Week 429: Merlin, by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) enjoys a high reputation in academic circles and as a ‘poets’ poet’, an accolade which has always seemed to me a bit suspect: certainly it is good to have the approval of one’s fellow poets, but a better trick, it seems to me, is to combine that with an equal gift for giving satisfaction to the general intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind, and Geoffrey Hill does not appear to have achieved that in the same way as such contemporaries as Heaney, Larkin, Hughes and R.S.Thomas. It is not hard to see why: his poems are uncompromisingly difficult, and concessions to the reader who may be less informed or have less arcane preoccupations are few or non-existent, meaning that he seems to me likely to remain popular mainly among those who have most reason to be grateful for the exegetic possibilities that he offers them.

For example, in his well-known sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, I find the language intriguing, but the meaning a little elusive (oh, come on, let’s be honest here: I haven’t the faintest idea what the guy is on about). So it is that in the end I have filed this poet under ‘Come back to when I’m a bit cleverer’. Sadly time is running out for any sudden access of increased mental powers on my part. It’s a pity, because now and then, as in this short piece, I get a glimmer of what I might be missing.

Merlin

“I will consider the outnumbering dead,
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locust’s covering tide.

“Arthur, Elaine, Mordred – they are all gone
Beneath the raftered galleries of bone.
Under the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.”

Geoffrey Hill