Lately I've been re-reading Geoffrey Hill, a process which has proved frustrating and stimulating in roughly equal measure. I loved Hill as a teen:—there are poems from For the Unfallen (1958) and Mercian Hymns (1971) that I can still quote whole, from memory. But I went off him, somewhat, in the 1990s. He always was, of course, a Christian poet, and much of his poetry is about wrestling with his faith (or more specifically, wrestling with aspects of himself, with depression and despair specifically conceived in terms of sin), a set of beliefs and attitudes I did not share. He was also, I suppose, what we might call a politically 'conservative' writer (although actually I think Hill's politics were quite complicated and more idiosyncratic than the tag 'conservative' implies), and I was not, and am not. But then, Coleridge was also very much both a Christian writer and, in his later life, a political conservative, and there seems to me actual merit, quite apart from my personal enjoyment, in reading him against the grain from a position, like mine, that does not share many of those assumptions. I don't mean in order to critique those attitudes; on the contrary to try to read them in good faith. The important thing, I think, is that writers like Coleridge and Hill need to be rescued from readers who identify too strongly with the positions they are dramatising.
'Went off him' looks capricious of me, I know. The truth is that, back in the day I found Hill's sudden spurt of late productivity, after he went on the Lithium, very hard to love. So I've been trying to going back to it, to give it another go. In particular I've been trying and get my head around his sort-of-Dante trilogy of long-poems, The Triumph of Love (1999), Speech! Speech! (2000) and The Orchards of Syon (2002). I read these when they came out and bounced hard off them. Re-reading them recently has been slow and occasionally laborious, but also vastly more rewarding than I thought it would be. Long story short: I have fallen back in love with Hill's verse. Still, the subject of this blog is Coleridge, not Hill. So what am I doing?
The Sort-of-Dante trilogy takes elements from Hill's own life and times, and mixes them in with a small set of historical events (the First World War from a soldier's perspective, the Second from that of suffering civilians, martyrs from the 16th-century like Thomas More, but also the 20th-century like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Kreisau conspirators; as well as a good quantity of modern popular culture) in order to refract some very personal meditations on Hill's own state of mind, his pre-treatment depression, his faith in God and the difficulties of expressing that, especially in the specific church communities to which he has belonged. The poems are also very much about Hill's engagement with the natural world. This latter results in some of the most lucidly beautiful writing in all three books, and especially in the last. But there's also a huge amount of reading and quoting and intertextuality running throughout, a dense matrix of poets and theologians and other kinds of writers. If The Triumph of Love is the trilogy's Inferno, it is not because it dwells on actualised hells (though the two world wars certainly furnish the necessaries for that), but because it spends a lot of time on Hill's own childhood and youth, and on the miseries attendant on his mental states at that time. Its title, in other words, not only mimics the form of Shelley's 'The Triumph of Time', but syphons off some Shelleyan irony too (since 'The Triumph of Time', unfinished at Shelley's death, is the most potently despairing poem he ever wrote, a masterpiece of pessimism). In addition to a pervasive set of Dantean and Shelleyan allusions, Hill's poem is packed with specific name-dropping and quotations, including but not limited to: Petronius, Angelus Silesius, Thomas Bradwardine, Georges Roualt, Malebranche, Alan Turing, Milton, Gower, Rilke, Blake, Péguy, Michel Foucault and Manley Hopkins.
Speech! Speech! is, I would say, a more satirically focused engagement with the babble of contemporary cultural production, TV and rap-music and the rolling news and so on; although this Purgatorio is also darkly funny, full not only of wordplay but actual word-games anagrams and palindromes. I'd say that it does read like a poem working its way to something; and that something presumably comes into its own in The Orchards of Syon. This final volume is much more about Hill reacting to the beauty and serenity of the natural world; and Hill's Paradiso idea is concretized in, as the title suggests, orchards and woodland. Orchards are beautiful, after all. Then again, nothing is straightforward in Hill's work. Balanced against the beautiful orchard (Hopkins' 'Goldengrove' is repeatedly invoked) is the Wood of Suicides from Dante, the tree of good and evil from Eden, the cross on which God was tortured to death.
The literary matrix in which Orchards of Syon is embedded is as dense as you would expect from Hill, if a little less dense (perhaps) than Triumph of Love. More to the point, I think a rather different range of authors is brought into the text in Orchards than was the case in the earlier volumes. The two main continuities are Dante, whose shade presides (surely) over the entire trilogy, and Hopkins, who is quoted or else formally aped throughout the trilogy, as with Hill's slightly distracting tendency to add accents to cértain wórds to nudge his readers to the right émphasis when reading aloud (as per Hopkins's Springing, Falling, 'Márgarét, áre you gríeving'). Otherwise the presiding spirits of Orchards are: D H Lawrence's 'rainbow' (Hill specified that the cover-art should be Lawrence's own sketch, reproduced above; and the book opens with an epigraph from The Rainbow), André Frénaud, Mrs Beeton, Jefferies, Leopardi, Ronsard, Pavese, Connie Willis (remarkably enough) and—to bring matters back to the subject of this blog—Coleridge.
So what I thought I'd do in this post, to at least start to try and get my thoughts in order with respect to this great but difficult poem, is just pull the Coleridgean element out of the 72, 24-line stanzas that comprise the whole, and see what I think Hill is doing with it. (Why 72, 24-line cantos? Jeremy Noel-Tod wonders if Orchards is 'perhaps a Book of Days, as well as a version of the kabbalistic exercise of meditating on the 72 names of God'. Maybe). Before I do that, I'll jot down a few general observations about the poem, in order to situate what I say below a little. So: the first thing to note is that Hill's Paradiso is not about ascending through ever-more-blissful spheres. His understanding of heaven is not halos, white gowns and harps (of course, neither is Dante's; but you see what I mean). It is difficult, and in more than a 'I find this hard to wrap my head around' sense of that word.
Paradise, in The Orchards of Syon is 'about' trees, and it is 'about' music. With respect to the latter, Hill seems to consider the beauty and power of music to be, at least in part, a function of music's exemption from mankind's original sin ('music arguably/not implicated in the loss of Eden' is how he puts it ); and the poem returns over and again to Baroque 'glissandos', to Gospel choirs, to klesmer music and trumpet voluntaries, to Holst’s Jupiter and Parry's Jerusalem and Britten's Billy Budd, as well as to the extraordinary, fertile power of Bach ('The Art of Fugue resembles/water-springs in the Negev' ). The poem quotes the line 'la vida es sueño' many times, but I suspect the reference is less to Calderón's somnivital play than to Jonathan Dove's operatic version of the same work. Music is part of poetry itself, of course; instressed, as Hopkins might say, into it; and books are made of 'leaves' as trees are: Hill may well have Wordsworth's famous 'close up these barren leaves' pun in mind throughout. But we are entitled to ask: in what sense is heaven like a forest like music like poetry like a rainbow? I suppose we could say because it grows, because it 'homes' us; because it is about light and about shade and about the unspoken. And the rainbow is important because of its breathtaking natural beauty, and because Keats abjured its unweaving by modern science; because its beauty is that of the colours all folded into the lux of God's initial fiat lux. And also because, via Lawrence, it resonates with the north-midlands working class provenance of an individual like Hill himself. The specific passage that Hill quotes from Lawrence's The Rainbow as epigraph to the whole volume is this one, from that novel's chapter 5, 'the Wedding:
Tom Brangwen's mood of inspiration began to pass away. He forgot all about it, and was soon roaring and shouting with the rest. Outside the wake came, singing the carols. They were invited into the bursting house. They had two fiddles and a piccolo. Only the bride and bridegroom sat with shining eyes and strange, bright faces, and scarcely sang, or only with just moving lips.So maybe Orchards of Syon is also a kind of epithalamium, a weaving of mouthed but silent music and the sublimity of the night sky.
The five men went out. The night was flashing with stars. Sirius blazed like a signal at the side of the hill, Orion, stately and magnificent, was sloping along. "It's a fine night," said Tom.
One other element, as I mention above, is that this poem is filled with often gorgeous poetry descriptive of natural landscapes. So far as I can see, these are phased, such that the poem as a whole cycles from autumn (which season is either named or else unambiguously evoked in stanzas 12, 13, reverting to high summer in 14, showers in 20, and colder autumnal weather again in 23, 24, 25 and 26), through winter (27, 28, 32, 33), to a barren land suddenly blazing through with flowers (41) and 'the great rainbow, as Bert/Lawrence saw it or summoned it' (48); and finally to summer ('the stooped pear-tree honours us with its shade', ; 'this heavy/blankness ... a mauve/tinted wipe-around grey. The Malverns gone in haze' ). All the other business of the poem—and it is a very busy, densely extended piece of writing—is framed by this natural cycle, which brings the negations with which stanza 1 opens ...
Now there is no due season. Do not... through to, near the end, a kind of unguarded joy in the Edenic possibilities of its titular locus amoenus:
mourn unduly. You have sometimes said
that I project a show more
stressful than delightful. 
the OrchardsThroughout the poem, and despite (perhaps) what this quotation might suggest, Hill's apprehension of the beauty of the natural world is always particularised, never idealised or abstracted. It is real places that Hill knows and loves, not any sort of Platonic Arcadia. And because of that, nature is always interpenetrated with culture, a fact Hill treats without regret or deprecation. There is, for him, as much beauty in 'hawks over the dual carriageways'  as in any Theocritan pre-industrial pseudo-nostalgia. Indeed, that's one of the things I love about The Orchards of Syon.
of Syon, sway-backed with pear and apple,
the plum, in spring and autumn resplendent.
Syon! Syon! That which sustains us 
Coleridge first comes into Orchards of Syon in the poem's twenty-fourth stanza, which I quote here in its entirety:
Too many times I wake on the wrongLets say that the larger situation of this stanza is: waking up too early, but being unable to get back to sleep. The dawn moon is visible outside, though clouded, and something about the quality of the light reminds the narrator of an autumnal visit to Kenwood House, in Hampstead, below whose stately structure are (indeed) paths and ponds. In fact here is a painting by the excellent Mary Kuper of that very locale:
side of the sudden doors, a cloud-
smoke sets the dawn moon into rough eclipse,
though why in the world thís light is not
revealed, even so, the paths plum-coloured,
slippery with bruised leaves; shrouded the clear
ponds below Kenwood; such recollection
no more absent from the sorrow-tread
than I from your phantom showings, Goldengrove.
I dreamed I had wakened before this
and not recognized the place, its forever
arbitrary boundaries re-sited,
re-circuited. In no time at all
there's neither duration nor eternity.
Look!—crowning the little rise, that bush,
copper-gold, trembles like a bee swarm.
COLERIDGE'S living powers, and other
sacrednesses whose asylum this was,
did not ordain the sun; but still it serves,
bringing on strongly now each flame-recognizance,
hermeneutics of autumn, time's
continuities tearing us apart
Make this do for a lifetime, I tell myself.
Rot we shall have for bearing either way. 
The season is 'flame-coloured'. The ground is strewn with leaves. Hill (in his bed? Shuffling around in a dressing gown?) looks outside and sees the coming-on dawn light strike a 'copper-gold' bush and make it shine. His state of mind, still haunted by dreams ('la vida es sueño' reoccurs throughout Orchards like a refrain) takes him back to memories of visiting Kenwood, which in turn provokes a kind of autumnal epiphany, a visionary state as much dreary as transcendent. So far as that goes, it's a Hillian expression of what is at the very heart of Wordsworth's 'spots of times'. What I mean is: such spots were uplifting spirit-soaring moments of affective intensity that were also quotidian, downbeat, tedious or wearing—'visionary dreariness' [Prelude 12:256] is, in many ways, the single key Wordsworthian phrase. It's why the 'this' in 'thís light' gets its Hopkinsian accent, I think: the specificity of 'thís light' is what matters. The compromised nature of paradise is no flaw, but rather the ground of its splendour: Goldengrove is beautiful not despite but because it is 'unleaving'; a flame is a mode of decay in exactly the way that rot is.
This doesn't seem to me Hill at his most difficult, and indeed the way the scene is visualised strikes me as powerful and affecting. Matthew Sperling's recent Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words (Oxford 2014) spends a whole chapter basically unpacking this one stanza by way of exploring the work's Coleridgean context, starting with this statement rescued from oblivion by the fact that, I presume, Sperling was actually in the Warwick University audience where Hill said it:
In public readings, Hill has named Coleridge as the ‘genius’ of the whole [of Orchards of Syon], and has described the poem as arising from one of those ‘strange visionary moments that seem to come in the midst of the most ordinary occasions’, while giving a note on its setting: ‘it’s not about but, in its allusive way, it is … Hampstead Heath and Highgate, and the fact that Coleridge lived his last rather sad years there.’ [Sperling, 73; ellipses in original]Very interesting! Coleridge used the phrase 'living powers' in several works. It shorthands one of his most important notions, that, since the divine informs words (and therefore poetry), words (and therefore poetry) are shaping forces in the world, not passive tokens merely reflecting that world. Sperling traces the phrase to Aids to Reflection (1825) and summarises it as saying 'that linguistic forms precede and govern cognitive forms’ [Sperling, 88], which is fair enough. But we might go back earlier, to, for instance, the notes for Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare at the Surrey Institution in 1812:
The spirit of poetry, like all other living powers, must of necessity circumscribe itself by rules, were it only to unite power with beauty. It must embody in order to reveal itself; but a living body is of necessity an organized one—and what is organization but the connection of parts to a whole, so that each part is at once end and means!I wonder if this isn't a more fertile way of approaching the importance of 'living powers' to Hill than the Aids to Reflection context. Extrapolating a little from the Shakespeare lectures passage, we might say the phrase works here to flag-up the organic form of Hill's poetic structures, as much as their esemplastic precedence over mere 'things'. Indeed, there is a tension between the mechanic and organic elements in structuring the poem as a whole. In Triumph of Love the stanzas vary in length, swelling or tightening as the expressive logic requires; but both Speech! Speech! and Orchards are made out of regular processions of set-length stanzas. For Jeremy Noel-Tod this is a bug, not a feature:
In fulfilling these structures, Hill has encountered the same problem Eliot did when he conceived of Four Quartets—a symmetrical crown for his life’s work modelled on one poem, ‘Burnt Norton’. The quality-control lapses in the three quartets that followed, especially ‘The Dry Salvages’, are the result of this new approach to composition, which required certain patterns to be strictly completed. The sections of The Triumph of Love—Hill’s ‘Burnt Norton’—expand and contract instinctively, leanly, providing necessary variety. The whole book is a beautifully balanced expression of Hill’s characteristic alternating rhythm. The repetitive stanza structures of Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, are more hospitable to dense, self-parodic filler. [Jeremy Noel-Tod, 'Awkward Bow', LRB 25:5 (2003), 27]'Dense, self-parodic filler' is harsh, although you certainly see what Noel-Tod means. But we might want to argue that Hill was not only aware of precisely this 'Eliot problem', but that it expresses something crucial about his understanding of the way a Coleridgean 'living power' might give breath and life to verse. In those same Shakespearian lectures quoted above, STC gives us this definition:
The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material, as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.If we take Hill's commitment to poetry as a living power seriously, then we might want to think about the tension between, say, the exquisitely expressive and the stiffly offputting as the point of the whole. Like Picasso with representational painting, Hill can write lucidly beautiful and moving poetry if he wants to. He just doesn't want to do this,or else doesn't want to do it all the time. The more 'mechanic' tics and features; the polysyllabic abstract nouns, the odd forays into textspeak ('yr' and 'y' instead of 'your' for example) and vertiginous shifts from elevated idioms to banality and coversational babble, all these wrongfooting moments are there to foreground exactly this tension. Hence, too, The Orchards of Syon rather than The Woods of Syon; since the former are both organically natural growths and mechanically ordered layings-out of territory in a way that is not true of the latter.
There's a lot that could be said about the way this stanza, and the poem as a whole, draws the cord taut by way of putting mechanical and organic in tension with one another; but I'll limit myself to one particular observation for now. Stanza 24 includes a strophic moment, a turn—'Look! in line 15. Structurally this echoes the sonnet form, something doubled-up by the fact that it immediately follows a 14-line section of verse. The result is a sort of elongated-octave, about untimeliness, waking too early, about memory and eternity, followed by a sort of elongated-sestet about the way meaning and beauty catch light in our souls. But can we say that the sonnet form is organic? Or is it a mechanic imposition on the way language expresses love and longing, although perhaps one with which repetition has made so familiar it seems organic? 'Look!'
There are many other Coleridgean references and quotations in Orchards, and I'm going to move quickly through the five most explicit. Stanza 30 opens:
Blurring sharpens: instance, my cold-tears makeThe narrator is in a car, being driven at night, and his tear-filled eyes (grief? flu?) make patterns from the lights. These, by a process of association, make him think of two lines from Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis', Look! how a bright star shooteth from the sky;/So glides he in the night from Venus' eye (a detail Hill leaves us to intuit, rather than spelling it out) and thence to Coleridge's discussion of those same Shakespearian lines, from where 'without effort and without discord' is quoted. Here's the relevant passage as it appears in Coleridge's Literary Remains (the 'it', in the first line here, is Shakespeare's Imagination):
flowerets, faceted clusters, out of clear brights,
headlights, eight, twelve, across, signal gantries
like emporium glitter. I'm not driving /
fortunately. How slowly it all goes
hurtling to oblivion. Line after line
solidly fractured without
effort and without discord—COLERIDGE; the eye
of Imagination passive and a seer.
Think seer as you would stayer. 
This structures and embodies Hill's experience in the car which he is not driving (fortunately, since he can't see properly): the beauty of the instant, the rapidity of the car's passage, the yearning, hopelessness and love. These paralleled movements, effortless and harmonious, in turn inform the way poetry moves 'line after line', the 'solid fracture' of discourse into poetry picked out by that little vertical bar separating the words 'driving' and 'fortunately'. In the opening lines of stanza 33 the narrator promises to 'pass myself through, as a backward/courier of vision: your Table Talk'. The 'eye' has become messenger in more than the simple physical fact that we read with our eyes. And stanza 36 ends:
Hell is empty; or The End will erase itThat was Coleridge, of course; he jotted the thought in his notebook in 1802:
in its due place and order. Poets
leap over death—was that COLERIDGE? If so,
Did anyone see him do it and live? 
No one can leap over his own shadow/Poets leap overHill quite often moves the tone towards a tone of wry humour like this. Humour is not his strongest suit, but still.
Death. [Notebooks 1134 8.3]
There are two more specific evocations of Coleridge's name. First, in the middle of stanza 44, after the battling violence of the Normandy landings ('at the crossroads of Haut-Vents, machine-carbine'):
Then immediatelyThe point of reference is to this book, published just after the war (1947, in point of fact):
peace brings The Armed Vision, a work of courage
and quick advantage. Who dares show himself
embusqué in this verdurous new terrain
to be fought through? Did HYMAN go to the wars?
Empson didn't, nor did I. Armed Vision is of course COLERIDGE.
It is an account of how criticism evolved from the intuitive expressions of amateurs like Aristotle and Coleridge into a more rigorously worked-through discourse whose four main influences are, Hyman thinks, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Frazer. From here Hyman delves into the state of modern criticism, arguing that 'each critic tends to have a master metaphor or series of metaphors in terms of which he sees the critical function ...this metaphor then shapes, informs, and sometimes limits his work.' The answer to Hill's question as to whether Hyman served in World War 2 is: no, he didn't (he was writing for The New Yorker in the early 1940s). But Hill is quite right that 'armed vision' is from Coleridge. Specifically it's from the seventh chapter of the Biographia Literaria, where STC ponders how interpretation can become over-interpretation, how harmony can become over-focused into disharmony if we attend too closely: 'The razor's edge becomes a saw to the armed vision,' he says, thinking of 'arming' sight with lenses and microscopes; 'and the delicious melodies of Purcell or Cimarosa might be disjointed stammerings to a hearer, whose partition of time should be a thousand times subtler than ours.' I've always thought this a particularly science-fictional concept, but Hill instead opts, Hymanishly, to focus on the military metaphor implicit in 'armed': fighting with machine-guns at a Normandy crossroads; courage and quick advantage extricating oneself from the 'embuscade' and so on.
There remains one last specific reference to Coleridge in the poem. This is in stanza 64, which, once again, I'll quote whole:
This is my shoelace. That is bobbled clover.We start with Hill actually staring at his own shoes (not for the first time in this trilogy, I wonder if Hill's love of music led him into the pop and rock of the most recent decades: was he aware what 'shoegazing' is? When he laments 'time's/continuities tearing us apart'  is he glancing at Joy Division?) At any rate, he is standing in a garden or park and looking down, and this, for some reason, makes him think of his youthful engagement with opera. 'Vere', of course, is Captain Vere from Britten's Billy Budd, whose opening aria consists of him looking back on his life, and his regrets, from the perspective of old age: 'There’s a land where she’ll anchor for ever. I am an old man now, and my mind can go back in peace …' (I assume the reference here is to Britten, not Melville, even though Melville is name-checked a few lines later, because the opera puts Vere at its centre in a way not true of the novella. I could be wrong). So this reference is 'lyric' in the strict sense of being sung to music; and futile because there's nothing 'Starry' Vere can do to bring Billy back, howsoever eximious he may be. Hill's companion, whoever he or she is, disagrees that they are looking at clover:
Here's a youngish man embarks on I
am an old man now. Eximious 'STARRY' VERE,
lyric and futile. Sit here, Memory.
A trial playthrough: they could hardly tell
prelude from postlude, postlude from intermezzo.
You're right! Not clover; even more tenacious,
tight like plantar warts or splayed pseudopods
their gardeners gouge and burn from lawns. Let's think
around the nature of the impasse: metaphysics'
biochemical mystery. Wisdom
conspires with unwisdom, in a phrase
the genius of the maker—slog-and-slang.
Fancy's not truth even if truth's confined
to Imagination: STC's compunctions,
the last bit of the The Tempest, ancient prayers
of intercession that are said to work.
Melville's predisposition stood at bay
to public humours. Through stiff metaphrase
the sad man breaking in his stupent heart,
his stupent heart hog-tied on Southport sands
for Hawthorne to excogitate. I'll name
my own late fancies Dream Children if not—
just for the shine on it—Prospero's Farewell. 
Hill's narrator agrees. They're looking at a different sort of weed: plantain.
I sympathise: I have plantain growing all through my lawn and they're a right bugger to shift. At this halfway point the stanza shifts to considering the nature of the 'maker', or poet (poetry from ‘ποίησις’ which means ‘a making, a creation, a production’). Said nature is 'slog-and-slang', which is a phrase that nicely combines two aspects of writing as craft (the effort involved and the command of idiom) in, I suppose, a sort-of jokily deflating echo of Sturm und Drang. Then we're given the Fancy/Imagination distinction, which is one of the central planks of the Biographia Literaria, and 'STC's compunctions' refers back to that, rather than identifying any problems he had with 'the last bit of The Tempest'. I'm not aware of anything Coleridge wrote or said about Prospero's famous 'Now my charms are all o'erthrown' speech. I suppose Hill considers Prospero's epilogue a mode of interceding with the audience ('I must be here confin'd by you,/Or sent to Naples') and a prayer for freedom that is 'said'—spoken aloud—to be effective. This then leads him back to Billy Budd, and the angelic man rendered 'stupent' by his stutter. 'Dream children' presumably glances at 'We are such stuff/As dreams are made on'; and, approaching as he is the end of Orchards of Syon, Hill toys with a Prosperine abandonment of the world of magic, and poetry, and sin:
And my ending is despair,Vere had the power to pardon Billy Budd, but did not do it, to his later regret. Prayer (ancient or otherwise) is an imaginative, not a fanciful, activity. These two naval dramas, Billy Budd and The Tempest, work with the memory of a traumatic crime or sin in order to stage the performance of atonement and forgiveness. But what has this to do with gazing at your own shoes, and being struck by how weedy the lawn is?
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
I'm still pondering that last question.