The mystery of the charity of Charles Peguy.
We should be able to respond to a poem without researching the subject, and it is possible to read Hill's poem without knowing anything in advance about Peguy. It helps to know what he owned a bookstore and edited the journal Cahiers de la Quinzaine--
This is no old Beauce manoir that you keep but the rue de la Sorbonne, the cramped shop, its unsold Cahiers built like barricades, its fierce disciples, disciplines and fueds that he was a socialist and a poet whose work was "confined to a small intellectual elite" in his own tiem; that he became a symbol of liberty, of human possibility, freedom and integrity in France; that he died when he stood up to chase the German Army in retreat; and that he had written about death on the battlefield before he died. "Dying, your whole life/fell into place," Hill writes.
Peguy said "why do I write of war? Simply because I have not been there. In time I shall cease to invole it." We still dutifully read "heureux ceux qui sont morts."
There used to be the sense that poetry issued from another consciousness, somewhere deep in the mind--"far back," as Roethke put it. Hill's poetry is of this order: bracing and difficult, turbulent and complex. There is pressure on every word to mean, and in this poem, the language bears the same stress as Peguy's life, as if, imbued with the desire to mate, each word were propelling itself toward the next: Bees thrum in the crimped hedges and the pigeons flirt and paddle, and sunlight pierces the heart- shaped shutter-patterns in the afternoon
With the same momentum, Peguy imagined victory for Dreyfus, and for France over Germany ("Rather the Marne than the Cahiers"), and hurled himself into action.
Peguy thought of writing as taking dictation; he scorned revision, as it interfered with a divine process. His highest praise for a given piece of writing was, "It is dictated." Catholic and socialist, he praised the dignity of labor with a fervor both religious and political. In his life he combined meditation and action. Hill characterizes Peguy's epiphany in these inspired lines:
Hedgers and ditchers, quarrymen, thick-shod cures de campagne, each with his load, shake off those cares and burdens; they become, in a bleak visionary instant, seraphim looking toward Chartres, the spired sheaves, stone-thronged annunications, winged ogives uplifted and uplifting from the winter-gleaned furrows of that criss-cross-trodden ground.
The "people" are transformed as they sacrifice themselves for Peguy's sacred terre charnelle, carnal earth.
Hill's art is vastly more demanding than Peguy's; his courage and daring are esthetic and linguistic. But both poets reach out for something central to the human condition. Hill relies heavily on the traditional language of English poetry, from shakespeare to Auden: "The word is different, belongs to them--/the lords of limit and contumely." From the key placement of the word "contumely" and the phrase "the lords of limit" and his use of the latter as the title of his new book of essays, The Lords of Limit, Hill seems to be saying that things have not changed as much as we may think. His words have a gravity that is more powerful than sound effects or particular images. In "Redeeming the Time," he refers to "the inertial drag of speech," which must be accounted for by any "enquiry into the nature of rhythm."
Without being visual, his poetry makes you imagine a backdrop of the Renasissance--paintings and tapestries with battle scenes--a thicket of world in a thickness of words, as in this hard-earned and revealing passage from an earlier volume of prose poems, Mercian Hymns:
He willed the instruments of violence to break upon meditation. Iron buckles gagged; flesh leaked rennet over them; the men stooped, disentangeld the body.
He wiped his lips and hands. He strolled back to the car, with discreet souvenirs for consolation and philosophy. He set in motion the furtherance of his journey. To watch the Tiber foaming out much blood.
Children scavenging in the ruins. "Swathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring." Omnipresent mud. there is no relief from this blood and the obsession with violent death.
Hill's early work is sharp and direct. It consists mainly of short poems each one a whole: "true sequences of pain." His affinities are clear through his fine homages to Celan in Tenebrae and to Mandelstam in King Log. And there is no mistaking the ferocity in his work. Ted Hughes's Crow, to make the inevitable comparison, is playful set beside Hill's darkest passages. In "Funeral Music," an essay at the end of Mercian Hymns, he tells of "attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks" and, in an image that is emblematic of his own project, cites "the chronicler of Croyland Abbey" as "writing that the blood of the slain lay caked with the snow which covered the ground and that, when the snow melted, the blood flowed along the furrows and ditches for a distance of two or three miles." And, one might add, from there into the body of his next decade's work.
In The Mystery of the chairty of charles Peguy, Hill's violence has found release through the use of the third person. He interweaves his own voice with Peguy's; he filters his concerns through Peguy and, in the process, gains a levity absent from his earlier work, though the tone is one of "dour panache" (to borrow a phrase from the poem), a cross between low traged and high farce:
A rooster wails remotely over the marsh like Mr. Punch mimicking a lost child.
At Villeroy the copybook lines of men rise up and a^e erased. Peguy's cropped skull dribbles its ichor, its p oor thimbleful, a simple lesion of the complex brain.
Hill has alway been at home with the sublime. He applauds Peguy's willingness sacrifice, as long as his moral code is constant, in a style that is dense, not ornate. But he also sees human suffering as a consequence of history's mischievousness--except that the joke is at our expense. "History commands the stage wielding a toy gun,/rehearsing another scene"; it is perverse, at once "supreme clown" and "dire tragedian." Peguy allows Hill to introduce an element missing from his previous books: humor, albeit a kind of black humor, closer in essence to Webster and Ford than to Heller or Pynchon. Listen to this passage, timed to the rhythm of the newsreel:
The brisk celluloid clatters through the gate; the cortege of the century dances in the street; and over an over the jolly cartoon armies of France go reeling towards Verdun.
Hill is precise, careful to show how tenuously meaning cleaves to a comma, a line break: "To dispense, with justice; or, to dispense/with justice." His harsh, crabbed style, with its rugged diction, does not lend itself to length. The quatrain is his primary medium in all his books, and he has few, if any, contemporary rivals in his ability to handle it:
This fear strikes hard and is gone And is recognized with found Not only between dark and dawn, The summit and the ground. ("Metamorphoses," For the Unfallen)
And from Tenebrae, the book that precedes The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy:
I shall go down to the lovers' well and was this wound that will not heal
His variable rhyme schemes, alternating a a b b and a b b a with the more conventional a b a b, aruge against monotony. And he writes as though the solution were locked in the quatrain itself. Peguy also used the quatrain frequently, but his formal impulse was almost the opposite of Hill's: where Peguy expands, Hill contracts. The only time the section in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy run on is in the poem's most significant stanza, when Peguy meets the death he has so assiduously sought, his own:
So, you have risen above all that an fallen flat on your face 5 among the beetroots, where we are constrained to leave you sleeping and to step aside from the fleshed bayonets. . .
It is through such density that a poem of only 400 lines can make a book.
There are some false moves in the poem tonally, a certain archness, as when Hill refers to Rimbaud's "Je est un autre" as "that fatal telegram," and reminds me that I prefer him where he's more cryptic and elliptical. His strange brand of academic formality (which mars the essays in The Lords of Limit) is also off-putting in his otherwise concise and informative afterwood. Citing T.S. Eliot's interest in Peguy--clearly to establish Peguy's undeniable importance to his audience--he writes that "T. Stearns Eliot, M.A. (Harvard), who made reference to Peguy's life and work in a series of university extension lectures in 1916, noted that he 'illustrates nationalism and neo-Catholicism as well as socialism.'" It is hard to tell whether he is trying to parody the academic or embody it.
Hill is one of the few contemporary poets whose work must be reread in order to be understood. He forces the reader to sound out the meaning: work of this density can only be grasped through the ear. He is not merely one of the best English poets but one of the best poets writing in English. Although I think Mercian Hymns is Hill's best work, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy shows him stretching in new directions, rescuing himself from direness, becoming more attuned to dramatic possibilities and enlarging his range.