Saturday 7 May 2016

Geoffrey Hill

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.
Hill did far too much after 1997 for a career survey ending in 1997 to be meaningful.

(1) from FCon 1st edition, around 1995

            Geoffrey Hill (1932-), 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 acceptance 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. Was this base greed?

There was a certain point at which Hills 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 else, who is normally not read by well brought-up people.


(2) 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—
the slither-frisk
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
the eidolon—
unsubstantial yet voiding
substance like quicklime:

privatize to the dead
her memory:
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
declares itself
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.
Orthodox arcane

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
purple garish-brown
aster chrysanthemum
signally restored
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.


(3) 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.

(4) Oraclau

The great change in Hills 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 2010, via the cover of Oraclau, 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 Hills 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 Monmouths 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.

The poems deal at various points with the 18th century hymn-writer Ann Griffiths, the 20th century poet in classical metres R. Williams Parry, his cousin T.H. Parry-Williams, the alchemist and neo-Platonist Thomas Vaughan, steelmakers (at Merthyr Tydfil), the right-wing nationalist Saunders Lewis, Aneurin Bevan, the “Black apples” paintings (seen via the Bollingen tower where Jung went on retreats, and dated 1958), the novelist B.S. Johnson, a Welsh Apocalypse (in 13 parts), Lloyd George (under his bardic name, Dafydd y Garreg Wen, “David of the white stone”), the Royalist poet Wiliam Phylip (1590-1670), and a Welsh Apotheosis in nine parts.

The book lacks a higher theme. Evidently Hill has affection for Wales and wants to express that. Certainly each theme is original, cleverly entangled, intriguing. But in the end they do not converge and we do not find a thesis about Welsh history or even a feeling of celebration. You can work out all the component parts but they do not fit together – but it is a travelogue, it just keeps moving on.  This is a book by a great poet rather than a great book. It is a museum rather than a poem. The language is rich and terse throughout and never falters in execution. It reminds me of Tony Conran, whose late poetry shows a kind of agony in comparing warm nationalist myths with known historical facts, and is equally complex. Conran was conducting an argument: Hill is not conducting an argument because he does not really have a view of Welsh history, either for hope, frustration, or regret. It is unusual for an English poet to write at such length about a foreign country, but the examples one can think of are normally about politics –for example Judith Kazantzis’ Poem for Guatemala. Since Wales has not been a politically separate identity since the 13th century conquest (and until Devolution in 1999), the nationality has (arguably) not had a political history in that time, and constructing a narrative into which the local and personal facts could fit, and to which the poet could have an attitude, is a difficult task. Hill has not carried out this task. Almost any such narrative involves distortions where the act of fitting reduces the reality of given human beings. Roland Mathias is the other significant comparison, as a Welsh poet who likes to think about history. He began in the Forties, and was almost twenty years older than Hill. Throughout Oraclau, the viewpoint is that of a fantastically erudite English person, even if one from a district quite close to the Welsh border. Any account of Welsh history has interaction with the English (and the Normans before that) as central, and the advance of the English language as factor no.1 in the history of the Welsh language. Hill never mentions these things. Wales is treated as if an island far from any other country. I am not disagreeing with Hill’s politics, not diminishing his affection and curiosity, just saying that anything narrated by a Welsh person is going to come out differently. Hill refers four times to “clavics”, literally the study of keys, apparently meaning the keys to associations of feelings, perhaps also to forms that recur in nature. The key moments in Oraclau are acts of memory and aesthetic sensation by Hill, therefore not the history of Wales. As for the idea of clavics, it seems to be migrating from something artistic towards a term in an occult theory of knowledge – why he mentions (in poem 130) Reuchlin (1455-1522), a Christian cabbalist. Hill comments on this in poem 111. The clau of oraclau may connect (occultly, that is!) to clavics. It looks as if Wales is the “key” which connects a hundred or so ideas which Hill finds, briefly, exciting. If this pre-modern and magical means of association is drawing on each arriving idea, the ideas are not also forming an argument. It's fun working out how the images connect - but is that all they do?

Afal du bro Gŵyr means “black apples of the Gower region”, is the title of poems 72 to 74, and is also the title of a series of paintings by Ceri Richards. The Gower peninsula is near Swansea. Iain Sinclair named a book after the same paintings by Ceri. Black apples sounds like a kind of coal to me, but that is just a stray echo. A glimpse of one of the paintings (on the Internet) shows a flat round shape, which could be the surface of a sliced solid object, black in colour. It has an area which looks like the core of an apple with the pips and their protective leaves. The area has taken over most of the disc, pips and hollows are swelling as an inner space. Their curves might resemble orbits. This disc is echoed by a sun-disc. The poems are presumably about the paintings. The title is misspelt in the Collected.
This is poem 71 (headed “Bollingen, May 1958”):

One is for case-notes balanced on the knee;
Two for the courtesies that fame dictates.
Chilled wavelets rattle from the See,
A bronze-trimmed door beguiles the Fates.
The black mandala out of Wales
With anthrax in its seams –
As coverage of figured speech prevails –
Provokes the ruin of well-fathomed dreams,
Ruin more waste that was Jerusalem’s.

See is a lake. The subject is evidently Carl Gustav Jung. The “black mandala” must be one of Richards’ paintings, perhaps the one that Jung owned (a watercolour and chalk titled ‘Afal du bro Gwyr’). “Anthracite” is a kind of coal but anthrax is a disease of cows, also spread by biological warfare, so a symbol of devastation. This is clarified in the next poem, which starts “that mandala, stone-black apple/ made so by the charring of permafrost/ or the sun’s giving up the ghost/ of its corona.” Jung interpreted symbolism, offering “coverage of figured speech”. He claimed that his interpretations made dreams “well-fathomed”. A theme is being followed here – at 62-64 we have “Ty-tryst”, which was the name of the colliery near Tredegar (locally Deckar) that Aneurin Bevan worked in as a teenager. Bevan has a vision (“Visionary malfunction – Danton/ Ghosting the retina but Tredegar/ No matrix of red convention”) which becomes “The new age– great things are toward” and the apocalypse-derived political visions of the Fifth Monarchy men, one of the radical sects of the 1650s. So Richards’ black apples standing for burnt-out suns are a continuing example of devastation – and recall the black lumps of coal which were dug out from under Tredegar. It is not clear to me what the dreams were which were ruined.
All the visions and dreams in this section may answer the question of what the oraclau title refers to.

‘Blodeuwedd 1969’ is a reference to a children’s TV programme. How? Blodeuwedd is a figure from mediaeval myth who was adapted into Alan Garner’s 1967 novel The Owl Service. This was televised in 1969. Blodeuwedd 1969 has to be The Owl Service. This is acknowledged as one of the most original children’s TV series ever, so it is unlikely that Hill was thinking of anything else. ‘sad character re-rakes his jobbing fire/ Woodenly while the camera bitches.’ The owl service was a set of china with owls on it, and Blodeuwedd was turned into an owl. Hill is following the downhill slope of memory and association – every image is significant because he would not have remembered it otherwise. Everything ties to what follows it. To reiterate, there is no particular argument.

Poem 137 offers a climax to the work:

By sceptre let portend
Gwalia’s fullest sovereignty in fief,
With her unrivalled language at command,
Freedom from subservience yet freely bound.

The language is fake-Shakespearian and a little ridiculous. It seems to be interpreting an emblem, which is heraldic and not convincingly modern. Liberated Wales – but we have had not, in all this great wealth of imagery from all centuries, anything saying that Wales is oppressed – still less, the name of the oppressor. This quatrain has two vital qualifications; the in fief phrase, implying subordination, even with a contract; and the freely bound, which suggest much the same thing. This is politically realistic – corresponding, if we drag it into legislative clauses, what the majority of Welsh voters asked for. It is not very exciting – why do we choose to be bound. It is impossible to imagine any Welsh nationalist being pleased by it. 137 also says “We have not flung far – /Three centuries of slurried spate –/ from Llwyd (Morgan) and Powell (Vavasor).” Llwyd was a religious prose writer, satirical and edifying; Powell was a preacher, in Welsh. Both flourished in the late 17th century and represent the Nonconformist current which preserved the Welsh language (by teaching children how to read it) and dominated the Welsh people (not the Anglican gentry) until the second half of the twentieth century. It is not clear what Hill means – what is the slurried spate? The fruits of industrialisation? English influence? Recusing from the 39 articles? Or something else? He may be thinking of a great passage in Jones’ The Sleeping Lord, which talks about the stain of coal on the waters. (‘does Tawe clog for his sorrows/ do the parallel dark-seam drainers/ mingle his anguish-stream/ with the scored valleys’ tilted refuse?’) “flung far” goes back to the adjective “far-flung”, often used to refer to far-flung patches of the Empire. Poem 138 clarifies the political argument, but still isn’t very clear. “Concede withdrawn diversity” must mean “after withdrawing the right to diversity, through the Act of Union and related measures, you (i.e. England) should give back what was taken away”. The subject, England, is noticeably suppressed. The transaction is anti-climactic – not amounting to an apotheosis, which is the title. Hill’s famous compression does not let any emotions surface, in this case. ‘Freely bound’ is a paradox, a repetition of a metaphysical turn of phrase which we might wish Hill had got away from. As a statement of a constitutional relationship it sounds like a trick. I do know what it means, after all Wales’ situation is precisely that of an ex-colony which accepts non-independence in consideration of other contents of the relationship. The sceptre image should just have been thrown away – it’s obvious it’s not a Welsh person holding any sceptre, ever, at all. It just means dominion. Poem 142 may be an apology for the themes not covered in the book. In poem 144, ‘Fantastic logic found unreason here –/ Russell’s North Wales, Betws, Portmeiron.’ Betws is Old English bedhus, an oratory, a very old loan-word, in the name of a village Betws-y-Coed. Portmeiron is a sort of folly village built by Clough Williams-Ellis, and Bertrand Russell lived not far away in the 1950s and 1960s. Russell’s’ mathematical logic notably excluded fantasy, but may have seemed inexplicable to some observers. Possibly it is his political logic which is being described as fantastic.

I had thought to gloss every Welsh reference in the book, but there is simply too much. Let me quote –

Perturbèd: let me here compound
Gaia and Thea, once twinned, spherical
Bodies, twins by each other bound,
Wire-balancing till, by sad miracle,
Gaia absorbed Thea entire; enhanced gravitation
Enabling her to gather atmosphere
Hence to support life. That immolation
I cannot conceive of without emotion.

(poem 36) Gaia is Earth and Thea means “goddess”. It occurs to me that Hill is offering Thea as the place which we glimpse in moments of vision, in which Oraclau is rich. The gravity of other planets would have perturbed the orbit of Thea. Does this refer to the devouring of the Welsh language by English? hardly so, the wording does not support that. This is a genuine astronomical hypothesis; astronomers refer to the lost planet as Theia, the mother of Selene (the Moon), because the impact is believed to have created the Moon. The perturbèd word comes from a poem by Coventry Patmore.

This duo continues the duo of Henry and Thomas Vaughan, discussed immediately before in poems 31-35, but also reminds us of the duality: black apple and red sun, in Ceri Richards’ painting. This sounds like a conjunctio in alchemy: Thomas Vaughan was the leading alchemist of his generation (and Henry translated some pretty strange occult works). Poem 37 continues the image:

She’s invisible yet it shows
As the imagination’s antichthon;
Spiritual all-but-perfect laws
With which dead Platonists enrobe the sun

‘antichthon’ means “counter-earth” (there is a Prynne poem named “A new tax on the counter-earth”). “I cannot field lost planets of repose”, poem 110.
"There are several examples of carolau and dyriau in English in Bangor MS. 401 , most of them in the hand-writing of William." So it would seem that Wiliam Phylip (one of the Philips of Ardudwy in west Merionethshire, and in poems 127-130) took part in the anglicisation of gentry culture by writing poems in Welsh metres but in English. He is mainly known for his royalist poems, but Hill seems to bring him into the poem by recalling meeting his ghost, in the churchyard of Hendre Fach. Hill quotes some lines in this section, I can't tell if they are lines from Phylip. Scratching around on-line uncovered a 1931 article in "Y Cymmrodorion" and some of Phylip's English poetry:

The Cabalirs is a gentlmen
the Rowndeads is a scrubs
the Cabalirs will goe to church
the Roundeads preach in tubs.

Prins Rubert wrote a letter
and send it into hell
and there to wish the devils

to use the Roundeads well.

Could Hill have learnt from this? Oh well. The uncertainty about the voiced:unvoiced distinction sounds vividly Welsh. Phylip wrote a group of short poems, "Englynion i'r Rowndied", i.e. the Roundheads. This is one of several thousand problems for a nationalist view of history. If real people didn't have any concept of nationalism, how do you cram them into a nationalist history? Are you saying they were wrong and you know better? Phylip supported the Stuart King and many of his poems express this. His poem on history starts with Brutus but climaxes with Charles Stuart. There were two sides in the Civil War but no Welsh:English axis. Maybe you have to scrap nationalism to get at Welsh history. One more layer of generous deception.

The Ecliptic - re-issued after 86 years

Joseph Macleod, The Ecliptic (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2016)

As you probably know, The Ecliptic was written in 1928 and published by Faber in 1930. It is about 1500 lines long. This is the first time it has been republished, and Richard Owens is responsible for the edition. It has the status of modern classic (for me) and because of the curious poetic politics of the 1930s it had emerged, even by 1936, as a Neglected Modern Classic.
This is an exotic text. The first time I encountered it, in around 1983, I couldn’t get to grips with it. It stood, then, as a symbol of what was unknown, excessively distinctive and developed, about the discarded cultural past. This enabled it, of course, to function as an identification object for poets who were uneasily reaching out and finding themselves as part of the unknown present. The poem starts:

The silence of the snow-turf has rooted itself in the terrain:
  Starved on the frozen stream wander the water-voles.
Earth is revoked. Withheld, the sky goes out in a purple
  Skeleton toga, brooched with embalmed pyramidal buds.
But that stain is winter-rubbed, those branches the tits have rifled:
  Now there is no new leaf turned by the zephyrs of green.
The wind is too stale to be young: the kiss of shrubs and sighing,
  Clockwise working like the cogwheels of the stars,
Obediently come to life like Japanese flowers in water,
  Missel-thrush to schedule mates, primroses rehearse,
Star-trained, without new endeavour of spring, wherein Procyon
  Touched and thrust in a first frenzy of absolute joy
A star-toccata freely. She is no autonomous mistress,
  Spring is caught in the law. Winter abides her king.

The subject, of Winter, is apparent; the scheme which this passage will fit into is less apparent. Time has allowed a closer approach to the poem. It follows the Ecliptic, that is the apparent course of the Sun which takes it through a series of constellations, identified by speculators in Alexandria with principles of fortune (the astrological “signs”), Aby Warburg wrote a famous paper (1912) which identified the 36 divisions of the “birth” year (the decans, each of ten days) with the emblematic figures in a cycle of fresco paintings (of 1469-70) in Ferrara. However, in 1928 Warburg had not yet come to England, there was no Warburg Institute in London, and an influence on Macleod seems out of the question. Examination of the 36 decans does not produce something which you can find again in The Ecliptic. Adrian Stokes, Macleod’s best friend, worked for many years on the Quattrocento - but was hardly doing this in 1928, so again an influence on The Ecliptic does not seem likely. In fact, after long searching we don’t know of any direct model for the poem. I may have to swallow my words if someone now comes up with one. I think rather that Macleod invented the subject and the themes of the poem. He is clear that it relates to the phases of an individual life - very different from the decans, ‘birth windows‘ which assign to a human, on the day of nativity, character which pursues them throughout life. The fact that, of close contemporaries of Macleod at Oxford, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Powell both wrote works drawing on Zodiac imagery (if we accept that the twelve books of A Dance to the Music of Time correspond to zodiac signs), points to something in the air. This something was not in fact a belief in astrology. More credibly, it was the influence of the ballets russes and an expectation that truths could be shown by the expressive motion of humans (or other creatures), arranged in formal schemes which drew on the fabulous imagery of past cultural styles. Thus, in the Leo section of The Ecliptic, the lion is a physical lion - but of course he is really a human, condemned to act like a lion in order to bring us certain truths. He has a distinctive way of moving:

Standeth he still and glowers
All four feet firm on sand,
Like waterspouts, like factory towers,
Flatness to flatness mounting, and
His tail brooming anger
Like coloured atmosphere before a storm.

Now he goes on intent,
Low as a king-snake glides,
Slow as a snake that hides,
Neck from shoulders bent,
Head like a lamp alert,
Then he stops on the scent
All four feet on the sand,
Growling and growling.

Then with a rush the storm breaks into battle.
Dust chokes his eyes and throat
Turning his leonine roar into a rattle;
He is tumbled about
Like a little boat,
Loins and back buffeted, he is thrown out.
His muffled breathing from the blanket he withdraws
Sits on his haunches like a cat:
Then rises and crouches,
Crouches and springs, he knows not what at,
With glaring fangs and cusping claws
Into the dust and the darkness
Prowling and prowling.

And then a battle royal is started
A lion and a thunderstorm:
The lion blind, the enemy dumb,
Vaguely shaped as electric-hearted
Fires sway in the northern scene.
Heat and daydust of summer landscape,
As brides in a bridebed lie and wonder,
Are ready to give themselves to thunder.
But the lion treads them to a morass,
A tawny force on a tawny mass,
Rolling on his adversarys noise,
Invisible, intangible, infrangible.

Then he again recoils to rest:

 - but does not utter - movement replaces words, or, to frame Macleod, the poet is writing a verbal description of the moments of a creature that itself cannot utter.
How do I know that the twelve sections are phases of one life? This is odd when the author wrote the poem at age 25. The answer is that the poem has a preface with short prose commentaries on each section by Macleod. ‘Each sign thus contributes to a single consciousness. […] this is not intended to be a typical, or a unique, but merely a single, consciousness’. The prose libretto was added, in fact, at Eliot’s request. I understand that the starting point was "Then we learned that the Poetry Collection at the University at Buffalo (where I'm writing from) has a heavily revised, heavily annotated manuscript copy of The Ecliptic which Macleod sent to Charles Abbott in the 1940s at Abbott's request." (Rich Owens, personal communication, 2008), but in fact the new text is stated to be collated from two different typescripts, both in the US. Macleod’s libretto is of limited use. Thus for ’Gemini’ it says:

Conscious of  loss by order of authority, he identifies this with the loss of his first passion, and finds it expressive of eternal loss. This leads him to revolt against all control and authority, and so to destandardize himself at the cost of disintegrating himself.

The summary does not get us close to what is happening when we are in the middle of the poem. All the same, it is helpful to be sure that the symbols connect to the life of one individual rather than to some scheme, whether Spenglerian, Freudian, or otherwise, affecting the whole of our culture. But - in practice such acute insights into the life of one individual do inspire us to think about the organisation of culture. Besides, if “all control and authority” are being rejected, the institutions of society are in question. The idea of a self “disintegrating” was quite widespread during the 1920s, and leads us towards wider cultural phenomena of the time, rather than towards one room where one individual has drunk one glass of wine too many.
                1930 was just a short while before the advent of a world economic crisis and of Fascism wiped out the audience for modernist work - a set of individuals, hardly millions in number, whose attention was firmly redirected towards other things. What is elusive about Ecliptic is partly that it is saying something about human destiny and about the flaws of our culture, but yet it has no foundation in organised knowledge - in statistics, sociology, or theories of psychology. What we are seeing is the creation of a mythical whole, not the illustration of tropes which we recognise and find comforting. In that era self-knowledge was not penetrated by schemas of organised and authorised knowledge. The Ecliptic is a wonderful poem but it belongs with a style of English poetry of the time, neglected by taste but intelligently gathered together by Sidney Bolt in his anthology Poetry of the 1920s. Common to many of these poets was the wish to write cultural criticism, to write poems reflecting that genre which had more or less been invented by Oswald Spengler, in 1918; and the wish to achieve detachment, to create freestanding forms which would embody ideas in the manner of a geometrical figure or a work of visual art. The dominant form of the time was the ballet, the ballet of Diaghilev. Sacheverell Sitwell is the only one of these poets who wrote a libretto for a Diaghilev ballet; his work offers perhaps the most vivid comparison to Macleod’s, and is today even more neglected than his. Macleod writes quasi-ballets or pictures of the seasons (like the Withheld, the sky goes out in a purple/ Skeleton toga, passage just quoted), but both are meant to be a visible language, incarnating Time, vitality, and decay. The unrecognisability of Ecliptic is inseparable from its radical originality: it opens onto an uncoded space rather than being a documentary or expounding a political programme.

I asked my spiritual adviser if it was OK to mention the Selected poems of Macleod which I edited (for Waterloo). The reply was that no, I couldn’t mention it, but I could mention the fact that I hadn’t mentioned it. There was a rumour about material being found in the Buffalo typescript that wasn’t in the published book - sections on the ‘transitions’ (solstices?), I believe - but Owens has chosen not to include these, probably because a rigorous approach to editing would take the author’s decision on what the extent of the text was as binding - like all other authorial decisions.
I just want to mention a sampler which Macleod claims to have used in the first section. This was stitched by a girl aged 12 in 1806. The girl was named Ann Annall and her name also means an annal, i.e. the cycle of a year. Anna, an old Roman goddess, Anna perenna, had associations with the year - and her name may mean “ring”. The ecliptic is also an annal, an annual ring. The sampler belonged to John Fothergill, who ran an inn near Oxford in the 1920s and wrote memoirs.
Swansea is now twinned with Ferrara and has a “Tower of the Ecliptic”, with reference to the Schifanoia frescoes. This was built in 1989.

Nothing left alive but a pair of glassy eyes

Nothing left alive but a pair of glassy eyes: Donald Davie, Under Briggflatts, a History of British Poetry 1960-88 (Carcanet, 1989)
One wonders at Davie’s decision to publish a book on a subject which he was resolved to omit from the text. A historian is someone who consents to write about his social inferiors; critics aren’t that broad in scope.
Some figures may illuminate the objections I have. Out of about 20 poets Davie covers in more than a phrase, four began publishing after 1960. The book could safely be named “poets of the 1950s: a dogmatic approach.” None of the 85 poets in the new british poetry 1968-88 is mentioned. (The index reference to Peter Riley, p.136, translating Mandel’shtam’s octets, is in error for John Riley.) This emotional trauma extending over poetry and the modern deprives his work of all value, but does tell a tale; DD really is stricken with panic and numbness when asked to operate without codified rules. Deverbalisation is the key event of the book: repressing things from speech indicates high regard for language, making it (often) the prerogative of authority. Deverbalising is covert authoritarianism. Poetry is speech: let’s guess that Davie probes poets for fitness to hold authority, not for artistic pleasure. Every one (possibly) of those 85 poets is either feminist or homosexual or atheist or wants to change society.
There is no rule saying Davie has to write about Allen Fisher. An appeal to “competent authorities” is no good, because Davie, after all, is a professor. A look at retail turnover would probably exclude Fisher altogether. Ultimately, there is no reason for saying Fisher is “an important writer” except my subjective reactions. I am not an authority, just another peasant. I can’t say Davie is transgressing where no rules exist. But (what I am getting at) Davie is solemnly enforcing rules that he has made up. Davie is staking a considerable sum on his own personal authority; not by chance, authority, in the form of the Church and the Crown, plays a central role in this book, in which popular sovereignty is not even mentioned. If you’re going to be authority, you’ve got to have psychological conviction. It’s painful watching someone afflicted by two opposing drives (e.g. assertion and concealment), standing or speaking bizarrely because they are ridden by two incompatible neurological programmes. Someone will not persuade you that they are well-tempered intelligences if smoke is coming out of them and bits are falling off as you listen to them. Surly, slovenly old rascals shouldn’t write books. When lordly fiat fails to command consent, the rules sustaining authority have to be brought into the light of day.
Morality; subjectivity as sin
Both ideas and emotions can be regarded as disruptive of civil order and of authority. Davie’s attitude is something like “to be emotional is to want Utopia but this can’t be had so to mention it is a betrayal so poets who are unemotional and grim and repressed are much more authentic and undeluded than anyone who feels”. He fears that anyone who is motional betrays emotions; anyone who has idea betrays domestic reality. Light is shed on this by his treatment of political poetry. This occurs in a section about the politics of Larkin and Tomlinson; they are pure because they weren’t interested in politics, didn’t believe in political change, didn’t write about the community but always about the abandoned, cognitively cut off, passive individual. Because they didn’t evince the slightest interest in politics, they could therefore be conscripted as witnesses for the proposition that “wanting political change is wrong and immoral”. Political poetry isn’t allowed into the section on politics and poetry because it is about politics and therefore corrupt.
A regime of exclusions
Since the subject is not within the text, attention is necessarily drawn to its “negative space”: perhaps the act of exclusion contains a hidden pretextual energy. Perhaps all the pleasure, all the passion, of this “History” is packed into the turnstile: thy father was an Amorite, thy mother was an Hittite, ye shall not enter the house of the LORD.
The act of repression is the only important gesture in Davie; it is interesting to focus on this act and slow it down till we can watch it frame by frame. A punitive grid is applied in which there are thousands of tiny boundaries, and at each step a poet crosses many of them, causing Davie to writhe in agony. One suspects that his rules were made with the aim of making transgression: his rules of metrics, for example, allow him to disapprove several times per line. The wish to punish comes before ideas of right and wrong.
Davie’s reluctance to discuss his own position does have one peculiarly literary aspect to it: it reminds me of certain modernist writers who wrote from a terminal zone, never explaining or comparing or talking about causes. He takes his pose of being wounded for nobility of soul. The name Geoffrey Hill springs to mind here; his inability to write personal poetry goes along with a certain style of abrupt, apodictic, high-handed, quasi-religious emotion, of vague subject and cause. What is sent up as honour, sensitivity, pain, appears to the reader as pride, sullenness, contempt. You explain yourself to equals.
One should ask how people actually behave, and what wants they are fulfilling, before legislating, and setting penalties. Linguistics speaks of “complementary distribution” for two phenomena which fulfil similar functions, but one of which excludes the other at a given site. There is perhaps a complementary distribution of archaic, Christian morality, and sociological knowledge: I mean, Davie’s rusty, pursed-lip, morality would be impossible if he had ever asked “what are the causes of actions? What are the rules of psychology? How does society work?” The acts which Davie defines as sins seem to me, no more serious than eating meat on a Friday. Or even eating spaghetti on a Wednesday. Meanwhile he excludes social change from his “historical” work.
Prosody: who is allowed to make rules
The section on prosody (i.e. stress, melody, duration, and the patterning of these things, as parts of speech acts) starts with praise of Betjeman as the one to imitate. According to DD, “prosody … depends very largely on purely notional structures of expectations.” “For a prosody was precisely a set of notions shared by poet and reader in tacit compact.” (p.121) I am impressed by the way in which he has used a fact, which leads naturally on to intersubjectivity, in order to disenfranchise both writer and reader.
Davie is right insofar as artistic meaning is based on norms: a voice, husky on a phrase, is emotional because of its offset from a norm. The question is whether these norms are promulgated by decree, of based in our emotional intuition and physiognomic knowledge of living speaking subjects. This ability to hear and perform “weight” is based on saturation in a living community and is not “notional”. Clearly, speech is not featureless, but occurs in sharply rhythmic blocks. Is it likely that the printed poem is unable to signal these rhythms? Natural prosody gives us weight and duration, pattern, and contrast. Language is not without measure just because it does not come in ten-syllable bursts. The boundary marker of every phrase, every clause, every phoneme clause, sets up a model which successive phrases, clauses, phoneme clauses will be felt as repetitions of, echoing or varying. The incidence of these is not a “compact”, but part of the information coded into the character string which is the text. The poem elapses in this absolute density of phonetic patterns and echoes.
It turns out that vers libre has every possibility of “prosody” except that of following rules of repetition; Davie has mistaken this rule-boundedness for prosody itself. He blames amplified electrical music for damaging our ears, for this loss so sensitivity. But the problem is evidently one of centralized authoritarian control versus individual rights.
Davie’s ideals of prosody have nothing to do with what we hear or say. It follows from the concept of “norm and variations” described above that it is possible to destroy any pattern by imposing a set of norms onto it. When Davie reads modern poetry, he hears a six-syllable line as “four errors”, a fourteen-syllable line as “four errors”, and so on; thus destroying its contexture. No poetry could survive this. As criminals, the poets lose their civil rights. Davie acquires eminent domain over their texts.
Hidden Agenda
Specifically modern poetry is difficult because it opens up a potential space, deepening the process of verbal cognition, withholding certainty so as to make the conventions of communication and behaviour visible, and make feedback far more total. This uncertainty is based on the belief that humans can influence the future. If the reader is against change, all this effort is unrewarding. Davie writes off 1968. He also writes off changes in society, before and after 1968. They do not fit into a Christian authoritarian agenda. Symbolic activity by definition involves very small amounts of energy, small changes. In feedback loops - such as perception - small changes build up to large ones. Did the radical consciousness of 1968 have any connection with the radical social changes, happening after 1968? Symbol-formation is related to change and Davie wants central repressive control of symbol-formation because he is against change. Ideas, affecting behaviour, compete with tradition or authority or Scripture. He wipes out the “smallest steps of change” partly by denying them, partly by defining them as errors. Since he is against change, it is logical that he should want poetic language, where new symbols and language rules are formed, to be frozen or suppressed. The potential space is territorialised.
(This was written as a review for EONTA in about 1991. It never appeared and I lost the electronic original. You could see the whole of my work on modern poetry as a drive to utter aloud the knowledge of poets who were consigned to silence in Davie‘s ridiculously excluding “history“. I think there was a longer version which said more about the book.)
(“Phoneme clause” means the groups into which speech falls, the everyday feature which is stylised to produce the line of verse. I cannot now find the text which uses this term, but there is a description of the phenomenon in Alan Cruttenden’s book Intonation (Cambridge University Press, 1986) at pp. 35-45. It is referred to there as the intonation group. Further “Most commonly […] intonation groups correspond with clauses.”  The typical length is between four and sixteen syllables. It follows that the iambic pentameter is not the natural pattern of English poetry, although ten syllables is quite a common length for a group.)
(This was 1991 and it is wonderful to think how Geoffrey Hill’s poetry changed and developed after that. The strictures on Hill relate to his work as it stood in 1990 or 91.)