Any would-be reviewer of this large volume is in danger of falling into abashed silence. What can one say about the life’s work of the person who is without doubt England’s greatest living poet, the only authentic carrier of the torch lit by Pound and Eliot? I imagine that those who first held the collected poems of Yeats in their hands must have felt the same way. As Yeats was the brilliant last, late flowering of the entire Romantic tradition in poetry, the same might be said of Hill as regards the hieratic high modernism of Pound and Eliot. The title suggests this strongly. ‘Broken Hierarchies’ immediately suggests Eliot’s sense of our culture as a ‘heap of broken images’ and the project of poetry to both lament and rework that which can be rescued from the past. Hill has always said that his muse is history, and here it is at once plain that his actual, visceral sense of the past: of the history of Europe and its many races, of England’s history and of his own in the West Midlands, is much more of a real presence that in either of the founders of modernism. In fact Joyce might be a closer point of comparison, if anyone.
This volume contains a good deal of work not previously published, and contains what Hill calls ‘the definitive forms’ of previously published work. I don’t see evidence of the kind of wholesale rewriting that Auden, for example, indulged in, but several new sections have been added to ‘Hymn to Our Lady of Chartres’. In that poem also some strange ejaculations at the beginning of two stanzas (Eia!) have been removed. A reference to Hill’s socialist thinker / catholic convert Parisian hero Peguy has been exiled from the original central section of the poem, set in the cathedral itself, to the more discursive ‘foothills’ of the extended sequence. As Peguy famously never went to Church after his conversion this is perhaps appropriate. The replacements for these are harmless, if not especially revealing.
Nevertheless, the ‘Hymn to our Lady’, is now even more radiantly concerned with grace and it’s shadows:
… visible, invisible,
powers, presences, in and beyond the blue
glass, radiantly occluded sion, pour
festal light at the feet of the new poor,
scavengers upon grace…
…. Across France the great west
windows are full of the sun’s holocaust,
the dying blazons of eternity.
secured in mazy lead and bevelled stone.
(from sections 6 and 7)
This incidentally gives the lie to any notion of Hill as being parochially English. This poem is about the vexed heritage of Gothic piety in France, while referring forwards to the outrages of the 20th century and the continued poverty of the 21st, as France’s legions of ‘new poor’ seek comfort by visiting the vast edifice of Chartres. Who but Hill could couple faith in eternity and a brooding sense of its opposite, in one felicitous oxymoronic phrase?
Yet indeed, who else could so simply and vividly evoke the clotted reality of an ordinary English churchyard, its changing weathers, then turn it into a meditation on the nature of appearances:
Sage-green though olive to oxidized copper,
the rainward stone tower-face. Gaveyard
blossom comes off in handfuls; the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown.
Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog…
My question, since I am a paid retainer,
is whether the appearances, the astonishments,
stand in their own keepings finally,
or are annulled through the changed measures of light.
Imagination freakish, dashing every way,
‘In Ipsley Church Lane 2’, from Without Title.
I will leave you, before retiring to silence (and yet Hill is a poet who makes you want to muck in with, indeed to love, the act of writing) with one of his most personal lyrics, from the famous ‘Merican Hymns’. This short evocation of this grandmother’s life, is a chant, a classical lay, and yet astonishing in its visceral faithfulness to the actual conditions of her life; it reminds me of the late, great Seamus Heaney, who knew well the blacksmith’s den, and who would have loved the riddled, brooding reference to the letters of Ruskin to British workers on social change, with their invocation of the moral value of labour and the three transforming powers of fortitude (clavis, the key of Ulysses), destiny (clavus, the nail of Lysergus) and force (clava, the club of Hercules:
Brooding on the eighth letter of Flors Clavigera,
I speak this in memory of my Grandmother, whose
childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the
The Nailshop stood back of our cottage, by the fold.
It reeked stale mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its
low roof. In dawn light the troughed water
floated a samson-bloom of dust.
‘Mercian Hymns’ XXV, page