In Praise of Geoffrey Hill:
          "Ovid in the Third Reich"
[from King Log, 1968]

    Reviews by Cooper Renner

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If Geoffrey Hill has become completely garrulous in the past decade, publishing one collection of poems and three book-length sequences from 1996 to 2002, it was not always so. The distance from his first book to his fourth was nineteen years. For the Unfallen, a collection of less than 50 pages, appeared in 1959, followed by another short collection, King Log, in 1968, the prose-poem sequence Mercian Hymns in 1971, and Tenebrae, his third lean collection, in 1978. The gap from Tenebrae to Canaan in 1996 was filled only with a twenty-page sequence, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy, in the mid-'80s, and various new poems issued in two different collected editions, one in the UK, another in the US.

If Milton and Shelley needed snipping too much of the time, Hill needed fleshing out.

The Hill of the brief collections was severe, sharp, pointedly intellectual and capable of astonishing power, a sort of polished brutality not seen since early Robert Lowell. One of the best of these poems is "Ovid in the Third Reich" from King Log. All but one of the hallmarks of early Hill are here: a beautifully shaped formality, references to history and literature, a penetrating focus on human cruelty, and an oblique presentation which requires the reader to puzzle his way into the poem's meaning. What is missing is not really missed: that intensely pruned delivery of so many of Hill's other lyrics, a delivery which too often pushes the reader away (a problem for Lowell and William Empson as well). I used the word formality above, instead of formalism, because Hill's almost unmistakable voice is rendered not simply in rhymed quatrains but also with a sort of dignity and reserve practically unheard of in American poetry of the past half-century. Hill's Ovid employs that same reserve, but he is also -- as it were -- speaking, rather than asking us to read him. Perhaps this explains the relative looseness of Hill's lines here, or perhaps this is simply one of those poems -- like Milton's sonnet on his blindness or Shelley's "Ozymandias" -- in which everything comes together for the poet in a way which makes use of his characteristic skills in a voice that seems, however, eternal. If Milton and Shelley needed snipping too much of the time, Hill needed fleshing out.

The poem is brief enough to quote entirely, and one may be forgiven, given Hill's devotion to the sonnet, for wondering if this was originally the octave of a sonnet which revealed itself to be complete without a concluding sestet.

I love my work and my children. God
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.
Too near the ancient troughs of blood
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much on the damned. They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

The poem is a monologue, to be sure, a mask, but the mask addresses the reader directly: no objective correlatives here. Its power is rooted both in the attraction of that open voice, urbane but unaffected, and in the distasteful subjects it addresses. Dante is not mentioned, and is as anachronistic to Ovid as is the Third Reich, but he is everywhere nonetheless: the imagery of the damned and the divine in their spheres; the startling suggestion, in "ancient troughs of blood," that blood is provided to be drunk; the blunt acknowledgment that awareness, not innocence, is the only protection of the "good". Nor is it impertinent that both Ovid and Dante wrote persuasively of metamorphoses, since Hill's Ovid creates, out of the combination of the damned and the divine (Hill does not use the word saved), a new music, a harmony.

Ovid's viewpoint seems to foreshadow the Christian fat!

They are clearly a part of one providence, a universe, rather than the separate manifestations of an essential duality. How cleverly Hill e! choes Yeats's equally cosmic "The Second Coming." Yet where Yeats was willing to judge the course of events with "Things fall apart," Hill is rather more modest -- "Things happen." Hill's Ovid has, we might say, a personal epiphany, but is not willing to create a philosophy: his outlook is strictly confined to what he has learned -- "not to look down / So much on the damned." Even gifted poets rarely craft such sly sequences of monosyllables! Hill rescues the original meaning of "look down" -- because, of course, the damned are below Ovid, in Hell -- but notice that Ovid doesn't entirely give up disparaging the damned; he simply knows not to do it "so much." Or is it possible that, just as "look down" has been reclaimed into its literal meaning, so too is Ovid's intent literally not to look down at the damned as frequently as he has in the past, but rather to focus his sight elsewhere, upon the love-choir? Ovid's viewpoint seems to foreshadow the Christian fat!

Her Origen, who believed that all beings -- including Satan -- would eventually be reconciled to God the Father (even if he is distant and difficult). But, in pondering Ovid's pronouncement, we ought not forget Hill's title: Ovid is in the Third Reich. It's possible that Hill, as a student of history, is simply comparing the Roman Empire of Caesar Augustus to Hitler's Germany, but the more apparent intent is again anachronism: the positing of what the noted poet of love and exile -- himself a victim of imperial power -- might say in the face of the Holocaust. Ovid's position is a careful balance, a refusal to deny that the damned are indeed damned, linked to his own forbearance to gloat too much over their punishment. He, the connoisseur of adultery, is not without sin.

What happened to this child victim of the Holocaust, he knows, will happen to him as well ...

Lest the reader find Ovid insufficiently outraged at man's inhumanity to man, Hill comments yet again on the Holocaust in "September Song," also included in King Log, which begins with the remarkable (and for Hill remarkably informal) sentence, "Undesirable you may have been, untouchable / you were not." Hill is so moved by the plight of the slaughtered innocents that he gives this one, in the poem's headnote, a birthday only one day before Hill's own (or was he moved, rather, upon stumbling across the record of one of the dead only one day older than himself?) Hill makes use here -- as the first sentence indicates -- of an almost clinical detachment, a heightening of horror by treating with it, as the Nazis did, as an ordinary thing. "As estimated," he writes, "you died. Things marched, / sufficient, to that end." One stanza, complete, holds an uncharacteristic openness: "(I have made / an elegy for myself it / is true"), in which Hill's lack of rhetorical distance marks his lack of psychological distance. What happened to this child victim of the Holocaust, he knows, will happen to him as well -- implying not simply that none of us deserves death, but also that all death is a kind of unjustified execution. And yet, Hill follows this bleak, almost self-effacing stanza with a look outward to the natural order:

September fattens on the vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

Hill's acceptance here of the world order -- including death -- is not uncommon to world literature, but is quite exceptional in Hill's verse. It is not, on the other hand, as uplifting and stoic as it first seems. The roses are dying, even as the vines fatten with fruit, a death characterized by the vivid verb flake -- which draws in the beautiful, but often deadly, winter snows; the scales of the fish, scraped aside as we prepare to cook and eat it; and the erosion of our walls, our civilizations which outlive us, but themselves still die even so. And Hill has to qualify the autumn fires whose smoke makes him weep: he has to make them harmless so that we will understand that he is not speaking here of the concentration camps, even as his imagery insists on recalling them to us, insists on reminding us that man's inhumanity is as much a part of the natural order as the autumnal dying of plants.

Hill's verse is nothing like that of Emily Dickinson. Even his quatrains, arguably inspired by the hymnal, move with the beat of the long measure, with four stressed lines in succession, rather than with Dickinson's more usual alternation of four stresses with three, but these two lyrics have the gravity and careful linguistic artistry of Dickinson's best and she would not, I trust, mind my mentioning them in the same sentence with hers.

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As of January 2005, Cooper Renner edits the online magazine elimae.