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by Alan Jacobs

The Lord of Limit

Is Geoffrey Hill the greatest living English poet?

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Such a habit leads the reader—or leads me, anyway—to wonder if some of Hill's critical statements are not cloaked self-revelations: "Clarendon's style, therefore, however firmly it adheres to the principle of integrity and comeliness, in practice is bound to show signs of strain, of badly resolved perplexity, partly realized contradiction, and implicit self-contradiction." (Does this suggest Hill's dissatisfaction with his own long-honed style, and a resulting need for change?) Or this comment about the tension between theology and artifice in the Wesleys' hymns: "I think it entirely possible for a hymn to be, at one and the same time, joyful and 'unhappy'; that kind of oxymoron is inherent in the creative matter, the ganglion of language and circumstance from which the piece of divine poetry is created." (An explanation of the deep sobriety and sadness of much of Hill's verse?)

These are the merest of speculations, and could scarcely be anything else. But one passage is clearly more than that, and truly illuminates Hill's thinking. Near the end of his essay on Vaughan, he stresses the need to conceive of language as "something other than a mere ancillary of 'vision' or 'experience.' Language is a vital factor of experience, and, as 'sensory material,' may be religiously apprehended."

That affirmation links Hill not only to Vaughan but also to the poets who bookend this volume, Hopkins and Eliot. As different as they may have been stylistically, both sought to achieve a fully "religious" apprehension of language and were continually (even agonizingly) aware of the forces in self and world that set themselves recalcitrantly against poetry's hopes for catching the transcendent. In these essays—as in his previous essays—Hill situates himself in their company. We should preserve Hopkins' inscrutable "unchancelling," however few people will care about it, and even if our concern for such words leads us to neglect "tofu." After all, did not Eliot remind poets that their task is to "purify the dialect of the tribe"? That style matters is, for Hill, an article of faith—as it was, he says, for John Donne: "With Donne, style is faith."

Whether Hill's joining of style and faith has anything to do with actual Christian belief—as it certainly has for Donne and Hopkins and Eliot—I cannot say. Adam Kirsch, writing in The New Republic about Hill's most recent book of poems, The Orchards of Syon (2002), points to a passage in which Hill writes, "But the Psalms—they remain," and suggests that they offer "if not wisdom, then something / that approaches it nearly. And if not faith, / then something through which it is / made possible to give credence." Hirsch notes the "evasion" of this passage, its refusal to make a straightforward avowal of wisdom or faith. And the same evasion is present in this volume: Hill concludes his preface by noting that "in most instances style and faith remain obdurately apart. In some cases, despite the presence of well-intentioned labour, style betrays a fundamental idleness which it is impossible to reconcile with the workings of good faith." Reading which I think, "good faith"? Bona fides? Oh, I thought you were talking about faith."

In any case, "style is faith" is what Hill has always believed. So if we ask what these essays do to explain or illuminate the dramatic change in Hill's recent poetry, the answer, I'm afraid, must be "Nothing." The essays were published between 1989 and 1999, the very period in which Hill was reinventing his verse, and in that light what is most surprising about them is how much they resemble his earlier essays. The gusts of idiomatic currency that have blown through Hill's last several years of poems are undetectable here, at least to me. The knowledge that, sometime in the 1990s, Hill began taking medication for depression could well be more helpful in interpreting these new poems than anything in Style and Faith—scrupulous, learned, and sometimes wise though those essays be. All of his essays share with his earlier poems an emphasis on the forces that can and should restrain and correct the poetic imagination: language, history, all the forms of context—in a word, limit. ("Lords of Limit" is a phrase from Auden, who shared this emphasis.) Geoffrey Hill's recent poetry remains formally strict and meticulously structured, but in its diction at least—and diction means much to Hill—it exceeds the limits its author, for 30 years or more, set for it. Whether this is a development to mourn or to celebrate time alone will tell. Style and Faith doesn't.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of A Visit to Vanity Fair: Moral Essays on the Present Age (Brazos Press) and A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Westview).

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