Geoffrey Hill and The Beautiful Poem

Geoffrey Hill has recently said that poems should be both beautiful and ‘technically efficient. I think I’ve observed before that Elizabeth Bishop is my nomination for the most efficient maker of beautiful poems but this has now got me to thinking about the thorny issue of the aesthetically pleasing. What follows is a demonstration of the Bebrowed line on poetic beauty which (as ever) is provisional, weakly thought through and subject to radical change.

I’ll proceed with Geoffrey Hill and the two ‘In Ipsley Church Lane’ poems from ‘Without Title’ because they seem to be aiming for/towards beauty. This is the first poem:

More than ever I see through painters' eyes.
The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them.
Clogged thorn-blossom sticks, like burnt cauliflower,
to the festered hedge-rim. More than I care to think
I am as one coarsened by feckless grief.
Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone.

But that's lyricism, as Father Guardini
equably names it: autosuggestion, mania,
working off a chagrin close to despair,
riddled by jealousy of all self-healed
in sexual love, each selving each, the gift
of that necessity their elect choice.

Later, as in late autumn, there will be
the mass-produced wax berries, and perhaps
an unearthed wasps' nest like a paper skull,
where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine.
Where the quick spider mummifies its dead
rage shall move somnolent yet unappeased.

This is the second poem:

Sage-green through olive to oxidized copper,
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossom comes off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown.
Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog:

substantially the world as is, its heavy body
and its lightnesses emblems, a glitter
held in keel-shaped dock leaves, varieties
of sameness, the pebbles I see sing,
polychrome under rainwash,
arrayed in disarray, immortal raiment:

my question, since I'm paid a 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,
defers annulment.

There are different kinds of poetical beauty but Hill has always been particularly good at doing beautiful things with the English countryside. The scenes themselves may not be visually pleasing or attractive but Hill shows that language can be beautiful in the way that it encapsulates and conveys aspects of the natural world. This is acknowledged in the first line of the first poem which goes on to demonstrate how a poet can make use of his painterly eyes. One of the bebrowed-defined components of poetic beauty is balance which is different from structure, things stop being beautiful if they go on for too long or if they contain too many adjectives or flaunt their own cleverness/eloquence. The faults are all committed by Milton in his description of Eden in ‘Paradise Lost’ but Hill manages to avoid most of them.

Regular readers will be delighted to know that I’m not going to fret about the presence of Romano Guardini, nor am I going to dwell on the self/selving Hopkins trope but on the way in which language can become beautiful. In the first stanza of poem I, the natural world is used as a frame to introduce the ‘real’ subject (Geoffrey Hill). The first stanza is beautiful because it knows itself and does, perfectly what it sets out to do. We’ll come to the italicised ‘as one’ in a moment but the first sign of confidence and mastery comes with ‘the soot is on them’ which is exquisite in its mode of description and the brilliance of the phrasing. I know that Hill often gets some flak for being overly portentous and that I have often complained about the words sounding better than they are but on this occasion the balance and the turn of this particular phrase is just about perfect. I’m also struggling to think of anyone else (ever) that might be capable of getting away with the ‘burnt cauliflower’ image in this kind of context without it feeling contrived/dishonest/clunky etc.

It also takes a lot of nerve to start the second stanza by dismissing the content and tone of the first with a typically opaque reference to a Catholic writer on the liturgy or perhaps this is a gamble that we won’t bother to look him up. Moving rapidly over the opportunity to psychologise, the third stanza ‘works’ and bridges the bits of self-revelation effectively but the language use isn’t as beautiful as the first- it could be but it lets itself down with the ‘perhaps’ which is in sharp contrast to the absolute clarity of the first six lines. I’m also trying hard to ignore the ‘mass-produced’ / Guardini ploy.

The second poem is an example of Hill’s unerring skill in the words business, the images build at the right pace and are complex enough to avoid clichĂ©- ‘lightnesses emblems’, ‘pebbles I see sing’ arrayed in disarray’ punctuate the things that are described at the right pace and without drawing too much attention to themselves. There is the question of whether he’s too pleased with the drizzle and the dog and whether it’s good enough to be pleased in the first place. The third stanza is typically convoluted but not ‘difficult’ and ‘their own keepings’ manages to dilute what might otherwise be too grandiose for what’s being said. It’s also a poem about the rain, a favourite British concern but he does do it very well- even for this jaded compatriot.

There are other bits of Hill that I do find beautiful but these two are the ones that stay with me as examples of what language can do with the natural world.

Incidentally, for Hill completists, the Google street thing has been down this particular lane and it looks utterly ordinary…

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2 responses to “Geoffrey Hill and The Beautiful Poem

  1. I was very interested in your reflections on these two poems, and love the poems themselves.
    I found myself wondering where the beauty lies in them, for they are undoubtedly beautiful.
    Looking at the first, I would say we find beauty in two places: in the precise observation of nature which (like the poet) we have seen with our own eyes, and in the sound of the lines and words on our inner ear. But we cannot ignore the sinister: those repeated allusions to despair and death – ultimately to horrific dying at the will of a predator. Geoffrey Hill here makes us think on the death and the horror that are present with life and sex and regeneration.
    So there is beauty. And there is truth. They are side by side in this poem. And they are not the same thing!
    To be economical with space, I won’t comment on the second poem – except to say that there are things in his lines here that send shivers down my spine.

    • John,

      Thanks for this, I’m of the view that these are two of his most beautiful poems although I’m not too sure that landscape as internal strife thing works as well as it might. I’m pleased that you like them.

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