"Faith" and "Fable" in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill
Haynes, Kenneth, Christianity and Literature
"Faith" and "fable," the terms set for this roundtable discussion on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, are themselves Hillian, and so are the problems of their brute juxtaposition. Tracking the appearance of the terms in his work offers a way to introduce the topic concisely, and it may help to formulate some preliminary questions. Since the MLA discussion in 2009, Hill has published a new book of poems, Oraclau/Oracles (Clutag, 2010), and a second is imminent, Clavics (Enitharmon, 2011). A third, Odi Barbare, is scheduled for next year (Clutag, 2011). Two further books, one of them titled Al Tempo de' Tremuoti, will appear in Collected Poems: 1952-2012 (Oxford, planned for 2013), along with an expanded and revised Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres. Hill's poems in this issue are taken from Odi Barbare, written in a form of sapphics, and the currently untitled book, which adopts a form of Robert Lowell's poem "Rebellion" as its stanza model. The poems have not appeared elsewhere, and this is the first time a selection from the fifth book has been published.
The noun "faith" appears in all but two of Hill's books of poetry (the exceptions are For the Unfallen and Mercian Hymns). Along with its cognates it is used about sixty times in the poetry, once each in King Log, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy, Scenes from Comus, and Clavics, and as many as eleven times in Canaan and ten in The Triumph of Love. The statistics in themselves do not have much significance, but even the crude fact of the changing frequency of the term should prompt us to acknowledge the variety and variability of Hill's poetic undertaking from book to book. It seems to me that Christian faith is the main concern of five books-Tenebrae, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (and the Hymns), Canaan, The Triumph of Love and Al Tempo de' Tremuoti (published as yet only in part)--but that in other books it does not engage his imagination as centrally.
When Hill explores Christian themes, he is attracted to heterodox expression of faith. In his short note accompanying The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy, Hill describes Peguy as "self-excommunicate but adoring" (he also contrasts Peguy's rediscovery of "the solitary ardours of faith" with the "consolations of religious practice"). In the interview with John Haffenden in 1981, he applies Joseph Cary's description of Montale's poem "Iride" to his own work, a "heretic's dream of salvation, expressed in the image of the orthodoxy from which he is excommunicate" A half dozen examples of "faith" show its range of meaning in Hill's poetry:
"Funeral Music": "I would scorn the mere instinct of faith"
"To William Cobbett": "I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith"
"Mysticism and Democracy": "Flesh has its own spirit ... deeper than most rooted faiths"
Triumph of Love CXXI: "So what is faith if it is not / inescapable endurance"
The Orchards of Syon VI: "I say trust / faith so far as it goes"
Scenes from Comus 49: "Faith stands confirmed in trigonometry"
Al Tempo de' Tremuoti 55: "we became / Of the true faith the better to blaspheme"
On the basis of such statements (Hill, like Yeats, is a poet of emphatic statement), we might wish to redirect to Hill Eliot's public challenge to Pound: "What does Mr. Pound believe?" Pound did not reject the question; he gave what he thought was a simple, explicit, and straightforward answer ("I believe the Ta Hio"). Yet Hill's combination of passionate utterance and historical distance--in the Haffenden interview Hill insists that it is not a shortcoming in a poet to be moved by religious experience as a historical phenomenon--makes the relevance of the question to his poetry hard to judge. We should both ask "What does Professor Hill believe?" and wonder whether this is a proper question for his work. …