Scenes from Comus, by Geoffrey Hill

Milton revisited proves a steep Hill to climb

Opinions are divided over Geoffrey Hill. For some, he is the major postwar poet, both in the English language and of certain deep strains of Englishness. Others find something self-regarding in his moral gravitas. Suspicions are not offset by Hill's capacious self-knowledge: to know yourself can be a vanity like any other.

Opinions are divided over Geoffrey Hill. For some, he is the major postwar poet, both in the English language and of certain deep strains of Englishness. Others find something self-regarding in his moral gravitas. Suspicions are not offset by Hill's capacious self-knowledge: to know yourself can be a vanity like any other.

So fierce did the dispute become that it was once suggested that those who didn't admire Hill lacked some essential core of Englishness - a faintly sinister absurdity. It would, however, be difficult even for Hill's sternest detractors to deny that earlier books such as King Log and Mercian Hymns contain some magnificent passages.

After a 13-year silence, Hill has published five collections in rapid succession since 1996. This later work is more urgent and combative than before. Where once Hill focused his powers with severe economy through the lenses of history and fiction, now he appears more spontaneous - unbuttoned, injured, amused, satirical, sorrowfully angry. Yet the work is as much of a performance as ever.

Indeed, the "source" of Scenes from Comus is Milton's Comus, the masque presented at Ludlow Castle in 1634. Milton's Comus, child of Circe and Dionysos, seeks to enchant and corrupt a maiden lost in the woods. Comus is a masterpiece. Hill's book - pace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Harold Bloom and AN Wilson, all brandished on the cover - is not. Not that it invites comparison with the original's splendour of detail or metrical momentum, which Hill aptly describes as "triumphal reticence,/verse to be delivered/badly and to survive".

What is Scenes from Comus about? Hill has reached the dangerous point where he writes about everything; but sex, desire, failure of lovingness, music, time and guilt are among themes that break the surface.

Where Comus happily offers exposition and argument in rich music, Scenes from Comus wants the importance of its hints and feints to be overheard like notes exchanged privately between poet and composer - its dedicatee Hugh Wood, who composed a work of the same name.

Much is made of the difficulty of Hill's work, though this point is not always accompanied by a convincing sense of what he's being difficult about. One might suspect that the seriousness of art (Hill's seriousness is not in question) is at times confused with the interpreters' excited snobbery. It is not "difficulty" that makes Hill's doubters suspicious. Much of the finest poetry is difficult, but its challenge arises from imaginative necessity, rather than from something else - such as cultural possessiveness.

The reviewer's 'Cousin Coat: selected poems' is published by Picador

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