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Review: The Secret History, by Michael Hulse

Both these writers possess huge expertise in slightly different literary areas. O'Neill has based his professional career on the study of Romanticism in its varying incarnations. Michael Hulse is a translator from the German; most famously of W.G.Sebald but of other German authors, such as Goethe and Rilke. They both teach in British universities, and are also linked by the fact that their first books of poems were published by Collins Harvill more or less at the start of the nineties. Poetically, the link between these poets is that both these poets may be said to be 'romantics', if one of Romanticism's definitions is in the search for unity with the other.

Both these poets are superb elegists. O'Neill has elegies for his father, but also literary friends: Roy Fuller, Alan Ross. Much of the first half of Michael Hulse's book is also taken up with a long elegy for his father. In this poem and others, Hulse gathers observations which are shaped and focused in the loss that drives the poem. As Hulse shaves his dying father, the two men share the intimacy:

I'd lather you and draw the slackened flesh
tight for the blade,
and always you'd murmur Sweeney Todd

and giggle quietly in that way you had,
boyish and helpless.

Hulse evokes the universal sense of service and flesh, of obligation and love in the long, loping lines that are his favoured technique.

A major theme in both these books is the personal struggle with the legacy of childhood Catholicism. Hulse is very good at moving from the ease of anti-religious sentiment to what can fill the vacuum that atheism creates. Hulse's writing pinpoints lovely, transcending detail from the real world, as in Il ritorno in patria, in which he depicts the Greek poet, Seferis returning to Ionia. At first it is loss that confronts him, the iron door was rusted; the shutters of the upper storey rotted. He was unable to find his initials which he had carved on a wall when he was ten. Hulse again finds what suggests and universalises. It is not just Seferis who loses his childhood and the identities that have formed then; Hulse finds the emblematic, in a delicate unfolding that draws in the reader.

Finally, as in much else in this fine book, there is consolation as the microcosm contains the transcendent,

For the moment, he wrote, there is consolation
in twilight on the slopes of Ionia,
the cyclamen, in which one may sense the tremors of the great soul of Heraclitus.