"In Strange Christian Hope": Memory and Faith in Geoffrey Hill's the Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy
Shakespeare, Alex, Christianity and Literature
Abstract: Geoffrey Hill's Christianity has underlain many discussions of Hill's poetry. Hill's own Christianity, however, is less relevant to his readers than how Christianity's symbols, doctrines, and liturgical language occur in Hill's texts. This essay considers the Christian substance of Hill's poetry in relation to Hill's avowed concern with the memory of the dead, especially in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. Hill's engagement with Christianity in the poem (and elsewhere) is unlike T. S. Eliot's or W. H. Auden's, for Hill does not work in conclusions. In Hill's poetics the work of faith, like the work of memory, is ongoing, interminable, and indeterminable.
Memory is a defining concern of Geoffrey Hill's poetry. Whether in Mercian Hymns XXV, brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera:
I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg (New and Selected Poems 117)
or in the opening of "Sorrel" where the speaker's fading memory seems at one with the twentieth century on the wane:
Memory worsening--let it go as rain Streams on half-visible clatter of the wind Lapsing and rising. (Canaan 40)
Memory is the meeting-point between deeply personal forces and forces of history ("the nailer's darg"), or literature (Ruskin's Fors Clavigera), or even the weather. Memory prompts Hill to write in praise of "the dead who are already dead more than the living which are yet alive" (Ecclesiastes 4:2). "[T] he art and literature of the late twentieth century;' he writes in the essay "Language, Suffering, and Silence;' "require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead" (CCW 405).
The concern with memorialization and memorization is already established in Hill's first collection, For the Unfallen (1959). In the poetic sequence "Of Commerce and Society;' for instance, he writes:
Statesmen have known visions. And, not alone, Artistic men prod dead men from their stone. Some of us have heard the dead speak: The dead are my obsession this week ... (New and Selected Poems 38)
Hill's "obsession" with the dead allows him a way to enter into political and historical discourse without abandoning the discourse of poetry. A poem, Hill insists, though it is never capable of escaping history, is perfectly capable of existing independently of the poet's entrapment therein. Poetry may be, as W. H. Auden wrote, "a product of history, not a cause" (Auden 7). But "the true poem;' Hill writes, "is not exhausted by the uses to which it is put; it is alienated from its existence as historical event" (580).
Unlike Auden, Hill does not strictly divide the visions of artistic men from the visions of statesmen, as Auden has it in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" the separation of "poetry" and "executives." "For poetry makes nothing happen," Auden writes: "it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper ..." (Auden 246). Auden's distinction between poetry and executives, Hill says, is "an error" because it "trivializes not only the activities of the world of commerce and commodity ... but also the various ways in which the overreachings and shortcomings of business values might be met in justice" (CCW 405). (1) Hill suggests instead that a poem "acts" as a self-sufficient witness to history. "Auden perhaps meant to say that the achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness," Hill writes: "If this is what he meant, I agree with him, but I think there are more competent ways of putting it" (405).
Hill's own ways of putting it, however, can be off-putting in a manner that Auden's never were. Many readers complain that Hill refuses to speak plainly. From For the Unfallen onward, his poetry seems increasingly to delight in ambiguity and contradiction, in ragged enjambment and cross-referencing allusions. He does not subscribe to the poem as Robert Frost conceived it, "a momentary stay against confusion" but rather speaks of the poem as a linguistic "struggle,' or a "collusion" of statements and counter-statements, images, and counter-images. "The dead are my obsession this week" is modified by the next line: "But may be lifted away." In another section of "Commerce and Society" Hill warns off the reader who might want to call the poem simply a tribute to the dead: "Many have died. Auschwitz, / Its furnace chambers and lime pits / Half-erased, is half-dead; a fable / Unbelievable in fatted marble" (New and Selected Poems 38). History is fading fast, and Hill's speaker seems none too eager to reassure the reader that this process of forgetting and fable-making will cease. "Fatted" calls to mind "fetid." Even recorded history is "unbelievable" And by the final quatrain, the reader suspects that the poet (the artistic man) is indeed complicit in history's forgetfulness, that he is comparable to a "connoisseur of blood":
There is, at times, some need to demonstrate Jehovah's touchy methods that create The connoisseur of blood, the smitten man. At times it seems not common to explain. (38)
One is not sure whether Hill is calling for theodicy (for a justification of Jehovah's ways to man), or if he is despairing of any possibility of such explanation or justification. After all, the final line may be read at least two ways. It is possible to read uncommon for the phrase "not common" and wish for an explanation. It is equally possible to read "not common to explain" and infer that such a monstrously real fable as Auschwitz is inexplicable because it does not "belong equally to more than one" (as the OED defines "common"), because Auschwitz belongs singularly to its victims. There may be a human need to demonstrate "Jehovah's touchy methods" but this need is met with Hill's contradictory diction--a diction that does anything but "explain."
Auden, on the other hand, made a career of explaining. He was capable of plain speaking in a manner which he himself confessed, at times, suffered from an excess of rhetoric. In 1965, late in life, Auden prefaced a new edition of his collected shorter poems with the confession that "shamefully" he once wrote: "History to the defeated / May say alas but cannot help nor pardon." "To say this is to equate goodness with success," he said: "It would have been bad enough if I had ever held this wicked doctrine, but that I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable" (xx). One …
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Publication information: Article title: "In Strange Christian Hope": Memory and Faith in Geoffrey Hill's the Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. Contributors: Shakespeare, Alex - Author. Journal title: Christianity and Literature. Volume: 60. Issue: 3 Publication date: Spring 2011. Page number: 429+. © 2009 Conference on Christianity and Literature. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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