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This item is taken from PN Review 34, Volume 10 Number 2, November - December 1983.

WE have been told that if Geoffrey Hill's poem, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, is consulted for a judicious assessment of the life and character of the historical Charles Péguy, or for a judicious interpretation of French political life before 1914, the poem will mislead us. But who ever doubted this? Who was simpleton enough to think that we go to poems looking for this sort of profit? Poetry, said Philip Sidney, is superior to history; and one might think that this, said under the first Elizabeth, might have sunk in by the time of the second. The poet stoops to history, to the historical record, only so as to take from it what he wants, on his own terms. An unprejudiced reading of Hill's masterly 400 lines of rhymed pentameter quatrains (both rhyme and metre satisfyingly subtle) suggests that his purpose was, so far from illuminating us about either Péguy or pre-1914 France, the celebration of two values: patriotism, and martial valour. And having named those values-having, that is to say, asserted that they are values-one understands why those who have taken note of the poem, and uncertainly admired it, have found it bewildering and unaccountable. For patriotism, and disciplined bravery in battle, though they have inspired poem after poem through the centuries of European poetry since Homer, have in the last sixty years been tacitly ruled out as acceptable themes for poetry, at least for British poetry. The reason for this is well known. It was the Battle of the Somme, the squalor and waste of the Western Front in World War One, which horribly, a matter of months after the deaths of Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell, made the celebration of patriotism and valour by Brooke and Grenfell ring intolerably hollow. But if poetry is superior to history, must it not be superior to the history of Field-Marshal Earl Haig's deplorably uninventive battle-plans? And if Geoffrey Hill has had the nerve to challenge this consensus so as to write once again English poetry that is in a traditional sense 'heroic', is this not a momentous event, one that PNR ought to recognize and celebrate?

From what we know or may surmise about Geoffrey Hill's meticulous and patient workmanship, we may suppose that he conceived and had partly executed this ambitious poem before the happenings that we call the Falklands War. Yet, reading the poem in the aftermath of that war, and in light of the public response to that war, it is hard not to feel that the poem-notwithstanding its choice of a non-British hero from a past chapter of history-is thoroughly timely. For martial valour and endurance-in our own countrymen but also in our enemies (for instance, the Argentinian airmen)-once again, as the news came in from the South Atlantic, was recognized as a self-evident value. Many who were angry that the war had happened, who thought that it could have been avoided, nevertheless applauded, and with no inconsistency, the conduct of fighting men joined in battle. The predictably immediate vulgarization of these sentiments by journalists, and by Mrs Thatcher's re-election machine, does not and cannot discount the recognition, by the nation at large, of martial valour as indeed a value, and one that we have giggled about for too long. Geoffrey Hill's poem has the effect, for those who take the force of it, of shaming those giggles into silence. And in this way it articulates a shift of sentiment, not just in that unusually private individual Geoffrey Hill, but in the nation at large, in what is (ideally) the poem's audience.

And yet there is no wonder if we are a little queasy and apprehensive. Patriotism-plus-'valour' . . . no doubt about it, it is an explosive and dubious compound. Richard Cronin for instance has said, in that youthful quarterly The Salisbury Review: 'One of the functions of art is to foster our attachment to our country'. And we may uneasily agree with this, while wondering what it is we are agreeing with, or what unacceptable inferences may be drawn from it. We don't have long to wait. For Cronin goes on: 'Constable, Elgar and John Betjeman, each of them in his own way, refine and make present to us our sense of belonging to a country. I suspect that it is this art, the art of the common man, the art to which every bosom can return an echo, rather than the subversive art prized by disaffected intellectuals, that prompts the general hatred of the totalitarian state for all things beautiful.' There could hardly be a clearer example of what we have to fear when explicit patriotism is restored as a legitimate theme of our poetry; and of Geoffrey Hill's good sense in distancing the theme by treating it in a French rather than a British context. For all the evidence runs counter to Richard Cronin's 'suspicion' that under a totalitarian regime Edward Elgar and John Betjeman would be the first artists to be silenced. The records of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union alike suggest that on the contrary the art first suppressed is that which Cronin, himself adopting the idiom of the gauleiter and the commissar, describes as 'the subversive art prized by disaffected intellectuals'. The Poet Laureate's nostalgia for vanished metroland-a poetry sometimes in itself genuine enough, but emasculated and perverted by its packaging (as in the recent excruciating television programmes about Betjeman) -would present no threat at all to a totalitarian regime and might well, if the Russian record is any guide, be not only tolerated but positively promoted by such a regime. What would be at risk, almost certainly disapproved and suppressed, is the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and of Cronin's associate in the columns of The Salisbury Review, C. H. Sisson. Hill's poetry, and Sisson's, explore Englishness in a way altogether more probing and disturbing than anything Betjeman has attempted- probing and disturbing to just the extent that Hill and Sisson have attended to 'the subversive art prized by disaffected intellectuals', in a way that Betjeman hasn't. Neither Sisson's nor Hill's is the art 'to which every bosom returns an echo'. On the contrary it is disconcerting, as it has to be if its purpose is (as surely it is, in part) 'to foster our attachment to our country'. By probing and disconcerting it compels us-if we will attend to it, as most people won't-to anchor that attachment on less sentimental, wider and more rational grounds than before. And if the New Conservatism truly speaks through the mouth of Richard Cronin, then we, with Hill's and Sisson's poems as our measure, must refuse its patriotism as obviously fraudulent and cheap.

This item is taken from PN Review 34, Volume 10 Number 2, November - December 1983.

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