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Charles P'eguy, a hero for our times: new long poem by Geoffrey Hill

The Mystery of the Charity of Charles P'eguy, by Geoffrey Hill. New York: Oxford University Press. 32 pp. $19.95 cloth, $7.95 paper. The difficult new poetry of today provides the clich'es of tomorrow. We love to quote Yeats's ``The Second Coming'': ``The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.'' That first appeared in print in 1921; it appears to have been prophetic. Likewise, T. S. Eliot's timorous Prufrock (1917) still speaks for many: ``No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be . . . .''

The clich'es of tomorrow will come from poems like Geoffrey Hill's new long poem, ``The Mystery of the Charity of Charles P'eguy.'' Poet, editor, outspoken socialist, troubled Roman Catholic, lover of France, P'eguy can be seen, in Hill's poem, to embody the tensions that define our own time.

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Chief among these tensions is that between love of one's native countryside and allegiance to one's country. When these are confused, zealous nationalism results. P'eguy's life illustrates this. By supporting Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a French general staff officer charged in 1894 with conveying secrets to the Germans, P'eguy set himself against the royalist, Catholic establishment. The establishment proved to be anti-Semitic; Dreyfus was the son of a Jewish merchant from Alsace. He was eventually vindicated (1906) and awarded the L'egion D'Honneur. On the other hand, by joining the infantry at the opening of World War I, P'eguy broke with the socialists. His attack on their leader, Jean Jaur'es, may have emboldened the assassin who struck Jaur'es down.

P'eguy's peasant background nourished his ardent love for his patrie. Hill's poetry communicates the lyrical, almost mystical pressure of this love: There is an ancient landscape of green branches -- true temperament de droite, you have your wish -- cross hatching twigs and light, goldfinches among the peppery lilac . . . This ardor seems to connect P'eguy with the political right, as the French phrase suggests. T. S. Eliot aligned P'eguy with national socialism and hence with fascism. Hill regrets this. Weary of political labels, the poet gets at the man.

The poet who wrote ``The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc'' (whence Hill's title) died in uniform on the bank of the Marne. ``Yours is their dream of France, militant-pastoral,'' Hill writes, and later invokes an army . . . . of poets, converts, vine-dressers, men skilled in wood and metal, peasants from the Beauce, terse teachers of Latin and those unschooled in all the hard rudiments of grace.

Yeats and Eliot gave us the clich'es of acceptance of fate, horrified or weary, as the case may be. Of Hill tomorrow's journalists may say (and not without humor), ``The men of sorrows do their stint.'' Nor need our sorrows undo us. Where Eliot's verse lacked energy and Yeats's precision, Geoffrey Hill's bears witness to the possible union of energy and precision, in life and poetry alike.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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