collection provisionally titled Rogue Lightning, slated for 2010 release.