Johnston, Devin, Chicago Review
Geoffrey Hill. Canaan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
The contemporary American political scene may seem in toto so absurd as to render critique or condemnation, within the context of poetry, rather ineffectual. Perhaps only a Pope or Swift would be able to approach the material with sufficient relish. We might therefore envy the British their Geoffrey Hill, who manages in this recent volume to address English politics and history with seriousness and high rhetoric. His themes are no less than corruption and dishonesty in British politics, the specter of the Second World War, and those individuals who have martyred themselves for liberty, only to be erased from postmodern memory.
Canaan opens with an address "To the High Court of Parliament," in which he declares "England-now of genius / the eidolon- / unsubstantial yet voiding / substance like quicklime" ( 1). Hill employs a rich etymological fund against what he perceives as the shallowness of contemporary England, which ironically retains only the eidolon, or phantom, of the genius for which it was once reputed. If the result often sounds archaic (and is likely to send readers to the OED), his critique is in many respects contemporary. In an essay titled "Cognitive Mapping," Fredric Jameson speaks of "the growing contradiction between lived experience and structure, or between a phenomenological description of the life of an individual and a more properly structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience."' Perhaps a similar phenomenon is observed in the image of an "unsubstantial" eidolon which nonetheless consumes that which is substantial (or related to lived experience). Such is the contradictory and ghostly nature of "Commodity" in Hill's verse, rendering the English "a spectral people" (26). When invoking images of corruption, Hill consistently uses mixed metaphors or combines concrete and abstract words in phrases such as "blades / of oblation" (11) or "detantes of corpse-gas" (12). If these are the "dim lands of peace" that Pound cautioned against, such, we may take it, is Hill's point. Canaan contains several poems titled "Mysticism and Democracy," and it is the mystifying abstractions of politics to which he bears witness. In this respect, as in many others, Hill resembles William Blake. And in this sense, his politics could be described as visionary.
If Canaan bears witness to what Hill perceives as corruption, it offers few palliatives, and more often mourns the absence in contemporary society of the committed martyrs one finds in history, such as William Cobbett (the civil rights activist and radical journalist born in 1863), William Law (the eighteenth-century religious writer and follower of the German mystic Jakob Boehme), or Hans-Bernd von Haeften (who was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler). Hill does not celebrate an originary moment of pure democracy, but rather a dissenting tradition in British history. It is high praise, one senses, when Hill says of von Haeften, "To the high-minded / base-metal forgers of this common Europe, / community of parody, you stand ec- / centric as a prophet" (33). …