“Christmas Trees” by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill, in festive mood.  Although I think I can get the gist of the poem, I frankly have no idea what it’s got to do with Christmas trees.  The inverted commas around the title are Hill’s, and perhaps provide some clue.  Answers on a postcard …

“Christmas Trees”


Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell

bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,

pacing out his own citadel,


restores the broken themes of praise,

encourages our borrowed days,

by logic of his sacrifice.


Against wild reasons of the state

his words are quiet but not too quiet.

We hear too late or not too late.


(Haven’t bought ours yet, by the way.  Hope it’s not .. er … too late.)



Caspar David Friedrich : Winter Landscape


Ronnie for Laureate?

Well, this blog did vote for the Liberal Democrats on Thursday, and I’m afraid it wasn’t a great success.  The Conservative was returned with an increased majority.

In other news, another of my tips for the top –  James Taylor – has barely got out of single figures all season.

Coming soon – my tip for the Oxford Poetry Chair, Geoffrey Hill, is beaten by a surprise last minute entry –  Purple Ronnie.

Ronnie commented “Did you know I was David Cameron’s best friend at Eton?  Well, I was.  He said that once I’ve finished at Oxford and that awful woman’s gone I can be the next Poet Laureate too, if he gets to be Prime Minister.  I’ve written a poem for him specially.”  

My mate Dave (a coronation ode)

by Purple Ronnie


Silly Nick Clegg

Has only one leg

And Gordon Brown’s a twerp

But my mate Dave’s so groovy

He makes my bottom burp!

Canticle for Good Friday : Geoffrey Hill


Bouguereau : Pieta

There are surprisingly few poems in English about Good Friday.  The resurrection as an abstraction  is easy enough to assimilate to the way in which we generally think of Easter – the return of life to the earth, as popularly represented by bunnies, eggs and chicks.  The physical event of the human sacrifice required to bring about this resurrection is harder to come to terms with.  I doubt that the crucifixion has ever – since the reformation at any rate – entered the popular consciousness of the English in the way that it has in Catholic countries.  We prefer our crucifixes to be restrained, discreet and bloodless:  they rarely intrude into our homes. 

Here, though, is a poem for Good Friday, by Geoffrey HillHill is at the same time profoundly English – indeed claggily Mercian – and Latinate in his sensibility.  The poem is, I think (I could be wrong), told from the point of view of the Apostle “Doubting”  Thomas.



The cross staggered him.  At the cliff-top

Thomas, beneath its burden, stood

While the dulled wood

Spat on the stones each drop

Of deliberate blood.


A clamping, cold-figured day

Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,


Smelt vinegar and blood.  He

As yet unsearched, unscratched,


And suffered to remain

At such near distance

(A slight miracle might cleanse

His brain

Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)


In unaccountable darkness moved away,

The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance

Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,

Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).

The enormous condescension of posterity (2): historians and poets

An odd discussion this week on Channel 4 News between Gordon Corrigan and Christina Patterson, formerly of the Poetry Society, about the significance of the death of Harry Patch.

Corrigan is a retired major in the Gurkhas turned military historian, the author of Blood, mud and poppycock: this is just one of the many millions of books I’ve yet to read,  so I’ll refrain from comment on it – the central thrust, however seems to be a defence of the British generals in Word War 1, and a general debunking of what he sees as the mythology surrounding that war.  I seem to remember, when I was studing A Level history over twenty years ago, writing interminable essays aruing that the cause of WW1 was German paranoia and aggression, and that, if the War was to be won, there was little alternative to Haig’s policy of attrition – so that part (if that’s what he’s saying)doesn’t seem particularly controversial. 

No doubt he has valid points to make, but his performance on the TV (and it was hard not to reminded of the Major in Fawlty Towers) managed to convey the impression that fighting on the Western Front had actually been rather fun.  He produced various statistics about the amount of time that men spent on the front line as opposed to behind the lines: apparently they spent more time playing football than actually fighting.  This does suggest an appalling failure of the imagination.

He also said something to the effect (I wasn’t making notes and can’t find a transcript) that he hoped the war would soon cease to be a national scar and become a part of history.  I think what he means by this is that it ceases to be something in which we participate imaginatively and becomes a set of facts and figures which historians can rearrange and interpret in new and surprising ways,  for political or careerist reasons,  or simply for the fun of it.

I’m reminded of Geoffrey Hill’s essay on his own sequence of poems Funeral Music –

“Without attempting factual detail, I had in mind the Battle of Towton, fought on Palm Sunday, 1461.  It is now customary to play down the violence of the Wars of the Roses and to present them as dynastic skirmishes fatal, perhaps, to the old aristocracy but generally of small concern to the common people and without much effect on the economic routines of the kingdom.  Statistically, this may be arguable; imaginatively, the Battle of Towton itself commands one’s belated witness.  In the accounts of the contemporary chroniclers it was a holocaust.  Some scholars have suggested that the claims were exaggerated, although the military historian, Colonel A.H. Burne … reckons that over twenty-six thousand men died at Towton and remarks that ‘the scene must have beggared description and its very horror probably deterred the survivors from passing on stories of the fight’.  Even so, one finds the chronicler of Croyland Abbey writing that the blood of the slain lay caked with the snow which covered the ground and that, when the snow melted, the blood flowed along the furrows and ditches for a distance of two or three miles.”