‘Unction and Slaughter’
Faith and Doubt in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill
by Ratnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson)
The phrase ‘unction and slaughter’, which is from Geoffrey Hill’s sequence about the Wars of the Roses, ‘Funeral Music’, makes a good introduction to his peculiarly grave, resonant vision of the religious life. Like Eliot he attempted to delineate the meaning of a Christian civilisation: its glories and its corruption in time; but in complete contrast to Eliot remained an outsider, a sceptic looking in on a dream of faith. I will attempt here to give some overall sense of this outsider’s vision of faith, a ‘heretic’s dream of salvation’ as Hill himself termed it.
He pursued this vision for over half a century. This was an era, of course, when serious literature and the exploration of religious issues increasingly parted company, but this lack of outside reinforcement only served to strengthen, so far as one can tell, that original impulse of ambivalent fascination. In the earlier work the consolations and tensions of this path are explored through traditional religious imagery – especially the principal narrative structures of the Christian faith – Fall, Crucifixion and Judgement. His later work is more often concerned with issues of polity and society, but especially in the 2002 collection The Orchards of Syon, the possibility of a partial and very personal sense of grace within the ‘frayed cyclorama’ of our mortal life is raised.
No one would suggest that Hill’s poetry is easy to assimilate, but this is due in no small part to the very real difficulties of the task he has set himself – questioning faith, yet allowing for its stringent demands. Hill’s principle muse, he tells us, is History. So this is faith vexed, blood embroiled, deeply aware of its occlusion in ‘husk and excrement’ yet alive and inescapable, as it has actually existed in European history, not as most of us, detractors, or the faithful, would like to view it. The sequence ‘Funeral Music’, (from King Log, 1968) a sequence of 8 unrhymed sonnets, is a good place to get a sense of this vexed collision of faith and history. Here Hill’s famously allusive many-threaded style is used to invoke that confusing period when the English nobility divided into factions and proceeded to destroy themselves – usually known as the Wars of the Roses. In the notes, uncharacteristically provided for this sequence, Hill remarks that it is intended to be a ‘grim, florid music, broken by grunts and shrieks’. His quarry is the metaphysical presence of those dark times, their particular resonance, which for this poet is still an active agent within the national soul. This was an era, of course, when the ornate, florid and ritualistic aspects of Catholic religion had reached their apogee, when priests (often rich and corrupt) possessed great power. An age when devout men could be barbaric murderers and no one would be surprised. Hill says that his sequence is an ‘Alleluia and a commination’ of those times, that is a celebration and a ‘formal condemnation’. It is typical of Hill to combine these two moods into one poem. All of his religious verse, it seems, combines an ambivalent devotion with a strong desire to condemn the violence and corruption that so often surrounds religion.
These themes are well illustrated by the 5th sonnet of the sequence which concerns the feasts of Christmas – in those times a long sequence of saturnalian revels that extended throughout the entire season, making our own Christmas and New Year parties, no doubt, look like dour, paltry affairs.
As with torches we go, at wild Christmas,
When we revel in our atonement
Through thirty feasts of unction and slaughter.
What is that but the soul’s winter sleep?
So many things rest under consumate
Justice, as though trumpets purified law,
Spikenard were the real essense of remorse.
To get anywhere with this the word ‘unction’ needs to be unpacked. All of the dictionary entries, of course, are relevant. Yes, it is hard work, but here the convolutions are precisely weighted, working with and against the grain, to produce sparks and fire. Unction as the oil itself (unctuousness embodied) is as relevant as the ritual and the affected earnestness. Spikenard is an aromatic perennial herb (Nardostachys jatamansi) of the Himalayas, with rose-purple flowers. In medieval times an unction or ointment was prepared from it. So, in these two words an entire world has been evoked. A world in which feasts (religious ritual and much eating and drinking combined) and killing (animals for the feasts, but also heretics as we shall see) are both equally affected charades, decadent dramas, rich in ceremony, but nothing more than a self indulgent show of piety. Eating, slaughter, and enjoying a feeling of religious purification, all a ‘revel’ and the ‘soul’s winter sleep’.
The voice here is both of the times and somehow apart from them, standing in judgement while taking part in the revels. It is a compelling portrait in just few words, conveying the both the hieratic strangeness and the barbarity of those distant times. The stanza continues with a further ‘commination’ of the attitude towards heretics:
The sky gathers up darkness. When we chant
Ora, ora pro Nobis it is not
Serephs who descend to pity but ourselves.
Those righteously accused, those vengeful
Racked on articulate looms indulge us
With lingering shows of pain, a flagrant
Tenderness of the damned for their own flesh:
The angels, then, are far away, and pious chants of praise nothing but a palliative for the heart, like the spikenard. In the last four lines the angels are replaced by tortured heretics. Their self-pity becomes a kind of religious show. Disturbingly the speaker seems to regard that as the fault of the damned, and nothing to do with their torturers. In the first half of the stanza we were won into sympathy with the speaker who both condemns and celebrates the excesses of his time. Now the mood changes, we are reminded that the voice here is entangled in an era when destroying heretics was religious duty, praised by the great and good. This is all very remote and peculiar, but it helps to know that the nearness of the damned to sacred symbols is a theme that returns time and time again in Hill’s verse. In a strange lyric earlier in the same King Log, collection he says:
I have learned one thing: not to look down
so much upon the damned. They in their sphere
Harmonize strangely with the divine love.
(‘Ovid in the Third Reich’)
This is developed more fully in the next sonnet of ‘Funeral Music’, a colon at the end of the 5th signifies that the 6th sonnet is the voice of one of the damned as he soliloquises in his torture, a very different voice from the presumably implicated, though detached nobleman of the previous. He or she seems to be a mystic who has had some vision of grace, the ‘pristine fields’ and been condemned for it:
On those pristine fields I saw human kind
As it was named by the Father; fabulous
Beasts rearing up in stillness to be blessed.
The world’s real cries reached there, turbulence
From remote storms, rumour of solitudes,
A composed mystery. And so it ends.
Some parch for what they were; others are made
Blind to all but one vision, their necessity
To be reconciled. I believe in my
Abandonment, since it is what I have.
I find these lines very moving. Hill has imagined himself inside the mind of a fifteenth century heretic, victim of torture, who remains faithful to the particular vision he embraced, although it was utterly rejected by the religious establishment around him. Everything has been stripped away, his body presumably racked, or flayed or beaten to the threshold of death, all that remains is the blinding vision that drove him there in the first place, and which to be reconciled with is of more importance than life itself. In fact the stripping away, his ‘Abandonment’, has become the guarantor of that vision, it is quite literally, the only concrete thing this mystic heretic has left.
It is clear then that Hill has sympathy for a religious caste of mind, and a deep interest in Christian symbols, also Christian theology – he often refers to the writings of theologians, both well known, and obscure. But what of his own faith? When asked this question in an interview once he replied obliquely with a quote from Joseph Cary:
A heretics dream of salvation expressed in dreams of the orthodoxy from which he is excommunicate. (1)
This is implies that his relationship to faith as a whole is similar to that of the heretic who has been outcast from one particular sect. Lacking the sanction and substance provided by adherence to an orthodoxy, his feeling for salvation can only be a ‘dream’ although it finds expression in the old symbols, no longer carriers of faith, but still charged with meaning and resonance. The implication that once, long ago, he did feel that he had a Christian faith, which was then jettisoned for something much more complex and ambivalent, is reinforced by an early poem from the 1959 collection For the Unfallen.
The starched unbending candles stir
As though a wind had caught their hair
As though the surging of a host
Had charged the air of pentecost.
And I believe in the spurred flame,
Those racing tougues, but cannot come
Out of my heart’s unbroken room
Not feel the lips of fire among
The cold light and the chilling song.
(‘The Bidden Guest’)
Here in lovely, measured quatrains he appears to refer quite directly to a lost dream of faith. It will be a full forty years before Hill, always the most impersonal of modern poets, again deals directly with his personal feelings about faith and doubt. In his rare interviews a recurrent theme has been to pour scorn on the idea of poetry being a direct expression or confession of personal feelings. He has aligned himself with Eliot’s famous escape clause: ‘not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’, with the addition that ‘transcendence’ might be a better word than escape.(2) He does not deny, in any post-modern sense, the possibility of a quest for an authentic self, but simply suggests that the self that is discovered in most modern verse, with its naive, direct reporting of personal experience and feelings, is very far from being authentic. For Hill the authentic must be mediated by the whole weight of cultural and religious history that has gone to make up who we are, collectively and personally. Thus for him the fate of a fifteenth century heretic is of as much moment as the fate of the Jews in the twentieth, which he has also explored in his characteristically oblique way.
To track the development of his religious sensibility then, we must, as with Shakespeare, draw inferences from trends within his verse. One mood, however, is immediately clear – ambivalence, the sense that faith is as much a burden that tortures the mind as it is a way to salvation. There appear to be two stands to this ambivalence. Firstly, as we have seen, he very often expresses a strong sense of the corruption of the religious establishment, and therefore of the very symbols and ideals which it purports to uphold. This is exemplified in the set of two sonnets, ‘Annunciations’, from the King Log collection:
The Word has been abroad, is back with a tanned look
From its subsistence in the stiffening mire
Cleansing has become killing, the reward,
Touchable, overt, clean to the touch.
Now at a distance from the steam of beasts
The loathly neckings and the fat, shook spawn
(Each specimen jar fed, with delicate spawn)
The searchers with the curers sit at meat.
There is a fierce, satirical, disgust here. The speaker appears to be modern in this, the first sonnet of the sequence. He uses the idea of going on holiday to get a tan to express the corruption of the medieval Catholic church, for which killing abroad, presumably in one crusade or another, became a spiritual duty, which could purge one of mortal sins. There is a splendid, visceral contrast between the clean rational words, ‘touchable, overt’, and the ‘loathly neckings, and the fat shook spawn,’ which the priests, rich in indulgences, both feed on and hide themselves from. With this degree of corruption, going right to the very words and sacred texts – ‘the Word’ – which are the expressions of faith, any authentic religious experience is very far away indeed, perhaps only available to those in-extremis: heretics, those at the doors of death, or, even, as he often hints, the damned.
So while this is all about the long distant past (I don’t know of any satires directed at the modern church from Hill’s pen) it seems to me that this is a theme of deep personal significance to Hill. He returns to it again and again, and the sense of outrage and disgust, is palpable, indeed visceral, as we have seen. For this poet, any real religious or spiritual quest, any search for authenticity, will be outside of organised religious frameworks, however much he might respect certain aspects of those ancient cultures. And this brings us to a second kind of ambivalence. The conception of spirituality as one of struggle, of continual crucifixion, in which the different parts of man’s nature are ground together unceasingly, mercilessly, and one constantly grasps after something that eludes the mind; a something that seems to be, almost, a phantom conjured by the fevered brain to torture itself:
I fall between harsh grace and hurtful scorn.
You are the crucified who crucifies,
self-withdrawn even from your own device,
your trim-plugged body, wreath of rakish thorns.
What grips me then, or what does my soul grasp?
If I grasp nothing what is there to break?
You are beyond me, innermost true light,
utter most exile for no exiles sake,
king of our earth not caring to unclasp
its void embrace, the semblance of your quiet.
This is from the third sonnet in the ‘Lachremae’ sequence, from (Tenbrae, 1978). The sequence, subtitled ‘seven passionate pavans’, is based on themes for viol by John Dowland, of the same name. Of Dowland’s original Lachremae sequence it has been said that the ‘suspensions, false relations and the clash of parts moving against each other at temporarily discordant intervals combine in a musical texture of extraordinary emotional intensity’. (3) Clearly these sonnets have a similar attitude to spiritual life. The poems are complex gestures of troubled faith, arising from, but not precisely aligned, with Christian doctrine. The poles of that struggle, nevertheless, are held within a perfectly patterned artifice, grave and elegant, like the discords within Dowland’s masterpiece, which only serve to highlight the underlying harmony. As usual with Hill the speaker in the lyric cannot be precisely identified. There seems to be some relationship to the Elizabethan poet Robert Southwell, who supplies the epigraph: ‘Passions I allow, loves I approve, only I wish that men would alter their object and better their intent.’ So we are nudged towards a voice arising from that time, struggling with faith and doubt in a Renaissance Christian context. Equally clearly, this is an oblique way for Hill to work out certain tensions he feels are important and relevant to people now, and, very possibly, directly to himself.
The speaker has rejected worldly things, knows what ‘ceases and what will not cease’ but finds only ‘harsh grace’ and a god who has withdrawn from his icon, appears to mock, even, with his symbols – the ‘rakish thorns’. The god/man has become the ‘uttermost exile’, unwilling to help those who feel estranged from the world and can only clasp at nothing, a ‘void embrace’ which is itself a mocking ‘semblance’ of the peace of heaven. As a result, the poet is unable to leave behind the world properly, there is no clear, unambiguous aspiration, as is summed up in a neat couplet from the next sonnet:
I founder in desire for things unfound
I stay amid the things that will not stay.
What then is left for the sceptic with religious longings that have no home, no resting place within the ancient temples of faith? Beyond, that is, longing bitterly and impotently for something that cannot be grasped, that may not even be real.
One possible outcome to this ‘doubters’ dilemma’, which in a sense suffuses most of his poetry, is that although he gains no firm purchase on transcendence, there is a celebration of the religious cast of mind even in its vexations. This is expressed in Hill’s elegiac instinct, the desire to commemorate long dead people who wrestled with such matters while alive. In some sense this memorialising is his religion, almost, one might say, a kind of ancestor worship. He looks back to these souls with a sceptical reverence and tries to recreate the world as they saw it, to hold up their vision so that it will shed light on our own times. No solutions are offered for the doubting devotee, but he nonetheless finds solace in the strength of mind, the austere nobility, of others who similarly struggled. The fourth Funeral Music sonnet is especially pertinent in this respect. Situated at the pivot point of the sequence, the speaker within it is a man of faith who wishes he could have been a heathen Platonist, free from, as he sees it, the strictures of a religion he can neither love nor escape from:
Let mind be more precious than soul; it will
Not endure. Soul grasps its price, begs its own peace,
Settles with tears and sweat, is possibly
Averoes, Old Heathen,
If only you had been right, if Intellect
Itself were sufficient law, sufficient grace
Our lives could be a myth of captivity
Which we might enter, an un-peopled region
Of ever new-fallen snow, a palace blazing
With perpetual silence as with torches.
Soul he admires, must settle with, but it is the human heart and its struggles that is his highest value. The Moorish Platonist Averoes believed strongly in Plato’s World Soul, and went so far as to suggest that all human souls are merged within that soul; an extreme form of Platonism, which symbolises for this faith-wracked man a kind of spiritual innocence, in which the mind is free of the contradictions of faith in a corrupt world, and might enter the (wonderfully visionary) ‘palace blazing with perpetual silence’, which he longs for, but cannot attain. The instinct of faith, an inherited ‘expediency’ might be avoided, but not the sense that without the struggle of transient mind with implacable soul there would be nothing left – a ‘waste history’.
Bringing this down to earth a little, what does it all mean for Hill himself? Can we learn anything from his more biographical, later works? Essentially, in his mellowed later period he turns away from the wrack of faith and doubt, and seeks for consolation in a sceptic’s valuing of unsought for moments of vision; moments when, despite all doubt and confusion, in the midst of the burlesque of life, something is revealed that promises and heals even though it cannot be pinned down and attached to any particular faith or philosophy. Such glimpses are revealed in nature and art most often; it is a qualified, reflective romanticism, suffused with dreams of the past, of the English landscape, that he turns to for a counterbalance to the dark struggles with faith and its corruptions that threaten to overwhelm his earlier work.
Already this is prefigured in the magnificent sequence from the 1978 entitled, intriguingly, ‘An apology for the revival of Christian architecture in England’. This long sequence commemorates, not long dead martyrs and heretics, but that whole movement which in 19th century England attempted to revive Gothic architecture, and, so its instigators hoped, the best features of the civilisation that went with those great buildings. Religious struggle is here replaced by a sonorous, elegiac note, where ‘autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods with smoky wings, entangles them…’ and ‘Platonic England rests in its laurels and its injured stone, replete with complex fortunes that are gone…’ This dream of an old England that never was, with its ruined stonework decaying within dripping woods, seems to be of great comfort to Hill. He is aware that the dreams of men like Pugin, who designed gothic mansions for rich industrialists, were in the end quite unreal, a mask for, as he says, ‘mannerly extortions’, in which theology is no more than ‘bedside reading’. However, the overall mood is one of quiet celebration of the consolations of this dream, while facing fully that it was not, never could have been, realised in reality:
So to celebrate that kingdom
the apple branches musty with green fir.
In the viridian darkness of its yews
It is an enclave of perpetual vows
Broken in time.
An apology for the revival of Christian architecture in England is to my mind the most dignified, contemplative sequence of Hill’s earlier work; only the ‘Funeral Music’ sequence surpasses it as a densely layered, multi-voiced expression of the spirit of an age. However, to find this vision fully worked out in a more personal form we must turn to his later work. According to Hill the four collections published since 1996: Canaan, The Triumph of Love, Speech Speech and The Orchards of Syon form a single sequence, regarded (by his publishers at any rate) as a kind of Divine Comedy of the spiritual state (or stew) of modern Britain. Certainly they have an edgy vivacity in which more of the man and his contradictions are allowed direct expression. There is much wrestling with both his detractors and what he regards as the many-headed foes of justice and civilisation. The last, The Orchards of Syon, is a calmer, more reflective work, and it is to this we can turn for a fuller expression of the retrogressive resolutions and consolations that were pointed to in the Apology sequence.
The 72 twenty-four line poems that make up the collection are, of course, dense and allusive, full of obscure, very personal trains of thought: declamatory inferences, confessional spurs, notes to himself shared with others in case we are interested; sometimes an idea is pursed for just half a line before another image arrives. But in any case, here and there he states the territory he now inhabits as an old man, summing up his life and work quite plainly. This from the second poem:
Mystic durables are not the prime good, nor lust the sole licenser…
The middle ground between these is symbolised by the Orchards of Syon themselves, or Goldengove as he glosses them sometimes; an image for all dreams of past ages, in particular a dream of an English paradise that never was, never could be, but has been sustained by people who believed in it down the ages. He now states directly, personally, what was expressed via those Victorian ‘men of vision’ in the Apology sequence: his belief in a dream that allows for its own contingency, its failure within the ruined avenues of time. It is found, earth-wise, heavy, but real, in the dripping Orchard:
Heavy, post-cloudburst, slow drops, earthing, make
dribble-holes under the crouched evergreens.
So far I’m with you, conglomerate roots
of words. I wish I could say more. Even
this much praise is hard going…
Nevertheless it’s here: sodden, glaucous
evanescence; ridged impasto. I sense
revlation strive obliquely in,
thwartways, to our need.
These oblique revelations are fostered by the usual plethora of cultural references; the new note is that of nature in its palpable rawness, at one with the ancestral thickness, the rooted presence of language itself. Hill has become, perhaps without meaning to be, the last of the last romantics, engendering a quotidian, yet visionary view of nature as mucky flux and decay; yet equally, a pathway to a remedial, albeit imperfect and uncouth sense of grace:
– polity! – acts convalescent
with time and matter, each particular seam
of common being; close-set
quotidian marvels, fresh-felled trunks of beech
split thin-clean like slate. I claim elective
affinities as of the root, even.
Even if unenduring. Treat with care
these angry follies of the old monster.
Dig the – mostly uncouth – language of grace.
The roots he has pursued for a lifetime, in art, in theology, in the lives of long dead men, in language itself, have been augmented by eyes open to the here and now, illuminated by the ‘shuttered lantern’ of nature. It is his choice to fall in with the ‘sodden evanescence’ the uncouth ‘language of grace’, and leave behind, to some extent, those ‘angry follies’, his poetic rage against the failings of a religion that could not sustain him. Instead there is Goldengrove:
even as these senses fall
and die in your yellow grass, your landscape
of deep disquiet, calm in its forms, the Orchards
of Syon, sway backed with pear and apple,
the plum, in spring and autumn resplendent…
We are reminded, of course, of Yeats and his decision to ‘live it all again, if it be life to pitch into the frog spawn of a blind man’s ditch,’ his old man’s rejection of his earlier longing to escape from nature into the artifice of Byzantium; but Hill’s reconciliation is at once more mellow and more definite. His decision is to move in realistic faith, from one moment of vision and grace, however dim, to the next, where ‘disparities get spliced and make sense to each other’ (XXXVII) He really has, it seems, left behind his earlier ambivalence. Still there is pain and struggle, ‘dead tragedy threatening’ (X), but, like Yeats, he turns at last to himself and what he can do, imperfect, in the ‘frayed cyclorama’ (XXXIX) his own version of ‘lying down where all the ladders start’:
is self redemption and entails crawling
to the next angle of vision.
Press the right word and the scenes change. Who can
not be affected: Spring releasing, shire
wide, the nature of waters, a world
that flows and rises for us just as you see it?
1) Haffenden, John, interview in Quarto,15 (March 1981), pp 19-22, reprinted in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden, London, Faber and Faber, 1981, p. 98.
2) Poulton, Diana, John Dowland, London: Faber and Faber, 1982, p. 347.
3) Interview with John Haffenden, as above, pp 86-7.