Scammell, William, The Independent (London, England)
2 Canaan by Geoffrey Hill, Penguin pounds 7.99. Hill is about as far from contemporary taste as you can get, and that's the way he likes it. Like Lowell's early Miltonics ("The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket"), or the mystics and theologians who continue to hold his fascination, he is never happier than when gazing down at the multitude, and himself, from a great height.
Some regard him as England's greatest living poet. Others, like Tom Paulin, sniff a reactionary Anglicanism - religious and political - and put the boot in, finding the lofty moral logic-chopping inhumane. "Kitsch feudalism", says Paulin, "archaic humanist cop-out", "grisly historical voyeurism . . . ripped off from Eliot", "stagnant vowel-music", "ye olde England" terminally buried in "visionary mustiness" and a mystic nationalism redolent of Enoch Powell.
This is good knockabout stuff, a proper antidote to the more prissy and pious of Hill's (largely academic) admirers, and I have a good deal of sympathy with its drift, but it leaves out Hill's very real accomplishments as a recording angel of our life and times. "For reading, I can recommend the Fathers," says an early poem: "Christ, what a pantomime!" "Tragedy has all under regard" says another. "To bite nothings to the bone" says a third, addressed to the spirit of Wordsworth: "Speech from the ice, the clear-obscure; / The tongue broody in the jaw / O Lakes, Lakes! / O Sentiment upon the rocks!" That last pun is typical of the grim set of Hill's jaw, and so are the multiple ironies of "The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy", which must rate as one of the best long English poems of recent years, a penetrating commentary on the "greed and disaffection" that are "ingrained" in the "ranklings of the mind" of late-modern England. Canaan continues to march to the tunes of Yeats and Eliot (though in a new and airy prosody), to put its agonised secular faith in high diction, savage antinomies, and Hill's long tussle with spirituality: "praise and lament / praise and lament/ what do you mean", as a poem called "Cycle" puts it. Another, to William Cobbett, asserts: "I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site". …