- The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas by Geoffrey Hill
Deutsch, 203 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 233 97581 0
If, when we rhyme ‘tomb’ with ‘womb’, we conceive that we are making a connection never before thought of, we are innocent indeed; and our innocence will rightly be derided – as a callowness in ourselves which the language that we use, British English, has long ago grown out of. We have shown ourselves to be less grown-up than the language that we attempt to bend to our immature purposes – an attempt that the language itself frustrates by appealing, implicitly and inevitably, to English-language-users more worldly-wise than we are. If this is true (it is a matter seldom canvassed), out of many possibilities that spring to mind two should be noticed: first, we may conceive of a language – as it might be Russian, or even American English – that is less worldly-wise than British English; and secondly we may conceive of, and even think that we register around us, a linguistic community – users of British English – which by wilful or enforced ignorance of past usages may force their experienced language back into inexperience, to a point where rhyming ‘tomb’ with ‘womb’ may once again seem to be innocent, a thunderclap of unheralded revelation.
These reflections are prompted by Geoffrey Hill’s formidably erudite and compacted essay, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, which reappears now in The Lords of Limit, a volume which, it must be said, in everything from format to price does very great credit to the publishers. This particular essay has provoked in another attentive reader, John Lucas (LRB, Vol. 5, No 20), the reflection that ‘language cannot be innocent.’ But surely it needs to be remarked that whereas indeed the British English that Hill and Lucas share cannot be in this sense ‘innocent’, that doesn’t necessarily hold true of other languages (Russian, Mexican Spanish, American English, and so on) – a possibility which at once raises perhaps insoluble problems for translators from those languages into British English. However that may be, we can with only a little rhetorical overemphasis declare that British English is ‘fallen’, is ‘depraved’. And such theological terminology is very much in Geoffrey Hill’s line. The problem for a British poet like Hill is precisely that his medium, British English, is much more knowing than he can hope to be, or perhaps would want to be.
However, recognising that British English is unavoidably depraved, let us be continually aware, and make our readers aware, of how duplicitous it is – that is at all events one way forward, and the way that Hill has taken in his Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and in other poems also. John Lucas, once he has admitted that British English has lost its innocence, seems to have no firm footing for distinguishing, as he tries to do, acceptable from unacceptable depravities (decadent refinements) that British English, at Hill’s hands, indulges in. Many of Geoffrey Hill’s most devoted admirers applaud the opalescent sonorities that from time to time he contrives for them, while refusing to pay the price that he scrupulously demands – of recognising that such gratifying resonances are part and parcel of a way with language that he will expose, at other points, as heartlessly casuistical or sportive.
Vol. 6 No. 13 · 19 July 1984
SIR: Donald Davie seems to be right when he says that ‘Ovid seems to have been bored by politics’ (LRB, 21 June). Seemingly, though (aren’t things complicated?), this didn’t prevent him from getting involved in politics. As Peter Green says, he ‘held several different legal and administrative positions’, and was embroiled in the hectic public life of Rome. His banishment to the Black Sea makes this more than tragically clear. I suggest Donald Davie turn away from the Metamorphoses to the Amores, the Art of Love and Cures for Love to see how Ovid, cleverly hiding behind lovers’ masks, Feste-like, delivers political truths.
On the dangers of slander (visited, of course, upon himself) – ‘Calumny ever pursues the great, even as the winds hurl themselves on high places’ (Cures for Love). On factions and strategy – ‘The mightiest rivers lose their force when split up into several streams’ (op. cit.). On policy – ‘A thousand ills require a thousand cures’ (op. cit.). On war – ‘Isn’t the best defence always a good attack? (the Amores – has Reagan read Ovid?). And peace – ‘Fair peace is becoming to men; fierce anger belongs to the beasts’ (The Art of Love). On corruption – ‘Presents, believe me, seduce both men and gods’ (op. cit.). On competition – ‘A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace’ (op. cit. – a portrait, say, of Senator Mondale?). On justice – ‘Even the gods are moved by the voice of entreaty’ (op. cit.). Et al.
Mandelstam, I think, saw these truths in Ovid, and used them in Tristia. Virgil’s themes are ostensibly public but his effects are often private. Ovid’s themes (like Villon’s, say) are ostensibly private, but his effects are often public (as perhaps Augustus knew?). Perhaps Tom Paulin and Donald Davie can learn something from Ovid – ‘Judgment of beauty can err, what with the wine and the dark’ – as Ovid himself, if alive today, would learn something from feminism.
Vol. 6 No. 14 · 2 August 1984
SIR: Donald Davie may well be right to say (LRB, 21 June) that I have no firm footing for distinguishing ‘acceptable from unacceptable depravities (decadent refinements) that British English, at Geoffrey Hill’s hands, indulges in’. But the point I was trying to make – admittedly an obvious one – is that language belongs within and is an expression of history. Matthew Arnold wanted the poet to be able to stand outside history and he therefore asked for what is impossible: a language innocent of its own past. At his best, Hill is marvellously alert to the ways by which words emerge from and so can return us to the past; and his finest work often recovers connections that are buried under the casual accretions of everyday usage. But there are moments when this search for connection can seem strained and – yes – solipsistic, and such moments seem to me to occur with some frequency in Péguy. Linguistic accidents are being asked to carry more weight than is bearable. In pointing that out I do not think I am being a Little Englander; nor does it seem to me that I am guilty of identifying with the view of language that Davie ascribes to J.L. Austin. (Though I love Sense and Sensibilia.)
I should add that those poets Davie has in mind who ‘believe that in writing like Edward Thomas, on the one hand, or William Carlos Williams, on the other, they can recover or reconstitute innocence in their medium’ are patently innocent of the true resources of Thomas’s own language, which is loaded with historical awareness. (A point I think Davie might want to dispute.) William Carlos Williams is perhaps a different matter: but if there are still American poets who dream of being young Adam it has surely to be said that theirs is a drugged sleep of unreason? Which is perhaps what Davie means.