Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Hearts of Stone, Feet of Clay: Geoffrey Hill's Troubled Pilgrims

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Hearts of Stone, Feet of Clay: Geoffrey Hill's Troubled Pilgrims

Article excerpt

Abstract: Through close readings of "The Bidden Guest" and the sequence "Lachrimae," this essay explores ways that Geoffrey Hill portrays the travails of modern "pilgrimage," as a troubled quest for authentic faith. At the forefront of this study are questions about Hill's treatment of Christian themes and practices through the voices of his personae. One larger question concerns whether these poems bear witness to a faith still viable for disaffected contemporary readers. It is argued that, while the mood of Hill's pilgrims registers an anxious ambiguity about the prospects of personal belief, the effects of the poetry provoke a renewed attentiveness to that very possibility.

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Over halfway through The Triumph of Love, Geoffrey Hill's poet-persona pleads, "Remove my heart of stone. Replace / my heart of stone" (LXVIII). Echoing its scriptural provenance, the plea--invigorated by the enjambed trio "Replace," "Inspire," "Stir"--resonates with Christian confessional literature in its most urgent form. (1) The imagery also echoes other moments in Hill's corpus, from his earliest work:

   Now I lack grace to tell what I have seen;
   For though the head frames words the tongue has none.
   And who will prove the surgeon to this stone? ("God's Little
      Mountain")

   Still beneath
   Live skin stone breathes, about which fires but play,
   Fierce heart that is the iced brain's to command
   To judgment. ("Two Formal Elegies" I)

The heart's condition, the heart as site of resistance and receptivity to the divine, becomes in Geoffrey Hill's poetry a focus of much of his religious sensibility, including the felt lack of religious sensibility.

Hill's longstanding commentary on the heart proves far from transparent, however, or traditional. In this same section from The Triumph of Love, for example, the traditional quickly diverts into the comic and ironic, as Hill's supplicant elaborates, "Inspire/cardio-vascular prophylaxis. Stir / psychotic iconoclasts--Jan / van Leyden's crew--to a fresh blood-feast." The tone of "Inspire cardio-vascular prophylaxis" could be thought merely flippant, if not for the spiritual climate of an apparent penitent lamenting his petrified heart. References to "psychotic iconoclasts" and "blood-feast" then jolt us onto a different track: religious fanaticism mingles with Eucharistic sacrifice, the profane with the sacred (the sacred in a profane state?), followed by Mosaic law and Jesus, "the rabbi who died / slowly by torture" The cavalcade of images and allusions disorients; repentance for having a heart of stone is transposed beyond the familiar or obvious in the resulting tumble that incorporates Christian violence as well as Christ's submission to violence.

Who is this would-be penitent? How do we define his disposition toward a faith which from his perspective is as imbued with bloodletting as with the prospect of personal transformation? As another of Hill's speakers famously declares in the early poem "Genesis" V,

   By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
   To ravage and redeem the world:
   There is no bloodless myth will hold.

The duplicitous ravaging and redeeming by blood, which characterizes human history as well as those myths proffered to give it meaning, complicates all claims to authority and with such claims, the summons to belief. Similarly, again from Section LXVIII of Triumph, the phrase "Must I make my peace"--given added emphasis by the line break after "peace"-designates a problem as much as any such prospect for faith. As throughout this long poem, the "triumph of love"--or faith, or hope, or peace, or any of the great promises of Christianity--stands as a question mark over the whole, the evidently resolute poet-persona who would have a new heart caught in equally evident irresolution.

The mood is classic Hill in its troubled ambiguity, an ambiguity that accompanies much of what the poet has crafted where faith is concerned. …

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