"In Strange Christian Hope": Memory and Faith in Geoffrey Hill's the Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy
Shakespeare, Alex, Christianity and Literature
Abstract: Geoffrey Hill's Christianity has underlain many discussions of Hill's poetry. Hill's own Christianity, however, is less relevant to his readers than how Christianity's symbols, doctrines, and liturgical language occur in Hill's texts. This essay considers the Christian substance of Hill's poetry in relation to Hill's avowed concern with the memory of the dead, especially in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. Hill's engagement with Christianity in the poem (and elsewhere) is unlike T. S. Eliot's or W. H. Auden's, for Hill does not work in conclusions. In Hill's poetics the work of faith, like the work of memory, is ongoing, interminable, and indeterminable.
Memory is a defining concern of Geoffrey Hill's poetry. Whether in Mercian Hymns XXV, brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera:
I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg (New and Selected Poems 117)
or in the opening of "Sorrel" where the speaker's fading memory seems at one with the twentieth century on the wane:
Memory worsening--let it go as rain Streams on half-visible clatter of the wind Lapsing and rising. (Canaan 40)
Memory is the meeting-point between deeply personal forces and forces of history ("the nailer's darg"), or literature (Ruskin's Fors Clavigera), or even the weather. Memory prompts Hill to write in praise of "the dead who are already dead more than the living which are yet alive" (Ecclesiastes 4:2). "[T] he art and literature of the late twentieth century;' he writes in the essay "Language, Suffering, and Silence;' "require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead" (CCW 405).
The concern with memorialization and memorization is already established in Hill's first collection, For the Unfallen (1959). In the poetic sequence "Of Commerce and Society;' for instance, he writes:
Statesmen have known visions. And, not alone, Artistic men prod dead men from their stone. Some of us have heard the dead speak: The dead are my obsession this week ... (New and Selected Poems 38)
Hill's "obsession" with the dead allows him a way to enter into political and historical discourse without abandoning the discourse of poetry. A poem, Hill insists, though it is never capable of escaping history, is perfectly capable of existing independently of the poet's entrapment therein. Poetry may be, as W. H. Auden wrote, "a product of history, not a cause" (Auden 7). But "the true poem;' Hill writes, "is not exhausted by the uses to which it is put; it is alienated from its existence as historical event" (580).
Unlike Auden, Hill does not strictly divide the visions of artistic men from the visions of statesmen, as Auden has it in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" the separation of "poetry" and "executives." "For poetry makes nothing happen," Auden writes: "it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper ..." (Auden 246). Auden's distinction between poetry and executives, Hill says, is "an error" because it "trivializes not only the activities of the world of commerce and commodity ... but also the various ways in which the overreachings and shortcomings of business values might be met in justice" (CCW 405). (1) Hill suggests instead that a poem "acts" as a self-sufficient witness to history. "Auden perhaps meant to say that the achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness," Hill writes: "If this is what he meant, I agree with him, but I think there are more competent ways of putting it" (405).
Hill's own ways of putting it, however, can be off-putting in a manner that Auden's never were. Many readers complain that Hill refuses to speak plainly. From For the Unfallen onward, his poetry seems increasingly to delight in ambiguity and contradiction, in ragged enjambment and cross-referencing allusions. …