Geoffrey Hill: Recalcitrant survey 2015
The below is by way of an apology for not treating Hill systematically within my 7-volume work on British poetry 1960-97. It includes writings from different decades.
(1) from FCon 1st edition, around 1995
Geoffrey Hill (1931-), the son of a policeman in Worcestershire ('At nightfall/ My father scuffed clay into the house./ he set his boots on the bleak iron/ Of the hearth; ate, drank, unbuckled, slept./ I leaned to the lamp...') went to Oxford as a result of the 1944 Education Act and public funding, and then pursued a career as an Eng Lit academic, mainly at Leeds. He has published five books of poetry in 35 years: For the Unfallen (1959), King Log (1968), Mercian Hymns (1971), Tenebrae (1978), and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1984). The total is about 200 pages in his Collected Poems (dedicated to his parents) - a small oeuvre of extraordinary density and consistency, masterly from the first.
Hill is a poet of containment with denial; his use of the standard poetic preoccupations of the 1950s has been masterly to the point of transcending them. No-one has released and absorbed the kinetic energy of vast ideas, while inflexibly rejecting them, more than Hill; the movement of speculation, doubt, and regression in his poems is elaborated and speeded up until it scribbles a dense, optically perfect, mesh. He has always tried to express intense political positions, with their portable historical imagery, but only as terms within a more complex figure, which within poetic time turns them inside out and refutes them. Hill's poems are always a journey into illusion which finally frees us of illusion. This fulfils a civic duty because it liberates politics from being merely the site of fantasy activity. H. can, like Pinter, be accused of cynicism for ultimately not backing the characters in his poems, and evincing them, tearing the bottom out of their ideas; but he does this with compassion and loving care. His dialectic is also a discussion and critique of his fellow-poets who have used emotional regression as a way of marrying up 'aesthetic order' and political visions. His love poems follow a similar dialectic, but in a more indulgent, more emotive way; as fits the subject.
Indications are that Hill, if he let himself go, is hyper-emotional in just the same way that he is hyper-intellectual; not an uncommon combination. However, he distances himself very thoroughly from those emotions. In H.'s poem on captives, four poets appear: Campanella (also described by Allen Fisher), Hernandez, Desnos, Mandelshtam. The first two of these were Communists, Desnos was a Socialist; Mandelshtam although not highly politicized was on the Left, a sympathizer with one of the 'bourgeois' Socialist parties up till the abolition of democracy and parties by Lenin; he could not otherwise have joined the Writers' Union. So we find here three militant Socialists and four men of the Left; Péguy, the subject of a later book, was also a militant Socialist. The point is not explicitly made; but Hill has never wasted a syllable.
Hill wrote a long poem about the Battle of Towton (which bears a strong resemblance to Jeffrey Wainwright's later poems about the Battle of Jutland); twenty-six thousand men died on a single day in 1461, the bloodiest in English military history even after the Civil War; the apocalypse of a whole social system in which the aristocracy lived by its military virtues. I suppose that debate about the awfulness of the Middle Ages is an inevitable topic of conversation among English tourists admiring churches and castles; Hill is talking about subjects we can all understand. I think the quietness of Hill's handling is to prevent the poem from drawing its energy from the violence (grandiose and, within its own terms, high-technology) of the clashing armies. His handling of Towton is probably thematic for his acceptation of the middle-class (formerly aristocratic) culture of England, which he became custodian of as he left the class of the exploited, formerly of serfs. It is a reaction of his to the architecture (and some other forms of inherited capital) of Oxford. We should put this agrarian ideal in the context of Worcestershire as James Lees-Milne recalls it from his childhood: 'It was a fertile garden, uneventful if you like and heavily wooded. Its rutted lanes, shrouded in oaks and elms, threaded their way through interminable orchards enlivened with meandering brooks. In the Springtime a dense mist of pink and white blossom descended upon acre after acre of apple and plum trees. In the autumn months the air was laden with the drowsy scent of hops and cider. The black-and-white farmhouses, barns and cottages of the villages and the damson brick terraces of the small market towns looked as though they had grown out of the lush landscape, which still crept up to them on all sides. Those delights were general and taken for granted by many who can remember them to this day'. (from the Shell Guide to Worcestershire, quoted by Patrick Wright in Modern Painters, volume 2, number 1). The Battle of Towton appears as a blunt disproof of the medievalizing fantasies of Ruskin, Edwin Muir and Mackay Brown (amongst many others), and of the lying 'timelessness' which underlies their poems.
His version of imperialism is found in Tenebrae:
Make miniatures of the once-monstrous theme:
the red-coat devotees, melees of wheels,
Jagannath's lovers. With indifferent aim
unleash the rutting cannon at the walls
of forts and palaces; pollute the wells.
Impound the memoirs for their bankrupt shame,
fantasies of true destiny that kills
'under the sanction of the English name'.
('For the British Empire in India')
(Jagannath is juggernaut). Hill leaves us to work out that the miniatures of British victories may have been by Indian painters, perhaps from Jaipur; since the word refers to a style of manuscript illustration, and British artists in India tended to use watercolour.
It's significant that his best work was produced in the late 1960s, in the era of common experiment and expansiveness.
Their spades grafted through the variably resistant soil. They clove to the hoard. They ransacked epiphanies, vertebrae of the chimaera, armour of wild bees' larvae. They struck the fire-dragon's faceted skin.
The men were paid to caulk water-pipes. They brewed and pissed amid splendour; their latrine seethed its estuary through nettles. They are scattered to your collation, mouldywarp.
It is autumn. Chestnut-boughs clash their inflamed leaves. The garden festers for attention: telluric cultures enriched with shards, corms, nodules, the sunk solids of gravity. I have accrued a golden and stinking blaze.
(from Mercian Hymns, XII).
At this point he breaks with the canons laid down by the academic taste of the 1950s, to use prose form and a modified form of montage. It seems that the share of fear in his make-up has led to a certain conformism and vacillation, alongside so many positive qualities. The name Tenebrae is ominous because it is a Latin word (whereas the poems are in English) and because of its invocation of the Christian religion (the name of a service). The displacement in time points to an internal distantiation which gives the whole volume its specific flavour. Hill almost seems to be fantasizing that he is a Victorian poet, for whom the apostolic tradition and crises of faith were deep and real. It's curious to compare Hill's ghostly caressing of the past here with the vogue for Gothic romances flitting between Victorian and modern times, starting with Iain Sinclair's Lud Heat in 1975 and continuing, via such works as Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor, and A.S. Byatt's Possession, to be excessively fashionable in the 1980s. Hill knows that the envy of cosmologically affirmative art is one every modern English artist lives in, just as most of us dream of some kind of national unity and an end to poverty. Hill is not quite satirical of these yearnings, but is certainly bathing that fantasy-envy in a pretty harsh light.
The Péguy poem is a reprise of previous Hill poems. Hill wheels on the vast forms of Catholicism, Nationalism, and Socialism, but is unable to commit himself to any of them. A craving for grandiose commitment and a system which links the political and the aesthetic is unable to satisfy itself or even to keep down what it eats. Actually, the aesthetic focus of the poems is the rejection of all these systems, although the scenery along the way displays them in the way of toying with them, studying their nature before saying no. H's attitude towards these tonnage-dragging monsters of history is like Hughes' exploitation of large ferocious animals: he observes them closely, and because their behaviour can be reduced to knowledge, but without admiration. Because language is the domain of abstraction and enquiry, the object which advances out of doubt falls out of play; the large-scale socio-aesthetic integration, demarcated and sealed off, is drugged to make its movements more vivid and less involving; to accept these ideologies would cause them to disappear, slip out of consciousness, so that to reject (and caress) them is to serve the interests of the text. Hill's astuteness in rejecting Péguy's high-calory bluster (surely absurd even in 1914) makes him unable to set up something of his own which he could expound. Why exactly is he writing this poetry?
Once again the comparison with J.H. Prynne is interesting. They are the same generation and share the same prickly distrust for emotion, along with a subtly displaced sweet tooth. 'The Esterhazy Court Uniform' could easily be a Hill title. Prynne's 1962 volume is less convoluted and obscure than Hill's work of the same date.
When I rewrote Failure of Conservatism for the second edition, I threw out all the material about the 1950s. A cultural dictatorship had been prevalent in 1992 which had deceased and desisted by 2015, and did not need my attacks. Within that material was the passage on Hill, published above. The halting point of this passage betrays the fact that I wrote it in about 1993, for the first version of FCon. When publication finally became possible, I seized the opportunity rather than bringing the book up to date.
There was a certain point at which Hill’s career became impossible to write an overview of. Due to excess of gifts, his work does not allow an overall picture. I referred to his oeuvre in FCon as small, obviously that adjective is completely wrong when you look at what is now the monumental Collected poems. The task of updating my 1993 text in 2015, to include Hill’s quite staggering career since then, was too much. Instead, I decided to use the freer conditions of the Internet. The removal could seem a disaster, since there is no poet more important than Hill in the period which I have given an account of. In mitigation, you have to admit that the writing about Hill is very extensive and that there is more productivity in writing about someone who is normally not read by well brought-up people.
Who are the Godly Warriors? Geoffrey Hill, Canaan (Penguin, October 1996, 71 pp., £7.99, ISBN 0-14-058786-1); Agenda (volume 34, no.2; A Tribute to Geoffrey Hill, 176 pp., Summer 1996, ISSN 0002-0796, £4.50)
Canaan, Hill's first new book since 1981, is more distinctive, more modern, more concerted, more shimmering with witness, than his previous books; since there is an epigraph set over the whole of it, we can suspect an overall scheme; If there is this unifying subject, it must be an England where faith is kept; outside which we are wandering in the wilderness. His political views slide home like a stanley knife in the opening four lines:
Where's probity in this—
to lordship of a kind
as rats to a bird-table?
Hill was one of many Oxford poets who adopted, in the 1950s, the New Criticism, the Metaphysicals, conservatism, and civic address; formal verbal acts revealing fitness for high office. He is difficult and intense: not qualities of any other Penguin poets, but which are found far from the High Street in poets like Prynne, Roger Langley, Allen Fisher, Crozier, Denise Riley; he is not only the most personal of mainstream poets, but also the most public and straightforward of small press poets. My contemporaries have attributed both authenticity and inauthenticity alternately to writing for a wide public and writing in an intensely personal and meaning-rich style, which are Hill's practices. Recent taste has compared 'Pavana dolorosa' to 'Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform' and found Hill overshadowed by Prynne. Hill is also the latest in a series, in disarray, of Anglican poets. In Canaan the apostolic, historicist forms are thrown away; it has short floating lines, sometimes broken up by line-breaks in the middle, the occasional non-sentences, such as other poets adopted, along with exilic politics, in 1970, or in 1960.
We could consider Hill's conservatism through the terms of law and hierarchy; equity preserves the latter, which is also in-iquity, but staves off general violence. Boundaries—to behaviour as much as of property—are defences: a shared law, moral and commercial, makes everyone secure, as it codifies unequal access to resources. Hill is a Christian, believing in peace, who believes that social peace perpetuates oppression; he is a conservative, enthusiastic for the social advance of the poor and working-class. His artistic pleasures lie in a sphere of small precise effects based on shared conventions which allow great weight to very fine discriminations; they are suited to a geologically and politically stable country. What seems to be happening in Canaan is that the measure of oppression and iniquity has been filled to the point where someone who has spent their life guarding the boundaries is ashamed to speak: the system has lost its mandate of staving off the catastrophe, of all against all. He sums up Parliament with: For they know not to do right, saith the LORD, who store up violence and robbery in their palaces.
In other primate species, too, high rank is granted, by public acclaim, not to the merely strongest individuals, but to the strong who are also kind and non-irascible. My country sometimes appears like a vast refugee camp, without shared symbolic structures, patrolled by officers alien to their subjects; any rebel who can talk convincingly for five minutes can achieve more following and reputation than the camp authorities. Because Hill can talk convincingly about moral issues, he is a threat to the powers that be: an attainted prince. Because of who he is, it's disturbing to hear him denounce as oppression the oppression which founds us; or describe privatization in tones of withering scorn:
England—now of genius
unsubstantial yet voiding
substance like quicklime:
privatize to the dead
let her wounds weep
into the lens of oblivion.
This appears to refer to the selling-off of cemeteries by the Tory Council of Westminster. Eidolon I take to be the tenuous phantom of genius, the national genial-congenial spirit bringing cheerfulness, fecundity, and tradition.
The peace-keeping settlement preserves the nuances of relations established in the past. The testing of leaders is central to their ability to keep the peace; their fitness is measured by fine discriminations, which are then preserved. If you are unfit for high rank, you may be more contented with your low one. Hill is strong on recitation of faults and flaws, even if this is generally what makes us miserable and traps us inside a character instead of inside fulfilment. He isn't perceptive of the possibility that someone might have too little self-esteem.
When I picked up this copy of Agenda, what fell out of it was a letter from two associate editors resigning because of "the editor's attempt to whitewash and justify the tyranny of Mussolini and the Rome broadcasts of Pound". I think it would be quite possible to have an admirable policy while also believing in fascism; one of these two qualities is lacking in Agenda. It was founded in 1959, just before the Sixties—not the best time for the non-populist Right. The Agenda look has been as finicky fossils frozen in horror at modernity, mouths engrossed by a rictus of terror and disdain. The reader hunching through the hushed sodal sacrosanct catacomb is buffeted by a chill wind of disapproval for infringing countless secret laws of aesthetic conduct; he skids on bones which may either be auratic relics of martyrs or simply the detritus of rash left-wing poets. Not all people retain the ability to form new aesthetic responses in adult life. Their staple still is poetry conforming to the standards of the 1950s. The fastidiousness of Hill may coincide with that of Agenda, for whom it is instead the symptom of palsy and nausea. It was a pleasure then, made sordid by our clinging. The avant-garde of the (former) counter-culture may now, too, be retreating to defend past advances made by not defending. Volume 34, number 2, is a half-pounder of boring poetry and boring literary criticism. It is redeemed by a few helpful pages, also by a lecture by Hill, where he suggests that with its crudeness of public address 'Four Quartets' may have caused the collapse of Anglican poetry ever since. Hill is again testing leaders; the followers plunged into ruin. In an exciting footnote, Hill disinvests the last stained rags of Larkin's reputation, before nimbly flicking Christopher Ricks' head into touch.
'De Jure Belli et Pacis' (eight poems) is a memorial to Hans-Bernd von Haeften, a diplomat executed for his part in the 20th July 1944 plot to kill Hitler. The title is a 17th C book by Hugo Grotius, proposing to bring relations between nations within a framework of law: a stay against megalomania in populous nations. The recognition is that what belongs to someone else does not belong to you. Haeften's "Kreisau circle", linked by Pietism and the date of their deaths, were interested in a European Community, pressed as were the builders of the Common Market by the need to avoid another European war. Closely related is the poem to Stefan George, 'Algabal', his early (1891) cycle about Heliogabalus. Losing the kingdom and the parish, Christianity falls, in the forties and fifties, with vigour onto personalism, temporal "commitment". The Widerstand are pin-ups because they were so isolated and outside institutions; not wonder-workers but socially relevant; above all, not communists.
The contents of Anglican doctrine and the ripeness of reason are claimed to be one and the same. The first 'Dark-Land' accounts for Thatcher in terms of Nonconformist self-righteousness, exemplified by Bunyan at Elstow; Hooker does indeed warn us against pirate revelations not validated by 'strong and invincible remonstrance of sound reason' and monetarism was one of those. 'Private Judgment is no Safe Guide', he warns us, and a partial revelation, clenched and clung to though the wise and grave in consistory are wrong, may be blinding, not only sectarians, and the religious Right, but also the Daughter of Grantham, Our Lady with a slate slid. Reason is strong against rage and distress, but what we find reasonable, and reason from, is hierarchy and private property.
Canaan seems to me poetry within the terms of mere Anglicanism; the text would be ideally realized in an annual public service, as a liturgy. 'Rose-douched ammoniac/ arch goddess/ of intimate apparel,/ brutal and bijou': Hill's diction is like one of those recipes of gin makers which list coriander, allspice, juniper berries, clear runnings of distilled grain, burnt feathers, lanolin, old red sandstone, Chinese dandelions, wild lettuce, moths' eyes, pepper and chicken spleen; nubby and exotic, it reminds us of those qualities in the Prayer Book and Authorized Version. We take it that the title of 'A Song of Degrees' refers, not only to the steps to the altar, but to the antiphonal singing by the laity of the psalms so labelled in our Bible: the poem concerns darkened voices outside the Church:
It is said Adonai your hidden word
even from obscurity
through energies dispersed
fallen upon stasis
brought by strangers to interpretation,
aspirant to the common plight.
We owe to John Stevens remarks on the very close attention to texts which the reformed sixteenth-century hymnody brought: the ears are the only tool of a Christian, Luther said: lights have been driven through the walls of Canaan's diction until stone soars and air carries an abiding truth. Perfect intellectual attention is part-way to divinity; raptness of listening is a solution of the continuity of egoism. We take it that Thatcherism came over this One Nation conservative like a bout of TB of the bones. 'Concerning Inheritance' suggests that inherited wealth is wrong, jeering at the moralists in office who
grant inequity from afar to be in equity's covenant,
its paradigm drawn on the fiducial stars,
its aegis anciently a divine shield
over the city.
This Church owed its origin to a contract with a kingdom, an access of mighty secular power; its crisis points have been the link with capitalism and with warfare, and the withdrawal of the whole nation from its ecclesia; Hill is not just fighting for the soul of the Conservative Party, but for the political and social mission of the Church thirled to
a spectral people
raking among the ash;
its freedom a lost haul
of entailed riches.
In 'Scenes with Harlequins', the speaker is Blok, in a Saint Petersburg, entranced then by commedia dell'arte, where the eyes of statues are compared to the eyes of Symbolists, dreaming of a future where the world-mind brings about harmony; they are seen in negatives, searing flash visions as if glimpses of a new organ of sense. The Blok-speaker refers to his poem 'Retribution' (Vozmezdie), and to the Beautiful Lady (Krasivaya Dama) cycle.
Begone you grave jewellers
and you spartan hoplites
in masks of foil.
interpreters of repute,
this is understood.
Why should I hear
further what you propose?
Exegetes may come
to speak to the silence
that has arisen. It is
not unheard of.
Blok and George complete, as emblematic figures, Bunyan and Thatcher; the cycle on 'Mysticism and Democracy' says that some balance between the public and the visionary must be struck, the incompatibles settling on a boundary hedge. Hill stages the bizarre and extreme to find the liminal light where the psychotic processes give way to reason, clearing a field for the socius. Almost all the poems here are based on prose texts; most recount ecstatic experiences: Hill set out from the Metaphysical paradox, the irrational as touchstone of wit, and both shows the limits of reason and its space-stringent power to lay out symbolic order.
He disproves the words of rulers only to assert that a good society is thinkable. A sequence is called 'Psalms of Assize', the titles of three poems apostrophize parliament as the "highest court": the answer sought affects guilt within a legal process which converges on real past events in recreation, rather than facing a new situation; Hill is quite remote from the poetry of the here and now, experimentalism as the practice of freedom. European (but not Confucian) legal argument chops and channels the chaos of everyday life to recognize in it valid analogies to the frozen verbal forms of a law-code: even to name a crime is to win a convergent intellectual victory. The poems are like the brilliant phrases of a lawyer, sensibility is subordinated to acuity within the civil duties of proof and reproof. Religion is also a form of law, where the recognition of analogy between scripture and our lives gives us our duty; Hill's use of recognition and analogy typifies him.
Hill's dual hoarding and honing of the language of law and of the Bible, commemorates the constitutional link of Church and State, both claiming his fealty; the beauty of art also persuades the disaffected that the society they live in is worth joining. Being disaffected is surely one of the greatest miseries there can be. To adorn the process is to help legitimate it, which is why Hill's new fury at the makers of laws:
You; as by custom unillumined
masters of servile counsel.
Who can now speak for despoiled merit,
the fouled catchments of Demos,
as 'thy' high lamp presides with sovereign
equity, over against us, across this
densely reflective, long-drawn, procession of waters?
("To the High Court of Parliament')
may have lead him to throw out the soothing high-calory isometric diction of previous books. (The lamp is the Parliament building, just before evoked as a "storm-lantern"; catchment associates the sewage-carrying quality of water, its swallowing of all dirt from higher up, with its quality of always falling; a poem in Hill's 1953 pamphlet also evokes the Thames, via William Dunbar.)
In the poem for Christopher Okigbo, an Ibo English-language poet of startling talent, final chords of forgiveness and atonement weakly assist recovery from a diction which fuses the divine, the psychotic, and the butcher's shop. I could ask how we can stand to see re-created an era of national history which, in its occurrence, was unbearable. What 'Sobieski's Shield' discreetly says is that the stars go on shining during the day time even if we can't see them, and so too Justice and Equity are still there above us despite the iniquity of the instated:
Brusque as the year
to a subsistence of slant light
; a witness of Anglican cordial geniality and hopefulness, bringing a pang of relief. Du führst die Sache meiner Seele. Jan Sobieski is one of the godly warriors of the book, to go with Stauffenberg, Churchill, and perhaps Okigbo. A friend suggested marketing Hill's Lachrimae, a tear-shaped paste of prussic almond kernels coated in very bitter chocolate and with a God-shaped hole in the middle, for the Christmas of Anglicans. But he does purvey the luxuries and splendours; his curious finickiness only serves to prolong the experience.
Hill mentioned in interview an attraction to the “Two nations” Conservative group of the 19th century - they said the country was split between the rich and the poor, and wanted to make it one nation again. He later clarified that he was not expressing an attraction to the Conservative party, just approval of that faction, during a moment of the 19th century. So interpretations of Hill as a Tory, including mine, were factually wrong. The review above was written for a magazine which did not publish it (but paid me anyway, hurrah). It is already on the Internet elsewhere. Agenda may have involved Hill, but that is not good evidence that he sympathised with the extremist political and cultural views of the chief editor. Agenda did publish some great poetry. Since the review copy I was sent included a resignation note from two editors saying that they could not abide the chief editor publishing a statement of his pro-Mussolini line, I could hardly ignore it. This does not affect Hill, he just had a fan who disliked the modern world.
Peasantry of the Lower Elbe:
Peasantry of the Lower Elbe:
Geoffrey Hill, A Treatise of Civil Power (Penguin Books, 2007, 51 pp.)
I was expecting a work so powerful that it would make an epoch and outstrip my powers of assimilation and synthesis, but this work is not that. Rather, it is like a mid-term election result; the ideals of the administration, historically necessary and longed-for, have all been achieved, what remains is issues which have been of low priority for ten years, a feeling of satisfaction and gratitude is flowing imperceptibly into satiation. Laden gestures evoke reminiscences of their previous, starring appearances.
Treatise is at the open end of a series of books which, beginning with Canaan (1996) strode to the centre of British poetry, discomforting various modern-oriented critics, including this one, by demonstrating that the two most significant poets at work were Hill and Christopher Logue, who had both demonstrably been at it already in 1953. What happened to the revolution of the 1960s and 1970s? At the outset, at his virtuosic debut, Hill wrote in a cloud of doubt which was equated with the ebbing of the Anglican consensus, letting poetry survive into a new era of autonomy and anxiety. Later, he represented rectitude as far as it was possible in a society based on possessive individualism. Hill's poetry was not hedonistic like some others: he wanted to reach an ethical solution, not wallow in emotions while retarding an outcome to the problem. There is a link between the scrupulousness of his work up to 1971 and the anxiety which, in common opinion, cut the flow of his creativity in the following decades. The master of painstaking truth was seemingly shaving grains off the judgement until there was no pattern left to record. The revival of Hill’s career was astounding not because his work of 1953 to 1993 had not been wonderful, but because his new found creativity and enthusiasm were near miraculous.
A poem on the music of Handel refers to 'figures in harmony with their consorts,/ with the world also, broadly understood,/ each of itself a treatise of civil power.' There is no treatise here, with an exception I will come to presently. All the poems involve reflections on ethics and social being. The standard poem here takes a figure from a cast of cultural creators, mainly English, and reflects on their role in a larger history of ethical community. 'In memoriam: Ernst Barlach' describes a single work by the sculptor and playwright Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), one of whose drawings adorns the cover of Without Title.
I should have known Low German; perhaps
the closest measure of it is Black Country
to which the Scriptures were transposed by Kate Fletcher.
All the children uv Israel blartid fer Moses.
This has something of you, the carvings and bronzes,
the peasantry of the Lower Elbe your inspiration.
The attempt to recover something unattainable, the subjective value of Low German, is typical, as is the interest in a monument lost to bombing and only known through a photograph, inadequate for a three-dimensional design. Fineness of perception is being exercised through objects we plainly can never hear or see plain.
The exception is at p.29, 'I accept, now, we make history; it's not some abysmal power'. This appears to be a summary of civil power, as opposed to other kinds. It comes from a poem named ‘A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power’. We may reflect that Hill’s re-creation of his own career after the age of sixty, and after forty years of composition, is a proof of this unfashionable proposition about human liberty.
It is consistent to think that individual consciousness is where truth is known and that developing consciousness leads to an expansion of truth. The set of given situations in which this judicial process is followed, include, in this volume, Oliver Cromwell, Blake, a sixties anthology called Children of Albion, a novel by A.S. Byatt, Milton, Turing and his hypothetical intelligent machine, Burke, Stuart court masques, Elias Canetti, Thomas Wyatt. The limits to this kind of poem are mainly two. The first is that the compression is reached by being a small message travelling on a very big boat: you already have to know the whole story in order to appreciate the pithy wisdom. This is why editorials are either the most striking and conclusive parts of the newspaper or irritating, smug, and parasitical. The second has to do with the memory powers of the reader. If Hill supplies a poem on Blake the suggestion is that we turn up at line one, not with a thermos and a change of clothing, but with a knowledge of what Blake says and what he is about. I am not sure I had that even just after reading hundreds of pages of the old schismatic. I may not be able to receive the broadcast. But Hill is clear that we can aspire to know what is right, to do right and to have right done to us.
A poem ‘Holbein’ is about a 1532 painting of Thomas Cromwell, a personally pious man whose role as the chief servant of the Tudor tyranny led him into a number of what we would call judicial murders:
Imagine Hercules mated with the Hydra,
this king of bloody trunks their monster child.
more would have so rated him the arch
cleaver of women and old holy men.
Cerebral incest, his sperm a witch broth.
And Surrey, with his hierarchy of verse.
Meticulous the apportioning of time
in its reserve, Virgilian rectitude,
as though a full pavane of the elect
were the ten syllables to which they trod
as to the noblest music of the land,
lovely fecundity of barren heath,
Hillarby Bay, the Alde’s thin-ribboned course;
sudden clouds harrowing the Anglian sky.
I quote this at length because it is an outstanding passage and because it gets to the heart of Hill’s interests. There is a connection between high culture and power, which few people agree on but which may be as fundamental as a biologically given impulse to watch individuals of high status, inviting people to make art about individuals of high status. The development of modern English verse and its means, the iambic pentameter, is uncomfortably closely associated with the bloody Tudor court, with the courtiers Wyatt and Surrey, and with the painful political wisdom of A Mirror for Princes. I don’t know why the Suffolk place names are there, but the same area appears in another poem (about a peacock). Heath is barren of crops but can nevertheless bloom with flowers of gorse or heather. Hercules did in fact get intimate with a female who was a snake from the waist down, producing offspring later known as the Scythians. The poems which haul out the easily forgotten stories of Wyatt, Surrey and Cromwell bear comparison with the Homer translations of Christopher Logue, concerned with recounting the lavish obsessions and vainglorious acts of violence of a Bronze Age aristocracy, simply to satirise them and less simply to shine a light on the arrogance and reckless violence of our own ruling cliques. To give up on the project of individual knowledge of what is right is, ultimately, to hand over the power of judgement to the Thomas Cromwells. Justice is out of hearing, but if our hearing grows more acute it may not be so far away.
Page 1 has a character called the Scorpion King who if memory serves features in a 90s film of The Mummy. At page 27, the opening of the poem on civil power, ‘Could so have managed not to be flinging/ down this challenge’ may belong to the ‘Sex in the City’ tenor of language, as in ‘Creme brulee is so not custard’. The poem ‘After reading Children of Albion (1969)’ recalls what must now seem a bygone era of underground poetry (as in the subtitle of the anthology). It points up the fact that none of the characters whom Hill debates with are contemporary and that the ethical and political situations he draws us so eloquently into are not ones we are living in. This accounts for some of the lower pressure of the work compared to Canaan, which had a quite pitiless account of Thatcherism and attendant moral transgressions. He quotes a line by John James, evidently from Albion:
The dancers, faces oblivious & grave
and we would willingly see this as an acknowledgement that James’ line is quick and true. I co-edit a magazine with someone who was taught, at Cambridge during the 1980s, by both Hill and Prynne; it would certainly be interesting to see Hill engage with living English poets, for example Prynne, a friend of John James since the mid-60s, and magazines like Resuscitator and The English Intelligencer. I would worry if it were true that discussion with modern poetry has been made impossible by the excessive development of individuality, since political poetry must promote discussion. It is regrettable that the man chosen to edit Albion, a high-profile Penguin project, could not tell good poetry from bad.
Even outtakes from your favourite jazz album of all time are must-haves. I would suggest that the diminishing effect which the titanic achievement of Speech! Speech! and all the other books has on Treatise is partly an illusion, partly compensated for by the effect of renown and admiration reverberating from the same books, and that anything by the nation’s greatest poet wields a fascination which a lesser poet simply cannot arouse.
The third text above was written for a magazine called Oxford Poetry. I hope it’s OK with them if I release it here. A fourth text (on Speech! Speech!) is included in a book called Silent Rules which will be published in 2018. This blog still does not amount to a career survey of the great poet.
The great change in Hill’s work between the Péguy poem and Canaan was due to finding the right medication. According to information given to the media, Hill had been suffering from an anxiety disorder which made it increasingly difficult for him to work, and which was susceptible to medication which gave him a semi-miraculous ability to make decisions and to finish.
In 2013 (??), Hill announced the issue of five [was it five?] more books, which would be published only by specialist publishers (not in editions from High Street publishers) before being gathered up in a new Collected. This came out in 2014 , as (Broken Hierarchies), and did indeed include 330 pages of new and difficult poetry, a new phase which the poetry world has not assessed yet. It does not seem to be his best period.
Reviewers had big problems with this. First, the material was obviously a decline. It did not have the effortless mastery and powerful abundance of Canaan or Speech! Speech!. Yet, it had a pungent flavour of its own which was hard to seize, which was perhaps partly a breakdown under difficulties of expression and association, which was what was significant about this extensive new material, and which was hardly susceptible to being captured within a few weeks after receipt. Further, the new poetry included a great depth of allusion and reference, what you might expect from poetry written in old age by someone who had been a scholar all his life. The briefness of the allusions was perhaps also related to the problem of finishing, of separating foreground from background, an inability to find or believe in solutions. This reluctance is part of the sound of the work, the product of its lateness, and demands our engagement; it did not make it easier for reviewers to come up with any description. Controversy could only have followed the experts taking the risk of making a statement. I have to say that the abundant pleasure which I found in reading Canaan and the books related to it is not present for me in this late material. The new books are called Ludo, and the Daybooks, in six parts, of which one is Oraclau.
What I wrote about the 1950s, back in 1995, included a description of tiny movements in an area where freedom was possible, not only as the domain of international politics in the Cold War, but as the chosen sphere of action of intellectuals, seen as able to influence the great momentum of social movements in minute ways by acts of inhibition and discrimination. This cultural employment is relevant not only to 1950s intellectuals in general, and to a manner of poetry which Hill incarnated and which cultural waves of the 1960s impetuously attacked, but to Hill’s compulsive tidiness and anxiety - his problems in finishing. Quite central to this late work is that the caution and discrimination and even inhibitions have returned.
Oraclau means ‘oracles’ in Welsh, and the theme is certainly Welsh culture. This is not the usual word in the Welsh language, although it does appear in Y geiriadur mawr, the standard one-volume dictionary. Far more common is bruddion, which derives from the word brutus, used to mean “chronicle” in general, on the model of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional chronicles. Because the prophetic aspect was the one most attractive to the climate of mediaeval Welsh culture, and because the creation of a fake ancient history for the British, defined as primarily ancestors of the Welsh, made visible dreams of a future Wales resembling this gigantic and romantic past, the noun came to mean prophecies. But obviously the word Oraclau is rapidly transparent and memorable to an English reader.
more to come as time allows