A Treatise of Civil Power
by Geoffrey Hill
Yale University Press, 64 pages, $16 (paper)
In 1659, John Milton published A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes. His powerful attack against the idea of a state church remains one of the most pungent pieces of prose in the language.
We do not readily think of poets today brooding on the relations between religion and civil power, or between history and politics. Of living writers, only Geoffrey Hill comes clearly to mind as a poet who diagnoses the vexed relations between religion and civil power, who weighs mere infinite love against a finite act / of political justice, who can speak at times in a visionary mode, and who ponders the moral status of poetry, beginning with his own.
Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1932, the son of a village policeman, Geoffrey Hill went to Oxford, where he read English literature and then devoted himself to teaching it (at Leeds, Cambridge, and Boston University). His criticism—dense, high-toned, acerbic, brilliant, and at times grumpy—is collected in three volumes: The Lords of Limit (1984), The Enemy's Country (1991), and Style and Faith (2003).
It is his poetry, though, for which he will always be best known, and rightly so. His first lyrics were published while an undergraduate, and some of these are collected in his first book, For the Unfallen (1958). Four fine volumes followed— King Log (1968), Tenebrae (1978), The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983), and Canaan (1996)—each short, crystalline, and authoritative, along with a volume of cadenced prose pieces, Mercian Hymns (1971), which has worn less well than the verse. After Canaan, Hill has published six more books, not one of which has been an unequivocal success, although with A Treatise of Civil Power Hill is once more writing with authority.
No contemporary poet is as sensuous as Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose verse presses on Hill (not always to his advantage when he copies the poet's mannerisms). Yet Hill can be a sensuous writer, as when he has an imaginary poet in King Log recall his wife's touch, Your mouth, and your hand running over me / Deft as a lizard, like a sinew of water.
Equally memorable are his evocations of the English countryside in this new collection: finches brisking / on stripped haw-bush; / the watered gold that February drains / out of the overcast; nomadic aconites / that in their trek recover beautifully / our sense of place. And one should not overlook Hill's ability to recreate the past. Consider these lines about the London of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones: dung and detritus in the crazy streets, / the big coaches bellying in their skirts / pothole to pothole, and the men of fire, / the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.
That Hill is passionate cannot be doubted: He is a poet in love with the English language, deeply concerned with the future of our common well-being. His, though, is a passion for the irreducible, and a passion directed against those who would reduce it. So we find love turning into hate. His best phrases in this new book speak volumes, as when he talks (with Cromwell as pretext) of our far-sighted blindness, or when he turns to his major theme, civil power, and says, devastatingly, that well-misjudged villainy gets compensated.
In the collections that stamped Hill with the chance of enduring beyond our century— King Log, Tenebrae, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and Canaan—passion is powerfully present but powerfully restrained in the scrutiny of complexity and attempts to streamline it. The best poems are beautiful, severe, and uncompromising in their awareness of moral ambiguities. A Treatise of Civil Power gives us, instead, a Hill who is more direct—and more prophetic.
A major exhibit of Hill at his strongest is “Funeral Music” from King Log. Perhaps the most piercing middle-length poem of the past fifty years, it is not without a religious sensibility, as in these lines, when the poet enters into the mind of a little boy and says, On those pristine fields I saw humankind / As it was named by the Father; fabulous / Beasts rearing in stillness to be blessed. Nor is it without a grim pathos, as in the final lines of this section: I believe in my / Abandonment, since it is what I have.
Hill has long been fascinated by religion. In the early poem “Annunciations,” he makes the apparently straightforward declaration, Our God scatters corruption. To read this line with care is to see Hill's poetics come sharply into focus, for he is saying both that we believe God triumphs over corruption and that God sows the seeds of corruption.
Belief in a victorious God is laudable, yet it can encourage passivity: Since God will make his kingdom come, why act now to bring about justice? At the same time, Hill is speaking of the god of poetry. We like to think that poetry can lead beyond the shuffles of society to a pure visionary land, and yet, at the same time, we know that poetry is capable of corrupting both poet and reader. As Coleridge noted so poignantly in 1796, “Poetry—excites us to artificial feelings—makes us callous to real ones.”
Hill is not a poet of religious experience; rather, he is a poet of the ambiguities, failures, and delusions of religious experience. “God's Little Mountain,” an early lyric, written while he was an undergraduate, sets the tone of much that is to follow. We see the poet climb a mountain that is, at once, Sinai and Parnassus. I waited for the word that was not given, he writes, but while waiting he receives a vision, nonetheless: I saw the angels lifted like pale straws; / I could not stand before those winnowing eyes. The poet falls and lacks grace to communicate what he has seen. His failure is twofold, religious and aesthetic; his tongue has become a stone—and who will prove the surgeon to this stone?
Hill's concern with Christianity reaches its highest pitch in “Lachrimae,” a cycle of sonnets in Tenebrae. It is characteristic of Hill that these sonnets are both tearful (for Hill's religious yearnings and anxieties are palpable) and about tears. One of their media is the “tear poetry” of the late sixteenth century, but no emotion is without a simultaneous analysis of emotion in Geoffrey Hill. Reversing a sentence in Southwell's 1591 Marie Magdalene's Funeral Tears, Hill writes, Loves I allow and passions I approve. Yet, if he approves religious passions, he is also wary of them. Behind the poem is the disturbing thought of Southwell's martyrdom as his finest work of art. Self-seeking hunter of forms, Hill writes, there is no end / to such pursuits. He is addressing himself as much as he is Southwell.
There is a sense in which art—for Hill, as for Plato—always presents the possibility of moral and religious distraction. In A Treatise of Civil Power, he speaks of the pitiless wrench between / truth and meter, while in an earlier poem, “History as Poetry,” he evokes the tongue's atrocities, the moral lapses that a poet can commit simply by talking of the past and present, by turning the suffering of others into art. In “Annunciations,” he turns a grim gaze on artists and those who enjoy art: all who attend to fiddle or to harp / For betterment, flavor their decent mouths / With gobbets of the sweetest sacrifice.
The argument that art makes us morally better does not wash with Hill. And, in his clipped, haunting lyric about a child murdered during the Holocaust, “September Song,” we find Hill acutely aware that, in a sense, his elegy for the child also provides aesthetic satisfaction for himself. This is plenty, the poem ends after thirteen bitten-off lines. This is more than enough. Similarly, Hill is attuned to the ways in which religious art can drop the prey it has within its reach. We are bowed beneath the gold of our icons in prayer but also distracted by their beauty.
For all his moral rigorism, Hill greatly admires certain poets and certain religious persons. Indeed, he is one of the few poets writing today with a lively sense of sainthood, a sense that includes and exceeds the usual understanding of that word. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, exiled to Siberia as a consequence of writing a brave satire of Stalin, is addressed as Difficult friend. Hill points to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his part in the plot to kill Hitler, and concludes, Against wild reasons of the state / his words are quiet but not too quiet. / We hear too late or not too late.
Hill's last unreservedly fine collection, Canaan (1996), was followed by The Triumph of Love (1998), in which Hill's “wrathful self” was put on display, not always to good effect. Speech! Speech! (2000) and The Orchards of Syon (2002) are failures. In these later volumes, his tongue seems to have been loosed by a prescription for Prozac. The verse is slack; alien influences have not been properly digested; he has become too much a babbler / in the crowd's face, as he says defensively in the new volume. Since his misadventures at the start of the century, however, he has steadily been finding a range of viable styles with his most compelling recent books: Without Title (2006) and A Treatise of Civil Power.
This year the poet will turn seventy-six, and, while he still faces the risk of diluting a powerful and brilliant body of work, he also has the ability to write as well as he has ever done. His best work, now as then, speaks of vision and its delusions, castigates the tyranny of simplification, tells us of the dangers attending civil power when we do not recall it to the highest possible standards, and points to the danger of religious forms becoming subject to formalism.
These are things about which we need to think with all due care, for the sake of our souls and for the common good. We need Geoffrey Hill to write well, and we need to learn to read him well.
Kevin Hart is Edwin B. Kyle Professor of Christian Studies at the University of Virginia. His most recent critical volume is Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion (Notre Dame), and his most recent collection of poetry is Flame Tree: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe).