Poetry of the Apocalypse
Invitation to join a close reading of Geoffrey Hill's masterpiece "The Triumph of Love"
“The poet's job is to define and yet again define. If the poet doesn't make certain horrors appear horrible, who will?” - Geoffrey Hill
I’m inviting you all to join me on an adventure I’ve wanted to go on for some time: A close reading of the daunting 20th-century masterpiece “The Triumph of Love,” by Geoffrey Hill. I’ve read this poem three times, and I’m so excited to do this close reading with you all.
If you’re interested in joining me, you can pick up a copy of the poem from your favorite local bookstore or, if you can’t find it, from Amazon.
There are plenty of fine biographical pieces written about Hill (such as this one from Poets.Org and this one from The Guardian)—finer than I could write. Suffice to say that Hill is one of the great figures of 20th-century English verse. Unlike Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and Jones, Hill (b. 1932) writes from this side of the collapse that was World War I. These other English-language masters tried to grapple with the experience of watching the world as they knew it end; Hill’s is poetry born within that apocalypse. It is poetry of revelation, of concealment, of triumph, and of irreconcilable loss.
Hill was religious, a life-long practicing Anglican (his second wife was ordained as an Anglican priest). He was fascinated by the English Wars of Religion, frequently invoking martyrs from both sides of the wars in his poetry. His poems are crammed with allusions—literary, historical, liturgical, scientific. His vocabulary was vast and ever-expanding; his later verse draws on words so obscure (and occasionally his own inventions) that sometimes it is easier to read it as sound poetry than as lyric.
Hill was a genius. His poems are written on a scale that I find difficult to read in, let alone write in. I am fascinated by his work because I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to create such work. I do not know how it would feel to make the artistic decisions he makes: where to enter a poem, where to break a line, where to allow a digression and where to cut one short (Hill’s poems are full of digressions), where to explain an allusion and where to let one hang, difficult, thorny.
But the best part of Hill’s poetry is this: the rigor of the language is directly proportional to the moral rigor of the poem’s sentiment. I don’t use the word “sentiment” here in the Victorian way. I use it to mean “force” or “fervor.” In other words, the harder Hill’s verse is to decipher, the more ferocious the spiritual and moral struggle at its core. Hill gives us no straightforward answers. He does not believe in easy clarity or clear-cut categories. But he believes in truth, and (I believe in the end, at least) in goodness, and he is willing to walk a hellish road to find them. As should we all be.
For this close reading, I will write a post once a week or so (sometimes twice, sometimes every other week) covering one or more sections of the poem. There are many, many sections, so this will take a while. There is no way I will be able to cover everything in the poem, so I hope that you all will add your own observations in the comments sections.
For those of you who haven’t done close reading of a long poem, or haven’t in a while, here are a few tips:
1) Read the poem. Not commentary, not criticism. The poem.
2) Read the poem aloud.
3) Read the poem aloud again.
4) Sit quietly.
5) Read the poem again and look for things like:
- repeated words or repeated sounds
- names, places, dates
- line breaks that don’t line up with commas, periods, etc.
- changes in tempo, changes in tone
- humor, puns, etc.
6) Start asking questions like:
- who is the speaker of the poem? (The speaker is different than the author—the speaker is the voice the author has chosen to speak the poem. See what you can learn about the speaker from the words of the poem itself, not from knowledge about the author, because the speaker might be quite different than the author.)
- what is the speaker talking about? (A scene, a moment, a feeling, etc.)
- why did the speaker begin where he began?
- why did he end where he ended?
- does the speaker seem satisfied, or does he seem dissatisfied with his speech?
- is the speaker being honest, or is he avoiding something?
I will give more pointers on close reading as we go along, but please don’t hesitate to drop questions in the comments or to DM me on Twitter (@jcscharl) if you find a great close reading question of your own.
I hope you all join in. First post coming later this week.