First of all, there are the kudos for The Orchards of Syon. No less an eminence than Harold Bloom calls the book Hill’s most magnificent work in a long career of splendors. A. N. Wilson calls Hill probably the best writer alive, in verse or in prose, the nearest thing we have got to a poet who refashions language and speaks of serious things in new images. And then there is George Steiner, who calls The Orchards a theological-political meditation matched with the prodigality of nature as in no other contemporary poet. The one honored is the reader.
But Hill is also a notoriously difficult poet, a world away from most American poets writing today. And at 70, Hill is approaching the close of an extraordinary careera fact he comes back to again and again in this volume. British-born and British-educated (Oxford), for much of his life he taught at the University of Leeds, before going on to lecture at Cambridge. And now, for the past 14 years, he has taught literature and religion at Boston University.
Hill’s readership both here and in England cannot be very large, and he will never be a popular poet. But it would be a grievous error on the part of anyone seeking to find the real news in poetry to overlook Hill. Whatever the maddening allusiveness of his work, you know after just a few lines that you are in the presence of the real thinga serious poet concerned with serious issues, that rare phenomenon: a deeply religious poet. The Protestant John Milton seems to be behind Hill’s work, as well as the prophetic William Blake and D. H. Lawrence at his best. He is also one of the closest readers of Gerard Manley Hopkins I know of, not only of the latter’s poetry, but of the letters and sermons as well. Additionally, there are allusions to Augustine, Dante, John Donne and Charles Péguy, as well as to lesser figures like David Jefferies (Hopkins’s English contemporary) and Charles Williamson. Hill is one of those poets who can still pun in Latin and Greek. In heaven he will sup, I feel sure, with T. S. Eliot.
It used to be that Hill published a book of poems about every 10 years. In the last six years, however, he has published four. Taken together they appear to approximate his own version of Dante’s Commedia, with much of 20th-century British culture (to say nothing of America’s contributions) standing in for hell. Canaan and The Triumph of Love came first, both published in 1998, followed in 2000 with Speech! Speech! And now, The Orchards of Syon.
At first I took the title of this latest book to be a reference to Zion, or Jerusalem, especially because Hill couples it with motif-like references to Hopkins’s Goldengrove, an Eden-like hortus cultus, or enclosed garden. But there is the allusion too to the bloated corpse of Henry VIII. As it was being transferred to London, it was kept overnight at the former monastery at Syon, dissolved by the king in 1539, who turned the friars out and gave the monastery over to his followers. During the night when the king’s body lay there, the coffin burst open. When the body was discovered in the morning, the housedogs were still gnawing on ita sign, perhaps, of the curse on the king for profaning the sacred. Of the original estate, only the orchards the monks planted remain. So: corruption at the heart of the dream of God, the orchards (God’s fingerprint) the only viable reminder of what was corrupted by men hell-bent on getting their own way, even if it meant destroying an entire way of life to do so. And this is just an effort to unpack the resonances of Hill’s abstruse title!
Here is a theme, William Carlos Williams wrote 70 years ago, after reading the opening 30 lines of his friend Ezra Pound’s complex epic-length Cantos: a closed mind which clings to its powerabout which the intelligence beats seeking entrance. The same could be said about trying to read Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, John Berryman’s The Dream Songs or Williams’s own Paterson.
And yet, somehow Hill’s poetryeven if it stands accused of a kind of willed obscurantismseems worth the effort. I am attracted to his work, even when it leaves me at a loss or gasping for a little more clarity, simply because, when it does register, it has about it an intelligence, honesty and passion that only the classics possess. But to get at this hard-won insight, you don’t read Hill, you reread him, and with each rereading the poem seems to clear a bit more, before it blurs again a few lines later. Or, as Hill himself phrases it in the 13th of his 72-page-long verse paragraphs, this massive, shedding, insubstantial substance/ blurred and refocused, blurred afresh by rain.
So why read him? Because of the things he writes aboutwar and peace and sacrifice, and the search for meaning and the truths of the heart, and for that haunting sense that, in spite of war and terror and the indifferences that make up our daily hells, there really is some grander reality, some ineluctable presence we keep touching. There remains in Hill the daunting possibility that it may actually all cohere in the end, or at least enough of it to keep us searching for more.
There is a hard edge to Hill, a strong Calvinist streak in him, and an intelligence that reminds one of Milton. Perhaps that is to be expected in someone who has brooded long and hard on the bloody nightmare of two world wars, ending in the Holocaust. He will not be easily consoled, this man, and certainly not by the materialistic and linguistic inanities of postwar England or America. Often he seems nearly to choke on his own bile. But he offers, too, fragments of consolation, and even a hard-won laughter, mordant though that laughter may be. He needs an audience worthy of him. And more: explicators and those who will assume the task of footnoting him. He is surely one of our handful of poets who is worth the time and energy to do that.
So there remains at least one serious poet, asking the questions about our lives and our world that have to be asked if we are ever going to awaken from the nightmare of contemporary history. But for that to happen, Hill reminds us, it is we who will have to change. The promise, like the rainbow over the fallen city of man, remains. What we make of it is up to us. The poet, like the prophet, can only warn. The nightmare will not change until we change. Stop trying to amuse with such gleeful sorrow, Hill wisely ends his meditation:
Here are the Orchards of Syon, neither wisdom
nor illusion of wisdom, not
compensation, not recompense:
of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.