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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


A Treatise of Civil Power

Geoffrey Hill

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To purchase A Treatise of Civil Power

Title: A Treatise of Civil Power
Author: Geoffrey Hill
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2007
Length: 51 pages
Availability: A Treatise of Civil Power - US
A Treatise of Civil Power - UK
A Treatise of Civil Power - Canada
  • Some (and parts) of these poems previously appeared in the 2005 collection of the same name, published by Clutag Press

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Our Assessment:

B+ : very solid small collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 18/8/2007 Peter McDonald
The Independent . 31/8/2007 Robert Crawford
Independent on Sunday A 9/9/2007 Tim Martin
New Statesman . 11/10/2007 Sophie Ratcliffe
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/1/2008 William Logan
Sunday Times . 19/8/2007 Sean O'Brien
The Telegraph . 30/8/2007 Neil Powell
The Telegraph . 16/8/2007 Jeremy Noel-Tod

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "A Treatise adopts a direct style, facing up to the ways "civil power" expresses itself, and is exercised, in the contemporary world. The directness of style serves to intensify the difficulty of the situation. (…) The frankness of A Treatise, and the clarity of the book's ambitions, make it obvious that Hill is not interested in addressing a coterie audience. Instead, this is poetry which, in making demands of its readers' intelligence, engages them in a discourse about things -- sometimes difficult things -- that matter (…..) Hill's new volume is without the kinds of pomp that buoy up a lot of successful modern writing, and his eclectic "scriptures" go beyond those of his predecessor; but no collection published this year -- or for many years past -- can match this demonstration of poetry's "true strength and nerve"." - Peter McDonald, The Guardian

  • "Recurrent topics -- the relationship between violence and idealism, faith and decay, art and elitism, justice, Englishness -- hallmark the music of these poems. (…) What makes grappling with this book rewarding is the poems' unique music -- Hill's ear. (…) In the end, this book's difficulty has more to do with compelling honesty than intellectual pride or showing-off." - Robert Crawford, The Independent

  • "Hill's engagement with history is as vigorous and questioning as ever: he's one of the few contemporary writers with the talent and breadth to meet the past square-on (…..) Hill's persistent (and persistently underrated) wit lends both lightness and a paradoxical gravity to even the most abstruse passages of his dense, argumentative verse." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday

  • "As always, however, Hill's satire is double-edged. His poetry seems to simultaneously claim that contemporary society needs seeing to, and to imply that he isn't really up to the job. (…) This clownishness is crucial to Hill's late poetry, as is his balancing between public and private utterance; he constantly scrutinises the impression his poetry makes on his age, and his age makes on his poetry." - Sophie Ratcliffe, New Statesman

  • "A Treatise of Civil Power is a measured, brilliant book; but its measurements are at times disfigured by Hill’s peculiar sidling, forelock-tugging commentary, full of nervous gestures and mock afflictions ("This I can live with," "I know that sounds / a damn-fool thing to say"), as well as subtle misreadings or corrections of things just said, as if every page required an errata sheet. At least the book suffers from few of the irritating accent marks with which Hill has lately tried to muscle the metrics of his verse." - William Logan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "For many readers Hill must seem a reactionary, and the demeanour of some of his enthusiasts lends weight to that view, but contemporary reactionary thought is parochial, repetitive and short on detail. Whether you agree with Hill or not, those are not faults of which A Treatise of Civil Power could fairly be accused." - Sean O'Brien, Sunday Times

  • "A Treatise of Civil Power confirms one's sense of Hill as a supremely gifted writer caught in the furious web of his own intelligence or, in his own harsher words, a 'hobbyist of his own rage'. There are passages of cumulative brilliance, where image and language fuse indivisibly, to which the reader will surrender in gasping admiration (.....) At other times, it's the old problem of specialised knowledge being taken for granted" - Neil Powell, The Telegraph

  • "Hill chooses recitatives -- "mainly I'd say" -- and these late poems have the force of fine speech, whether quarrelling with Tony Blair's words after Diana's death ("Devastated is Estuary; devastation remains / waste and shock") or observing a snowdrop "fettled on its hinge". But they forego the otherworldly power of song." - Jeremy Noel-Tod, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of Geoffrey Hill's collection -- taken from a Miltonic pamphlet -- sounds both unpoetic (a treatise !) and political. In the broader senses -- the ones Hill certainly means -- these poems certainly are political, and the focus on 'civic power' (rather than, say, democracy) also gives some insight into Hill's own perspective and priorities.
       "Culture is a dead word: let us re- / animate it", he writes (typically: in a poem 'On Reading Burke on Empire, Liberty, and Reform) -- but some of the doubts creep in, of whether he is up to it:

     No, that would use
more resources than I have exhaustion
to yield, pledge, dig up, borrow against.
       The vigor and energy of the writing stands in some contrast to the occasional expressions of weakness, but it's more a fear of faltering than an actual collapse: these are less old-man poems than in some of his recent collections, though that pre-occupation ("this is our last call, difficult coda") hovers in much of the background. So also in the not quite final 'Coda' (the placing of two bits after it -- even be they only a fragment and a 'Nachwort' -- suggesting a refusal to admit to the finality of a final word), which he closes admitting to the limitations of mortality-thoughts:
I fear to wander in unbroken darkness
even with those I love. I know that sounds
a damn-fool thing to say.
       As always, the language is striking, even when he reaches ("lyric mojo" ? surprisingly, it works), with only a bit that seems really forced ("ad hoc hocketing of joy" ? -- and, yes, the whole collection echoes, more than ever with Hill, of Gerard Manley Hopkins' word- (and sound-)games).
       Much of the focus seems on another time -- Herrick, Cromwell, Milton, Burke, et al. -- and there's much hidden (lost ?) in references, but enough gets through even for those who don't quite see what he's getting at (or rather: where he's getting it from). The more modern subject-matter -- for example: a poem about 50 years of the Federal Republic of Germany, in memoriams for Ernst Barlach and Aleksander Wat -- make for a slightly odd, more contemporary reference point.
       A Treatise of Civil Power is a compact collection, but given the density of Hill's poetry hardly some small read. If not as singularly focussed as some his recent collections, it is nevertheless a powerful selection, and well worth the effort.

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A Treatise of Civil Power: Reviews: Geoffrey Hill: Other books by Geoffrey Hill under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:
  • See also the index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       English poet Geoffrey Hill was born in 1932. A graduate of Keble College, Oxford, he has taught at the University of Leeds, at Cambridge, and at Boston University.

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© 2007-2019 the complete review

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