Two Modern Christian Poets
Mackintosh, Paul, Contemporary Review
ENGLAND, gifted more than it knows, has produced two major poets this century. Furthermore, the two bear some resemblance to each other. Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting are both indebted to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (Bunting directly so), both are steeped in time and place, and both are religious poets.
Geoffrey Hill -- this year enjoying his 50th birthday -- is unarguably a Christian poet, or at least a poet who writes about Christianity. From |For the Unfallen' (1959) to |Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres' (1984), Hill's poetry is full of explicit references to Christianity, of explorations of sanctioned Christian themes, and of opposites structured according to Christian modes of thought. But what kind of Christianity? Certainly, one porting the full panoply of traditional piety. The icons have not faded, nor the lions and the hermits disappeared, from Hill's verse. Pentecost in particular is a constant presence; from |the spurred flame, those racing tongues' in The Bidden Guest to |the hawthorn-tree/set with coagulate magnified flowers of May' in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. Eliot's |tongues of flames' sound throughout his oeuvre. It sometimes seems that Hill has entirely digested the programme of Notes Towards A Definition of Culture; his poetic character smacks so much of late Eliot that, had Eliot wished to reinvent himself ex nihilo after his move to England, the result might well have been a spitting image of Hill. (Indeed, Hill has now closed the circle by emigrating to Boston.)
Crucified Lord, so naked to the world,
you live unseen within that nakedness,
consigned by proxy to the judas-kiss
of our devotion, bowed beneath the gold, captures beautifully the almost idolatorious ornateness of Hill's devotion, as well as the multiple levels of meaning that play off one another, undercutting and reconstituting its fabric. The effigy configuring the true spirit which has withdrawn from its embodiment is described through a characteristic recoining of a cliche whose tinny reek adds the tang of irony.
Geoffrey Hill's success in revitalizing Christian poetry comes from combining the immemorial portrayal of religious doubt with the far more recent, more radical uncertainty of the present century. Many Christian poets, or poets writing about Christianity, have enlarged on the interdependency of faith and doubt -- Browning's Bishop Blougram is one figure perhaps highly pertinent to Hill's case. Yet Lachrimae Amantis, for instance, |a free translation of a sonnet by Lope de Vega', casts the traditional mode into a new context; in both original and transposition the Christian poem has demonstrated grace under pressure, but in the latter case the form and degree of pressure has been quite transformed.
Hill is quite aware of his situation: |If critics accuse me of evasiveness or the vice of nostalgia, or say that I seem incapable of grasping true
religious experience, I would answer that the grasp of true religious experience is a privilege reserved for very few, and that one is trying to make lyrical poetry out of a much more common situation -- the sense of not being able to grasp true religious experience'.
Basil Bunting (1900-85) is quite another story. A Quaker by upbringing, he landed in prison during World War I as a conscientious objector, in circumstances highly reminiscent of figures commemorated by fell, such as Tommaso Campanella or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His own family disapproved of his stance as one of the tiny minority of |Absolutes': objectors who refused to do any work whatsoever to further the war effort. His faith, or his principles, were evidently strong indeed. In 1975, years after the completion of the epic Briggflatts, he wrote At Briggflatts Meetinghouse: Tercentenary, for the Quaker meeting house there, suggesting a lifelong commitment of a kind. This commitment issued in verse utterly different from that of Hill. …