Issue 3: Adam Piette reviews Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings, edited by Kenneth Haynes 

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). ISBN 978-0-19-920847-0. £32.00.

Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings are magisterial in a variety of senses. They befit, as the OED states, ‘a master, teacher, or other person qualified to speak with authority’. They are ‘masterly, authoritative, commanding’. They are also, occasionally and by force of circumstance, the work of a person risking the heckler’s accusations of pedantry and dictatorial arrogance for their arrogation of a preacher’s vituperation and a judge’s summary justice. For they sit in judgement on the work of the dead with measured and ethical standards which commit Hill to appearing, as he writes of Hopkins, ‘two or three centuries behind the times’. Old-fashioned faith is the standard under which the struggle is waged in the wilderness of contemporary England: Hill is drawn to admit in the later essays his attachment to the doctrine of original sin. Not since T.E. Hulme has Britain seen a mind at such excoriating work on the damnable ethical errors in the slips, back-slidings and complicities of writers at their lazy worst, and in the pondering of the relation between those writerly sins to the systems of power that constitute the polis. The handful of writers to whom his literary credences make concession are subjected to an attention of extraordinary intensity, testing their worth, as in a great furnace, with some of the most rigorous and unremitting of readings. These are Christian explorations of the contextures of style at the perilous divide between consciousness of the latter-day fires of holy judgement and a tormented acknowledgement of the forces that impose the codes upon each generation, the ignorant, treacherously tolerant, hedonist, prejudicial hollow men that rule culture. The dividing line upon which the struggle takes place is in language, in the pitch and tone, the rhythm and syntax of the sentence, there where the mind is embroiled in the public realm, failing or redeeming its time. These essays are a searching defence of poetry as a mode of the theological imagination, fraught with the potential redemptive energy in particular words, aghast at the mess of pottage served up to all minds in bankrupt, self-entranced culture, recreating in the grammar of its assent and dissent the lonely wrestling with word and conscience of the stubbornly judicial dead.

            The temptation, when faced with satirical and ethical commination of such force, is to marginalize the voice as reactionary, crank-Christian, woefully eccentric –Wyndham Lewis dressed up as a wild evangelist at Speaker’s Corner. Yet this would be to close the mind, through fear, scorn and prejudice, to a poet who has done more than any other to re-establish the grounds of the possibility of a political poetics in this philistine nation. The collection gathers together the extraordinary essays that made up The Lords of Limit of 1984 ­– which included the finest piece of writing on the 19th century by a contemporary poet, ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’ – and The Enemy’s Country of 1991, the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1986: which contains the most devastating attack on business culture most notably through the meditations of its presence in the work of Dryden and Pound. Three further collections are added, Style and Faith (2003), Inventions of Value (collecting articles on the concept of ‘intrinsic value’ written between 1984 and 2001), and Alienated Majesty, collecting the 2000 Ward-Phillips Lectures at Notre Dame, the 2001 St Louis T.S. Eliot Memorial Lecture and the 2005 Empson Lectures at Cambridge. The later collections I will be considering briefly here.

            Laboured and stricken as the religio-scholarly imagination is in these late essays, they have exemplary power not simply in the seriousness with which they weigh the minutiae of the sentences and sententiae of the dead, but also in the ethical doubleness of the style – doing the necessary work upon the texts, yet conscious of the errant misreadings to which his own texts will inevitably be subject. The minds to which Hill is drawn in these three last collections – Butler, Hopkins, Whitman, Housman, Vaughan, Gurney, Rosenberg – give scope for some comradely co-inherence, yet his own obligation to track down the signs of their fallenness in the occasions of vanity, self-absorbed credulousness, special pleading, flattery of the public, culpable evasiveness and ugly ‘prejudicate’ opinion leavens even this hard-won praise with harsh judgement. None escape correction in the zone of Hill’s exacting attention, least of all, of course, himself – and it is the heavy-hearted show of mea culpa in the interstices of his own syntax that impresses, however much one might want to protest against the severity of the (self-)scrutiny.

            The mind at work upon the past, in these pieces, has powerful adversaries. It pitches the ‘solitary dissentient intelligence’ and Belloc’s ‘dispossessed free men’ of the estate of poetry against the faithless liberal culture of the 19th and 20th/21st centuries, Saussurean doctrine of words as arbitrary signs, the ‘patria’s sanctions and restrictions’, the ‘nexus of expectation and accolade’ of the poetry industry, the ‘pluralistic, pseudo-egalitarian global commodity culture’. The effects of these forces upon the language of poetry and faith has left little for the puritan English imagination to work with, except the texts of the past. Nothing of note, Hill argues in passing, has been written in Britain for fifty years – which might surprise readers of Roy Fisher, Donald Davie and Seamus Heaney, all of whom might have bargained on some acknowledgement – and it is one of the key premises of the essay ‘Language, Suffering, and Silence’ that ‘the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of “solidarity with the poor and the oppressed”’. Christlike endurance, baffled mystery, and resistant silence is discovered fleetingly in the dogged persistence, scrutable ambiguities, and withdrawn obliquities of the poems and sermons of the lost past; and redemptive turns parsed in rare patches of syntax revealed by Hill’s close reading. Characteristic of all these essays is the sorrowful sensing through of the failures of the brave poets accompanying a paean of praise to their significant redeeming lines. The catalogues of good lines in Housman, Gurney, Rosenberg reveal Hill’s fine fine ear. Hill’s rhythm of assent and dissent to the pitch and tone of the lost ones is both elegiac and judicious, ethical and technical, and always readably anxious to keep the temptations to luxuriate in bullying condemnations or self-insistent envy at bay.

            There are difficulties with the essays – a repetitiveness of reference; at times a self-parodic display of rhetorical judiciousness which strikes false notes; an overly satisfied idea of the corruption of his readership; streaks of unforgivingness – as with the execution of Larkin and late Eliot; the dubious idea that using a key word in a variety of contradictory senses may signal ethical failure; commitment to a lugubriously apocalyptic battle of the books; pride and vanity in the advocacy of a Coleridgean clerisy and Tory-radical agenda. At the same time, these are small beer compared to the power and finesse of the judgment demonstrated on each page, the extraordinary quality of the prose, its illuminations, sudden flights, depths of passion. It seems to me that it is especially the obligation of those who would deny almost everything Hill stands for – his non-egalitarian form of Whitmanian democracy, his Christian ethical base, his reactionary celebration of a spiritual, old England, his New Critical forms of close reading, the bizarre theory of comminative/redemptive criticism, the attachment to Original Sin in language use, the celebration of solitary embattled male genius – to attend to these words, surely the most extraordinary criticism ever written by a British poet since Empson. In these late essays are trenchant critiques of confessionalism and the doctrine of the quotidian in modern poetry; a coruscating analysis and taxonomy of the errors British poets are most likely to commit, from the ‘sick romanticism of imperial duty and sacrifice’ of the 19th century through to the ‘knowing belletrism’, ‘marginal sentimentalities’ and ‘apathy’ implicit in the Eliot of Four Quartets; a defence of the uses of poetry as a form of political intervention in culture unparalleled in our time; a moral philosopher’s meditation on the manner in which technical, ethical and contextual considerations come together in significant speech-acts; and a lyrical and intimate exploration of the relation of language to mind (‘My language is in me and is me’).

But most of all there are the readings of the poets, advocating and demonstrating close reading as brooding ethical attention, as in this outstanding passage from the Gurney essay:

While metre and rhythm in such poems as ‘Tewkesbury’ and ‘It is Near Toussaint’ seem to hover between standard pentametre and alexandrine, with abrupt stress-clusters making each line a law to itself, the ‘slow spirit’ of the sense goes straight on, taking enjambment in its stride, taking the measure of the ‘passive unrhythmical mind and music’, the ‘trying not to resist Things’, those massive determinisms which he sensed in the energies, inertias, and attritions of the war and the post-war years.

The rhythm of the prose falls into three-beat and six-beat phrases, near an alexandrine sound, but cross-syncopated by the interweaving of Hill’s and Gurney’s words, and by the hovering uncertainties of stress. The phrase ‘abrupt stress-clusters’ enacts the abruptness and clustering with its close three-beat emphasis, running on to an arranged sequence of sound-repetitions in ‘law’-‘line’, ‘slow spirit’-‘sense’-‘straight’-‘stride’ as though savouring the continuity of Gurney’s sense in the continuities of sound. These are doubtless unforced, unconscious felicities. Yet they bear witness too to the quality of the mind on its way in words, a poet’s prose because attending so closely to the sounds, senses and endurances in Gurney’s poems. And Gurney is there (as is Hill-as-Gurney) as the slow spirit labouring forward despite the abrupt stresses and shocks of defeated days in the line, using poetry to gauge, resist and transcend the ‘massive determinisms’ of a culture lethal to that spirit. For all readers of poetry, locked into our mind’s black boxes, subject to the many exactions of this our own culture, the essays demonstrate one hard way to live in language: through resistance, fidelity to attention, ethical suspicion of the drifts of mind flesh is heir to, and a tough-minded honouring of the example of the dead. Hardly anybody alive will follow Hill’s way – but there it nevertheless is, his monumental defence of an ethical poetics.

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