Geoffrey Hill: Broken Hierarchies: Collected Poems 1952-2012, edited by Kenneth Haynes

Poetry of love, landscape and political corruption

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In Geoffrey Hill's debut, For the Unfallen (1959), so much was already in place: metrical authority, musicality, the power to enlist abstraction as sensuous experience, and the distinctive fastidious sensuality that in equal measure compels and repels both reader and author: "Love that drained her drained him she loved, though each / For the other's sake forged passion upon speech" ("The Turtle Dove").

The sonnet sequence Funeral Music in his King Log (1968), centred on the Battle of Towton (1461), a nightmarish slaughter during the Wars of the Roses, brought Hill's early work to a kind of perfection, where faith, politics, warfare and the earth's durability were constellated.

Hill is a West Midlander, born in Bromsgrove. Mercian Hymns (1971) is a set of arresting prose poems tracing the history of Hill's imagination via the life of King Offa. These early books form a distinguished body of work, augmented by Tenebrae (1978) and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (1983). After that, Hill published little poetry until with Canaan (1996) he released a deluge of books which continues to this day. Before, he had recourse to silence; now he could not stop talking – and so much of the later work is talk, uninhibited, unguarded, occasionally unhinged and, for some, near-unreadable – not by virtue of complexity but from sheer garrulity. Hill writes: "I don't much have / the patience, now, of the artificer" to create "the stubborn line, / …that quickens to delay." It's our loss.

Hill divides the audience. Admirers and sceptics alike will have to reckon with the fact that three-quarters of this 1,000-page Complete Poems is recent work. The case in favour is yet to be convincingly made: the case against might object that the later poetry is often indulgent, diaristic and inclined to confer on itself powers of perception and prophecy which are not in fact manifest in the texture and control of the writing. Gravity becomes a performance.

Hill's themes, including political corruption, landscape and a reticent account of his own past conduct, throw up brilliant lines and passages on "earth, earthiness and things ethereal", but at some points it reads as though a Cambridge avant-gardist is enlisting Hill's manners in a laborious and muffled project where satire and self-parody merge. Hill has always tried to come at the complex truths of belief, power and the self's flaws and obligations, but could it be that despite a lifetime in its service he has begun to find language itself less interesting than before? Surely not.