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).

All Souls Part 2 – W-A Bouguereau

Day of ther DeadContinuing with this – some might think – slightly morbid theme, here – for your contemplation – is an image relating to All Souls, by the 19th century French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.  Bouguereau is a much-abused figure – partly because he greatly disliked the Impressionists and the feeling was mutual.  John Berger, I seem to remember, also had it in for him.  I don’t have the impression that he has ever quite been rehabilitated in that the way that his English equivalents have been – Lord Leighton perhaps? Waterhouse? – but whenever I see one of his paintings in a gallery I find myself drawn to it, for reasons I probably couldn’t adequately explain.  This, for instance, used to be on display in the entrance hall of the Birmingham City Art Gallery, but seemed to have vanished the last time I visited, much to my disappointment –


(This reproduction  doesn’t, unfortunately, quite convey the luminosity of the paint).

Luminosity of the paint?  What are you on about now? Do you mean it glows it the dark?  My littleun’s got one like that in her bedroom. – The Plain People of Leicestershire.

No, I don’t mean that.  I just meant that whatever it is that attracts me to this painting – and it isn’t, incidentally, the sentimentalised depiction of poverty – hasn’t quite survived the transition to the internet.