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By blood we live

January 27, 2012

Harold Bloom calls Geoffrey Hill the strongest living English-language poet. Judge for yourself. I don’t know about best–I don’t read enough contemporary poetry–but it’s quite good. And quite violent.


Against the burly air I strode,
Crying the miracles of God.

And first I brought the sea to bear
Upon the dead weight of the land;
And the waves flourished at my prayer,
The rivers spawned their sand.

And where the streams were salt and full
The tough pig-headed salmon strove,
Ramming the ebb, in the tide’s pull,
To reach the steady hills above.

The second day I stood and saw
The osprey plunge with triggered claw,
Feathering blood along the shore,
To lay the living sinew bare.

And the third day I cried: ‘Beware
The soft-voiced owl, the ferret’s smile,
The hawk’s deliberate stoop in air,
Cold eyes, and bodies hooped in steel,
Forever bent upon the kill.’

And I renounced, on the fourth day,
This fierce and unregenerate clay.

Building as a huge myth for man
The watery Leviathan,

And made the long-winged albatross
Scour the ashes of the sea
Where Capricorn and Zero cross,
A brooding immortality–
Such as the charmed phoenix has
In the unwithering tree.

The phoenix burns as cold as frost
And, like a legendary ghost,
The phantom-bird goes wild and lost,
Upon a pointless ocean tossed.

So the fifth day, I turned again
To flesh and blood and the blood’s pain.

On the sixth day, as I rode
In haste about the works of God,
With spurs I plucked the horse’s blood.

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

And by Christ’s blood are men made free
Though in close shrouds their bodies lie
Under the rough pelt of the sea;

Though earth has rolled beneath her weight
The bones that cannot bear the light.

He wrote that when still an undergraduate. Apparently he now dislikes it and has moved on to different things–less dogmatic Christianity, more sensuous description, less masculine assertion, more anxiety about the role of violence. In some ways I prefer his earlier work though. The later stuff–what I’ve read of it anyway–is sometimes too self-conscious, too worried about what it’s doing to, well, do anything.

I also like that in this poem Hill talks about salmon, but that might just be my affinity for W.B. Yeats and Cormac McCarthy showing. Cf. “Sailing to Byzantium” and The Road. Masculine authors all.

An interesting thing about this poem, though: when we read it in my modernist poetry class, everyone else thought that the focus on conflict and blood, especially in section I (“Against the burly air I strode”–i.e. striving against God) and section V (“there is no bloodless myth will hold”), made it a rather strange Christian poem, as if we can already see Hill’s unease with writing dogmatically Christian poetry. I thought the focus on blood completely normal–in fact I wish I was the one who had written the line about bloodless myths. What unease there is, I thought, showed through more in the phoenix being made a sign of lifeless, false immortality, since the phoenix is usually a symbol for Christ.


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