POETRY

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2 Canaan by Geoffrey Hill, Penguin pounds 7.99. Hill is about as far from contemporary taste as you can get, and that's the way he likes it. Like Lowell's early Miltonics ("The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"), or the mystics and theologians who continue to hold his fascination, he is never happier than when gazing down at the multitude, and himself, from a great height.

Some regard him as England's greatest living poet. Others, like Tom Paulin, sniff a reactionary Anglicanism - religious and political - and put the boot in, finding the lofty moral logic-chopping inhumane. "Kitsch feudalism", says Paulin, "archaic humanist cop-out", "grisly historical voyeurism ... ripped off from Eliot", "stagnant vowel-music", "ye olde England" terminally buried in "visionary mustiness" and a mystic nationalism redolent of Enoch Powell.

This is good knockabout stuff, a proper antidote to the more prissy and pious of Hill's (largely academic) admirers, and I have a good deal of sympathy with its drift, but it leaves out Hill's very real accomplishments as a recording angel of our life and times. "For reading, I can recommend the Fathers," says an early poem: "Christ, what a pantomime!" "Tragedy has all under regard" says another. "To bite nothings to the bone" says a third, addressed to the spirit of Wordsworth: "Speech from the ice, the clear-obscure; / The tongue broody in the jaw / O Lakes, Lakes! / O Sentiment upon the rocks!" That last pun is typical of the grim set of Hill's jaw, and so are the multiple ironies of "The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy", which must rate as one of the best long English poems of recent years, a penetrating commentary on the "greed and disaffection" that are "ingrained" in the "ranklings of the mind" of late-modern England.

Canaan continues to march to the tunes of Yeats and Eliot (though in a new and airy prosody), to put its agonised secular faith in high diction, savage antinomies, and Hill's long tussle with spirituality: "praise and lament / praise and lament/ what do you mean", as a poem called "Cycle" puts it. Another, to William Cobbett, asserts: "I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site". The title poem reprises themes from the long Peguy elegy, this time vis-a-vis the biblical story of the Israelites in thrall to the false gods and idols of the flesh. There's any amount of "exacting mercies", "intolerable elect", "estranged spirit", "tyrannous egality", "constrained spirit", "vatic exchanges", and so on. The poet pokes fun at it in a phrase like "mysticism by the book", but he continues to haunt key religious words, especially "atonement", like a dog keening for the death of its master.

There's a running commentary in all this on the greed and predation of Thatcherite Britain ("say amen as in mammon"), though the accusations transcend party politics. What we are mired and immured in is "The final / Transformation-Scene-and-Curtain, Apocalypse-Hippodrome" - so far gone that wonders are showbiz and even the Holocaust is just another routine we can routinely goggle at. The problem with this "timeless" (Christopher Ricks's word) approach to our sins and fatuities is not that it's untrue but that it's crouched in such lofty mandarin tones, half Ecclesiastes, half Foreign Office nabob with a penchant for recherche allusions and scathing denunciations of "the fouled catchments of Demos".

There's hardly a thing, an object, a person who comes alive in the whole book; it's all deep theological space and etiolated abstractions, "the magisterium / of the lily" and "the feats / of hapless jubilo". The world is "past / reason and measure", pure "mischance", our only response "a spasm / a psalm", each only ready to throttle the life out of the other.

"Say what you like"; "so it goes on" - some of his endings like to creep down to earth in a dying fall. "Where's probity in this?" asks the opening line of the opening poem, "To the High Court of Parliament", a theme which runs throughout the book. For all his exasperating antiquarianism, I'm prepared to believe that there is still probity in Hill's high sentence, and to go on looking for it among all those velleities.

William Scammell

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