Blackbox Manifold

Issue 13: Karl O'Hanlon

‘Dark with excessive bright’

Review of Geoffrey Hill, Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (Oxford University Press, 2013).

In the medieval schema of the four humours as applied to poetics that appears in her 1993 book The Cure of Poetry in the Age of Prose, Mary Kinzie assigns Geoffrey Hill the realm of choler: ‘the choleric man dreams of thunder and bright, dangerous things.’ Images of light’s violence and beauty are scattered throughout the nine-hundred-some pages of Broken Hierarchies, and it is characteristic of Hill’s contrary imagination that the line regarding light and its absence from Milton’s Paradise Lost that commands his attention is not the familiar ‘darkness visible’, but ‘dark with excessive bright’ (Expostulations on the Volcano, 681). The line can either mean that brightness which persists in overwhelming darkness is more than enough, or that brightness itself in extremity becomes occlusion. In each case, light – not darkness – is ascendant. 

     The fulgent poetry of Broken Hierarchies clearly presents challenges to even the most attentive reader, containing four previously unpublished volumes of poetry as well as extensive revisions throughout (‘The White Ship’, which first appeared in 1958, is almost entirely re-written – a poetic enactment of Theseus’s paradox). These difficulties are not likely to be addressed by coy glances at “time’s passage”, as those who accept Hill’s right to difficulty are wont to do. Nor is it any use attending to ‘the killer line’ without registering the rebarbative style counteracting such lyricism.

     The collective title The Daybooks, containing six volumes of poetry written since 2007, catches their extemporaneous sifting of the quotidian, the patterning of pathos in the finite, including the writing and revising of the poetry itself:

          What am I hymning that is not absurd?

          I have reworked the least of me twelve times

          For Cabbalistic humours, for the dead,

          Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes…

         (Expostulations on the Volcano, 641).

Each of The Daybooks is an experiment in form as well as a sustained act of attention on a crystallising image or theme. Expostulations on the Volcano, in decasyllabic quatrains of alternate rhyme and five stanzas per section, centres on Malcolm Lowry, the alcoholic author of Under the Volcano (1947), and the poète maudit, Hart Crane. Liber Illustrium Virorum – the book of famous men – constellates around one famous man in particular, Coriolanus, adopting a canzone-form Robert Lowell employed in an early poem, ‘Rebellion’.

The third book, Oraclau/Oracles, is a praise-poem to Wales dedicated to Hill’s great-grandfather, and written in the intricate rhyming nine-line stanza of Donne’s ‘A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day’. Clavics is an elegy for William Lawes, the Royalist musician killed at the Battle of Rowton Heath; its sections are divided into an expanded version of Herbert’s ‘The Altar’ and one of his ‘Easter Wings’, which together resemble a key. Odi Barbare, written in Sidnean sapphics adopted from The Old Arcadia, examines the barbarous language of poets. The final volume, Al Tempo De’ Tremuoti, might have been the first Hill conceived, resulting from an experience of Donatello’s ‘Habbakuk’ in Florence, May 2007. Similar to Expostulations, its sections are composed of five stanzas of decasyllabic quatrains, but in enclosed rhyme. ‘The Daybooks’ are prefaced by a Menippean rag-bag of Skeltonics, Ludo: Epigraphs and Colophons to The Daybooks.

      In a 1994 essay on Robert Burton, the author of the 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy, Hill observes of Burton’s style, ‘it must set itself to record, like a day-book, the minutiae of monstrous confusion; it must perforce run and reel with the dreadful European “hurlie burlies”…’ The Daybooks set themselves to ‘run and reel’ with the moral anarchy Hill perceives in our twenty-first century polity, specifically that of England. Their loquaciousness is mortal, a ‘lining of account’ (Expostulations, 674), an ars moriendi: such a style does not brook the wan abstemiousness of the later Eliot.

The great model – or as Liber Illustrium Virorum styles him, ‘seamark’ – is Yeats, who is named fifteen times in The Daybooks alone. These six volumes tune in and out of the ‘clangour’ (a Yeatsian word) of the marketplace in an attempt to bring the mundane into stark parallel with the eternal, to proclaim the ‘hierarchies’. Christ’s incarnation is the primary imaginative act that achieves such a conjunction: ‘The pregnant squalor beautifully told… Even the beastly dung made to shine gold’ (Al Tempo De’ Tremuoti, 889). These lines, however, are ambivalent, vigilant to the threat that such an alignment may involve a specious and conniving ingenuity, just another sales ploy. With Hill, the hierarchies are not restored, but vulnerably exposed.

     While in a very early essay on Yeats, Hill praised the ‘articulate energy’ of his syntax, here the energy pushes articulation to breaking point. In this, The Daybooks resemble John Berryman’s Dream Songs: the same compression of the lived quotidian into wracked vocalisations. The result is similarly uneven: in places, formal constraint results in juxtapositions of unanticipated beauty, such as when the precise syllabic weight of the Sapphics in Odi Barbare deliver:

                                                                 … I am

          Sick of this dying

          Time that bends so beautifully around things.

          (Odi Barbare, 843).

Not only is there a flicker of hesitation as to whether ‘dying’ is a verb, subsequently transformed into an adjective by the enjambment over stanzas, but the unexpected ‘beauty’ of Time’s sinuous track derives from it, the syntax itself bending beautifully around the complex ambivalence of Hill’s thought.

     At other points, however, the sacrifice of intelligibility to form is too severe, often compounded by a predilection for eliding clauses and peppering abstract nouns with adjectives: ‘Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise’ one egregious example of this, though the verse is sparkishly sensitive to the risks it takes: ‘Torching Cabbalah not a fine refrain’ (Clavics, pp. 791, 823). Clavics is ‘the least of me’ referred to in Expostulations and has been extensively revised in the collection. Nevertheless, the recalcitrance of Hill’s style should not be met as collateral in the pursuit of lyrical sweetness: dissonance is a key element of Hill’s texture, and juxtaposition, oxymoron, antithesis the attempt to break into ‘the real order of things’, a phrase from the Jesuit scholar Walter Ong that has a hold over Hill’s work. At its most boisterous, Hill’s experimentation with form possesses courage and tact younger poets can only envy, reminiscent of Hopkins’ syntax’s daring:

          Harmonious colours; dissonances

          In miniature; percussive dancers;

          Rattling cadences, remembrancers,

          Mid-October, best of seasons,

          Zest for the finding flash

          Fruit of the horse-chestnut, its whorled varnish…

          (Oraclau/Oracles, 766).


The tactile semi-colons so characteristic of both early and late Hill are enlisted at the service of the percussion, the ‘rattling cadences’; and they are a porous wall between colour’s harmony in the abstract and its specific dissonance – the difference between the colour “chestnut” and the ungraspable “thisness” of a particular chestnut’s complexion.

     One of the great pleasures afforded by Broken Hierarchies is its uninterrupted movement through the decades of Hill’s technical innovation: from the dense off-rhymed lyrics of For the Unfallen via the ‘florid grim music’ of King Log to the versets of Mercian Hymns, the wintry sonnets of Tenebrae succeeded by dogged quatrains in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. After a much-remarked upon hiatus, the austere, sacred vehemence of Canaan was swiftly followed by the triptych The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech!, and The Orchards of Syon, the first of these Hill’s magnum opus. Its lines have lost none of their power, lyricism offset by a pent anger, ‘lustrous, with their hinterlands of thunder’ (275). The two Miltonic books, Scenes from Comus and A Treatise of Civil Power, frame the return to lyric verse in Without Title, which in ‘Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix’ provides one of the most unanticipated, beautiful stanzas of religious consolation-as-yearning in its close since Hopkins’s ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’.

     That volume also contained what might be Hill’s most esoteric work, the ‘Pindarics’ derived from Cesare Pavese (who is an interlocutor throughout). This sequence has been heavily revised, added to, subtracted from, reassembled like a Bombergian jigsaw. Although decades of research are required (and shall doubtless be eagerly devoted to the matter), a word needs to be said on the nature of the revisions in Broken Hierarchies as a whole. In some instances, the revision is a corrective to formal laxity, as when in Clavics (another extensively-revised volume) Hill shortens or lengthens a line by a syllable to conform to the strict metre he had initially set himself. Another revision seems to recognise the limits of Modernist obscurity, in the substitution of ‘Call guru noises to task’ for ‘Call guru noises inc gk’ in the Hendrix poem (502).

Other revisions are less straightforward; in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy the line ‘covered in glory and the blood of beetroots’ is replaced by ‘covered in glory and the gleet of beetroots’, a scatological internal-rhyme that owes much to the feral ear of Hill senex. The question is whether such tinkering is warranted; it is certainly going beyond the remit of the earliest such revision, the ‘necessary penitential exercise’ of rewriting ‘In Memory of Jane Fraser’ circa the early nineteen-sixties. As with other major poetic revisionists, the sheer scale of the rewritten sections gives one pause (and demands admiration for the editor of the collection, Kenneth Haynes). Nevertheless, some gains are immediately apparent: the revised ‘Pindarics’ possess a new, winning vulnerability; an elegiac sensibility not undermined by erudition; eroticism undiminished by old age. 

     One of the major theological drives of the collection is outlined at the beginning of the augmented treatise-poem Hymns to our Lady of Chartres: ‘that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary… is a sentimental late intrusion that infantilizes faith.’ Hill’s objection hinges on ‘pre-election’, Mary’s free will seemingly compromised in a Calvinist stroke by the solemnisation of the historically-disputed dogma on the 8th of December 1854, and ‘the bond between God and our flesh traduced’ as Al Tempo De’ Tremuoti has it (916). Whatever the theological wrangling on this specific issue, it is fitting that Hill’s poetry of eros also represents the most concerted hymning of Mary since Denis Devlin or the early Robert Lowell.

     Despite Hill’s reputation for po-faced sonority, there is minstrelsy and cutting loose in the fresh material, Ludo in particular. Moreover there is joyful hope: the unstopped last line of the collection – ‘The stars asunder, gibbering, on the verge’ – might seem to drop into Pascalian eternal silences, but it might well be the same ‘verge’ that appears several pages before:

          … Light bending gravity. We shall emerge

          Younger than we are now and see the verge

          Of first love steadying beyond the farms.

          (Al Tempo De’ Tremuoti, 894).

     Even Hill’s detractors must recognise that Broken Hierarchies represents an exemplary labour, a staggering achievement. It makes obvious what can no longer be ignored: that Hill is among the most magnanimous of poets, willing to devote considerable attention to such marginalised and off-kilter figures as Malcolm Lowry and Simone Weil, Christopher Okigbo and Alan Turing. Though scholarly work shall doubtless make ground ‘up the Hill Difficulty’ (Speech! Speech!, 318), perhaps the most sustained and just criticism might demand a new body of poetry, just as Eliot’s oeuvre finds its most impassioned response in that of Hill. Such an undertaking, to paraphrase Hart Crane, will require ‘more than wit to gather, love to bind./ Some reconcilement of remotest mind –’.

Karl O'Hanlon was born in Belfast and educated at Queen's University. He completed his MA as a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University, Washington DC, before starting a PhD at York. He is co-editor of Eborakon, a poetry magazine based at the University of York.