The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill
The Orchards of Syon
by Geoffrey Hill
Counterpoint. 77 pp. $24.00
Literary critics refer to the late 20th century as the age of the postmodern. As a glance at any standard handbook reveals, the term is virtually meaningless—a graceless cover for the manifold projects that came after literary modernism, which was itself pretty manifold. What one might minimally say, however, is that postmodern writers use the idiom of our day, and refer as readily to mass culture as to the anthologized canon.
By that or any other definition, Geoffrey Hill is a major postmodern poet. Born in 1932 in Worcestershire, England, the only child of a policeman and his wife, he was educated at Oxford, published his first volume at twenty, and went on to teach at Leeds, Cambridge, and now (having moved to the U.S.) Boston University.
Since his first three volumes were collected in 1975 as Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom, Hill has enjoyed the praise of formidable critics (notably Harold Bloom), and has been placed in the company of such figures as Seamus Heaney and John Ashbery. Much more than they, however, he has seriously philosophical ambitions—in the sense that he consciously articulates a thought-out view of the world. If in his racy, eclectic language and in his wide range of reference he is plainly postmodern, in his themes he evokes comparison with the great modernists W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens.
In the last few years, after a long hiatus beginning in 1983 (when he brought out The Mystery of Charity in Charles Péguy), Hill has been amazingly productive. First came Canaan (1997), followed by The Triumph of Love (1998), Speech! Speech! (2000), and now The Orchards of Syon. The increment in the number of pages produced has been accompanied by a loosening of poetic structure, as the taut, metrically regular, frequently rhymed stanzas of Hill’s early, strictly disciplined verse has given way to lines of four or five stresses, more open forms, and a very ragged right-hand margin.
As for the stuff of these recent poems, it may initially remind one of the jot-down-everything method of Robert Lowell’s late sonnets, uneven drippings from a tap the poet could not shut off. In Hill’s case, this inability to shut off the tap may have something to do with the fact that, as he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1999, he has been taking Prozac:
From late childhood I suffered from chronic depression, which was accompanied by various exhausting obsessive-compulsive phobias. Totally undiagnosed, of course. I now see that the kind of perfectionism at which I was aiming in [my] earlier books was, so to speak, the acceptable face of this obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To which one might respond that there is nothing wrong with a poem’s being technically “perfect,” and that in his early, undiagnosed state, Hill wrote a fair number of such poems. Here, for example, is the exquisite short elegy, “In Memory of Jane Fraser,” from 1959:
When snow like sheep lay in
And winds went begging at
And the far hills were blue with
And a cold shroud lay on the moor,
She kept the siege. And every day
We watched her brooding
Like a strong bird above its prey.
The room filled with the kettle’s
Damp curtains glued against the
Sealed time away. Her body froze
As if to freeze us all, and chain
Creation to a stunned repose.
She died before the world
In March the ice unloosed the
And water ruffled the sun’s hair.
Dead cones upon the alder
No one is likely to dismiss this austere vision of a person’s death, at one with the winter-death of moor and brook, as a product of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nor is the austerity utterly bleak or pitiless or “depressed”: what the dead cones shake out, after all, are seeds for new alders. But move forward three decades, and one can certainly agree that the philosophically serious matter of Hill’s thought is often “imperfectly” contained—as in this, chosen almost at random from The Orchards of Syon (a title having less to do with Syon Park, the London home of the Duke of Northumberland and famous for its 18th-century gardens, than with a visionary place named for the Mount Zion that overlooks Jerusalem):
Here’s late Schnittke now, auditor
pro defunctis and all-present,
organum. To summon from
commotions of calm. Slavonic
requiem aeternam | though hís
Prussian than Russian. Penitential
Psalms on dot edu. Listen,
Beryozka, birchling, this is so far
true to my acclaim:
aleatoric light that remains unfinished,
as Schnittke and his music multiform,
struck off in mean unpropitious
At the end it ís a question of
Indeed it is.
How to tackle this? First, I imagine, many of us would have to look up the Russian-born composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-98), known for his “polystylistic” idiom and championed by performers like Gidon Kremer and Mstislav Rostropovich; and Beryozka, literally “birchling,” but perhaps also the Russian dance troupe of that name; and Penitential Psalms, which in the Vulgate Latin Bible are Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142, so named by Cassiodorus, a 6th-century monk. The research required goes well beyond the Oxford English Dictionary, where I confess I had to go for “aleatoric” (which, deriving from the Latin word for dice player, in music or art means “involving random choice by performer”). But beyond the research, one also has to splice the incomplete sentences together with the complete ones—Hill often seems content to proffer notebook entries as fully achieved parts of poems—and to make an educated guess about, for example, what “aleatoric light . . . unfinished” has to do with Schnittke’s “music multiform” and our “mean unpropitious time.”
This sort of exercise is what the original readers of The Waste Land were taxed with. Eliot’s lines usually had a music, his phrasing a heft, that made the exercise seem worth the effort, and with help from Eliot’s own notes and published scholarly trots, the effort was eventually made easier. Scholars will do the spade-work for Hill’s poems, too. In the meantime, we can try on our own to enjoy what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult.” And enjoy is the right word; alongside its several tossed-off or unrealized lyrics, Orchards offers many that can stand with the best of Hill’s early volumes.
The jacket illustration for Orchards provides a useful clue. It is a 1915 ink-and-watercolor drawing done by D.H. Lawrence for The Rainbow, and it depicts the two realms of existence that are Lawrence’s theme in that novel: in the foreground of the drawing we see the sane, organic, immemorial world of the farm; in the background, the blighted world of colliery and town, with an overarching rainbow promising the hope against hope of redemption.
In Orchards, the mythic realms are not two but three:
Vallombrosa, and deep other shade
and shadow places, valleys of
Goldengrove, the shuttered
lantern of nature. Syon’s orchards
festal, unchanging, through the
change of seasons,
burgeoning in that dream which
is called vision
and naming, and ís for the centuries.
Vallombrosa, a name from Dante by way of Milton, means the valley of the shadow—of death in this case, since Hill is alluding both to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and to Psalm 23, and “dwale” is deadly nightshade. This valley is roughly equivalent to Lawrence’s colliery and town, only worse because anyone trying to escape on vacation gets caught in “coast-traffic snarled,/ snarling.” Goldengrove, a name from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Spring and Fall,” is more or less parallel to Lawrence’s farm and the green world beyond, “your landscape/of deep disquiet, calm in its forms.” Finally, Syon’s orchards are the world as our imagination would like it to be—not wilderness, since orchards are after all planted and cultivated by farmers, but a sempiternal and ideal region of the mind where the trees are
sway-backed with pear and apple,
the plum, in spring and
Syon! Syon! that which sustains us
not the politics of envy, nor
a hard-won knowledge of what
wears us down.
The Syon that Hill speaks of is, then, an object of contemplation or, in his phrase, “sensual intellectual” reflection, a form of “hard-won knowledge” that has no direct relation to group-think solidarity, especially the envy-driven politics of gender, race, or class, still the triune god of the academy. And the rainbow—“the great rainbow, as Bert/Lawrence saw it or summoned it”—is the symbol of that knowledge, the rainbow spanning
our midlands far and wide:
New Jerusalem in the mind
time for bestowal, shadow
St John the Baptist gloaming on
The religious allusions with which Hill’s poems are strewn, along with his constant evocations of the Jesuit poet Hopkins, naturally raise the question of his own philosophical relation to the divine and the workings of the divine in our lives. It is a question he himself addresses head-on. Providence, he writes, “used to be worked-in, somewhere. I, at best,/conjecture divination.” What he means is that the Age of Faith is over, and that “Dame Rainbow,” as he calls her, is “Not as she once was, metaphysical” but at best a projection of the human imagination. For a post-Enlightenment seer like Hill, as for his acknowledged precursors Blake, Shelley, and Lawrence, one can only intuit God’s providing for, or intervening in, our mundane affairs.
Hill, who was raised in the Anglican tradition, sang in church choirs well after graduating from Oxford, and has throughout his career written in awe of the Catholic martyrs under Elizabeth I, clearly wishes he had the certainty of a Hopkins, who possessed not only intuition but dogma. But “on the ground,” as military planners like to say, how much does this matter? Hill is a late-romantic and a lapsed-but-longing Christian—that is, a Blakean who wishes he could be Dante. But what counts morally, with regard to our vision of a better life, is what we on earth do to realize and (if we are poets) draw the lineaments of that better life:
trying to amuse with such gleeful
Here are the Orchards of Syon,
nor illusion of wisdom, not
compensation, not recompense:
of Syon whatever harvests we
That is how this demanding volume ends. It is itself something like the orchards Hill spreads out for his readers’ contemplation. Some of its trees have broken branches, others hardly produce, many are over-grafted with arcane allusions and weird punctuation, but no few are heavy with fruit, and, especially with repeated readings, one can find windfalls everywhere. As a philosophical poet, Hill may not be at the level of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (not to mention Goethe or Dante), and not just because he lacks their degree of systematic clarity. But he is perhaps the best our “mean unpropitious time” affords, and that is saying a lot.