Treasure in Labyrinths

By Merriman, Emily Taylor | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Treasure in Labyrinths


Merriman, Emily Taylor, Christianity and Literature


This special edition on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill has its origins in a 2009 Modern Language Association (MLA) roundtable that was part of Christianity and Literature's honoring of Hill with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. Since that award, Hill has continued to achieve, winning election to the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry, and publishing additional poems. Most recently Clutag Press has released Oraclau/Oracles, and four new collections are promised, as well as a Collected Poems 1952-2012, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

Addressing the collocation of "faith and fable," the MLA roundtable participants and the writers in this issue discussed how Hill wrestles creatively with apparent irreconcilables in the realm of religion and language. As Kenneth Haynes says in his opening piece, which valuably surveys Hill's use of the terms "faith" and "fable," Hill dramatizes "how, whether, to combine Athens and Jerusalem, Christianity and literature, style and faith" Analyzing such dramatizations is challenging partly because the way one reads religion in Hill's poems is likely to be influenced by one's own religious (or non-'or anti-religious) orientation. The poetry provides a Rorschach test revealing the reader's own beliefs. Through the critic's self-tinted spectacles, the prevailing direction of Hill's poetry is variously considered to be orthodox Christian, atheist, agnostic, even subtextually Buddhist. In addition, dealing with such a topic under the auspices of the journal Christianity and Literature already tempers the prevailing sound of the discussion to a particular key. While many academics object to taking an overtly religious stance when discussing religion, there are also scholars for whom Christian ideas provide the determining foundation for any interpretation. The primary audience for this particular journal (although not necessarily any of its individual writers or readers) inclines toward the latter.

Without delving any deeper into the theoretical challenges of the inter-disciplinary field "religion and literature," I would like to thank wholeheartedly all the participants in the roundtable and, especially, the contributors to this special edition, who took on the critical task of addressing the interactions between religious belief, religious doubt, and the imagination in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill with circumspection and acuity. In addition to Kenneth Haynes' introduction on "faith and fable" which pinpoints challenging cruces throughout Hill's poetic oeuvre, David Mahan provides an essay that analyzes two early poems in order to address the vexed question of whether Hill's poetry points modern Christians toward the possibility of an "authentic faith." Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec and Alex Shakespeare both focus their attention on Hill's book-length 1985 poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. In their discussions of Peguy as a representative figure for Hill, they reveal much about the religious implications of the poetry, particularly regarding the relationship between Christianity in Europe and the passage of historical time. Kilgore-Caradec mines along the deep vein of a "theology of history" while Shakespeare works at the rich seam of "memory and faith."

To conclude this discussion, I consider "faith and fable" in Hill's later (but by no means last) work, The Orchards of Syon (2002). The poem's opening section (partially quoted by Haynes above), includes the narrator's magician-style instruction: "Watch my hands / confabulate their shadowed rhetoric" (I). According to the OED, "confabulate" cognate to "fable" has a specialist psychiatric definition: "To fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory." In the context of questions of religious faith and history, such an activity, especially rendered even more uncertain by implications of magic and shadow-puppets, indicates an inescapable irony in the narrator's attitude--a dubiousness about the trustworthiness of the results of his creative enterprise.

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