. . . Like the hero he celebrates in his masterpiece, the Mercian Hymns, Hill is a martyrologist. His subject is human pain, the suffering of those who both do and sustain violence, and more exactly the daemonic relationship between cultural tradition and human pain. Confronted by Hill's best poems, a reader is at first tempted to turn away, for the intellectual difficulty of the rugged, compressed verse is more than matched by the emotional painfulness and directness of Hill's vision. Hill does not comfort nor console, and offers no dialectic of gain through loss. His subject, like his style, is difficulty: the difficulty of apprehending and accepting moral guilt, and the difficulty of being a poet when the burden of history, including poetic history, makes any prophetic stance inauthentic. [* * *]
Hill dislikes his early poems . . . . "Genesis," for which he has a particular dislike, is superb in itself, a perfect "first" poem and also a clear intimation of his largest debt to Blake's vision, which is the conviction that the Creation and the Fall were the same event. . . .
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. . . A reader who can interpret "Annunciations" can learn to interpret the rest of Hill and also acquire many insights that will aid in reading any truly difficult peotry of the post-Romantic tradition. For, in "Annunciations," Hill wrote what later tradition may judge to have been the central shorter poem of his own generation, a poem that is itself a despairing poetics, and a total vision both of natural existence, and of the necessary limitations of what we have learned to call imagination.
An "annunciation" can be any proclamation, but despite Hill's plural title, the reverberation here depends upon the Annunciation proper, the announcement of the Incarnation by the Angel Gabriel . . . . But "the Word" here is not the Logos, nor simply the words of poetry, all poetry, but the idealizaiton of poetry that is so pervasive in Western tradition:This Word seems more a tourist than an Eliotic explorer; indeed a hygienic hunter-tourist. Returned, the questers sit together at a literary feast with their scholarly and critical admirers:The Word has been abroad, is back, with a tanned look From its subsistence in the stiffening-mire. Cleansing has become killing, the reward Touchable, overt, clean to the touch.I do not know how to interpret this except as an attack upon everyone who has to do with poetry: poets, critics, teachers, students, readers. . . . The poem becomes a "specimen-jar," holding an aesthetic reduction of copulation and bleeding wounds. Is such an attack as Hill's legitimate, since it would apply as much to Homer as to any other poet? . . . The remainder of the first part of "Annunciations" will not answer these questions:Now at a distance from the steam of beasts, The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn (Each specimen-jar fed with delicate spawn) The searchers with the curers sit at meat And are satisfied.Primarily this is Hill's uncompromising attack upon himself, for even more than Yeats, or his contemporary Ted Hughes, he writes a poetry whose subject is violence and pain, thus accepting the danger of easing the flesh through a vision of turbulence. . . . Poems are "gobbets of the sweetest sacrifice," and readers flavor their mouths decently even as decent Christians swallow the bread of communion. . . . Hill's "sacrifice" is what Nietzsche and Freud would have termed an Antithetical Primal Word, for it is debatable whether the victims commemorated by the poem, or the readers, are the "sacrifice."Such precious things put down And the flesh eased through turbulence the soul Purples itself; each eye squats full and mild While all who attend to fiddle or to harp For betterment, flavour their decent mouths With gobbets of the sweetest sacrifice.
The Antithetical Primal Word of the second part of "Annunciations" is of course "love," and here the majestic bitterness of the Sublime triumphs in and over Hill:If I could cite only one stanza by Hill as being wholly representative of him, it would be this, for here is his power, his despair, and (in spite of himself) his Word, not in the sense of Logos but in the Hebraic sense of davhar, a word that is also an act, a bringing-forward of something previously held back in the self. This Word that rejects being a Word is a knowing misprision or mistaking of tradition, but even the most revisionary of Words remains a Word, as Hill doubtless knows. Being willing to go on writing poems, however sparsely, is to believe that one possesses a Word of one's own to bring forward. When Hill says, "Our God scatters corruption, " he means that the God of lovers (and of poets) is antithetical to Himself, that this God is the ambivalent deity of all Gnostics. . . .O Love, subject of the mere diurnal grind, Forever being pledged to be redeemed, Expose yourself for charity; be assured The body is but husk and excrement. Enter these deaths according to the law, O visited women, possessed sons! Foreign lusts Infringe our restraints; the changeable Soldiery have their goings-out and comings-in Dying in abundance. Choicest beasts Suffuse the gutters with their colourful blood. Our God scatters corruption. Priests, martyrs, Parade to this imperious theme: 'O Love, You know what pains succeed; be vigilant; strive To recognize the damned among your friends.'
Part II of "Annunciations" is thus more of a proclamation against Love than a prayer to Love. Love, addressed under its aspect of repetition, is urged to more honesty, and to a reductive awareness of the body. Corporeal passion lives and dies according to the old dispensation, or law, but Hill comes to proclaim a new Incarnation, which is only a Gnostic dying into yet more sexual abundance. As an incessant martyrologist, Hill grimly announces the imperious as against the imperial or Shakespearean theme. Love, who knows that pains only succeed or follow one another (but are never successful), is urged at least to distinguish its true martyrs among the panoply of the worshipers, and so recognize accurately its valid theme. [* * *]