Dawnlight freezes against the east-wire.
The guards cough 'raus! 'raus! We flinch and grin,
Our flesh oozing towards its last outrage.
That which is taken from me is not mine.
- Geoffrey Hill, "I had hope when violence was ceas't", from King Log (1968)
For years I have been an avid reader, and an avid re-reader, of Geoffrey Hill's poetry. I no longer remember when I became enthralled by his verse, but it must have been about six or seven years ago. At that time I had already studied one of his poems, "September Song", in an English course on poetry and drama, but I do know that it was not this poem which caught my attention. Rather, I discovered his verses while browsing through the Norton Anthology of English Poetry, whose fourth edition contains a selection of some of his greatest works, including excerpts from the sonnet cycle "An Apology on the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" (its title taken from a book by Augustus Welby Pugin from 1895), excerpts from Mercian Hymns, and his homage to Helen Waddell, "Veni Coronaberis". The poetry of these verses spoke to me, with their references, their sure sense of rhythm, with their evocative images and - for some - with their epigraphs, for which I have a big soft spot.
In the following years, I kept reading Hill's poems, and when I studied in York for the spring term of 2011, I bought a copy of edition of Collected poems from 1985 by Penguin Publishing. This volume contains the complete first four collections, in addition to two longer poems published separately in 1983 and 1984. This book became a constant companion on my walks around in York, and I would often read it in the Yorkshire Museum Garden while enjoying the peace and quiet of the surroundings and the sense of history which is so very strong in that particular place. As a consequence, Geoffrey Hill became a travelling companion as I explored the streets and history of York, and his poems became part of my understanding and comprehension of York itself. When I read some of my favourite verses, such as "The Laurel Axe" from "An Apology...", or "The Distant Fury of Battle", I immediately think of York in springtime, in its changing moods. It was also in York, in september 2011, that I bought and read his collection Clavics, which was a pleasant return to form for a poet whose verse - in my opinion - is at its best when rendered in verse.
It is fitting, therefore, that it was in York I learned of Geoffrey Hill's tragic passing. I received the news the day after, while accidentally overhearing someone at the University of York mentioning the fact to a colleague. I was in York to attend a conference organized by my job, the Centre for Medieval Literature, and during lunch I came to learn of the loss of one of the greatest poets of the English language. I still carried with me the volume bought in 2011, and I had read the entire "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" on the day of his passing without knowing he was dead, and somehow it pleased me think of this unwitting homage. The day when I heard that he was dead, however, I again picked up the collection and read the beautiful magic realism of Mercian Hymns.
The poetry of Geoffrey Hill has meant a lot to me in the past few years. They have teased my historical imagination with their evocation of past epochs, they have satisfied my delight in rhymed verse, they have dazzled me with their lyrical and playful use of language and imagery, and they have opened up doors to other books and other literatures for me. To me, when talking about Hill's poetry, it will always be his earliest collections I think of with greatest admiration, when he relied chiefly on rhyme but not strictly so, and when he still wrote sonnets. Among his early poems there are many often overlooked gems, some of which are very short, which evoke in my mind an England which is that England of an ever distant past which is partly the reason for my abiding anglophilia - the dark sides of contemporary English culture and society notwithstanding. In a way, Geoffrey Hill's early poems are windows into a lost world - not a better world, but one which it is delightful to explore through these particular verses.
The front page of the collected poems by Geoffrey Hill
Oxford University Press, 2014
(Photo credits, bookdepository.com
As a conclusion to this very personal epitaph, I will include one poem from King Log, whose opening frequently comes to my mind, and which is one of the most beautiful verses crafted by Geoffrey Hill.
The Imaginative Life
Evasive souls, of whom the wise lose track,
Die in each night, who, with their day-tongues, sift
The waking-taste of manna or of blood:
The raw magi, part-barbarians,
Entranced by demons and desert frost,
By the irregular visions of a god,
Suffragans of the true Seraphs. Lust
Writhes, is dumb savage and in their way
As a virulence natural to the earth.
Renewed glories batten on the poor bones;
Gargantuan mercies whetted by a scent
Of mortal sweat: as though the sleeping flesh
Adored by Furies, stirred, yawned, were driven
In mid-terror to purging and delight.
As though the dead had Finis on their brows.
For similar blogposts:
House of Solitudes
Containing "Veni Coronaberis"
The Herefordshire Carol
Damon's Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654
A selection of Geoffrey Hill's early verse