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Canaan ()

    Evil is not good's absence but gravity's
    everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains
    inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.
        -Geoffrey Hill, De Jure Belli ac Pacis

Despite the extreme difficulty of these award-winning poems--difficulty for which Geoffrey Hill, considered by some to be England's greatest living poet, is notorious--I like them very much.  And there I find myself hoist on my own petard, having frequently raged against the obscurantism of authors like James Joyce, but now endorsing a poet who is nearly as impenetrable at times.  So, first, let me acknowledge that I am willing to forgive more from Mr. Hill because I favor his dark moral/religious/political take on modern England, than I would be from someone who was just being obscure for obscurity's sake, say Joyce or Pynchon.  Second, I do think we, justifiably, tend to give poets more leeway than novelists; after all, by the very effort they have to put in to achieving a chiseled brevity they earn some right to ask a little more effort of us readers.  The nearly forty poems here do not fill even eighty pages, so if you have to read them once or twice, or ten times, it doesn't seem as onerous a task as trudging through hundreds of densely printed pages of a novel.

Mr. Hill's themes and methods are signaled early on, in the title of the collection and in the epigraph :

    ...So ye children of Israel did wickedly in the
    sight of the Lord, & forgate the Lord their God,
    & serued Baalim, and Asheroth ... Yea, they
    offred their sonnes, and their daughters vnto
    diuels, And shed innocent blood, euen the blood
    of their soones, and of their daughters, whome
    they offred vnto the idols of Canaan, and the
    land they defiled with blood.  Thus were they
    steined with their owne inuentions ... o
    Canaan, the land of the Philistims, I wil euen
    destroy thee without an inhabitant.

    Judges 3:7; Psalm 106: 37-9; Zephaniah 2:5
        (from the Geneva Bible of 1560)

The Geneva Bible of 1560?  Okay, so he's delving back into the past, to a vibrant and impassioned form of ruggedly fundamentalist  Protestantism and a Bible written by Brits in exile (note that Professor Hill himself is and has been at Boston University); comparing modern England to ancient Canaan, and casting himself in the role of doomsayer.  The reader has been warned.

Here's an example of one of the more accessible pieces :


    Wherein Wesley stood
    up from his father's grave,
    summoned familiar dust
    for strange salvation:

    whereto England rous'd,
    ignorant, her inane
    Midas-like hunger: smoke
    engrossed, cloud-encumbered,

    a spectral people
    raking among the ash;
    its freedom a lost haul
    of entailed riches.

I've no idea who Wesley and his father are, though I assume it's John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of Methodism, but can tell you that this bleak vision taps into three of Mr. Hill's favorite themes : of England as having become excessively materialistic, even hedonistic; of hard-won British liberty as a thing of the past; and of post-War Europe as an ash heap.  That much I think I follow.

Or consider just two of the images from a poem, most of which I didn't understand, DE JURE BELLI AC PACIS, which is written in memory of Hans-Bernd von Haeften, who plotted against murder and was executed in 1944.  The first :

    Could none predict these haughty degradations
    as now your high-strung
                                martyred resistance serves
    to consecrate the liberties of Maastricht.

followed later by :

                            To the high-minded
    base-metal forgers of this common Europe,
    community of parody, you stand ec-
    centric as a prophet.

Even without being able to follow every elusive allusion in the poem, and without knowing anything of von Haeften, you can easily discern the message that Mr. Hill is contemptuous of the new European Union, based solely on economic integration, with no thought given to the unlikelihood of ever turning these disparate nations into a genuine community, and little regard given to the surrender of sovereignty and freedom it will require.

Even if you are unmoved by the specter of England subjugating itself to French and German bureaucrats and indifferent to the economism of modern British society, you may have trouble figuring out why Geoffrey Hill sounds so angry, so much at times like an Old Testament prophet.  But think on this quote from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-OíConnor :

    It does seem in our countries in Britain today, especially in England and Wales, that Christianity, as a sort of backdrop to peopleís lives
    and moral decisions ó and to the Government, the social life of the country ó has now almost been vanquished.

or this one from Dr. George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury :

    A tacit atheism prevails. Death is assumed to be the end of life, bleak though that thought is. If we need hope to clutch to our breast at all
    it will be in such greatly scaled down forms, such as our longings for family happiness, the next holiday or personal fulfilment. Our
    concentration on the here and now renders thoughts of eternity irrelevant.

All of which brings us back to the Biblical Canaan, where the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and so were sold into slavery.  Simply as a literary matter, Geoffrey Hill's poems here are a powerful evocation of the idea that something similar is happening now to England and the British people, that they have become a post-Christian and demoralized society.  And if, like me, you agree with the specific charges he levels here, however oblique the terms in which he couches them, then you'll like the book very much and be honored to put some effort into reading it and wrestling with his meanings.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Geoffrey Hill Links:

    -ESSAY: Great poetry is no scandal (Richard King, 8/04/10, The Australian)
    -VIDEO: Sir Geoffrey Hill: Tribute To Charles Péguy At Villeroy
    -PODCAST: Geoffrey Hill: Frank indulges his obsession with the Anglo Saxons as he reads Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns. (Frank Skinner's Poetry Podcast)
-REVIEW : of The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill (Anthony Thwaite, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Orchards of Syon (Paul Mariani, America)
-REVIEW: of A Treatise of Civil Power by Geoffrey Hill (Sophie Ratcliffe, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, by Christopher Ricks (Patrick Kurp, June 7, 2010, The Quarterly Conversation)

    -ESSAY: Faith in Poetry: Religious language, believing and non-. (Otto Selles, May/June 2003, Books & Culture)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Geoffrey Hill (Boston University)
    -POEMS : Geoffrey Hill (Classic Christian Poets)
    -complete review's Geoffrey Hill page
    -Geoffrey Hill 1932- (Literary Heritage, West Midlands)
    -Geoffrey Hill (Modern British Poetry Instructor: Seamus Cooney, Western Michigan)
    -EXCERPT : on Geoffrey Hill (from Harold Bloom's introduction to Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom: Poems 1952-1971 )
    -Internet Public Library. Online Literary Criticism Collection. Geoffrey Hill (1932 - )
    -ESSAY : Sobieski's Shield: On Geoffrey Hill's The Enemy's Country (1991) and New & Collected Poems (1994) (Peter Sanger, Antigonish Review)
    -ESSAY : From Cardiff to Canaan: RS.Thomas and Geoffrey Hill (Brother Anthony (An Sonjae) Sogang University, Hyondai Yongmisi yongu (Studies in Modern British and American Poetry, The Modern British and American Poetry Society of Korea)
    -ESSAY : Jon Silkin on Hill's "September Song"
    -ARCHIVES : "geoffrey Hill" (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -LINKS : Hill, Geoffrey (Geometry)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan by Geoffrey Hill (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan (John Redmond, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan by Geoffrey Hill and The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill (Denis Donoghue, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan (Jenn Lewin, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan (William Logan, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan (Peter Firchow, World Literature Today)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan (Andrew Frisardi, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Canaan (Douglas Clark, rec.arts.books)
    -REVIEW : of The Triumph of Love By Geoffrey Hill (Andrew Frisardi, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of The Triumph of Love (Andrew Zawacki, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Triumph of Love (David Streitfeld, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Triumph of Love (Peter Robinson, Notre Dame Review)
    -REVIEW : of Speech! Speech! by Geoffrey Hill (DAVID BROMWICH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Speech! Speech! by Geoffrey Hill (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Speech! Speech! (Andy Fogle, PopMatters)
    -AWARD : Poet Geoffrey Hill wins 1998 Kahn Award for Canaan (Eric McHenry, June 1998, BU Bridge)

    -REVIEW : of OTHER: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. Eds. Richard Caddel and Peter Quarterinain (John Xiros Cooper, Antigonish Review)