Sunday, July 03, 2016

`Weightless Magnificence Upholds the Past'

A friend writes to say he has always admired “Idylls of the King,” the eleventh section of Geoffrey Hill’s “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England” (Tenebrae, 1978):

“The pigeon purrs in the wood; the wood has gone;
dark leaves that flick to silver in the gust,
and the marsh-orchids and the heron’s nest,
goldgrimy shafts and pillars of the sun.

“Weightless magnificence upholds the past.
Cement recesses smell of fur and bone
and berries wrinkle in the badger-run
and wiry heath-fern scatters its fresh rust.

“‘O clap your hands’ so that the dove takes flight,
bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
plunges its wings into the green twilight

“above this long-sought and forsaken ground,
the half-built ruins of the new estate,
warheads of mushrooms round the filter-pond.”

“To me,” my friend writes, “the first stanza is merely beautiful, and at my age sometimes beauty is enough. Hill, a true poet, perhaps the greatest extant a few days ago, is gone, and the poetasters live on, the talentless and the tendentious. `Plunges its wings into the green twilight’—who wouldn’t wish to have written this line?”

Agreed, but I’m partial to “Weightless magnificence upholds the past,” a line that defines Hill’s vital linkage to Western and specifically English history, and to their literary, theological and philosophical traditions. With his death we move closer to poetry’s extinction. Hill famously defended “difficult” poetry in his Paris Review interview:

“Let's take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most `intellectual' piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?”

When an artist addresses difficult things, things that cannot be addressed with headlines or tweets,we ought to be grateful and flattered. He is entrusting us with his words. Take these lines from “Citations I” (A Treatise of Civil Power, 2007):

I think of poetry as it was said
of Alanbrooke’s war diary: a work done
to gain, or regain, possession of himself,
as a means of survival and, in that sense,
a mode of moral life.”

[Go here to read my 2009 review of Hill’s Selected Poems.]    

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