Peter Sanger - Issue 109

Sobieski's Shield: On Geoffrey Hill's The Enemy's Country(1991) and New & Collected Poems (1994)

Hill's poetry and prose have always entailed giving his word, keeping his word and insisting that he be taken at his word. Unfashionably, he is the poet, the author, the authority in his work and prepared to take the consequences. His attitude is anything but linguistically naive. Twenty years ago, he was already responding to the first signs of a hegemony which seeks to deconstruct everything but itself when he gave an interview to John Haffenden after the publication of Tenebrae. At one point, for example, Haffenden asked, Would you feel that your poetry is necessarily an art of equivocation, since your subjects are not available to synthesis? Hill replied, I resent the implication — taking the dictionary definition of equivocation — of my using words in a double sense in order to mislead. Haffenden persisted,But would you resent the criticism that you address yourself to subjects in an ambiguous way? Hill returned:

Yes, I would, though perhaps not so vehemently. I query the idea that I `address myself to subjects,' which seems to imply some kind of settled policy. It may be that the subjects present themselves to me as being full of ambiguous implications, but that is surely a different matter. The ambiguities and scruples seem to reside in the object that is meditated upon. (1)

Such exchanges used to be called "brisk." Hill's part in them is characterized by the same intensity and acuity of definition and ethical distinction as his poetry and prose. Detractors of Hill's work have called such definition and distinction captious or obscurantist. Certainly his tone is frequently uncompromising, but my own experience has been that work of Hill's, either poetry or prose, which initially resists understanding, appreciation, or respect, elicits all three after repeated readings — in some instances, readings which may occur over the span of several years.

Hill's two most recent books, The Enemy's Country (1991) andNew & Collected Poems (1994) are a collocution of prose and poetry similar to the one offered by The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas (1984) and Collected Poems (1986). Probably the pairings and their parallelism are coincidental rather than intentional; but such is the deliberation and coherence of Hill's work that in the case of each pair of books, the prose volume may be useful when reading resistant or seemingly opaque passages in the volume of poetry. In effect, Hill trusts that all his words will be read carefully. Only a very bad poet, or someone who is not a poet, would expect otherwise.

The Enemy's Country: Words, Contexture and Other Circumstances of Language (Stanford University Press, 1991) is the revised text of the Clark Lectures delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1986. It contains five essays. Appearing as the subject of the first, second and fourth essays is the dominant figure in the book, John Dryden. The third essay centres upon the diplomat, late-Renaissance virtuoso and poet, Sir Henry Wotton, who served as Ambassador of James I to the Republic of Venice for nearly twenty years and who is now usually remembered for his punning definition, Englished from the original Latin in Walton's The Life of Sir Henry Wotton as: An Embassadour is a honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his Country. Hill's essay on Wotton also considers the moral and politic inferences to be drawn from Donne's "Epistles" addressed to Wotton and the circumspect exactitude with which Walton handled Wotton's life. The fifth and concluding essay in Hill's book discusses Pound's "Envoi (1919)" — its social, literary, historical and biographical contexts, its intent and meaning and its qualified, compromised accomplishment.

Separating out the subjects of each essay, however, offers a deceptive impression. Just as he did in The Lords of Limit, Hill ranges throughout the last four hundred years of poetry in English establishing linkages, propounding analogies and offering readings which involve, among many other writers, Auden, Emerson, Samuel Johnson, Milton, Oldham, Waller, Yeats, Puttenham, Etherege and Eliot. Even that partial list may seem too demanding for many readers, but Hill is one of those uncommon critics (particularly uncommon at present) who conveys the possibility that reading may be an energetic and courageous pursuit, worth a lifetime of work and thought, carried out in the heart of the enemy's country.

The latter phrase bids fair to become as ubiquitous in Hill's work as another of his favourite quotations (which appears, for example, as a third epigraph to the Collected Poems of 1986), Ezra Pound's line from "Canto II," In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it. As Hill notes, the enemy's country occurs inStrange Newes, one of the pamphlets written by Thomas Nashe attacking the pedant, Gabriel Harvey. It also appears, with more contextual explicitness, in Sir William Davenant's preface to hisGondibert. Hill quotes Davenant's description of the vast field of learning, where the Learned...lye...malitiously in Ambush, and the poet must travail as through the Enemy's country. (Since he discusses Wotton's notorious pun in the book's third essay, it is tempting to suspect that Hill trusts an alert reader to add a loaded gloss on Davenant's lye.)

Even before the Clark Lectures were delivered in 1986, Hill had begun to range the enemy's country. As far as I know, his first (slightly adjusted) use of the phrase is in the first line of the following passage concerning another poet in travail. It comes from the fourth part of Hill's ten-part sequence, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). The lines are multiple in their address — to Péguy, to the poet writing about him and to the empathetic reader:

This is your enemies' country which they took
in the small hours an age before you woke,
went to the window, saw the mist-hewn
statues of the lean kine emerge at dawn.
Outflanked again, too bad! You still have pride,
haggard obliquities: those that take remorse
and the contempt of others for a muse
bound to the alexandrine as to the Code
Napoléon. Thus the bereaved soul returns
upon itself, grows resolute at chess,
in war-games hurling dice of immense loss
into the breach; thus punitively mourns.

Significantly, Hill uses the first two of the lines just quoted as the solitary epigraph for The Enemy's Country. He does not indicate the lines are taken from the Péguy sequence, as if to emphasize the absence of division between his prose and poetry.

No-one but a practising poet of extraordinary gifts who has refused the temptation of letting his prose become a thinned and slackened version of his poetry could have composed Hill's essays. They are filled with aphoristic comments, always bedded in specific instances, which invariably suggest other perceptions and applications. Choosing from many, let me quote these few:

Style is a seamless contexture of energy and order which, time after time, the effete and the crass somehow contrive to part between them; either paying tremulous lip-service to the "incomparable" and the "incommunicable" or else toadying to some current notion of the demotic. (2)

...the individual poetic voice can, and must, realize its own power amid, and indeed out of, that worldly business which makes certain desires and ambitions unrealizable. (3)

Dryden's work manifests, albeit with varying degrees of finality, his command of the essential facts: that a poet's words and rhythms are not his utterance so much as his resistance. His "choice of Words, and Harmony of Numbers" as Dryden would say, his "technic" as Yeats and Pound called it, must resist the pressure of circumstances or be inundated by the tide of "compleasance." (4)

Criticism which is, on many occasions, the faculty and instrument of judgement is on other occasions, possibly more numerous, part of the body of circumstance out of which and against which the single voice of creative intelligence must be made articulate. Modern criticism in this guise is one of the shapes of protean Opinion, one of the petty "lords of the temporal world," something quite other than the "sublimity of the critical sense" which Pound associated with Henry James at his strongest. (5)

The world's obtuseness, imperviousness, its active or passive hostility to valour and vision, is not only the object of his [Pound's] denunciation; it is also the necessary circumstance, the context in which and against which valour and vision define themselves: "In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it." If it were not for the darkness and the enemies' torches the beauty of factive virtù would not shine out so in defiance of that circumstance which the "gathering" has in part transformed. (6)

Common to all these quotes is Hill's insistance that the writer must be engaged in an easeless negotium of language (7) and must exercise the kind of factive energy (8) which Hill perceives in the work of Dryden and Pound who at their best are

...comparable in their awareness of the political and economic realities of circumstance, of the ways in which the writer's judgement of word-values both affects and is affected by his understanding of, or his failure to comprehend the current reckonings of value in the society of his day. (9)

A shallow reading of the last quotation given might well suggest Hill's reckonings of value are fairly pragmatic. The reading would not be altogether inaccurate. One of the major premises of the plots of many of his poems, early and late, has been a resistance to the platonic angelism which is the particular form of otium(otiose, functionless ease) to which his temperament and the tradition of poetry within which he works make him vulnerable. But there is something far more demanding than a pragmatic appeal to which even the petty "lords of the temporal world"might accede. Within the dense pattern of allusions in the quotes given, among the more overt presences of Henry James, of Pound, of Dryden's contempt for the tyranny of prejudicateOpinion and of the late-Renaissance quality of virtù exemplified by Sir Henry Wotton are less overt, even covert matters. They arethe darkness and the enemies' torches, which are an allusion tothe torchlight red on sweaty faces in Part V of The Waste Landand the singular but particular enactment in Gethsemane.

No allusion similar to the Gethsemane one appears elsewhere inThe Enemy's Country. The passage is also a fairly rare instance of rhetorical imagistic release in Hill's critical prose. Unlike many other poets, he seldom uses the devices of his poetry in his critical prose. The allusion is notable further because it is not referenced in an otherwise meticulously complete section of notes on sources Hill has appended to the essays. Is the passage, therefore, a slippage or a deliberated and valourous gesture? As noted at the beginning of this essay, Hill's prose may be useful when one reads his poetry. Its use is offered at every point in The Enemy's Country. But I suggest that in this one passage in particular, Hill's gesture is particularly generous, for it informs the deeper possible senses of Hill's latest poems.

Hill's most recent collecton of poetry, New & Collected Poems,1952-1992 (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994) is the third of Hill's books to bear a "collected" designation. Preceding it were the Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1986) and theCollected Poems (Penguin Books, 1985). Although dated a year earlier, the Penguin Collected is actually more complete than the Oxford University Press volume, for it contains what the latter lacks, Hill's three "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres."

The new Houghton Mifflin book poses several additional enigmas of incompletion similar to that of the Oxford University Press Collected. Missing from it, though present in both the Oxford and Penguin collections, is a set of three epigraphs after the table of contents. A second omission is "Funeral Music: An Essay" which was originally published in King Log (1968). A third omission is the essay "Charles Péguy" which was appended to The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). None of these absences is explained. One could surmise that production limitations of size, or editorial judgement, or even copyright restrictions led to the excisions. All three possibilities are an ordinary part of a poet's negotium with the very unpoetic world of publishing. But it is legitimate too, since no explanations are given, to surmise that the absences are Hill's decisions, and that latter surmise is not one the publisher or editor should have left open for a reader to make. As a definitive "collected," the Houghton Mifflin volume is, therefore, badly compromised. On the other hand, whatever its flaws, the New & Collected Poemsmust be read by anybody more than negligently interested in twentieth century poetry, because its concluding section, "New Poems (1992)," is not a publisher's canny make-weight. The section is, in effect, Hill's sixth separate collection.

This new section contains thirteen poems, presented over twenty-eight pages. Seven of the poems are in several parts, a form Hill has always particularly favoured. The longest new poems are the five part "Churchill's Funeral" and the seven part "Scenes with Harlequins." Short though it may seem by some standards, the new section is comparable in length, according to Hill's standards of compression and economy, with King Log (seventeen poems) and Tenebrae (ten poems). But length, of course, is a crude standard. Far more important are those standards of continuity, coherence, range and depth which distinguish a true collection from the kind of opportunistically assembled miscellany, clumsily held together by egocentric exhibitionism, which usually obtains privileged passage through the enemy's country of contemporary cultural and critical journalism. Hill obtains continuity and coherence among the new poems just as he has done in each of his other discrete collections by meticulously managing, concentrating and interfusing prosody, imagery and theme.

Four of the thirteen poems, including the two multi-part longest, are written predominantly in a prosodic form which is very familiar to those who have read Hill's other collections — short lined quatrains, with three or four heavy stresses per line, hammered tight by assonance and alliteration. But familiar as the form is, Hill's handling of it among the new poems is far freer than before. Unlike the immediately precedent quatrains of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy and of the "Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres," the new quatrains are not rhymed or off-rhymed, and they contain far greater incidence of run-on lines.

Hill's more flexible use of a prosodic form he has used so often previously is in keeping with the appearance of another form among the new poems which he has hardly ever used before. Eight of the thirteen poems are written in heavily accented, assonantal, alliterated, stepped free-verse. Hill has used this form hitherto only briefly and partially in "The Death of Shelley," part three of "Of Commerce and Society" which was published in his first book, For the Unfallen (1959). The influence of Ezra Pound upon these new stepped-verse poems and their consequent evocation of Pound's mixture of integrity and vulgar cruelty andessential culpability (10) are obviously cued by Hill's discussions of Pound in The Enemy's Country. It is, incidentally, characteristic of Hill to be concerned with Pound at a time when Pound's stock among many contemporary poets, particularly American ones, is very low. (Three or four years ago, a very successful American literary critic and poet told me: Pound is finished.) Hill has always resisted fashionable complicities of style. During the 1960's, 1970's and early 1980's, Hill paid homage to and sometimes emulated the poetry of Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom, at a time when their work in both poetry and prose was regarded as outmoded or was even vilified. In doing so he helped to lay a substantial part of the foundation of contemporary formalism.

But the stepped-verse poems do other things besides evoking Pound and his ethical or sometimes profoundly unethicalnegotium with those authorities in the enemy's country who have conspired alongside him or against him as shifts of otium made advantageous. Formally, the lines of the stepped-verse poems are able to move with a lightness which is both tentative and judicial, which is capable of nuanced repetition and hence able to play off various inflections as the lines develop. Like Paul Celan, a poet whom Hill deeply admires and whose work he most movingly adapted in the "Two Chorale-Preludes" of Tenebrae, Hill is concerned with matters which bring him to the limits of secular language. They are limits which the accuracy and refinement of touch possible in stepped-verse, rightly tempered, may manage to approach honourably.

Theme and its correlate (or, to speak more accurately, its enactment) imagery cannot, unlike prosody, be discussed usefully in general terms when one is dealing with a poet as complex and meticulous as Hill. The theme and imagery of each of his new poems requires separate attention, or an attention which qualifies itself clearly as provisional and elementary. Given the nature of this essay, I must compromise between those two alternatives by considering only the first poem in the "New Poems (1992)" section in some detail and by trying to show how things in it are picked up, re-worked and extended in subsequent poems. First, the poem needs to be quoted in full:

Sobieski's Shield


The blackberry, white
field-rose, all others
of that family:

steadfast is the word

and the star-gazing planet out of which
lamentation is spun.


Overnight as the year
purple garish-brown
aster chrysanthemum
signally restored
to a subsistence of slant light
as one would venture
Justice Equity
or Sobieski's Shield even
the names
and what they have about them dark to dark.

Its intermittent lyricism will probably carry most readers through their first experience of this poem, but not, I suspect, subsequent ones because it is so obviously only part of the poem's activity. The lyricism is compromised, impeded and defined by allusions which may be unfamiliar, by syntactical disjunctures, by suppressed expositions and by abstractions which appear naive or anachronistic if one judges according to the tenets of orthodox imagism. All these obstacles are deliberate. Either one writes off the poem — and in doing so writes off Hill (in favour of whom?) — or one attempts to work out what the names in the penultimate line of the second stanza refer to.

Start with the title "Sobieski's Shield." Once most of Christendom knew who Sobieski was. That what is left of it may, in large part, not know now enacts the very darkness with which the poem concludes. The Sobieski named in the title was John Sobieski (1629-1696), acclaimed King John III of Poland in 1674. In September 1683 (an equinoctial season of slant light) Sobieski broke the Turkish siege of Vienna at the Battle of Kalenberg. He forced the Turkish Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa, into a humiliating and bloody retreat from which Turkish forces never recovered. Sobieski sent the Vizier's green standard to the Pope, accompanied by the message, Veni, Vidi, Deus Vinxit ("I came. I saw. God conquered.")

Sobieski's message obviously proposes a conflation with Julius Caesar's Veni, Vidi, Vincit ("I came. I saw. I conquered") with a careful, Christian, cosmological adjustment. Less obviously, it also proposes a conflation with the cross of flames in the noon sky and the words (in Greek), By this conquer, perceived by the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. It must have seemed to Sobieski that his victory at Kalenberg was the third of three victories reaching back over eighteen centuries which secured for Europe and for Poland a future which would be imperial, Roman and Catholic. In both the short and the long run, the future was, of course, very different. In the short run, Kalenberg was the prelude not to stability in Poland, but to steadily intensifying dynastic, political, social, economic and diplomatic confusion. As for Sobieski, after Kalenberg his military exploits were ill-judged and accomplished little of permanence. During the final years of his reign, he withdrew from the negotium of public life, evaded national responsibilities and retired to the otium of a squirearchical existence of obesity and complacency. To take a longer view, the victory of Kalenberg led to foreign domination of Poland and ultimately the present where, to quote from "De Jure Belli ac Pacis," another of the new poems, Europa/hetaera displays her parts to the willing customers of secular transnationalism.

But there are even further ironic implications in the title, "Sobieski's Shield." For a time, Sobieski was a "star" not only metaphorically, but also factually. More accurately, he was a constellation. Close to the centre of the Milky Way, west of Antinoüs, between the tail of the Serpent and the top of Sagittarius, the Polish astronomer Hevelius (1611-1687) discovered a new constellation in 1683 which he formed from seven, unfigured 4th-magnitude stars. Hevelius and Sobieski (who was, like Wotton, a late-Renaissance virtuoso) exchanged letters on scientific matters. As a mark of respect and in honour of their friendship, Hevelius entitled his last and posthumously published work, a star map, Firmamentum Sobiescanum (Danzig, 1690). He also named the constellation he had discovered in 1683, Scutum Sobiescanum, that is, to say, Sobieski's Shield. (11)

The constellation, Sobieski's Shield, was one which earth, or at least a part of it shaped by Christianity, could, as the star-gazing planet of the poem's fifth line, observe as as a portion of its own mythological pantheon in an act of cultural projection similar to that carried out by the Greek astronomers when they named Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the Dioscuri (the Heavenly Twins) and other planets and stars. But just as is the case with that earthly constellation consisting of Sobieski, Kalenberg, Poland and Western Christendom, so also the human history of the starry constellation of Sobieski's Shield is replete with irony and occlusion: on many modern star maps the constellation of Sobieski's Shield does not appear or, if it appears, it is named only the Shield or Scutum. Sobieski's name has been excised.

The last two lines of Sobieski's Shield direct readers to grasp all the historical ironies and occlusions I have discussed in the preceding four paragraphs. Those lines concern the names/and what they have about them dark to dark. Some readers of the poem will, in fact, have started to experience the very ironies and occlusions which are alluded to in those lines and are the subjects of many of the "New Poems (1992)" as early as their first encounter with the unfamiliarity of the poem's title. For such readers, the names have been lost in a process of cultural attrition and deracination which parallels and expresses the loss of meaning of the two words which precede Sobieski's Shield in the poem's final stanza: Justice and Equity.

Brief though it is, perhaps the above discussion of "Sobieski's Shield" and of the most audible echoes of its title is sufficient to show how complex, compressed and extensive the poem's implications are. But my commentary is obviously only a preliminary to doing them justice. To go further would entail dealing with all the poem's allusions and suggestions — a task which is beyond the intent of this essay. Considering them would require the same kind of detailed and sympathetic attention required by the late work of artists such as Velasquez or Braque because "Sobieski's Shield" is similarly packed with calculated hiatuses and disjunctures which summon up cultural, historical and personal memories connotatively rather than explicitly. To give examples, the words dark to dark in the poem's last line are filled with the echoes of many passages in both the Old and New Testaments. One is St. Paul's now we see through a glass, darkly. Another, perhaps even more explicit, is the opening of the Gospel of St. John, verses 1-5:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him 
was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.

Hence the steadfast is the word of line four in the poem. To give a third example, this time from a different source, by naming earth the star-gazing planet in line five of the poem Hill directs many readers to Dante's l'amor che move il sole e l'altre sole ("Love that moves the sun and other stars.") When that happens, "Sobieski's Shield" may be read as a lament spun clear of an earth spinning outside that empyrean order where Dante ended his journey as a citizen and a poet in the Paradiso.

I choose the last example deliberately because it can guide our reading of other "New Poems (1992)." There is, for example, the second section of the sequence "Churchill's Funeral." The section is introduced by an epigraph taken from Ruskin's Unto This Last:

Suppose the subject of inquiry, instead of being House-law (Oikonomia), had been Star-law (Astronomia), and that, ignoring the distinction between stars fixed and wandering, as here between wealth radiant and wealth reflective, the writer had begun thus:

Like all of Hill's epigraphs, this one does not offer itself as self-sufficient explanation. It helps to define but is also defined by the poem which follows it — one of the most lyrical and moving that Hill has published:

Innocent soul
ghosting for its lost
twin, the afflicted one
born law-giver;.

uncanny wraith
kindled afar off
like the evening star
res publica

seen by itself
with its whole shining
history discerned
through shining air,.

both origin
and consequence, its
hierarchies of sorts
fierce tea-making.

in time of war
courage and kindness
as the marvel is
the common weal.

that will always
simply as of right
keep faith, ignorant
of right or fear:.

who is to judge
who can judge of this?.
Maestros of the world.
not you not them.

At its most accessible level, the poem is addressed to Pollux, one of the pair of stars usually called the Gemini, or The Heavenly Twins, or by the Greeks and Romans, Dioscuri. As the poem proceeds, however, it modulates into an address to the apparently missing or absent star of the pair, Castor. The insertion of a poem on such a subject in a sequence entitled "Churchill's Funeral," which is (to speak in general terms) a Blakean, prophetic vision of the causes and consequences of the collapse of post-Second World War London into moral and physical desolation, may seem, at first, oblique and fanciful. However, there are many reasons why the poem is a crucial one in the sequence and a central one in the whole body of Hill's work.

A prime reason is that the Gemini pair have become one of Hill's recurring, defining symbols — as were the tower for Yeats and the hidden garden for Eliot. Hill has used the Gemini in his work twice before. They are, for example, those Lords of Limit who lend their name to the main title of Hill's first collection of essays (published in 1984). The initial epigraph to that collection offers one of Hill's reasons for choosing them. It is the first line in the following, fully-quoted stanza of Auden's "The Watchers":

O Lords of Limit training dark and light
And setting a tabu `twixt left and right,
The influential quiet twins
From whom all property begins,
Look leniently upon us all to-night.

In an earlier essay (12), I have tried to show that Auden's stanza is based upon a passage in D.H. Lawrence's Apocalypse which identifies the Gemini twins with the two witnesses, also called thetwo prophets, in Chapter 11 of The Revelation of St. John the Divine. They are to be killed by the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit (K.J.V.):

And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of
the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom
and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.

Sodom and Egypt and London and the Gemini typologically prophetic and, if another indication of Hill's lengthy meditation upon the implications of the Gemini were needed, there is the following stanza from the fourth section of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (published in 1983):

This world is different, belongs to them —
the lords of limit and of contumely.
It matters little whether you go tamely
or with rage and defiance to your doom.

A certain circle is rounded and closed by the stanza which immediately follows the one just quoted. I have already quoted it at the beginning of this essay:

This is your enemies' country which they took
in the small hours an age before you woke,
went to the window, saw the mist hewn
statues of the lean kine emerge at dawn.

With a subtle interplay of cross-referencing among his own works and by alluding to other sources, therefore, Hill had even before "New Poems (1992)" used the figure of the Gemini to link three of his books of prose and poetry and make them part of thatnegotium about justice and equity; about the sacred and secular; about divine, natural and positive law and their definitions and interrelationships; about prophecy and realpolitik; and about moral authority and its subversion whose outcome is one form or other of civilization.

The epigraph from Ruskin which precedes the poem from" Churchill's Funeral" which we have been discussing asks the reader to consider the results of a breakdown of this negotium. It suggests ignoring certain distinctions (certain limits) and separating cause from effect, the ideal from the real, the source of light from the recipient or reflector of that light, and the heavens (with all they have symbolically implied) from the earth.

Hence, in Hill's poem, the two Gemini are both indistinct (or diffuse) and separate. In the Greek version of the Gemini myth, Castor is mortal; Pollux is immortal. Hill draws upon that version and begins his poem by invoking the immortal Pollux. But Hill also depends upon the Roman version in which Castor and Pollux are turned into Romulus and Remus respectively. As Plutarch tells their story in the second of his Lives, Romulus founded the city of Rome and devised its first system of government. But before he did so, he murdered his twin brother Remus when the latter mocked him for beginning the rituals preparatory to building the city's walls. In Hill's poem Pollux, the immortal twin (the murdered Remus), is ghosting for its lost/twin the afflicted one, born law giver who is both Castor, the mortal twin, and Romulus, the murderer. Pollux (justice, equity, the platonic radiant idea of the res publica) is both separated from and yet haunting Castor (his fallen, mortal twin, who is both lamenting and lamentable).

It is tempting to equate Castor with Sobieski. The imagery of stars in both the poem under discusson and "Sobieski's Shield" is strikingly parallel. But the present poem is too subtle to be explained simply by a parallel commentary (one which, in any case, would be based upon too straightforward a reading of "Sobieski's Shield"), because the poem tends to run counter to the directiveness of the epigraph from Ruskin. In the poem, far from being separated, House-law and Star-law and wealth radiant andwealth reflective yearn to be interdependent and inseparable. The apparent separation imposed upon Castor and Pollux at the beginning of the poem modulates as the poem proceeds into a reduced and occluded bond in which Castor attempts to keep faithwith the ghostly Pollux. For Castor tries to secure the continuance of the common-weal — even if that continuance has degenerated into only fierce tea-making//in time of war, a ritual which is pathetic, comic, yet loyal to some stubborn, residual sense of the need for civic honour and responsibility. In other words Castor, although in one of his forms he is the murderer of his brother, is haunted by memories of the wealth radiant of his wandering and immortal twin, Pollux. The poem, that is, both illustrates its epigraph and contradicts it by uncovering traces of what its own epigraph has called upon it to deny — a negotium between guilt and innocence, fate and individual responsibility, cultural collapse and continuance.

It is a negotium, however, which neither the Maestros of the world, nor those conducted by them, nor those who only listen to them are qualified, as the poem's last stanza states, to judge. But obviously the poem itself is a judgement. One reacts to it as judgement upon a fallen kingdom — and there is no doubt that the Maestros of the world are defined by the poem's contempt. The poem is another instance of a recurrent situation in Hill's poetry (and in his essays) where the reader must accept or deny responsibility for adjudication under conditions where inclusiveness and fairness seem almost impossible. For example, consider the lines of the poem's last stanza, who is to judge/who can judge of this? What is the this which might be judged? As a demonstrative it is so generously inclusive that it designates not only the survival of a deeply compromised and residual common weal which is both communal and debased but it also designates the artifact of the poem. Confirming the latter designation is the last stanza of the first section of "Churchill's Funeral," the one immediately preceding the section we have been discussing:

nobilmente it
rises from silence
the grand tune, and goes
something like this.

How then does one judge a this, which now must also include that otiose cliché of the grand tune which has been vulgarized yet further into a version which goes/something like this? An easy answer, "As poetry," has obviously been precluded by Hill. TheMaestros of the world practise other arts besides the political. Some of them, doubtless, are poets. And yet Hill's work is marked by a profound respect for poets. The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, for example, is devoted to a poet Hill calls one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century, while King Log contains "Four Poems Regarding the Endurance of Poets" which is a series of homages for Tommaso Campanella, Miguel Hernandez, Robert Desnos and Osip Mandelstam. As for "New Poems (1992)", its longest poem is the seven part "Scenes with Harlequins" which is dedicated to Aleksander Blok. How can a reader, therefore, reconcile the apparent self-contradiction of Hill's suspicion of poetry (sometimes amounting to mockery) with his reverence for it and for certain poets?

No, the reconciliation cannot be found in phrases like "As poetry." Those words mock Hill or misread his poetry and prose. Instead, I suggest, "As negotium." Or if the word negotium is too alien, "As poetic justice." Clichéd though it may be, the latter phrase carries its weight in common speech. Significantly, it still carries implications of both sacred and secular compensation which cognate phrases like "You get what you deserve" or "What goes around comes around" or so and so "... had it coming" do not. Could it be that the weight of "poetic justice" derives from a communal respect for a certain kind of poetics? As for "justice," together with its cognates it pervades Hill's poems and prose.

Admittedly we saw Justice earlier in this essay in the context of occlusion in "Sobieski's Shield." But that context does not mean that Hill rejects its existence. What we did not notice earlier was the otiose abstraction of its capitalization. It is that kind of hubris, I believe that the poem rejects. Towards the beginning of "Poetry as `Menace' and `Atonement,' the first essay in The Lords of Limit, there is this significant passage:

From the depths of the self we rise to a
concurrence with that which is not-self. For so
I read those words of Pound: `The poet's job is
to define and yet again define till the detail of
surface is in accord with the root in justice.' (13)

The passage is key to understanding that justice in Hill's work is not just a matter of ghosting Pollux. It is also, literally, a matter rooted in this earth — an earth whose texture is made up, among other things, of words and, therefore, of poems issuing from a radicated poetics whose justice is verified (but not necessarily created) by the negotium of natural processes. The distinctions must be subtle: I am not suggesting that Hill believes in an Emersonian equivalence of language and nature. At this point, it is best to let him speak. In an essay on C.H. Sisson, he wrote:

The capacity to interfuse ideas with landscape is one
of the great creative secrets: to make a tree or a field 
either draw out, or reciprocate, or feed images into, 
the life of the mind. It is great art we become 
palpably aware of in Wordsworth; scarcely anyone 
does it more beautifully than George Eliot. (14)

I think Hill's belief in this kind of poetic justice is shown by the second main constellation of images whose lights shine more steadfastly throughout the "New Poems (1992)" than the lights of the first constellation, the one of stars, which has already been discussed. This second constellation consists of radicated (and often radiant) images: vines, trees, flowers, herbs and weeds.

Hence, the ragwort/and the willow-herb which are among theedifiers/of ruined things in the last stanza of the fourth section of "Churchill's Funeral." So also the first, beautiful stanza of "Of Coming-into-Being and Passing-Away":

Rosa sericea: its red spurs
blooded with amber
each lit and holy grain
the sun
makes much of
as of all our shadows —

So also the natural strange beatitudes of willow, larch or alder in "Cycle" and even the very title of the last of "New Poems (1992)" which is "Sorrel" (followed by the explanatory epigraph:Very common and widely distributed...It is called some parts of Worcestershire — where Hill was born).

When discussing the "New Poems (1992), "we began with its first poem, "Sobieski's Shield." Let us end with it, for there the two constellations of images, that of the stars and that of the radicated earth, appear together. "Sobieski's Shield" begins:

The blackberry, white
field-rose, all others
of that family
steadfast is the word

The blackberry and the white/field rose both belong to that familyof rosaceae. Significantly, to cite a defining contrast, in "Psalms of Assize," a later poem among the "New Poems (1992)," the vague and vain pretensions of Renaissance Christian Neoplatonism are bitterly assized (or judged) as a monody/of chloroform/or florist's roses. In "Sobieski's Shield," on the other hand, the blackberry and the white/field rose are wild. Yet they also convey living cultural, historical and sacred associations humanity has imparted to them, including that of the Celestial Rose in Dante's Paradiso XXX, whose petals are made up of the heavenly family of the Elect which has managed (like Dante) to traverse The Enemy's Country. A colon at the end of the poem's third line indicates the family is synonymous with the sacred Word at the beginning of the Gospel of St. John (as noted earlier). Here and elsewhere throughout "New Poems (1992)" we are, therefore, being offered the possibility of reading Hill's words in the light of the garden of Gethsemane, as essays in poetic justice and prophecy.

Footnotes and Bibliography

(1)John Haffenden: Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation: Faber and Faber, London, 1981, pg. 90.

(2) Geoffrey Hill: The Enemy's Country: Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1991, pg. 81.

(3) Ibid, pg. 51.

(4) Ibid, pg. 5.

(5) Ibid, pg. 84.

(6) Ibid, pg. 87.

(7) Ibid, pg. 9.

(8) Ibid, pg. 10.

(9) Ibid, pg. 5.

(10)Geoffrey Hill: The Lords of Limit: Oxford University Press, New York, 1984, pg. 154.

(11) Richard Allen: Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning: Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1963, pg. 373.

(12) Peter Sanger: "Some Kind of Relevation": Geoffrey Hill's The Lords of Limit: The Antigonish Review, Autumn, 1989, Issue 79, pp. 137-146.

(13) Geoffrey Hill: The Lords of Limit: pg. 3.

(14) Geoffrey Hill: C.H. Sisson: PN Review, 1984, Volume 11, Number 1, pg. 14.