A.N.Wilson: Why I Turn to Poets to Understand History

Roundup: Talking About History

A.N. Wilson, in the Daily Telegraph (London) (Augus 2, 2004):

... Having done not much else for years except read historical books about the 20th century, I am in awe at the scholarship and industry of the many authors I have read, but, in general, I am less impressed by their sense of perspective, by their take on events. Neither the dons nor the popular historians weighing in at 700 pages know much about distillation. Even clever writers seem to be terribly insensitive to the sheer appallingness of the lives thatmost human beings, thanks to politicians and Fate, have lived in the 20th century. I turn for consolation to Geoffrey Hill, who is more and more not just my favourite modern poet but favourite poet.

Historians strike attitudes and posture. They make a lot of noise and they cover a lot of pages, but they don't very often give me a sensation of the drill touching the nerve. Hill's poetry does this to me all the time. He does not give us History as Journalism, making points. He gives us history as felt life, history as. Take an impressive volume, Mercian Hymns. The only other author I know who has quite so vivid a sense of England's past - the here and now, the Second World War, and the medieval past, stretching back into mist - is our own Michael Wharton in this newspaper, aka Peter Simple.

Hill, however, is a great poet, who again and again evokes "coiled, entrenched England". His Mercian Hymns take us back to the friend of Charlemagne who built the dyke - Offa. But they are seen through the layers of Hill's own personal memories - the coronation of George VI, or of his grandmother, "whose childhood and prime womanhood were pent in the nailer's darg". Hill's own childhood in the West Midlands, and that of his children, even their play, turn up the past. "We have a kitchen-garden riddled with toy-shards, with splinters of habitation."

Anglo-Saxon poetry was not written out in verse, you felt, but in lines and rhythms. So here. This, it strikes me, is what history ought to be able to do and almost never does. Before history was the new gardening, it was an Enlightenment invention designed to set the past in order. It is always in danger of making the past in the image of the present, or using the past to make points. The first writers who evoked the past were not enlightenment historians but poets; and Hill's Mercian Hymns remind us of why the poets are sometimes surer guides than the historians, however admirable their research and however paradoxical their prose.

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