In his little 1978 poem “’Christmas Trees,’” English poet Geoffrey Hill salutes the example of German theologian and churchman Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who stood against the blitz of Hitler’s ethnic cleansing and died in prison, as a “sacrifice” that “restores the broken themes of praise” to an incredulous world.
Typically, Hill celebrates quiet martyrs. Of the “great soul” Charles Pequy, an “eccentric” socialist who died in his forties a “self-excommunicate but adoring” neo-Catholic on the first day of the first Battle of Marne in 1914, Hill writes The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Pequy as “homage to the triumph of his ‘defeat.’” The dedication of “Funeral Music” to the beheadings and suspect faith of three obscure fifteenth-century English nobles--one of whom requested that he be decapitated in three stroke “in honour of the Trinity,” (as Hill notes) an odd “compounding of orthodox humility and unorthodox arrogance”-- further illustrates Hill’s preference for the extraordinary anonymity of Christian heroism. These are they who call no attention to themselves. Especially not in relationship to Christ. But somehow their fallibility and the faith which possessed them authenticates the continuity of Jesus himself in human history. It is his ability to see himself and the world as a poet, and not as a “Christian poet,” to be ectocentric, not seeing through a dogmatic filter but dimly, that distinguishes Hill as an exciting new voice of devotion.
In “Lachrimae Amantis” (tears of love), Hill whispers the anguish of the agnostic. Too often agnosticism has received bad press as an arrogance that claims there is no God, which is technically atheism. Agnosticism can be an arrogance that knows that we can’t know whether there is a God or not, although I suspect there is a humility implicit in accepting such irony. Conversely, Hill’s is a tortured voice who wants to know God but doubts that He can be known by mortal minds. As such, Hill portraits a corrective respect to Divinity inherent in lowly agnosticism. If God is truly God, there is nothing in us that allows for our knowing Him.
But because God is God, he pursues us lovingly. In sonnet fashion, Hill’s poem questions the identity of one who “sue[s] so fiercely for” the heart. Although left a “stranger to my door / through the long night,” only “icy dew” foreshadows an awakening in the heart inaccessible, “that keeps itself religiously secure.” Nevertheless, there is a panting desperation in the questioning, and to close the first eight lines, the compassion of the pursuer stimulates a reciprocity in the pursued. In his “dark solstice,” the doubter recognizes that the unnamed Christ’s “passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.”
In response, the concluding lines “dream” of communion with the pursuer. The persona hears the “urgent comfort” of an angelic voice. “’[Y]our lord is coming, he is close.’” It is a dream, but the words echo in that delicious state of consciousness where the flap of an unseen curtain at the bedroom window articulates angel’s wings. “[D]rowsed half faithful for a time” in “pure tones of promise and remorse” the voice of the poem speaks inwardly, committing to a “welcome,” even if future, dialogue.
Of course, there have always been strong, immediately recognizable indications of Hill’s faith in his poems. The first poem in his first published volume of poetry, For the Unfallen (1959), “Genesis” starts him off “crying the miracles of God.” Many of his early titles—“God’s Little Mountain,” “Holy Thursday,” “Picture of a Nativity,” and “Canticle for Good Friday”—set up natural trajectories into his devotional writing. In 1996, having moved to America, remarried (this time to an Anglican priest), and having for the first time made significant strides against what he has called an “undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Hill produced Canaan as a watershed crossing into promised land.
Still, in Hill’s most recent volume of poems Without Title (2006), familiar rhythms of ectocentric slogging through his own density echo. In punning, the title reflects his poised humility. In spite of generally being hail as one of, if not the greatest living English poet—Harold Bloom, A. N. Wilson, Christopher Ricks, and John Hollander being some of his most vociferous admirers—Hill remains remarkably unsung in his native land; not receiving the title “Sir” some of his younger contemporaries have. (In a year in which English playwright Harold Pinter accepted the Nobel Prize without the title of his fellows and friends Sir Tom Stoppard and Sir David Hare, the slighting of Hill seems an inverse literary compliment.) More significantly, perhaps, the title reflects something of that “side-glimpse / of feared eternity” (“In the Valley of the Arrow,” 4) still traceable in his poems. He is not entitled to an audience with God, nor does he claim such for himself, his poems or the reader. In three poems of this new volume, he is literally ectocentric, left outside the church, “In Ipsley Church Lane.” He writes not as a privileged insider, but still as one graciously hovering about with the many outside.
In “Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints,” Hill returns to a familiar intersection of his secular society and Christian aspiration. In this poem, it is Christmas or more specifically the twelfth day of Christmas, Epiphany, where reader and author collide. Almost everyone in the West celebrates Christmas which is not to say they necessarily celebrate the birth of Jesus. They get at least one of the twelve days off. The Jesus event has had some meaning and impact on our lives. Christmas is a door the ectocentric Christian can at least pace in front of if not enter. Recognizing this, Hill sets a scene of decorating with “ageing plaster” wise men. As the magi themselves become the “borne” gifts, Hill attempts to “set down” among us the “familial strangeness” of incarnation. Whether or not a positive one, Christmas is a powerful appeal to primal venerations. For some, the family of God metaphor is an unspecific catalyst to faith. These are “mystery’s toys.
The middle stanza of the poem further develops the intersection of worlds with the use of religiously suggestive language to present mundane images. Here Hill presents a church that has a river flowing out of it. He scatters “salt” on the “service” road. Again, like with the reader’s own “familial” connectivity above, “thin rain doubling as snow” seems to have nothing to do with the historic Christmas story. I doubt very much it snowed in Bethlehem at Jesus’s birth. But for natives of the northern hemisphere the coming of snow at Christmas may hold positive romantic lure that enhances the event’s appeal to us nevertheless.
The preparation of the first two stanzas comes to fruition in the third and final stanza, in one of Hill’s most radical interventions of the divine into human history:
Showings are not unknown: a six-winged seraph
somewhere impends—it is the geste of invention,
not the creative but the creator spirit.
“Showings,” in a word medieval, mystic Julian of Norwich used to describe her visions, her primary experience of interaction with God, happen. With the tentative spirit of one ‘without title,” Hill couches the declaration in double negation. But in Isaiah 6 the prophet “saw the Lord” as a “six-winged seraph.” “Somewhere” amidst plaster wise men, rivers flowing out of churches, and snow, epiphany—another word that bridges Hill’s secular/sacred divide—“impends.” The “Epiphany at Saint Mary and All Saints” is not a tale of Hill’s invention but of the Creator himself bursting into the poem.
This epiphany harkens back to poems in Hill’s first volume, “Picture of a Nativity” and “Canticle for Good Friday.” That the “Picture” is of “a” nativity and not the nativity again reflects Hill’s unpresuming nature, as if an outsider, but also emphasizes the foreignness of incarnation. The indefinite article, however, more immediately indicates that the poem is a word picture of a painting. The initial nautical images of the first stanza, “heaped with sea-spoils,” starts Hill in the language of the sea he so frequently employs in his poems. Perhaps this is natural for poets born on an island, but here, by featuring the infant “[d]ischarged on the world’s outer shores,” Hill bridges the gulf between his (and his reader’s) existence in flotsam and divine presence.
The poem continues as a “gathering” of similar contrasts. The “child-king” sleeps in innocence and strength, “undisturbed” even while being surrounded by “slack serpents” and “flesh-buttered” beasts. The contrasts, like incarnation itself, allow us “to recognize / Familiar tokens.” Divine image is recreated in human flesh, and vica versa. “Artistic men appear to worship.” Appearance and reality converge and they “believe their own eyes.”
The “picture” ends “[r]ecalling the dead.” Immediately, this last line refers to the “rigid,” lifeless quality of angels traced into the upper regions of the canvas. Perhaps, it also suggests something of the futility of even the artist’s ability to portray the mystical. After all, the human conundrum is to be able to perceive the sublime but never quite fully; capturing it in any art is most elusive. Still, the end of the poem may also be alluding to the connectivity of the savior’s birth to his death in painting and theology. But in the Collected Poems (1985), the nativity poem is matched on the next page with “Canticle for Good Friday,” which also recalls the dead.
Although the first sentence, “The cross staggered him,” would lead the reader to believe the sole focus of the “canticle” will be Jesus, in typically ectocentric fashion, Hill writes about Thomas. “The cross staggered him.” He is called “doubting” because of what he believed. He believed that Jesus was dead. He had seen him die, taken from the cross and lain in a tomb. He stood beneath the cross and saw blood “[s]pat on the stones” beside him. He “[s]melt vinegar and blood.”
Who remembers Thomas at the crucifixion? He’s a post-resurrection hero, right? But Geoffrey Hill, the doubter, the Christian who sees God from outside the inner sanctum, places him beneath the Good Friday cross. “[N]ot transfigured,” Thomas serves as an emblem of the natural man. Another quiet martyr.
Unable to suffer the “near distance” of crucifixion, Thomas “moved away.” What he wanted was a “miracle,” the breaking of natural patterns by the supernatural. Thomas was enthralled by the “claw-roots of sense,” which would eventually resurrect his faith. But not on “Good Friday.” The miracle of the poem is the proximity to which the divine approaches us. Hill couches the salvific necessity of Christ’s death in cryptic terms of the eucharist. The blood dropt earlier in the poem congeals. The “strange flesh” will be reconstituted “carrion-sustenance / Of staunchest love.” His is our and Thomas’ “choicest defiance;” our redemption demands the death of God and all our “attachments” to him. We choose with Thomas to believe in his death.
“God / Is distant, difficult.” So Hill writes in “Ovid in the Third Reich.” “Things happen.” As a boy, Hill had personally witnessed the leveling of Coventry and its medieval cathedral during World War II. “Too near the ancient troughs of blood / Innocence is no earthly weapon.” Earlier Hill had written “Two Formal Elegies,” “For the Jews in Europe,” sympathetically documenting “the dead, and how some are disposed.” In the holocaust, “This world went spinning from Jehovah’s hand.” Yet, later in “Ovid in the Third Reich,” Hill has learned not to raise himself over “the damned,” as they too are somehow essential to the divine comedy. This strange harmony with divine love suggests that to be forgiven, we must forgive. So the poet concludes, “I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.”
As a devotional poet, Geoffrey Hill uniquely fosters intimacy with God by recognizing his own distance from Him. By referring to Hill as ectocentric—I may have created the term—I have tried to emphasize his humility, identifying with and speaking to those outside the traditional frame of Christianity. As such, although clearly Christian himself, he is not a dedicated devotional poet. Much like Christina Rosetti, devotion is only one of his fields of exploration. Politics, history, love and human relationships are all profitably considered in his work. From the lovely descriptive characterization “In Memory of Jane Fraser” to the playful, “patterned randomness” of “Ars,” all of Hill’s poetry provides rich soil for tillers and toilers. Somehow it all, including the more explicitly devotional pieces, “restores the broken themes of praise.”
The references to Geoffrey Hill’s poems in this essay were taken from Geoffrey Hill: Collected Poems, London: Penguin Books, 1985 and Without Title, London: Penguin Books, 2006.