A Week in Books: Hard lines from the bitter bard

The Bishop of Poetry delivers a great sermon
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SOMETIME VERY soon, Tony Blair will cast a busy eye over the names just proposed to him as candidates for Poet Laureate: Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney and Andrew Motion. This odd rigmarole, whereby the PM chooses from a preselected shortlist, exactly mirrors the appointment of bishops in the Church of England. Yet the most purely episcopal figure in British poetry hardly made the initial gossip, let alone the final cut.

Geoffrey Hill's new book-length, 150-section poem, The Triumph of Love (Penguin, pounds 8.99), caps a career that began in 1959, when this police constable's son from deep in the Archers country of Worcestershire published his first collection, For the Unfallen. Hill's academic career has since taken him from Leeds via Cambridge to Boston, but those Middle-English benchmarks do point to his work's foundations. Ted Hughes aside, no poet since the Eliot of Four Quartets has dug deeper into a mystical ideal of Englishness revealed in religion, literature and landscape. And no poet since the Pound of the Cantos has flayed more savagely the brutish modern life that saps the faith and mind of "a nation/ with so many memorials but no memory".

Its title taken from Petrarch, The Triumph of Love mingles an appeal to the Blessed Virgin on behalf of our bloodstained century with much vituperative satire and an elegy for the ineffable losses of the Holocaust and the Flanders trenches. Sometimes, the tone lightens into flashes of childhood memoir, with scabrously funny bursts of self-analysis. The poet portrays himself as a "rancorous, narcisistic old sod" - half Jeremiah, half Alf Garnett. His imagination a "kermesse of wrath and resentment", he upsets a forgetful present with guilty memories.

Knotted, dense, but harshly comic, Hill makes no concessions to dumbed- down modernity ("these strange children/ pitiless in their ignorance and contempt") with the vast range of his allusions. In this company, "Benn" will signify the German poet Gottfried, not Tony. Throughout, however, a bemused editor-figure ("ED") stands in for the sceptical reader and even glosses a few of the more abstruse passages. Yet Hill's lines prickle with a salty slang, and he often dives into a much more demotic mode. Even Gracie Fields turns up in one of several Second World War fragments, "She and her armed/ aspidistra, last off the beaches".

His satirical voice is sharp and knowing; it will not not take much sleuthing to identify "N. and N.", those "worthless" contemporary poets made "Swedish millionaires" (by the Nobel Prize?). And when Hill snipes at "the legends that now circulate/ about Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs" (where I type these lines), we poor hacks can be sure that yes, he does mean us, as we hasten the time's ruin with our "entertainment overkill".

Half-smothered by this acrimony, yet sprouting like stray flowers in asphalt, Hill's lyric gift makes itself felt now and again. Then, some heart-stopping cadence distilled from the landscapes of his youth will recall the best of Pound: "The common/ elm - ulmus procera - also gone/ under, with the shires; though deer/ are cared for, and the rare white cattle; as/ is memory in this tranche of frozen sunlight."

For Hill, as for all the backward-glancing Modernists who descend from Eliot and Pound, the rot began centuries ago. He notes that "`mob' and `fun' came in at the same time": in the late 17th century, Eliot's date for a "dissociation of sensibility" that wrecked the Church - and the verse - of England. Take this sacramental politics seriously (which nobody, thank heavens, does), and you might end up advocating an Anglican Taliban with croziers and chasubles - and auto-da-fes on the village green.

Theocracy, Hill knows, is hardly on the cards. He spots every hellish pitfall of such nostalgia - more so than Eliot, who failed to square the Holocaust's reality with his lofty Christian ideal. Hill, in contrast, never takes his grieving eye off that flame. His poetry merely hopes to give "a sad and angry consolation".

"The odds/ are against High Prophecy", Hill understands. It beggars all belief to imagine a poet of his finesse and asperity lauding the nuptials of some Windsor princeling. No matter: The Triumph of Love counts as one of the finest long works from a postwar poet in England. (Not the finest, perhaps; in my view, Basil Bunting's Briggflats stands alone.) Hill takes us on a death-shadowed walk, down "the cinder-path by the old scythe-works", from the Black Country to Buchenwald and beyond. Along the way, glimpses of unearthly beauty mix with ashen mourning, acrid rage and a spatter of sour jokes. Follow him, with a keen ear and an open mind, and "There will be/ no quarrel between us - all this time - / a light rain unceasing, the moist woods/ full of wild garlic".