"In the Fable This Is Your Proper Home": Imagining Lives of Faith through Poetry
Kilgore-Caradec, Jennifer, Christianity and Literature
Abstract: Building on various interpretations of the words "faith" and "fable," this essay presents Hill's poetry as inseparable from a quest for historical truth and linked to theological preoccupations. "Religion and literature" is a staid phrase that cannot avoid "the cost of discipleship" (as Bonhoeffer would say). The epic genre and certain theological myths are exposed as fables in Hill's poetry. Yet, personal religious testimony seems perceptible, with a strong attachment to the Anglican Church and Coventry Cathedral. Charles Peguy, whose poetry can be read as prayer, provides an example of one who loves the church while looking in from the outside. Like William Cookson he gives off a light that shines in darkness.
One task of all Christians is to strive toward holiness. The Catholic Church names saints, but many of the great religious figures in the twentieth century have received no such title. The Anglican church has acknowledged some of these, such as the statues unveiled over the west entrance of Westminster Abbey in July 1998 for ten martyrs of the twentieth century, including a Hill favorite, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (see "Poetry and Value" in CCW 479-80 and Chandler 2). (The other statues are of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Manche Masemola, Maximilian Kolbe, Lucian Tapiedi, Esther John, Martin Luther King, Wang Zhiming, Janani Luwum, and Oscar Romero.) While the Abbey presents itself (on its website) as "a must-see living pageant of British history," these contemporary additions transcend any purely Anglican or nationalistic leanings, as does the Hill poetry corpus. Consider his early interactions with the fable of Britain in "Merlin": "Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone," (SP 7) (1)--but of course they live on through the poetry about them, fact or fable, much as do Hill's figures of grace and martyrdom. In Hill's poetry, these figures are not only British or European: "Moltke, the two Bonhoeffers, von Haeften," (TL CXLII, SP 195), Tommaso Campanella (SP 40), Osip Mandelstam (SP 43), and Nigerian "Colonel Fajuyi, dead" (SS 49, SP 208), among others.
But some readers find that the fables of this poetry are not all graceful. While Hill's style would not be confused with the poems of Tony Harrison, his poetry also combines high and low culture with "me / Tarzan, you diva of multiple choice" (SS 53, 27), "Great singer Elton John though" (SS 94, SP 215), or the poem "Improvisations for Jimi Hendrix" (WT 29-31). Hill the poet is not afraid of getting his poetic hands dirty (read Speech! Speech!). If this poetry may be labeled as Anglican, it is a poetry of both high and low church: "The strange church smelled a bit 'high', of censers and / polish." (MH IX, SP 69) and "When all else fails CORINTHIANS will be read / by a man in too-tight shoes" (SS 114, SP 219), combined with poems addressed to Vergine bella (TL LV, SP 187), all present within "the Church of Wesley, Newman, and George Bell" (TL 55). In such contexts, while writing words that give discharges "in the world, but not of it" (as the gospel of John 15:19, is often rephrased), Hill's poetry seems set to challenge the epic genre as well as the theological myth of a triumphant all-powerful kind of God. This strain can be situated at least as early as Tenebrae's "Lachrimae Antiquae Novae": "Triumphalism feasts on empty dread" (T, SP 103). The last line of the poem lends itself to a double reading that plays with both faith and fable: "Dominion is swallowed with your blood:' Taking Holy Communion may empower Christians to live like Christ, but surely the rite is not intended to give them power to dominate. Rather, if God-incarnate could accept being powerless, such "dominion," for those who wish to imitate Christ, is converted into humility that includes "nakedness:' The poem is a significant choice to precede poems from "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England" in the Selected Poems. …