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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


The Orchards of Syon

Geoffrey Hill

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To purchase The Orchards of Syon

Title: The Orchards of Syon
Author: Geoffrey Hill
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2002
Length: 72 pages
Availability: The Orchards of Syon - US
The Orchards of Syon - UK
The Orchards of Syon - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting, thoughtful conception

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commentary . 6/2002 Thomas L. Jeffers
Daily Telegraph . 28/9/2002 Tom Payne
The Independent . 2/12/2002 Michael Glover
London Rev. of Books . 6/3/2003 Jeremy Noel-Tod
The New Criterion . 6/2002 William Logan
The New Republic . 27/5/2002 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/4/2002 David Barber
Poetry Review . Fall/2002 Stephen James
The Spectator A+ 7/9/2002 A.N.Wilson
Sunday Telegraph . 25/8/2002 Anthony Thwaite
The Times A 25/9/2002 R. Campbell-Johnston

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)longside its several tossed-off or unrealized lyrics, Orchards offers many that can stand with the best of Hillís early volumes. (...) It is itself something like the orchards Hill spreads out for his readersí contemplation. Some of its trees have broken branches, others hardly produce, many are overgrafted with arcane allusions and weird punctuation, but no few are heavy with fruit, and, especially with repeated readings, one can find windfalls everywhere." - Thomas L. Jeffers, Commentary

  • "(Y)ou might laugh more reading Dante." - Tom Payne, Daily Telegraph

  • "There is a less loftily chilly atmosphere about this sequence of 72 page-long meditations upon human mortality, the nature of beauty, the fragile, remembered delights of the vanished England of his childhood." - Michael Glover, The Independent

  • "The theme of The Orchards of Syon is classically Victorian, Arnoldian: how to reconcile the romantic love of nature with the otherworldliness of Christianity. Or, on Hill's terms, how to align poetry with truth." - Jeremy Noel-Tod, London Review of Books

  • "There is no excuse for the blind alleys into which these poems lead, their difficulties making even the sympathetic reader tear his hair. (...) The Orchards of Syon is the testament of a poet nearing the end of life, a poet who has earned the readerís trust by long careful mistrust of his own words." - William Logan, The New Criterion

  • "Of the four books that make up "late Hill" (so far), it is by far the most reflective and lyrical. (...) Indeed, there is less irritable reaching after fact and reason than ever before in Hill, and the poetry benefits from the change. (...) (T)he most appealing book of Hill's since Mercian Hymns." - Adam Kirsch, The New Republic

  • "Cast as a sequence of 72 uniform blank-verse soliloquies compounded out of a dissonant amalgam of demotic jabber and oracular utterance, The Orchards of Syon confirms that Hill, for all his newfound volubility, can be as refractory as ever: if the ceremonious tenor of these poems places them in the autumnal tradition of the classical ecologue, their elliptical convolutions and clotted allusions recall Eliot at his most esoteric and Pound at his most incoherent." - David Barber, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In his mystic journey to the Goldengrove of his Worcestershire childhood this latter-day Blakean reopens problems which philosophy had long ago abandoned as intractable and which politics in its corruption had discarded." - A.N.Wilson, The Spectator

  • "Like its precursors (...), The Orchards of Syon doesn't ingratiate or set out to be an easy read, but each new reading reaps new understanding and new pleasures, as one finds odd bits of the spiritual autobiography falling into place (.....) It confirms Hill as one of our very best poets." - Anthony Thwaite, Sunday Telegraph

  • "This meandering, meditative poem is dense, complex, perplexing. But Hill is a legislator of the English language. No other living poet has attended more stringently to the materials of his trade." - Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times

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:

       Not too much should be read into book-covers, but it is hard to overlook the contrast between that for The Orchards of Syon and that for its predecessor, the loud Speech ! Speech ! (see our review) -- at least in the Counterpoint first editions. There is a laughing audience on the cover of Speech ! Speech !, but it is a dark picture, darkly framed. The cover of The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, is largely white, the sketch used as an illustration a drawing by D.H.Lawrence, a rainbow tracing an arc of colour over a black and white townscape. It is brighter, more hopeful -- and The Orchards of Syon also turns out to be a calmer and less severe volume than Speech ! Speech !.
       Hill does not explicitly link this book with the previous two (there is no indication this is "volume three" or anything like that), but there clearly is a connexion. After Canaan (see our review), Hill has now presented three book-length poem sequences in fairly quick succession, first The Triumph of Love (see our review), then Speech ! Speech !, and now this. Each is a summing-up in its own way, but where the two earlier volumes were strident, this one is more settled. Don't get us wrong: everything is relative, and Hill still has a lot to complain about -- often sharply -- but the approach is different than it had been in what came before.
       The Orchards of Syon has seventy-two stanzas (Triumph had 150, Speech ! 120). Each is twenty-four lines long, the verse in them fairly free.
       It is not a summa, but it certainly is an old man wondering: what next ? what after ? Questions are posed in the poem, but nowhere near as many as in the interrogatory Triumph. The need for answers -- or rather: the belief in them -- isn't as strong here. It is more a coming to terms with.
       Memory is often contemplated: "Memory / finds substance in itself." Or: "Memory proves forgetting." Or: "Memory is its own vision".
       "So much / of time is rubble", he recognizes. Still, it is not truly a lament, the tone not primarily one of resignation. Goldengrove, Gerard Manley Hopkins' place of unleaving (in Spring and Fall), is repeatedly referred to. Hill doesn't agree with Hopkins (or isn't willing to express it as forcefully), that: "It is the blight man was born for". He approaches age, decline, and lurking death more carefully
       "Life ís a dream", he says, and he refers frequently also to Calderón's play of the same name (quoting, always, the Spanish title, La vida es sueño). Other references also figure repeatedly, including Ingeborg Bachmann and Celan's Atemwende, and there is the usual (if not quite so intimidating) fill of incidental (as well as prominent) quotes, allusions, references, titles. It is not completely overwhelming, but no doubt: there are layers to the poem that only a closer study of the references will reveal.
       Still, he acknowledges:

ordered to speak plainly, let what ís
speak for itself, not to redeem the time
but to get even with it.
       Much of the meditation is on art and the contemporary world, but without quite the anger found in Speech ! Speech ! Hill seems more willing to try to place art and consider it in the modern world, without fulminating quite so much. At one point he says: "I say again: passion and inertia / overwhelm us"; certainly the passion is what one is most familiar with with regard to Hill (and which has threatened, on occasion, to overwhelm his work), the inertia being far less visible.
       Much in the poem is also personal, as the poet himself figures prominently in the text. Old -- or at least aging -- man Hill is definitely at its center.
       Near the end, it is: "I wish I could say more." Still, he comes largely to accept the coming silence.

       The Orchards of Syon is an always interesting sequence, though without the fierce energy found in Hill's previous two volumes. Still, a thoughtful work, worthy of being carefully considered.

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The Orchards of Syon: Reviews: Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins : Geoffrey Hill: Other books by Geoffrey Hill under review: Other books of interest 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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