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Poem of the Week: Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Guardians’

Dealing with generational conflict has never been easy, but I also don’t think it’s ever been this hard; even before the emergence of a virus which aggressively discriminates on age, the atomisation of Western politics around the 2016 EU Referendum and US Presidential election had strong links to age. It’s easy to see how someone with life experience of the horrors of 20th Century conflict – or stories from their own parents about it – can hold such a differing worldview to students such as us, well-equipped in theory and vocabulary, but often strikingly poor when it comes to life experience. We might also see this tension as an epistemological one, between a modern perspective of grand narratives and the possibility of locating moral righteousness, and a postmodern focus on deconstruction and relativity. And into this conflict, with his usual defence of the undefended, wades Geoffrey Hill. 

Generational tension has been recently exploded by a lockdown-induced tendency towards blame, apparent in both older and younger people. As many among the younger generation might agree, there are justifiable reasons why a full-scale lockdown is harmful. The young have ‘risen early’, and are ‘beyond the bay-mouth’ at university, and should therefore be out of reach of the more oppressive and paralysing consequences of the pandemic. Instead of following them outwards towards adventure however, Hill’s poem looks at what happens to those who get left behind. People who have not only lived through enormous difficulty before, but now find themselves unable to constantly escape it in the way the young might be able to. People who, tragically, find their lives threatened, not just in times of pandemic, and see those they grew up with ‘scrape home’ to death. The pandemic has been hard on students, no doubt; but I think in the rightful interrogation of this, we can sometimes forget about what it really might mean to be old in this kind of world. 

I don’t at all wish to derive any political message, contemporary or otherwise, from this poem, but I don’t think Hill does either. It is a simple poem, a really simple one, which merely (for a young reader at least) offers a picture of a life which is rarely seen, and hard to envisage. Hill’s masterfully subtle tone of spiritualism and fantasy in this poem gives it a timeless quality, and asks us to consider one simple thing. We might not get along with those older than us. We might think they can say horrible things, hold horrible views. We might think we owe them nothing. We might be right. But ‘The Guardians’ asks us if, despite all that, we might do the ethical thing, and always try to forgive and preserve the older generations. Someday, we will no longer be beyond the bay-mouth, and then might we understand why.

The Guardians

The young, having risen early, had gone, 

Some with excursions beyond the bay-mouth,

Some toward lakes, a fragile reflected sun.

Thunder-heads drift, awkwardly, from the south;

The old watch them. They have watched the safe 

Packed harbours topple under sudden gales,

Great tides irrupt, yachts burn at the wharf

That on clean seas pitched their effective sails.

There are silences. These, too, they endure:

Soft comings-on; soft after-shocks of calm.

Quietly they wade the disturbed shore;

Gather the dead as the first dead scrape home.

Image: kahala via Flickr