Broken Hierarchies, by Geoffrey Hill

Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, by Geoffrey Hill. (Oxford UP, 2013)

We live in a place and time in which most adults shun difficulty for themselves and protect their children against it at great cost to the family economy and to their amply-applauded offspring. Parents steer children toward success, and the pattern of seeking paths of minimal resistance continues into adolescence and middle age.  Maybe only in old age, when one contemplates the switchbacks of a life lived avoiding difficulty, does one dwell on the opportunity costs of this lifelong strategy of avoidance. In a time when trophies are awarded just for showing up, how does a reader cope with the frustrations inherent—even if they are eventually overcome, but especially if they are not—in poetry deemed difficult?

Of course, experienced readers of poetry will place the bar of difficulty at varying heights. Furthermore, the term difficult is not all that descriptive.  What most readers mean when they say a poem or poet is difficult is that, in some way, their access to the work has been hindered—the work is, to some degree to the reader, inaccessible.  Accessibility is a more useful concept, particularly when approaching a challenging body of work like that found in Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies.

What determines a poem’s—or a collection’s—accessibility? Another way to ask this question is to consider the poet’s, or the poems’, hospitality.  Does the poem welcome the reader, or does it shut her out?  In his 1938 essay, “Criticism, Inc.,” John Crowe Ransom went about trying to define literary criticism by describing what it is not, and his first exclusion was “[p]ersonal registrations, which are declarations of the effect of the artwork upon the critic as reader. The first law to be prescribed to criticism, if we may assume such authority, is that it shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object rather than its effects upon the subject” (1115). Ransom would likely dismiss any notion of a text’s hospitality, since that characteristic depends to some extent on the relationship between text and reader. Yet, the reader is an essential player in the act of reading, and the relationship between reader and text is affected, positively or negatively, by numerous factors, including, but not limited to, the relative literary sophistication of the reader, the elements of craft employed by the poet, and the willingness of the poet to grant the reader some contextual foothold in a given poem.

Hill is unable to do anything about the reading experience or intellectual breadth of his readers, but he has taken great care with the formal elements of poetry over his long and productive career.  David Bromwich gets at the issue by writing that Hill’s poetry “has none of the unction of geniality; does not weaken itself with whimsies, or otherwise truckle for patronage . . . [Hill] does not want to be loved for his poems, or search out ways of being likable in his poems” (qtd. in “Geoffrey Hill”). Bromwich goes too far. Although the vast store of Hill’s diction, the complexity of his syntax, and the extreme depth of his pool of referents place unusual demands on the reader, there is nothing callous about it.  Hill does not spray words on the page with no connective tissue. Instead, he employs poetry’s formal elements in a way that invites the reader to enter what are, without question, demanding poems that require a certain erudition, careful reading, and copious amounts of patience.

Hill would be approached more easily, by reader and reviewer, through individual volumes of his poems.  At 973 pages (933 pages of poems), Broken Hierarchies gathers and presents in order of publication twenty-one volumes of poetry. The titles of the included volumes reveal one of the intriguing aspects of the collection. In most cases (notwithstanding the 2006 volume Without Title), the titles of the collected volumes provide a context for the reader’s entry into the volumes’ poems; however, the average reader will likely be required to investigate the topic revealed by the title to make the connection to the poems’ texts. For example, a quick online search reveals that Mercian Hymns, the third section of Broken Hierarchies, refers to the ancient British kingdom of Mercia. Furthermore, unless the reader is expert in eighth century British history, more research will be required to discover that Offa, named in the section titles (listed only in the Table of Contents and not in the collected volume itself, where sections are delineated only by Roman numerals), was an Anglo Saxon king who consolidated power over a region rife with fiefdoms. That contextual background is essential to make any narrative sense of the thirty brief poems in Mercian Hymns.

Similarly, the fact that The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy leaves no doubt about Hill’s subject will not relieve most readers of the responsibility of doing some homework on the late eighteenth-early nineteenth century French essayist and poet. The same general comment may be made about many volumes collected here, including Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres, The Orchards of Syon, Scenes from Comus, and Ludo. If for no reason other than the unfamiliarity of the contexts of many of Hill’s poems, readers put off by poetry that demands patience and the willingness to move from poem to reference material and back will likely peruse a few of these poems and then move on to something less demanding. For readers willing to make the intellectual and temporal investment, however, these poems reveal the breadth and facility of a marvelous intellect.

Hill is also relentlessly and unapologetically formal. He favors a decasyllabic line, and many of the volumes collected in Broken Hierarchies are characterized by consistent stanza constructs and rhyme schemes. Each of the seven sections of “Lachrimae” and the thirteen sections of “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England,” two of the poems of 1978’s Tenebrae, for example, are end-rhymed sonnets. Each of the twenty-one sections of Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres contains five quatrains with consistent patterns of end-rhyme. Similarly, Hill constructs each of the thirty-one numbered Pindaric odes of the aptly named Pindarics with nine-line strophes and antistrophes followed by five-line epodes. The poet is so adroit at employing received forms that only the most accomplished reader will complete Broken Hierarchies without suspecting that many of the poems incorporate forms that the reader missed entirely.

These formal elements are Hill’s way of providing a foothold for readers who find themselves struggling a bit for context or something resembling linear narrative. Section 1 of Ludo illustrates how form offers a frame of reference in the absence of strong imagery:

We who are lovers through a grace of days
in diverse ways; who to variant clays
are self-adherent; and heirs apparent
to parent fears and fears recurrent:
how this preamble must resemble
          tossed-out arrears,
          and shail and wamble
          and tossers’ tremble,
fertile pessimism, one that yet waylays
generation and the jolly ramble of years. (1-10)

Notwithstanding the difficulty a reader may have making narrative sense of these lines, one cannot miss Hill’s playful diction throughout the entire stanza. Broken Hierarchies is replete with poems showing the poet’s delight in language. Particularly captivating is Hill’s talent for combining linguistic invention, formal discipline, and intellectual curiosity in poem after poem, volume after volume. Not that Hill would care in the least, but he breaks nearly all of the style rules suggested in today’s writing programs, rules like: “use as many one syllable words as possible;” “avoid foreign language phrases that might make the reader pause;” “do not call attention to exact end rhymes;” or “avoid references to the writing of the poem.”

It must be said that, notwithstanding his inventiveness, or perhaps because of it, Hill flirts with alienating the casual reader. Without some rudimentary research, for example, readers are unlikely to tie Odi Barbare, collected in Broken Hierarchies in “The Daybooks V,” to the volume of poetry with the same name by the prominent nineteenth century Italian poet Giosuè Alessandro Giuseppe Carducci. Even if the connection were made, what should the reader do with lines like the following quatrain of “XIV”?

Integer vitae yet can’t disembarrass,
Maugre your good self, from a span so meted.
How I thus brooded is this sum of wastage
          Lavished against time. (1-4)

Yet, Hill’s repertoire includes a brilliant lyric sensibility that breaks through from time to time—and just in time. These passages, heavy with imagery, offer a respite from the challenges of the poet’s denser passages and show even more fully the depth of literary resources at Hill’s command.  See, for example, Section 7 of Al Temp de’ Tremuoti:

Darkness is greying as the birds begin
To air their quarrels. Petra im Rosenhag
Enters my thoughts unbidden, though I beg
Often enough the pain that I am in

To cease being a pain and more resemble
Some wayward art dense with transparencies,
Petra im Rosenhag, while here it is
Still early light and the light curtains tremble. (891)

Hill applies all of his resources to a rich vein of thematic subject matter. The range of themes addressed in Broken Hierarchies–faith, geopolitics and matters of empire, romantic love, and cultural critique, among others—is as impressive as any other feature of the collection. Most readers will conclude after an initial reading that they have missed as much as they have gleaned from this lifetime of work and that Hill could delve even deeper into every subject that he touched. These are complex, nuanced, and challenging poems—they are difficult; but one leaves the collection with a resolution to return and with a vague feeling of having been rewarded for the effort, not with complete understanding but with the opportunity to experience a mind fully alive and at work.

Works Cited

“Geoffrey Hill.” Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Hill, Geoffrey. Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012. Ed. Kenneth Haynes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Ransom, John Crowe. “Criticism, Inc.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 1108-121. Print.