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Two modern Christian poets.

ENGLAND, gifted more than it knows, has produced two major poets this century. Furthermore, the two bear some resemblance to each other. Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting are both indebted to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (Bunting directly so), both are steeped in time and place, and both are religious poets.

Geoffrey Hill -- this year enjoying his 50th birthday -- is unarguably a Christian poet, or at least a poet who writes about Christianity. From |For the Unfallen' (1959) to |Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres' (1984), Hill's poetry is full of explicit references to Christianity, of explorations of sanctioned Christian themes, and of opposites structured according to Christian modes of thought. But what kind of Christianity? Certainly, one porting the full panoply of traditional piety. The icons have not faded, nor the lions and the hermits disappeared, from Hill's verse. Pentecost in particular is a constant presence; from |the spurred flame, those racing tongues' in The Bidden Guest to |the hawthorn-tree/set with coagulate magnified flowers of May' in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy. Eliot's |tongues of flames' sound throughout his oeuvre. It sometimes seems that Hill has entirely digested the programme of Notes Towards A Definition of Culture; his poetic character smacks so much of late Eliot that, had Eliot wished to reinvent himself ex nihilo after his move to England, the result might well have been a spitting image of Hill. (Indeed, Hill has now closed the circle by emigrating to Boston.)

Crucified Lord, so naked to the world,

you live unseen within that nakedness,

consigned by proxy to the judas-kiss

of our devotion, bowed beneath the gold, captures beautifully the almost idolatorious ornateness of Hill's devotion, as well as the multiple levels of meaning that play off one another, undercutting and reconstituting its fabric. The effigy configuring the true spirit which has withdrawn from its embodiment is described through a characteristic recoining of a cliche whose tinny reek adds the tang of irony.

Geoffrey Hill's success in revitalizing Christian poetry comes from combining the immemorial portrayal of religious doubt with the far more recent, more radical uncertainty of the present century. Many Christian poets, or poets writing about Christianity, have enlarged on the interdependency of faith and doubt -- Browning's Bishop Blougram is one figure perhaps highly pertinent to Hill's case. Yet Lachrimae Amantis, for instance, |a free translation of a sonnet by Lope de Vega', casts the traditional mode into a new context; in both original and transposition the Christian poem has demonstrated grace under pressure, but in the latter case the form and degree of pressure has been quite transformed.

Hill is quite aware of his situation: |If critics accuse me of evasiveness or the vice of nostalgia, or say that I seem incapable of grasping true

religious experience, I would answer that the grasp of true religious experience is a privilege reserved for very few, and that one is trying to make lyrical poetry out of a much more common situation -- the sense of not being able to grasp true religious experience'.

Basil Bunting (1900-85) is quite another story. A Quaker by upbringing, he landed in prison during World War I as a conscientious objector, in circumstances highly reminiscent of figures commemorated by fell, such as Tommaso Campanella or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His own family disapproved of his stance as one of the tiny minority of |Absolutes': objectors who refused to do any work whatsoever to further the war effort. His faith, or his principles, were evidently strong indeed. In 1975, years after the completion of the epic Briggflatts, he wrote At Briggflatts Meetinghouse: Tercentenary, for the Quaker meeting house there, suggesting a lifelong commitment of a kind. This commitment issued in verse utterly different from that of Hill.

Bunting called his religion |a kind of reverence for the whole creation' which he found embodied in Quakerism. He described that sect as follows: |what you believe is your own affair so long as you follow out the process of simply waiting quietly and emptying your mind of everything else to hear what they would call in their language the voice of God in your inside'. He also stated that, |If Saint Francis's praise of all creation in "Altissimu omnipotente bon signore" etc. or the ideas implied for Saint Cuthbert in the three lives of him can be reconciled in any way with what is commonly called religion, no doubt I am a religious poet', and described Briggflatts V as |Cuthbert in love with all creation'. The passage of Briggflatts which most clearly patterns this religious intuition is also the only occasion in the whole long poem when Cuthbert is explicitly mentioned:

Aidan and Cuthbert put on daylight,

wires of sharp western metal entangled in its soft

web, many shuttles as midges dancing;

not for bodily welfare or pauper theorems

but splendour to splendour, excepting nothing that is.

followed by

... Can you trace shuttles thrown

like drops from a fountain, spray, mist of spiderlines

bearing the rainbow, quoits round the draped moon

Bunting wrote of this, |I have been talking of the Anglo-Celtic saints who "put on daylight". represented as a brocade in which wires of "western metal" are the brocade is woven by shuttles, woven with extreme intricacy, for indeed it is nothing less than the whole universe'. That is the kind of mystic perception enshrined in his poetry, against Hill's position of informed piety.

As to which is the truer type of religious experience, who can say? Intuitions such as Bunting enjoyed are common to nearly all religions, and to many secular philosophies, although Bunting himself was strong against out-and-out mysticism: |The mystic purchases a moment of exhilaration with a lifetime of confusion; and the confusion is infectious and destructive'. In orthodox Christian terms, he may have been guilty of reverencing Creation above the Creator. He would probably have cast Hill's learned credo as one of the |pauper theorems'. Certainly, his attitude recalls what Arthur Waley, in quite another connection, termed |the premoral', whereas Hill's evinces the explicitly moralistic temper of a Confucius.

Morality is at the heart of Hill's poetic concern, and in a way specifically bound up with a Christian conception of sin and redemption. He says |It is one thing to talk of literature as a medium through which we convey our awareness, or indeed our conviction, of an inveterate human condition of guilt or anxiety; it is another to be possessed by a sense of language itself as a manifestation of empirical guilt'. This |irredeemable error in the very substance and texture of his craft and pride' is of almost mortal weight, in dire need of redemption.

Compare these two verses; f rom Hill -- There

is, at times, some need to demonstrate

Jehovah's touchy methods, that create

The connoisseur of blood, the smitten man.

At times it seems not common to explain.

-- and Bunting --

And all that is piteous, all that's fair,

All that is fat and short of breath,

Elisha's baldness, Helen's hair,

is Death's collateral

Hill feels some need to demonstrate why |the smitten man' (I Kings, XX 37) first sent a lion to slay the neighbour who would not smite him as the Lord required, then was smitten unto wounding by another, more obedient fellow. Bunting, conversely, does not call God to account for the forty-two boys who were devoured by she-bears after they had mocked Elisha's baldness (II Kings, ii 23). The prophet's pate is simply taken up by the poet as a bald instance.

It is the eloquence of Hill's moral wrangling that enables his verse. His words hunt up and down scales of approbation, disdain, guilt, horror, pity, that he feels called to evoke in order to fully record the play of virtues and vices. It is a process faithfully documented by Christopher Ricks, who states of Hill that |A principled distrust of the imagination is nothing new'. And Hill himself says of |Annunciations II', |I want the poem to have this dubious end; because I feel dubious; and the whole business is dubious'. Once he was quoted as saying, of language, |One thinks how it has been used and exploited in the past, politically and theologically. Its forthrightness and treachery are a drama of the honesty of man himself'. And, a propos the ending of one of Wordsworth's poetic dialogues, he says: |Language here is not "the outward sign" of a moral action; it is the moral action'. Or |When the poem "comes right with a click like a closing box" what is there effected is the atonement of aesthetics with judgement'. Such atonement might be rendered as follows:

why do you not break

o my heart

wherein it is the want of punctuation plus the spelling of |o' without an |h' to elongate it into a sigh that captures the marvellous sense of a childish -- or childlike -- mouth rounded in an unassertive vowel without expulsion of breath. That is the tone glossed by W. S. Milne in Agenda as |unpunctuated tones of innocence'.

Something of Bunting's view of morality's place in poetry can be gleaned by his response to Pound's lines of 1935 -- The poets job is to

DEFINE and yet again define till the detail of

surface is in accord with the root in justice

To which Bunting answered |what the hell has justice got to do with it? Unless you want to string everything tight together, like a Hegel or a Tommy Aquinas, with a neat knot where the One True God should be?' And, in a similar vein, |Some bloody awful Pharaoh built the pyramids, cannibals carved the Benin works, disgusting Byzantine tyrants built Ravenna -- and Pound's Malatesta set up the Tempio, but the merit of these works lies in quite technical matters -- planes, angles, contours, rhythms not in what their makers thought they meant by them'. Or, in vet another context, |let us say you are a good Scots Presbyterian; you would find Dante's poem horrifying, a really wicked performance'. Enlarging on his description of the Anglo-Celtic saints, he said: |Their god was no humanist. He was the god of the wolf as well as the sheep, "excepting nothing that is".' And he once referred to war as |simply as an activity which has pleasures of its own, an exercise of certain faculties which need exercise: in which death is neither a bugbear or a consummation, but just happens... part of the fun'. Hardly a sentiment one can imagine from Hill.

This attitude dovetails neatly with Bunting's recorded pronouncements on the primacy of form -- for which read sound -- in verse. |I believe the fundamental thing in poetry is the sound, so that whatever the meaning may be... if you haven't got the sound right, it isn't a poem.' Formal merits, at least by the measure of the most extreme interpretation of Bunting's position, obviate the need for any judgement about the material, which merely serves as a pretext for the deployment of sound. Hence the importance of music to Bunting, for it yielded models of patterned sound without distraction of ostensible content. And that exclusive concentration on sound lies behind some of the best moments of Bunting's verse, which star even his most haphazard and half-realized poems with beauties. For instance,

Heat and hammer

draw out a bar.

Wheel and water

grind an edge.

Even if these are the simplest lines in Briggflatts, the sound of |grind an edge', the setting off and setting together of |g' and |d', is enough in itself to seal Bunting's claim to be a major English poet.

But...Deryck Cooke's The Language of Music has called into question the absolute pretensions of the medium which Bunting took for his paradigm of formalism. Bunting in his musico-aesthetic mode might ask why the subject should matter; but it certainly alters the tone of the piece, and tone is an impeccably formal virtue. For how else should emotion (or thought) imprint itself in verse but by formal means; by altering tone, rhythm, tempo, mood (a grammatical term, after all), word order, syntax, choice of sounds? |Emotion is an organizer of form' (Pound). So Bunting's ideals and attitudes may well have helped shape his verse.

To consider the relative operations of these two poets with respect to their beliefs, take one singular feature of their poetry: the evocation of disgust. Now Hill, especially in his work preceding Mercian Hymns, is one of the most powerful poets of carnal disgust in the language. |The loathy neckings and the fat shook spawn', from |Annunciations' I, oozes detestation, squeezed out by the collision of |f-t', |sh-k' and |sp-n', wrung from the |aw' that strains the larynx. Or the lines from |The Dead Bride':

I writhed to conceive of him.

I clawed to becalm him. where passion within marriage (a sanctified estate, after all) becomes a death struggle; in which the ambiguity of |conceive of' betrays the bride's struggle to assimilate her husband, 'the poet of a people's love', in any degree, to achieve either physical or mental contact or understanding (writhing is also to be found in The Imaginative Life and Locust Songs; claws and clawing, innumerable times). In his later work, Hill seems to have exorcised this demon, or at least bound it securely within a paradox. Many of the poems in Tenebrae are concerned with the strange likeness and ultimate unlikeness of sacred and profane love', he says, settling without demur into the topos defined between those two adjectives, into a world cloven into Flesh and Spirit. But are the two reconciled? In |Tenebrae' we read --

Amor carnalis is our dwelling place

our leanness is our luxury.

Our love is what we love to have;

our faith is in our festivals

It is a disgust turned outwards, which could almost be read as an attack on consumerism and weight-watching. This time it has not empowered the language; it has engendered no clenched clots of consonants such as are Hill's most characteristic achievement. This poem, full of references to carnality and desire, such as |This is the chorus of obscene consent' reads often like self-parody, as though Hill tried, and failed, to work up a valediction for the whole collection. |This is the true marriage of self-in-self' does not make for happy reading. The same nagging doubts are inspired, in my mind at least, by this poem as by Four Quartets; the suspicion that the author's manner has become mannerism, that the project verges on pastiche.

And against this |sensual abstinence and woe', one can cite |splendour to splendour, excepting nothing that is'; |Wheat stands in excrement/ trembling'. Bunting never tied himself up in knots over the chasm between Body and Soul -- although Hill has knitted together some of his best lines from sounds twined with this tension. But see what Bunting does with sensuality:

Rainwater from the butt

she fetches and flannel

to wash him inch by inch,

kissing the pebbles.

Shining slowworm part of the marvel.

That hushed, reverent air, the tactile quality of those three words |kissing the pebbles'; here is verse every bit as alive as Hill's most muscularly Christian wreathings, yet there is no revulsion. Not that Bunting is incapable of disgust. Briggflatts III is thick with it. Obscurely structured round an obscure legend of Alexander climbing to the edge of the world, the first part of this section describes a journey through Hell, that Hell inhabited by |various who choose baseness, particularly "the press" (with Hastor for president)'.


plucked warm fruit from the arse

of his companion, who

making to beat him, he screamed:

Hastor! Hastor! but Hastor

raised dung thickened lashes to stare

disdaining those who cry:

Sweet shit! Buy!

|Hastor: A Cockney hero' is Bunting's private hit at Hugh Astor of The Times, which had treated him with some consideration after his enforced departure from Persia. Bunting sullies his Muse by combining his contempt for the worldlings and their greed with a lifetime's worth of grudges overdue for payment. And this, for me, is the weakest section of Briggflatts, thanks to its animating animus. Bunting unquestionably received many hurts, and his gift was never accorded its full value during his lifetime. But his thwarted arrogance, bitterness and shame combine to leave a flaw at the heart of his greatest achievement: not because the words are excremental (we have seen bow powerfully, how physically Hill can write when recording visceral loathing), but because they are poorly realized, lacking the resonance, the rich sound texture of the rest of the long poem. They almost read like abuse instead of poetry. Hill's assertion |Courage/ unflinchlingly declines into sour rage' might have been coined to describe just that situation.

Hill has also gone on record with comments about his situation, and about the general condition of the reception of poetry. His opinions in this regard equate with his concern for virtue and values in verse, such as once inspired Pound to write |Feeling of utter hopelessness in struggle for values'. Speaking of Dryden, whom he takes as an exemplar of the poet attempting to do right by his art and in his life, he says |A sense of injured merit, of what Pound would term the "intelligence at bay" is strong in Dryden'; but, |In these circumstances, a poet's words and rhythms are not his utterance so much as his resistance'.

As Pound confused rightness in art and life in his later career, so Hill readily eludes the two, enacting the 'atonement of aesthetics with judgement' alluded to earlier. In his schema, it seems, the poet may view his faults as the creation of the world, his virtues as entirely his own. |The stubbornness of one's dogmatism, the force of one's hubris, are themselves factors in the world's general arbitrariness'. Of Dryden, |like Pound in The Pisan Cantos, he seems able to view his own amour propre as one among other competing forces in the mundane business'. And in the face of declarations like this, one wonders exactly what Hill's standards of virtue are: a question concordant with one objection made to his work, that be has never made clear his grounds of belief. John Henry Newman married technical and moral scruple to delineate the progress of his soul with the greatest possible fidelity. We have yet to receive such work from Hill's pen.

For instance, how does he square his insistence on 'the integrity of utterance' with his practice in The Pentecost Castle, where he compounds several disparate Spanish ballads, plus poems by Juan del Encina and Gil Vicente -- different poets with differing styles -- into one continuous cycle, with one dominant tone and what amounts to a single voice? Surely this making free with materials is proof that poetry has as much to do with prestidigitation and charlatalism as it does with sanctity and truth; for the poet may be seer and prophet, but is just as often mountebank and illusionist. Yeats is but one of the many poets who were, effectively, both at once.

Hill talks of |virtue's struggles to clear and maintain its own meaning amid the commonplace approximation, the common practice of men', but what does he mean by virtue, which stands in so perilous a case; where others might see it as but a resolution of the 'competing forces in the mundane business'? That meaning is one he seems in no hurry to define, faced with |the difficulty of clearing the terms of judgement amid the mass of circumstance, the pressure of contingency'. |"Meaning" itself either strives to accommodate, or strives to free itself from an accommodation which it feels as curb and compromise upon the integrity of utterance', writes Hill, not pausing to reflect on the phenomenon of meaning as a creation of the process by which mind accommodates the world, as the agent of accommodation. So is Hill a Neo-Platonist? Does he see ideas as transcendent, ineffable absolutes, approached but not compromised by the fumbling approximations possible in 'this sublunary world', where |even the most unequivocal utterance is affected by the circumstantial and contingent matter implicated in our discourse'? |Follow up any abstraction a little way and it will commit suicide', wrote Bunting.) His own utterances are seldom unequivocal and often gloriously circumstantial and contingent. It is hard to imagine more richly realized particular circumstances than Hill's |meadow scabbed with cow-dung' or |brushes in aspic, clay pots, twisted nails'. This is not a Mallarmean language, angling into the Empyrean in pursuit of the |flower absent from all bouquets', rather it is a speech using every resource to gain purchase on the contingent physical world of minute particulars.

Hill, as so often, is aware of the paradox between stance and procedure writhing at the centre of his work. |The world's obtuseness, imperviousness, its active or passive hostility to valour and vision, is not only the object of his [Pound's] denunciation. It is also the necessary circumstance, the context in which and against which valour and vision define themselves.' Thus we have the retroactive operation of the world and the spirit; the exalted soul whose eminence is based on the lowness of those beneath him; the poet whose talent and acuity can only be made meaningful against the sloth and obtuseness of the common ruck. Self-awareness once again redeems Hill, this time from something like paranoia. And his longest single poem, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy is an enquiry into, and an attempt to redeem, a poet who may have let art and virtue slide too far apart:

Did Peguy kill Jaures? Did he incite

The assassin? Must men stand by what they write (And it is significant that no-one could envisage Jaures calling for Peguy's blood, metaphorically or otherwise.) Hill's knowledge of his hero's evils tempers his regard for him; renders it deeper, more complex, contradictory; complex enough to work itself into really finely wrought verse. And Hill's own practice sometimes recalls Peguy's atavistic attempts to reunite the secular world with the spiritual, to return to a primitive unity of society and creed, to make the Christian God and one's native land into one flesh. Hill's conscientious verse, always aware, sees where its own trend is leading, and in countless refutations and qualifications, mitigates its own dangerous tendencies, often through irony -- not a faculty one associates with Peguy.

Hill leaves the final judgement to others:

Connoisseurs of obligation, history

stands, a blank instant, awaiting your reply:

And the judgement is to be made by connoisseurs, |as Clio shall decide'; to be reserved for a realm made aesthetic. One hopes that this is because the poet realizes that, however much one would like to believe otherwise, aesthetics and morals are different spheres. They may come together fortuitously, but they are not Siamese twins. Poetic facility never palliated the pernicious attitudes of Neruda, Mayakovsky, Pound or Celine, rather, it empowered them.

To write well and to act well are never synonymous, and when good verse serves a just cause it might just as well be serving tyranny, prejudice or dogma. Mao, too, was a poet. |My Word is My Bond', insists Hill, in line with the latest thinking on the word as act. For, true, words are deeds: the |I do' in church or registry office is an act, an accomplishment; to insist otherwise is folly. But words in poetry are poetry alone; their circumstance falls away like a mould upon their completion as the poem, which is treasured for its own sake, not for the sake of its founding purposes, whether those of Shakespeare flattering his patron, Milton building the New Jerusalem, or Pound winding battle hymns against Usuria and |kikes'. Hill may wish poetry to be a Ciceronian probity in itself, a scrupulous attendant on right thinking. But the action of the poetic imagination resembles more Sade's endless bloodfeasts -- which took place entirely on the page.

The poetry of Yeats, Shelley or Victor Hugo -- to name but a few -- bears out the oft-repeated contention that a poet may entertain any odd notion so long as the result is good verse. Hill's work, for all its power and granitic integrity, bears on this more than one might think; whereas Bunting's work reveals more substance than his formalist stance might give one to expect. Whatever, two men have written greatly, and the language is the better for them.


My special thanks to Peter Makin for the quotations from and insights into Basil Bunting contained in his definitive Basil Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse, Oxford. 1992. Basil Bunting, Collected Poems, Oxford, 1977. Uncollected Poems, Oxford, 1991. Geoffrey Hill, Collected Poems, Penguin, 1985. The Enemy's Country: Words, ContVictoria and the Circumstances of Language, Oxford, 1991. Victoria Forde, The Poetry of Basil Bunting, Bloodaxe, 1991. Christopher Ricks, The Truth of Poetry, Oxford, 1984.
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Title Annotation:Geoffrey Hill and Basil Bunting
Author:Mackintosh, Paul
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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