A Treatise of Civil Power, By Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill has long been a troubled figure but his latest verse shows signs of peace

Reviewed,Tim Martin
Sunday 09 September 2007 00:00 BST

Geoffrey Hill's new collection is a reprint, an elaboration and an interestingly pernickety re-cut of a book he published two years ago under the same title. A Treatise of Civil Power was originally published in a limited edition by the smallish Clutag Press and took its title from the centrepiece, a long, semi-narrative poem – which in turn took its title from a Milton pamphlet – in Hill's characteristically discursive late style. In Penguin's new printing, a number of the book's other poems survive intact, but the "Treatise" has been smashed up, rewritten (or sub-edited) into a number of smaller poems and fragmentary lyrics. Then other stuff's gone in as well.

This intriguing tangle for Hill's bibliographers works out well for the reader too. Hill's last two collections have both indicated that his interest in the short verse-forms with which he began his career may be growing again (though, as one poem in this collection remarks ruefully, "people keep asking why your lyric mojo / atrophied at around ninety"). Undeniably, too, the selected extracts from the longer poem work far better in a short form: they're more concentrated, less wilful, and they typify the kind of alert, measured, only-half-serene musing that is coming to characterise Hill's late poetry:

This not quite knowing what the earth requires:

earthliness, earthiness or things ethereal;

whether spiritus mundi notices bad faith

or if it cares; defraudings at the source,

the bare usury of the species. In the end

one is as broken as the vows and tatters,

petitions with blood on them, the charred prayers

spiralling godward on intense thermals.

Most of A Treatise of Civil Power is this good, or better – good in the kind of way that re-explains English to the reader, makes new arguments for the existence of poetry. Hill's engagement with history is as vigorous and questioning as ever: he's one of the few contemporary writers with the talent and breadth to meet the past square-on, a willingness evinced in spiky-looking titles such as "On Reading Burke on Empire, Liberty and Reform". These could only be Hill's titles – it could probably only be Hill's library – but Hill's persistent (and persistently underrated) wit lends both lightness and a paradoxical gravity to even the most abstruse passages of his dense, argumentative verse. There is humour of the most serious kind in his play on the word "history" in a poem such as "Parallel Lives":

since Wyatt wrote, that continent

temper which could play equivocation,

land it and slit it, find there the gold ring

of truth safe in its gut, is history.

Dedicated Hill readers, too, will notice a new strain of wistfulness, almost repentance, in this collection. "I find love's work a bleak ontology / to have to contemplate" remarks Hill (right) at the end of a moving poem for the philosopher Gillian Rose, concluding that "it may be all we have". "Before Senility" suggests that this famously troubled poet, now 75, may be moving towards his own vexed version of serenity, with its recognition of "some figment / of gratitude and reconciliation / with the near things, with remnancy and love". Most importantly, there's something on almost every page of this book to remind you what an extraordinary marvel Hill is, one of the few contemporary writers whose work, once read, is unforgettable:

The peacock roosts alone on a Scots pine

at the garden end, in blustery twilight

his fulgent cloak a gathering of the dark,

the maharajah-bird that scavenges

close by the stone-troughed, stone-terraced, stone-ensurfed

Suffolk shoreline; at times displays his scream.

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