By LANGDON HAMMER
THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE
eoffrey Hill’s ”Triumph of Love” is a book-length meditation on ”the fire-targeted century” now ending, an elegy for everyone who has burned. I say elegy, but in fact the poem is a carnival of literary kinds: it incorporates schoolboy gags, theological excursuses, radiant landscape pictures, mock litanies, epigrams, London music-hall routines and seething political satire. Hill rapidly shifts from one mode to the next as he proceeds through the poem’s 150 separate sections, some of which are as short as one line, some as long as a page and a half. The poem’s aim is to honor faith and innocence as embodied in victims of historical violence, above all the European war dead and the Jews of the Holocaust. It is an aim Hill has kept before him almost continuously since ”For the Unfallen” was published in 1959, the first of his eight books of poems. Always an exquisitely, even excruciatingly self-conscious poet, he now turns on himself with fresh intensity, interrogating his aims and means even as he defends them. One of the poem’s parodic voices (a stand-in for a public that would prefer to forget about its debts to the dead) wonders, ”What is he saying; / why is he still so angry?” The uncomprehending question is its own reply.
Hill’s work has always been difficult, a resistantly private art weighted with literary allusion. ”The Triumph of Love” is no exception, but there are ways into it, and Hill’s engagement with past literature is always a means of reflecting on public life. The title refers to the first of the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch’s ”Trionfi,” a series of allegorical processions that describe the preparation of the poet’s soul to meet God. Hill’s poem is penitential too, but it lacks Petrarch’s allegorical machinery and the consolations of Christian doctrine that come with it. There is no climax to its agonized mental action, no definite promise of relief. Late in the poem, an impatient reader, schooled in Renaissance literature, breaks in: ”So what about the dark wood, eh? / When do we come to the dark wood?” Listing the names of World War I battle sites, Hill retorts:
We have already been sent to the dark
wood, by misdirection: Trones, Montauban,
High Wood, Delville, Mametz. We have been there,
and are there still, in a manner of speaking.
The forests of World War I are more real than the dark woods of literary tradition. We are still lost in them because we have not yet, as a culture, come to terms with the killing that was done there, and we allow it to go on elsewhere. It is a powerful claim. Hill no sooner makes it, however, than he qualifies it, reminding himself and us that the point is rhetorical, something true ”in a manner of speaking.” The next section begins: ”But only in a manner of speaking. / I was not there, nor were you.