A Treatise of Civil Power, by Geoffrey Hill

Dissonance and harmony

Robert Crawford
Friday 31 August 2007 00:00 BST

Geoffrey Hill, the most professorial of poets, rejoices in words like "citations". Several poems in his new Treatise of Civil Power start from academic work. Individual sentences can read like exams: "Radiant urim; also the discreet/ seraphic viscera". Readers who, like emeritus professor Hill, have spent a lifetime teaching EngLit, seem the audience he needs. Hill writes lyric poems, but the poet-critic in him is constantly mauled by the critic-poet. The reader gasps for air.

Yet from such uncompromising, conflicted impulses comes a fierce, even bitter integrity. Recurrent topics – the relationship between violence and idealism, faith and decay, art and elitism, justice, Englishness – hallmark the music of these poems. Several focus on the Renaissance and 17th century, that era before England lost its independence as a nation-state.

Returned to his native monarchy after years in republican America, Hill has and hears "a calling for England" which leads him to interrogate voices from the English past, not least its Civil War. His poems are themselves civil wars, full of donnish barbed civility, at best facing up unflinchingly to questions of individual and national self-government, at worst too self-involved.

What makes grappling with this book rewarding is the poems' unique music – Hill's ear. When he writes of "not quite knowing what the earth requires", his next line – "earthiness, earthliness, or things ethereal" – makes echoic sound-shapes glide from the solid to the intangible through tiny acoustic adjustments. For all Hill's dissonance, a love of music and harmony, evident here most obviously in poems invoking Handel and Brahms, intensifies his remarkable ear for word-music that fuses old and new.

Yet the harmony is almost always disrupted, giving the impression Hill distrusts anything readily accessible. His music is Messiaen, not the songs of Robert Burns. Hill's demands can sound pedantic, as if his ethics come from graduate seminars on research methods: in the past this has sometimes spoiled his work. Here, though, immersion in arcane material pays dividends for the schooled reader, and gives all readers immediate but hard-won moments of beauty. A peacock's feathers have "eyes – like a Greek letter,/ omega, fossiled in an Indian shawl". Alert and imaginative observation is here its own reward.

Born in 1932, Hill is formed inescapably by experience of the Second World War. His greatest poem, "Ovid in the Third Reich", written in the 1960s, is one of many meditations on justice and history. At best, as in this new book's first poem, he finds in history, literature and scripture content still compulsively disturbing. What Hill writes about an Old Testament figure resonates with an uneasy thrill in our era of 11 September 2001, "shock and awe", and apocalyptic blockbusters: "They should film Joel:/ A fire devoureth before them; and behind/ them a flame burneth."

If repeatedly in Hill's distinguished career he has sounded more like a major professor than a minor prophet, some of the most moving poems in this book brood on personal damage: the pain of a relationship between a self-confessedly "unstable man" and "hurt women", or an inability to "keep resentment/ out of my voice" when thinking about class and background. In the end, this book's difficulty has more to do with compelling honesty than intellectual pride or showing-off.

If "that which is difficult/ preserves democracy", then Hill, writing these poems in Blair's England, offers "irregular beauties contra the New Order". His work can be too ridden with donnish scorn, but is remarkable, lingering, challenging in its worked-for music. Its crabbed, unmistakable musical signature makes this poetry the real thing.

Robert Crawford's 'Selected Poems' are published by Jonathan Cape

Penguin £9.99 (51pp) £9.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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