The Magazine

'Truth and Metre'

A poet in touch with his critical faculties.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Admittedly at times this moral landscape

to my exasperated ear emit
archaic burrings like a small, high-fenced

electricity sub-station of uncertain age

in a field corner where the flies

gather and old horses shake their sides.

Hill also reveals something of his own poetic modus operandi when he says, "With Burton .  .  . the active declares itself in plain, even severe statements of faith .  .  . that stand out from the tragic-comic welter like inspirations of 'God's grammar.'" He quotes this from Burton: "We must live by faith not by feeling, 'tis the beginning of grace to wish for grace: we must expect and tarry."

Even when writing about other artists, Hill most illuminates the artist in himself. Perhaps one of the reasons why he has always cultivated a certain reticence in his poetry is that he is chary of the "plain, even severe statements of faith" to which he is otherwise drawn. As he says in one of his poems, "Things unspoken as spoken give us away."

The tidy will find Hill wayward: Tangents and divagations pull him hither and yon, especially in a wonderful piece on rhythm entitled "Redeeming the Time." He can never resist bypaths that promise sidelights on his subjects, and in this he resembles the greatest of all digressers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who once remarked, "Of Parentheses I may be too fond--and will be on my guard in this respect--But I am certain that no work of empassioned and eloquent reasoning ever did or could subsist without them--They are the drama of Reason--& present the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus."

Hopkins is perhaps the most congenial of the poets Hill takes up, sharing as he does his fascination with rhythm, his close attention to words, and his impatience with the presumed lazy-mindedness of the common reader. In "A Postscript on Modernist Poetics," Hill quotes approvingly Hopkins's contention that "Plainly if it is possible to express a subtle and recondite thought on a subtle and recondite subject in a subtle and recondite way with great felicity and perfection .  .  . something must be sacrificed .  .  . and this may be the being at once, nay perhaps even being without explanation at all, intelligible."

But is this persuasive? Shakespeare and Dante never had any difficulty treating the subtle and recondite intelligibly. Hopkins, conscious that he was vulnerable on this score, was trying to let himself off the hook. Hill can rehearse this feeble pleading to try to excuse his own impenetrability, but it won't wash. Hopkins and Hill are good poets despite their unintelligibility, not because of it. Nevertheless, when the demands they make on their readers pay off, the results can be exhilarating. Hill shows how Hopkins's stubborn eccentricity carries the day in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire":

Suddenly there bursts in an uncouth anacoluthon: "Enough! The Resurrection!" It is a great moment, one of the greatest grammatical moments in nineteenth-century English poetry. It has been criticized for arbitrariness, but arbitrariness is the making of it. The Resurrection is a kind of eschatological anacoluthon; no amount of standard grammar can anticipate or regularize that moment.

This is the sort of close, useful criticism of which Henry James would have approved. A good deal of disreputable acclaim has been lavished on Hill--he is touted by the likes of Harold Bloom and A.N. Wilson--but readers should not be put off by his admirers. For all his obscurity, Hill is worth reading, and the brilliance of this collection demonstrates why.

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book on John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.