Reviewed: The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy by Geoffrey Hill

Reviewed: The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy by Geoffrey Hill

Reviewed: The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy: Geoffrey Hill: Selected Poems. Penguin, 2006.

After Mercian Hymns — popular but a poetry in prose and not beyond the reach of other practitioners — The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy is the most accessible of Geoffrey Hill’s work. {1-2} Its 101 quatrains explore the life of Charles Péguy (1873-1914), not as biography but as evidence for something important to Hill: a poet’s responsibilities to his age. Did Péguy’s fervent nationalism betray his socialist ideals and so hasten France’s calamitous entry into the First World War? When Jean Jaurès was shot by a mindless assassin in a Paris café on the eve of war, there disappeared the last hope of socialist solidarity preventing the slide into wholesale carnage, which not only ended the old world order but much of the French traditions that Péguy loved. As to be expected from his background, Péguy had once been socialist, a staunch defender of international brotherhood, but in later years had turned to poetry, and poetry of an inward, mystic and nationalist temper.

Indeed Charles Péguy’s celebratory strain of poetry was much admired in its time, and even now is worth reading if we can cope with its incandescent Catholicism, often bitter polemics and intimidating length. His famous Eve (1911) that starts:

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour la terre
Mais pourvu que ce fût une juste guerre.

(Happy are those who die for the carnal earth/ but only if it be for a just war) runs to 7,643 lines. {3} No one writes with such ringing certainty today, not after a century of increasingly doubtful and murderous conflicts, and Hill’s tone is quieter, more questioning and indeed querulous at times, as his opening stanza indicates:

Crack of a starting-pistol. Jean Jaurès 
dies in a wine-puddle. Who or what stares
through the café-window crêped in powder-smoke? 
The bill for the new farce reads ‘Sleepers Awake’.

The poem’s theme is announced in the fourth quatrain:

Did Péguy kill Jaurès? Did he incite
the assassin? Must men stand by what they write,

The aabb, abab or abba rhyme or pararhym scheme is handled competently, but is generally too loose to give an aesthetic shape to the quatrains: the content is boxed in, but not given the frisson of inevitability that exact rhyme creates. Most lines are adequate, however, and a few excellent:

How studiously
one cultivates the sugars of decay,

Three sides of a courtyard where the bees thrum
in the crimped hedges and the pigeons flirt 
and paddle, and the sunlight pieces the heart-

shaped shutter patterns in the afternoon.
And the slow chain that cranks out of the well
morning and evening.

Happy are they who, under the gaze of God,
die for the ‘terre charnelle’, marry her blood
to theirs, and, in strange Christian hope, go down
into the darkness of resurrection,

into sap, ragwort, melancholy thistle,
almondy meadow-sweat,

Indeed a sprinkling of lines have the miraculous quality that was to largely disappear after this poem, when medication for depression  {4} made Hill a happier man but a less acute and perfection-driven writer:

Vistas of richness and reward. The cedar
uprears its lawns of black cirrus.

Down in the river-garden a grey-gold 
dawnlight begins to silhouette the ash.

But more than competence is needed to make so long a poem continuously rewarding. Often Hill is challenging Péguy on his own ground and these vignettes of turn-of-the century rural life, which Péguy cast as hymns to an unchanging France, have in Hill’s hands a rather laboured and manufactured air:

The clinking anvil and the clear sheepbell-sound,
at noon and evening, of the angelus; 
coifed girls like geese, labourers cap in hand,
and walled gardens espaliered with angels;

The trouble may be Hill’s way of composing, which has never been by argument and the devices of rhetoric, but that most dangerous of a poet’s gifts, the memorable phrase — the ‘unearned magnificence’, as some critics have termed these assemblies of poetic wizardry. Occasionally, very occasionally, we get the entirely satisfying:

Rage and regret are tireless to explain
the stratagems of the out-manoeuvred man.

But many are simply dutiful, getting across what has to be said with minimal fuss:

It has raged so before,
countless times; and will do, countless times more,
the guise of supreme clown, dire tragedian.

No one wants to tell a major poet how to better handle his material, but most poems fail because their author has nothing important to say. In Péguy’s case there should have been. The man was an important figure in the French intellectual scene. Born into poverty, Péguy used his gifts and industry to get into the École Normale Supérieure and then the Sorbonne. He joined the Socialist Party, and from 1900 to his death in 1914 was the editor and main contributor to the literary magazine Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine, which published not only Péguy’s essays and poetry but the work of many articulate contemporaries. {5} His quotations are still remembered, {6} and reveal depths unexplored by Hill’s poem. Indeed the Charity‘s thesis is a little preposterous. Poets are not ‘the acknowledged legislators of mankind’, at least not today, though poets certainly had more clout in Hugo’s France and in turn-of-the-century Poland.

Hill’s later poems often recoil at the indifference shown to his intellectual position, and become savage, hapless and morose.  Like the inexperienced teacher ranting at a bored class, Hill forgets that attention has to be earned by material being made inviting, relevant and —  since this is poetry — emotionally alive. Fail here and readers will murmur about ‘horses for courses’ and prefer a medium better designed for such purposes: the moral essay or the philosophic dissertation. Poetry now appeals to a small part of the reading public, and poetry dense with recondite concerns to an even smaller part — witness the preference for Mercian Hymns over the more beautiful and accomplished earlier work.

At poetry readings the poet can to some extent gauge the response, but unfortunately the pieces have to be written first, before any response can be expected, a process that leads to repeated revisions. The poet may act as audience himself, of course, as all do to some extent, but Hill’s specialist interests make him an unreliable witness. Hence the two approaches usually adopted prior to Modernism: the didactic poem, and poetic dialogue. The first is only likely to succeed when ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ is indeed often thought, in truth a commonplace, which is not the case here. The narrative imparts life to abstract ideas, with the characters responding to the thoughts and characters of others in conversation.  In Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi, the Prior is appalled by the realistic depictions of the human form, which he regards as essentially wicked:  {7}

The Prior and the learned pulled a face 
And stopped all that in no time. “How? what’s here?
Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all! 
Faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true 
As much as pea and pea! it’s devil’s-game! 
Your business is not to catch men with show, 
With homage to the perishable clay, 
But lift them over it, ignore it all, 
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh. 
Your business is to paint the souls of men — 
Man’s soul, and it’s a fire, smoke . . .  [ll. 174-184]

It’s an approach that Hill does in fact try in later poems, {8} but not as dialogue between characters so much as an attack on readers’ attitudes, as in The Triumph of Love {8}

You see also
how this man’s creepy, though not creeping wit —
he fancies himself a token Jew by marriage,
a Jew by token marriage — has buzzed, droned,
round a half-dozen topics (fewer surely?)
for almost fifty years. (XCVIII)

Literary personae are to some extent artificial, and Hill is not the latter-day saint that Péguy could sometimes pose as, but little love emanates from The Triumph of Love.  As Valéry remarked, ‘Books have the same enemies as people: fire, humidity, animals, weather, and their own content.’

Sources and Further Reading

1. Geoffrey Hill: Selected Poems. Penguin, 2006.
2. Geoffrey Hill.  The Poetry Foundation. Good bibliography.
3. Charles Péguy by Roger Kimball. New Criterion. November 2001.
4. Geoffrey Hill, The Art of Poetry No. 80. Interviewed by Carl Phillips. Paris Review.  2013.
5. The Mystery of the Passion of Charles Peguy by Robert Royal. Catholic Education. 1996.
6. Charles Péguy. Wikipedia. August, 2013.
7. Realistic Dialogue in The Warden and “Fra Lippo Lippi” by Mia Iwama. Victoria Web. 2003.
8. The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin by William Logan. Columbia University Press, 2005.

One Comment

  1. this is the first time I’ve looked at your sight. Thank you for your very interesting review of this poem which i stood in a bookshop reading the other day. What you had to say was very enlightening. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

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