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This article is taken from PN Review 128, Volume 25 Number 6, July - August 1999.

The Mysterious Charity of Geoffrey Hill Glen Cavaliero

'Rancorous, narcissistic old sod - what / makes him go on?' The question erupts one third of the way through The Triumph of Love. Geoffrey Hill's poetry has travelled a long distance since a twenty-year-old's confidence produced 'Genesis' and 'rode / in haste about the works of God.' And yet in certain respects it seems scarcely to have moved at all. Gnomic utterance, ambiguous syntax, density of image and allusion have marked its style from the beginning - even G. Wilson Knight complained that Hill's poems were at times 'over-packed'. As early as For the Unfallen (1958) he had contrived to sound impressive.

But does he still impress? The question is unavoidable at a time when 'street-wise' verse is all the rage; when the writing of a poem is encouraged as psycho-therapy; when linguistic ambiguities are treated more as occasions for mental play than as tools of epistemology or metaphysics. In such a cultural ambience what place is there for a poet of Hill's erudition, uncompromising moral seriousness and historically informed and demanding use of language? It is one of the remarkable properties of The Triumph of Love that it engages with the question in such a way as to justify not only the author's previous work but also the far more exacting tone and methodology of its immediate predecessor, the formidable Canaan (1996). It is a radical poem which questions its author's previous assumptions and procedures.

Well over two decades separate The Triumph of ...

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