Vol. 7 No. 8 · 2 May 1985
SIR: In his review of Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work (LRB, 4 April), my friend Tom Paulin laments Christopher Ricks’s essay on Hill’s use of the hyphen as ‘the nadir of traditionalist textual analysis’. By way of showing what might be done in this area, Paulin analyses Hill’s sonnet, ‘Idylls of the King’. But he doesn’t analyse it closely, as it turns out. He prefers an alternative method: we theoreticians call it ‘the guess’; sometimes, as here, we call it the ‘wild guess’.
Line ten of Hill’s poem reads: ‘ “O clap your hands” so that the dove takes flight.’ Tom Paulin finds the imperative Yeatsian and quotes ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ – ‘Soul clap its hands and sing’. Now the quotation-marks tell us, as they usually do, that ‘O clap your hands’ is a direct quotation from another work. So it isn’t much to the point to quote a line of Yeats that doesn’t match. In fact, the line is not Yeatsian: it is Biblical. This is mainly because ‘O clap your hands’ is the beginning of the 47th Psalm. In addition, it doesn’t sound Yeatsian, beyond the coincidence of two words. But that area of coincidence is high for Tom Paulin: elsewhere, Wallace Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’ is fingered as a ghostly presence, because both poems share ‘berries’ and doves. However, Hill’s berries are wrinkling while those of Stevens are ripening. Moreover, Hill’s dove is nothing like Stevens’s ‘casual flocks of pigeons’. If Paulin’s reasons were sufficient here, we could confidently discuss the presence of Poe’s ‘The Raven’ in Hughes’s Crow. After all, on a foggy night, with a glass or two inside, what’s the difference?
Paulin’s observations about Hill’s use of rhythm puzzle me most. They are characteristically confident and technical. They are also demonstrably wrong. He complains that Hill’s pentameters are ‘too monotonously definite to allow any rhythmic leeway, and the result is a false, flat note.’ This note exists mainly in Paulin’s own ear and he should see a doctor soon: only tinnitus could prevent him hearing that Hill’s first line, his rhythmic template, is irregular: ‘The pigeon purrs in the wood; the wood has gone.’ Perhaps he will tell us, too, what is so regular about line three: ‘and the marsh-orchids and the heron’s nest’? Line two begins with a blunt spondee. And the line Tom Paulin specifically complains about (‘plunges its wings into the green twilight’) is distorted only to him: it begins with an inverted foot (‘plunges’) and ends with three very effective equal stresses (‘green twilight’). His idea that ‘twilight’ is a tortured iamb depends on his assertion that the metre is ‘monotonous’ and allows no ‘leeway’. But the metre, as I have shown, is perfectly varied.
Poems need to be read sympathetically. They do not respond to being caned on sight. Tom Paulin used to know this. Here he is, however, behaving like Mr Creakle. No sooner has the quaking poem entered his study than he has it by the ear and is laying into it for stealing from Yeats major. The poor thing blubs and gestures towards its alibi – those inverted commas – but to no avail. Paulin isn’t listening; he is too intent on bullying literature – in this case, Hill minor. What we need is sweetness and light – not Boyson and bluster.
Vol. 7 No. 9 · 23 May 1985
SIR: Tom Paulin may have a good case against Geoffrey Hill’s poetry (LRB, 4 April), but he certainly doesn’t make it well enough to win any kind of reasoned assent. Doubtless, he would like his objections to sound as principled as he believes them to be, but they come out sounding peevish; as a contributor to the collection of essays on the poet which he reviews unfavourably, I regret this. ‘Hill is a parasite upon Eliot’s imagination and any account of his work must face this frankly in order to argue the ultimate authenticity of his style.’ I am prepared to face the alleged parasitism, but find no evidence for it in Paulin’s review. He does demonstrate a debt in one line of an early poem, but does not pause to show what makes the debt parasitic.
He looks for some time at Hill’s sonnet ‘Idylls of the King’ but the charge here is not that Hill echoes Eliot. Indeed the charge is multiple – that Hill echoes Tennyson, Hopkins, Yeats and Stevens in the poem, that the poem travesties history and that it is metrically inept. Readers will have drawn their own conclusions about Paulin’s ear; he complains of ‘pentameters … too monotonously definite’ in a poem where, for example, four of the 14 lines begin with a stressed syllable, two with a half-stressed syllable and the rest with unstressed syllables. In the circumstances his ‘monotonous’ needs more explaining; and similarly with his objection to ‘echoes’. Are all echoes bad or only certain kinds of echo? Paulin’s position is unclear. What is certain is that he hasn’t understood the use to which Hill puts his echoes in the poems discussed. ‘O clap your hands’ is not Yeatsian (‘Soul clap its hands and sing’); it is a quotation from the opening of the 47th Psalm which bears directly on the poem’s title: ‘O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.’ Hill’s use of quotation-marks in the poem is designed to draw attention to the fact that this is quotation – not an unreasonable expectation on his part. The echoes of Tennyson and Hopkins are functional within the poem, whose attitude to the ‘weightless magnificence’ of the past is not uncritical, as the adjective ‘weightless’ makes clear. The poem implies (or its author through the poem, if Paulin likes) that Victorian ‘magnificence’ and ‘triumph’ are not sufficiently cognisant of what is ‘terrible’ in the God worshipped by 19th-century Christianity. ‘Fresh rust’ is merely decorative in the Victorian sphere of influence – that is, the sonnet’s octave. In the sestet the perception of ‘warheads of mushrooms’ implies a historical readjustment both necessary and regrettable, the ‘rust’ of something ‘terrible’, if not exactly God, starting to bite. This interpretation is very different from Paulin’s: ‘Hill labours to produce an image of ye olde England covered by the secular ruins of the Welfare State.’ It may not appeal to him much. But it has some plausibility and takes into account in a positive manner what he sees as merely negative. It does not entail conjuring an allusion to the Welfare State out of nowhere, either. If Paulin wants to persuade his readers that he writes out of more than prejudice, he needs to put what further critical cards he may have on the table.
It is rather the same with the other passage from Hill to which he gives extended consideration. The point at issue is an alleged allusion to or echo of a notorious speech by Enoch Powell in the last words of Mercian Hymns XVIII: ‘To watch the Tiber foaming out much blood’. I say ‘alleged’ because Powell himself was quoting Virgil, and it is difficult to distinguish an allusion to a line of verse from an allusion to the same line of verse as quoted by a politician. The fact that Hill’s phrase is slightly different from Powell’s, and that he directs our attention to Virgil, not Powell, in his notes, shows at least that he did not want Powell to leap to mind in the reader, and a simple principle of economy suggests that Powell must be peripheral to Hill’s meaning if he is no more powerfully present than any of this suggests. But Paulin prefers to follow Peter Robinson, the editor of the collection he is reviewing, in suggesting that the Powell connection matters, because it enables him to impose guilt by association. Hill alludes to Powell: that must be sinister. By the same token Paulin’s allusion to Powell must also be sinister. Indeed it is so: for surely to take advantage of Robinson’s point so unscrupulously without indicating that Robinson’s conclusions are clean contrary to his own (it is not true that Robinson ‘baulks at drawing any conclusions’ – they are merely ones that Paulin would find inconvenient) – surely this is ‘sinister’, prejudice running wild, reason overpowered in a self-righteous political rhetoric.
For what seems to be the trouble is that Paulin wants to proclaim a new dispensation in literary politics. Hill’s politics and those of his admirers are discreditable; they are ‘shabby and reactionary’. Paulin, however, supports what is ‘radical and egalitarian’. It is presumably in this cause that he insists on Hill’s debts to Eliot, since Eliot’s politics are supposed to be indefensible. They are certainly not to be defended here, because Paulin has yet to show that he is doing more than using Eliot’s name for the same process of guilt by association that underlies his use of Powell. As for being ‘radical and egalitarian’, the words have a glamour that ‘shabby and reactionary’ cannot match: the question is whether anything substantial lies behind them. They are words, after all, that have been used often enough both irresponsibly and unscrupulously, and the right to use them has to be won. Paulin I does not demonstrate that he has such a right at all. Indeed it seems fair to speculate that he does not have it. He thinks it ‘a serious charge’, made by Hugh Haughton, that Hill ‘seems to yearn “for real authority and real title” ’. Setting aside the question whether Hill does so yearn or not, one ought to ask what is wrong with yearning for real authority rather than the unreal dishonest kind. Paulin hardly writes as though he believes that all authority is wrong. Indeed it is his authority that stands as the sole guarantee for his radical and egalitarian righteousness. Is he a real radical, a real egalitarian? It is a serious charge that, having led us to understand that these are important matters, Paulin does no more than gesture in their direction. Literary criticism is a work of the reason. Paulin’s reasoned case against Geoffrey Hill is yet to come, but would be welcome.
SIR: It seems hard that Geoffrey Hill can’t use the first four words of Psalm 47, frankly enclosed I within quotation-marks, ‘O clap your hands,’ without being accused by your reviewer Tom Paulin of dependence on Yeats’s ‘unless Soul clap its hands’. The words ‘clap’ and ‘hands’ occur in the passage from Yeats as they do in, say, the address to Tinker Bell. Psalm 47 is bound up with the concerns of the poem. ‘He shall choose out an heritage for us … God is the King of all the earth.’
Vol. 7 No. 10 · 6 June 1985
SIR: Craig Raine’s defence of Geoffrey Hill (Letters, 2 May) intrigues me. Reviewing Hill’s Tenebrae in the New Statesman some years back, Raine affirmed: ‘the traditional diction makes for glum reading. You can’t wring much blood from an already well-wrung stone. Beside the terrible sonnets of Hopkins, the fastidious angst of Tenebrae looks archeological [sic], willed and impersonal in the wrong sense.’ Raine accuses me of caning a poem from Tenebrae, though I admitted that despite its faults I still had ‘a soft spot for this type of visionary mustiness’. And, as Raine knows, I have included the poem in an anthology of political verse which he asked me to edit and which has become a challenge to his somewhat limited views of art and society. Perhaps he has changed his evaluation of Hill’s work? If he has, he ought to say so. I suspect, however, that our leading Martian versifier has hyped himself into an advanced state of literary megalomania. All efforts to contact him may prove fruitless.
Like Martin Dodsworth (Letters, 23 May) Raine criticises my account of Hill’s rhythm in his poem ‘Idylls of the King’, but like Dodsworth he fails to confront the argument that in these lines,
‘O clap your hands’ so that the dove takes flight,
bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
plunges its wings into the green twilight,
the rhyme-word ‘flight’ distorts the natural vernacular spondee ‘twilight’ into what I called ‘a fast freakish iamb “twilight” ’. The rhyme-word acts like a heavy magnet and locks tightly on the second syllable, making the first syllable shed all its stress onto ‘light’. The reason for this distortion is that the basic rhythm of the poem is monotonously iambic and lines six and seven supply what Raine terms the ‘rythmic template’ (line one, which is alone in having 11 syllables, does not supply the ground-rhythm or template as Raine suggests it does). The lines read:
Cemént recésses sméll of fúr and bóne
and bérries wrinkle in the bádger-rún.
Ti-tum, ti-tum these iambs go … I still quite like them though.
Elsewhere Raine scans correctly except where he fails to hear the skewed rhythm of ‘twilight’, but the obvious variation of stresses in the poem in no way overrides its low glum iambic rhythm. Dodsworth states that ‘four of the 14 lines begin with a stressed syllable, two with a half-stressed syllable and the rest with unstressed syllables’ – an unexceptionable statement with which I agree except that where he finds a half-stressed initial syllable in two lines I hear a full-stressed syllable. Like Raine, I find an initial spondee in line two and there is a further initial spondee in line four. The poem is easy to scan and has a conventional sound-pattern – a marsh-mallow texture which I find facile. Failing to understand my account of the poem, Raine foolishly accuses me of being drunk when referring to Stevens’ presence in the poem and then recommends my seeking a cure for ‘tinnitus’. I have often been stocious in his company (and usually deafened) but am always sober when I write.
Raine misses my point about Stevens: both poets are playing with religious and secular ideas, but they differ in that Hill would have us embrace what Stevens terms ‘any old chimera of the grave’. The echoes of Tennyson, Hopkins and Stevens are strong, and in a volume which opens with a prose quotation from Yeats it is hard not to be reminded of Yeats’s ‘Soul clap its hands, and sing’ in Hill’s ‘“O clap your hands.” ’ But I am at fault in not spotting the Biblical quotation, though I’m sure that Raine didn’t recognise it immediately and had to go in search of it. The simple point I’m making is that allusion and quotation aren’t always innocent – phrases take on other contexts through repetition. For example, the phrase ‘a still small voice’, which is an old cliché for conscience, now carries inescapable reminiscences of Tennyson and Hardy. It can’t be cited in a poem purely as being a reference to 1 Kings xix, 12. A failure to understand this impedes Dodsworth’s attempt to cleanse Hill of a Powellite incrustation upon his citation of Virgil’s Tiber ‘foaming out much blood’. Nor do I understand Dodsworth’s mumbling assertion that by the same token my ‘allusion to Powell must also be sinister’. I disagree with Powell’s politics, but was being fairminded about his stance on nuclear weapons. Hill, it could be argued, reached conclusions similar to Powell’s and this is because both the poet and the politician are chthonic nationalists. At least, this is one possible interpretation of Hill’s closing lines:
the half-built ruins of the new estate,
warheads of mushrooms round the filter-pond.
These lines are meant to be ominous and prophetic, though my interpretation of them as anticipating Powell’s opposition to nuclear weapons issues from my own opposition to the nuclear deterrent. Does Dodsworth support the Peace Movement? As I understand Dodsworth’s evasive argument, Hill is implying ‘a historical readjustment both necessary and regrettable’ and this has something to do with ‘something “terrible”, if not exactly God, starting to bite’. Dodsworth’s metaphoric code escapes me. Hill’s imagination appears Eliotelian in that he is drawing on the idea of a mythic traditional religious England threatened by collectivist ideas – new housing estates, filter-beds etc. Chris Baldick’s excellent study, The Social Mission of English Criticism, shows how this cultural myth was shaped. Dodsworth, I take it, believes in that myth, and so does Raine with his chorping, hilariously anachronistic prescription, ‘What we need is sweetness and light.’
Dodsworth asks me to put my critical cards on the table – I thought I had done so both in my review and in my recent collection of critical essays, where I offer a dour but honest Ulster credo. Maybe Dodsworth could explain what his critical and political principles are. He asserts vaguely that literary criticism is ‘a work of the reason’, while Raine intones his bit of Arnoldian plainsong (E.E. Duncan-Jones’s instinctive reference to Tinker Bell is another example of this Anglican tweeness). Criticism is social and political – it is responsible to a society and to an idea of culture. Some critics try to uphold a hierarchical and reactionary cultural idea, others seek to challenge it, while some burble about in the middle. Raine and Dodsworth probably believe they are above politics: like the flying island, their smug and weightless world does a lot of damage as it trundles about on its sweetly ‘transcendental’ way.
Vol. 7 No. 11 · 20 June 1985
SIR: In Timber, Ben Jonson hits off the tedious man with the famous put-down: ‘I spake to him of Garlicke, hee answered Asparagus.’ I was reminded of this when I read Tom Paulin’s reply (Letters, 6 June) to my letter about his slovenly account of Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet, ‘Idylls of the King’. Clearly, the tinnitus has worsened. He should make an appointment with the nearest ENT department before it is too late and his hearing is permanently impaired. Having made a chump of himself (to use the technical term), he is now ‘full of high sentence’ and large issues – nearly all of which are beside the points I was trying to make. I will repeat them, moving my lips as much as possible. They are very elementary and simple – like being able to read what is on the page; like knowing what quotation-marks mean; like being able to distinguish between an echo, a quotation and a random verbal coincidence. In sum, they amount to the unimportant question: is Tom Paulin ‘a bit obtuse’? Will he know that the quotations-marks around ‘a bit obtuse’ indicate a reference to a writer who is not me?
Tom Paulin imagines that my reservations about Hill’s Tenebrae should properly qualify me as an ally. They resemble his reservations as much as garlic resembles asparagus – or as much as Psalm 47 resembles Yeats’s ‘unless / Soul clap its hands’. He agrees that he is at fault in not spotting the Biblical quotation. From a medical standpoint, I am delighted. Clearly, if you shout through a megaphone he can hear. Nevertheless, Yeats is apparently still buzzing indefatigably around in his inner ear. Which is worrying. But I confess I am more worried by his plea of mitigation that he is sure I didn’t recognise the quotation from Psalm 47 but ‘had to go in search of it’. I can’t see that this has anything to do with it. However, I will reveal all. But fist I must illuminate the little red light which blinks to indicate irony. I have to confess to a bit of intellectual magic that any red-blooded critical hooligan would despise. When I saw the quotation-marks around the phrase ‘O clap your hands,’ I realised almost immediately that this wasn’t much like Yeats. I therefore listened to the phrase and, being brilliant, thought it might just be Biblical. At this point, my innate genius hit on the notion of consulting Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments. And lo! it was there. Total search time: three or four minutes. From this I conclude that either I am extraordinarily gifted, or that Tom Paulin is ‘a bit obtuse’.
About Hill’s ‘monotonous’ scansion: out of 14 lines, only four are completely regular. According to Tom Paulin, ‘the obvious variation of stresses in the poem in no way overrides its low glum iambic rhythm.’ He would say that, wouldn’t he? Odd, though, that he made no mention of what is now ‘obvious’. In fact, the variations make an enormous difference – if you don’t have a thick ear.
His point about Wallace Stevens has changed from his original version, I am pleased to say. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? (New Improved Pedigree Chump.) What he was offering in his article was something quite different – one of those garlic/asparagus echoes. I can’t argue with an amoeba.
Diverting as this correspondence must be to LRB readers, this will be my last contribution to the War of Paulin’s Ear. I propose to patch up our tiff by sending him a copy of Cruden’s Concordance – no half-way competent critic should be without it. I only hope he hears the postman knock.
Vol. 7 No. 13 · 18 July 1985
SIR: I am sorry that Tom Paulin chose to reply (Letters, 6 June) to critics of his piece on Geoffrey Hill by giving so much of his space to metrical analysis rather than to an attempt to clarify his views on the poems as a whole. Craig Raine’s rumbustious mockery (Letters, 20 June) was fairly comprehensive. But Paulin’s difficulty with Hill’s line about the dove that ‘plunges its wings into the green twilight’ ought not to be left untackled. Paulin thinks that the rhyme-word ‘flight’ two lines earlier ‘distorts the natural vernacular spondee’ ‘twilight’ and turns it into a ‘fast freakish iamb’. He does not say why this should be offensive to someone who finds the poem from which the line comes rhythmically monotonous, as he does; presumably he expects some sort of meaning in the distortion of the rhythm in order to justify it. Let me suggest some of the elements of meaning that do attach to it.
‘Twilight’ is not a ‘natural vernacular spondee’. It carries a stress on the first syllable (see, for example, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, if no experienced speaker of English is to hand). Hill’s rhyme inhibits the falling accentuation normally given to the word and so emphasises the succession of three long vowels with which the line ends. This effects a contrast with the ‘untidy sound’ among the leaves which the dove has left in the previous line and with the short vowels which introduce the next line describing the ground which has been left ‘forsaken’. However, since the emphasis given to the second syllable of ‘twilight’ by the rhyme conflicts with the ‘natural vernacular’ emphasis on its first syllable, the twilight’s naturally ambiguous quality, between day and night, is also stressed in the form of words chosen by the poet. The ambiguous feeling about the dove’s new domain implied by this conflict of stress is consistent with the poem as a whole in what it implies about 19th-century British Christianity and, indeed, about Christianity generally. Paulin may not like this – he finds my exposition of the poem ‘evasive’, I think, because it follows the logic of the poem in neither endorsing nor condemning simply the historical process with which it deals – but much of human experience is ambiguous, whether we like it or not.
Paulin’s attack on Hill declares itself to be an attack on the reactionary politics implicit in his poems. For this reason Paulin would wish them to be as simple-minded as he appears to find them. Yet his arguments depend on readings of only two poems, neither of which he seems to understand. Discussing Peter Robinson’s argument that Hill alludes to Enoch Powell’s notorious speech of 1968 and its discriminatory views, Paulin implies an identity of view between Hill and Powell, whilst suppressing the fact that Robinson’s point was precisely that the poet did not reach conclusions similar to Powell’s. Suppression of Robinson’s case saves Paulin from the need to argue against it, but it also weakens his own case in the eyes of anyone willing to refer back to the book he was reviewing. Paulin now evades the issue whether or not he was suggesting that Hill sympathised with Powell’s views on immigration by making out that his point, circuitously arrived at, was that Hill agreed with Powell about nuclear weapons – or at least that it is a ‘possible interpretation’ of the last lines of ‘Idylls of the King’ that it shows that Hill and Powell are both ‘chthonic nationalists’. Paulin does not present a scrap of evidence for this assertion. He should show how he arrived at it. At the same time he might tell us what ‘chthonic nationalists’ are and whether a belief in nuclear deterrence is a necessary part of their programme.
SIR: Couldn’t Craig Raine have attacked Tom Paulin without using the metaphor of a disease like tinnitus (Letters, 20 June)? Such metaphors wound more people than they are intended to – to wit, the sufferers from the disease, who have a heavy enough cross to bear already.
Vol. 7 No. 14 · 1 August 1985
SIR: Corner Craig Raine and he becomes merely abusive. His first letter ended by calling for ‘sweetness and light’, but his second (Letters, 20 June) attempts to exit from an argument he initiated by resorting to crude name-calling (‘hooligan’, ‘New Improved Pedigree Chump’, ‘amoeba’). It would seem that behind the Arnoldian veneer there is a Sun editorialist who throws up a coarse populist invective when challenged to defend his beliefs.
Martin Dodsworth (Letters, 18 July) is probably as reactionary as Raine, though it is hard to make out exactly where he stands. He dodges my invitation to explain his critical and political principles by skulking behind that doctrine of ambiguity which is one of the more disastrous legacies of the New Criticism. However, I can recognise the exclusion order in his impertinent and self-regarding citation of an ‘experienced speaker of English’. Both Raine and Dodsworth, it seems to me, are the prisoners of their unexamined affectations – by cutting themselves off from society and from any idea of a natural vernacular they’re unable to distinguish between a dead ersatz rhythm and the cadences of a living voice.
Vol. 7 No. 15 · 5 September 1985
SIR: Now that Donald Davie has informed myself and other members of the public that, not having read Pound’s Cantos, we lack ‘any opinion worth listening to, about the poetry in English of the century’ (LRB, 23 May), perhaps you could persuade him to name the ‘arcane’ novel, play, autobiography etc holding a similarly privileged status. Until then, my mouth is sealed. (I must confess that I find Pound’s poem repellent and unreadable, but I promise to try harder.)
By the way, congratulations to Tom Paulin for his welcome piece on Geoffrey Hill (LRB, 4 April); I’ve enjoyed the indignant squealings it provoked as well. I trust you can assure me they’ve all read their Pound. I wouldn’t want to be misled by any commonplace opinions.
SIR: Tom Paulin (Letters, 1 August) finds it hard to make out ‘exactly’ where I stand on the matter of his review of the collection Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work. I should have thought that I had made it clear enough. With other correspondents I have argued that his metrical analysis of Hill’s ‘Idylls of the King’ was defective, and that he failed to recognise meaningful allusion in the poem, with the result that his account of it had little to do with its specific nature. I have also argued that he made wrong use of a supposed allusion to Enoch Powell in Mercian Hymns, that he misrepresented the views of Peter Robinson, and that he was wrong to read the words at the heart of our disagreement as an allusion to Powell at all. These objections of mine covered all the passages discussed by Paulin to support his attack on Hill’s poetry, titled, I hope without editorial malice, ‘The Case for Geoffrey Hill’. Paulin has not seriously contested the arguments brought against him on these points, nor has he taken the opportunity to re-establish his case against the poet, a case which, I repeat, would be worth having if it were made well. Indeed, he seems little concerned with what appears so far to be his very unjust treatment of Geoffrey Hill. Instead he has written as though in the belief that if he huffed enough and puffed enough your readers would not notice that his house had blown down. I think that he should either justify his case or withdraw it.
Paulin has proved to be more concerned about his correspondents than about the subject of the correspondence. He writes of me in his latest letter: ‘He dodges my invitation to explain his critical and political principles by skulking behind that doctrine of ambiguity which is one of the more disastrous legacies of the New Criticism.’ There are several misunderstandings here. To observe that human experience is often ambiguous in its meaning is hardly to promulgate a literary critical ‘doctrine’; even if it were, it would not necessarily be a New Critical doctrine, since ambiguity is fundamental to the work of non-New Critical writers also – Derrida, for example. It is hard to see, therefore, what is ‘skulking’ about a reference to so ordinary a phenomenon. But I admit to not having given a straightforward reply to Paulin’s enquiry about my ‘principles’, for reasons which I am happy to explain.
My critical principles fairly obviously include the belief that not all opinions are equally well founded in the texts which give rise to them, and that the critic should present views that have as good a basis in the text as is possible. As far as literature and criticism are concerned, I believe them both to have political implications – but not consistently or even necessarily present throughout. On the matters of interpretation in dispute between us, I see no need to define my political principles: the arguments presented stand perfectly well on their own. Paulin’s baseless speculations are beside the point. In general, I think it is a mistake to introduce political considerations where they are not called for in literary criticism. Paulin’s misreadings, after all, do harm to his political stance; he is liable to the imputation that his political vision is no sharper than his literary critical judgment. The possibility that his political enthusiasm has damaged his critical ability has also to be considered. If, after all this, I hesitate to say that quite possibly there are many issues on which Paulin and I would vote the same way, it is not only that such declarations by people of small importance like Paulin and myself seem out of place, but also because Paulin presents himself so unpersuasively as an advocate for the sum of his causes. I hope that I have now made myself perfectly clear.
The title which was given the review referred to the essays in the book reviewed by Paulin: no malice aforethought.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 7 No. 17 · 3 October 1985
SIR: Having just returned from a year abroad, I naturally hastened to catch up with my reading of LRB. Among much that interested me I found Tom Paulin’s review of a collection of essays on Geoffrey Hill particularly stimulating, and I was very intrigued by the responses it produced. He is surely correct in wanting to challenge that view of the past elaborated in the much-praised sonnet sequence from Tenebrae, which is where most of the ensuing discussion has concentrated. Paulin rightly pointed out that in one of the sonnets, ‘Idylls of the King’, there are some very obvious echoes of Tennyson and Hopkins. Martin Dodsworth says that these echoes are functional. Paulin said – or implied – that Hill’s attitude to the past is idealising-sentimental. Dodsworth says that Hill’s attitude to the past ‘is not uncritical, as “weightless” [in the phrase ‘weightless magnificence’] makes clear’. I’m not quite sure what that word does make clear, but even if I were there would still be an unresolved problem. For where Paulin detects in the poem a readiness on Hill’s part to identify a merely literary/academic construct as the past, Dodsworth seems to think that such a construct is the past.
So do most of the contributors to the collection under review. In the essay which Paulin quite properly singles out for praise, Hugh Haughton says that ‘I think it can be argued that the fraught anachronism of Hill’s poetry represents the imaginative pull of the past for a poet obsessed above all by the persistence of what has been lost, and the impossibility of re-appropriating it: the idea of continuity – and the stark fact of distance … [Hill’s] “fraught anachronism” is a paradoxical resistance to the specious glamour of the “timeless moment” (to which even Eliot succumbed), and the inertia of “traditional appeal” – indeed the appeal of tradition.’ I can understand this, although I am far from sure why Haughton says that even Eliot succumbed to the specious glamour of the ‘timeless moment’. Surely it was Eliot who above all, or anyway most persuasively, latched onto that Arnoldian ideal of a mythic (weightless?) tradition, for ever on offer as the past, the tradition? In other words, Eliot became the accepted spokesperson for a cultural orthodoxy whose terms Hill unquestioningly takes over. That was Paulin’s point and it seems to be Haughton’s. But ‘the idea of continuity – and the stark fact of distance’: this very Leavis-like formulation no doubt explains why Haughton has to speak of Hill’s sonnets as pastiche, for Leavis, the champion of Arnold and – until late on – Eliot, endlessly asserted a view of the past as at once desirable and unattainably gone. ‘Hill’s mannered sonnets,’ Haughton says, ‘re-enact and petrify a language of the past largely invented by the Victorians, and which can be said to be less their inheritance than their legacy’ (his italics). Maybe so, but Paulin’s point was that such language is a legacy only if poets choose to inherit it, and that if they do so choose they are colluding with that entirely academic notion of the tradition, the past, which is routed through Arnold, Eliot and, as an influential branch-line, Leavis. Which Victorians does Haughton have in mind? Dickens? Clare? Well no, Tennyson, or as much of Tennyson as can be identified with an England of melancholy landscapes, country houses, and the uninspected pathos of Anglicanism. But this past, this tradition, is a very exclusive affair. (As exclusive as Dodsworth’s ‘experienced speaker of English’, who apparently pronounces the word ‘twilight’ in a manner very unlike any of the experienced speakers of English among whom I live.) In which case ‘functional echo’, no matter how critical, becomes fatally weakened by its readiness to accept as the past a very partial, etiolated version of pastness.
You could of course argue that this is inevitable since we all are forced to choose how we see or have access to our sense of the past. But this does not appear to be how Hill’s champions regard the matter, which probably explains why Dodsworth cannot understand Paulin’s entirely reasonably identification of Hill as a ‘chthonic nationalist’. You could also argue that my criticisms are unreasonable since a sonnet sequence can only do so much. But this argument cuts both ways. The sonnet is, surely, more or less a pastiche form unless it’s radically rethought. Does Hill use it seriously or not? Haughton implies that the sequence is trapped by its form. (For what else is pastiche?) Dodsworth seems to suggest that this is not so. It is true that Hill uses lower-case initial letters and that he doesn’t always rhyme fully. (Or so I assume, because I take it that even the most experienced of experienced speakers of English won’t be able to make full rhymes of, say, twilight/estate or solitudes/clouds, and there may even be a few doubting souls who find the rhymes pretty desperate.) Are these matters to be explained as fraught anachronism, or merely the deadening effect of pastiche?
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of wood and stone.
The allusion to Pope in the first line is meant to alert us, I take it, to the final laying to rest of the dream which engaged some poets of the early 18th-century: that peace and plenty would always return to the land. The echoes of Tennyson in the second and third lines then intensify an apprehension of England in decay; and line four switches Yeats’s brimming water into brittle floods in order to suggest a skin of ice – winter’s approach – or water about to be smashed by (apocalyptic) winds. And so we could go on, explaining every allusion, echo and ‘petrified’ word as essential to Hill’s ‘fraught anachronism’, his complex sense of the past. (Or are there experienced speakers of English who think that such words as ‘resume’ – in that context – and ‘beset’ are current, or that ‘replete with complex fortunes that are gone’ has the timbre of a living speech rhythm to it?) But when we have done all this aren’t we bound to notice that the poem asks us to identify with that narrowly exclusive and academic notion of tradition which Paulin identified as being so deeply debilitating? Well, obviously not, if ‘we’ are Hill’s champions. But the fact is that these champions are part of a cultural orthodoxy – of experienced speakers of English – which others may think spells a kind of imaginative death, no matter how critically it is viewed. To continue to worry at the matter of ‘Platonic England’ as Hill does is surely to demonstrate an addiction that ought to meet with a tougher response than it gets from those adulatory essayists whom Paulin attacked. It does not surprise me that certain experienced speakers of ‘English’ should wish to come to Hill’s defence. But where, I wonder, are those other, equally experienced speakers of – non-Oxford – English who must surely understand the strength of Paulin’s case?
Vol. 7 No. 19 · 7 November 1985
SIR: John Lucas’s capacity (Letters, 3 October) for finding things in Geoffrey Hill’s poems which are not there (such as the non-existent line ‘beset by dynasties of wood and stone’ which he discovers in ‘The Laurel Axe’) matches his incapacity to discover the things which are present in the work. Lucas believes that the sonnet sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’ puts forward a ‘merely literary/academic construct as the past’, a ‘cultural orthodoxy whose terms Hill unquestioningly takes over’, and that the terms are those of ‘an England of melancholy landscapes, country houses, and the uninspected pathos of Anglicanism’. This undifferentiated stodge of Lucas’s invention is attributed to Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis. Lucas’s sense of history appears to have been supplied to him by the firm of Moulinex. Arnold and Leavis did not uphold an unquestioned pathos of Anglicanism for the good reason that they were not Anglicans – though Arnold had, naturally, complex sympathies and antipathies with a particular fraction of the Anglican establishment; neither of them has much to say in praise of country houses, inhabited for Arnold by ‘Barbarians’ and for Leavis by the likes of Lord David Cecil. It is an odd orthodoxy which these three are held to uphold, given the ferocity of Leavis’s criticism of Eliot, the disdain Eliot expresses for Arnold’s views, literary and theological. Perhaps there are deep, insidious lines of unity which connect this trinity. Lucas has not yet made them clear, but he has hardly had time to unpack since his welcome return to these shores. Though he has had time – such is his sense of urgency – to write to the LRB.
Hill’s detractors believe him capable of many implausible feats, such as hearing the rhyme ‘flight/twilight’ as masculine rather than deliberately out-of-kilter, masculine/feminine, like Wordsworth’s rhymes of ‘chance/maintenance’ and ‘sent/admonishment’ in ‘Resolution and Independence’. So they probably believe him up to accepting without question an orthodoxy which does not exist. It is unlikely, though, that Hill performs this miracle in ‘An Apology …’ Would he give the sequence a title from Pugin and call one of the sonnets in the sequence ‘Loss and Gain’, the title of Newman’s satirical novel about conversion from Anglicanism, if he were in the business of serving up lavendered pathos for the uncritically churchy? There are country houses in the sequence, it is true (bienpensants will agree with the thrust of Lucas’s letter that such things should not be mentioned, even if they used to exist, even if they still exist), but there are also shepherds’ cottages. (I quite see that these too should not be mentioned, even in a poem which contains in its title the date ‘1654’: these things should not have occurred, so we ought to forget them, and it is a poet’s duty to erase them.) There are also impassioned responses to the Indian traditions which were variously maltreated under British rule. Lucas finds the phrase ‘weightless magnificence’ difficult to understand. He is probably also perplexed by ‘bankrupt shame’, ‘fantasies of true destiny that kills/“under the sanction of the English name” ’, or, from the sonnet which he crassly misquotes, ‘mannerly extortions’. But Hill’s phrases are clear enough.
Hill’s other writings, in poetry and criticism, don’t lend any weight to Lucas’s excitable claim. The poetry is nourished from very diverse sources, sources far from Lucas’s imaginary orthodoxy, and is often lucidly hostile to the ethos of, say, Arnold’s dream of Oxford. Hill’s literary criticism constitutes a long effort of re-assessment of a high-cultural tradition in these islands – it is judiciously sceptical about Tudor and Stuart ideologies of kingship, particularly responsive to working-class protests in the 19th century, has its keen doubts about the efficacy of good faith in bourgeois economists and the well-meaning man of ideas such as T.H. Green. These are only items in what could be a longer list, and a list would not convey in its fullness the persistence of such concerns in Hill’s work, poetic and critical, concerns which are ignored by the likes of Lucas. That Hill is not strident about these matters does not mean that he is silent about them, although he will, in effect, seem silent to the cloth-eared who arrogate to themselves the monopoly of speaking for the cloth-capped.
That arrogation – it is there in Paulin as in Lucas – is particularly offensive. Sloganeers are always keen to claim that those who don’t traffic in quick bursts of rhetoric, in broad denunciation or warm espousals of some current phrase which passes, and passes itself off as the hope of those who at present are without hope, must be the enemies of all that is good. But all they mean is that unison shouting is the order of the day. This is not readily compatible with the gestures in favour of cultural pluralism that Lucas is eager to make. When Mr Kinnock at Bournemouth urged the Labour Party to join together to fight ‘evil’, he was greeted with a roar. But what was it a roar of? That can’t be answered until we know what Mr Kinnock meant by ‘evil’, or if he meant anything at all by that potent word. Of course, there is always the risk that, while we try to think about politics, and political phraseology, events will overtake us. There is also the risk – forgotten, it seems to me, by the pressing opportunists who attack Hill in your hospitable columns – that while we rush to judgment, events may undertake us.
Those who defend Hill against Paulin and, now, Lucas are asked for their credentials. What they say cannot be taken seriously unless they can flaunt self-pity in a bullying manner as Paulin does when he speaks of Martin Dodsworth issuing an ‘exclusion order’, unless they can bring themselves to advertise their street-credibility as Lucas does when he draws attention to the ‘experienced speakers of English among whom’ he lives in Beeston, Notts. There is a nostalgia in these gambits, a nostalgia deeper, more insidious and more violent than has yet been identified in the work of Geoffrey Hill. It is a nostalgia for purges, for a simple identification of geography with political tendency. Topography replaces reasons; the guilty men live in Oxford (or suchlike places) and can be spotted by their accent. An address is not, however, an argument for or against anything. Such gambits are intellectually contemptible and politically irresponsible. Paulin and Lucas are, with the best of intentions, I’m sure, proposing intellectual repatriation.
It is not right to be mild and sweet and decent in reply to such people, as Martin Dodsworth has been. It is evident from what they write that, for them, it is an article of faith that there is no such thing as intellectual good faith; on principle, they give up on principle. Humane concern, such as Martin Dodsworth has been at pains to show, will always be at the mercy of those for whom such concern demonstrates only vacillation, the failure to put oneself on the line. Martin Dodsworth’s line is evident, but it won’t do him any good to try to describe the more carefully its thoughtful contour. People like Lucas don’t want a line described, they want a line toed. The evidence for this painful conclusion is in Paulin’s original review, his subsequent failure to answer detailed rebuttals with anything but ever more grand and ill-focused gestures of embattled progressivism, where ‘progress’ is to be identified with Paulin’s will; it is evident in Lucas’s Kiplingising of Hill’s ‘The Laurel Axe’, in his intensity of desire to reach conclusions, an intensity so determined that Lucas can commit himself in one letter to the views that Hill unquestioningly takes over an orthodoxy and that Hill cannot stop worrying at that orthodoxy. The unquestioning are not noted for their incessant worry. But Lucas is not worried by self-inconsistency, nor by the need to quote correctly, nor by standards of argument which, with difficulty, might be striven for amidst the welter of bigoted inconsequence and slurs he and Paulin offer us as the future of democracy in intellectual matters, in matters which matter more than what Lucas quickly calls the ‘merely literary/academic’.
These men, what they say, and the level to which they reduce intellectual discussion, are despicable. I respect Martin Dodsworth’s refusal to be armwrestled into statements of conviction which are not relevant to the matter in hand. But, lest my address be counted finally against me by Paulin and Lucas, and in the hope that a bit of social information will count for them more than statements of more important facts count, I add that my father worked in a slate-quarry in North Wales before the Second World War, that he then became a docker in Liverpool, where I grew up, that my mother was a shop-assistant all her working life, that I have never been and never will be a member of the Anglican Church, that I still speak on and off with a flat, Northern ‘a’, and that I would never vote Conservative in any election, any more than I would ever support Everton Football Club. It is to this level of meaningless fixities, the roster of what can be quickly ticked off, that intellectual appraisal is reduced by attitudinisers such as Paulin and Lucas.
Trinity College, Cambridge
SIR: Most of your readers will by now have forgotten – fortunately for them, perhaps – what it was that Tom Paulin did or did not say in his review of Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work, edited by Peter Robinson. John Lucas, a late entrant in the ensuing long-running correspondence, is able to put any lapse of memory to good use (Letters, 3 October). He writes, for example, of ‘Paulin’s entirely reasonable identification of Hill as a “chthonic nationalist” ’ as though it were clear what a ‘chthonic nationalist’ was. When Paulin was invited to give the term a precise meaning, however, he did not, and on the whole that was something to be thankful for, since the ‘identification’ entailed, through Paulin’s guilt-by-association technique, saddling Hill with the views of Enoch Powell. Is that what Lucas also wants to do?
Lucas spends much time advancing the certainly familiar view that Eliot, along with a few other bogeymen (Arnold, Leavis), propagated an ‘entirely academic notion of the tradition, the past’ which it is Hill’s crime to support. For good measure this view is attributed to me also, though on what grounds I do not know. But Eliot’s idea of tradition was not so exclusive as Lucas suggests; it entailed for the English writer, he said, ‘a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order’ (my italics). Eliot’s idea of English literature was roomy enough, though a sense of tradition does seem to have meant for him an ordering of its elements that gave more importance to some than to others. This should not be offensive to Lucas, whose own book The 1930s: A Challenge to Orthodoxy (1978) attempts a re-ordering in what he understands to be the received view of Thirties writing in Britain. Such attempts usually involve a focusing on some things to the exclusion of others; it would not be reasonable to suppose that Lucas’s exclusion of Jean Rhys from his own book meant that he excluded her altogether from that part of ‘the past’ with which he deals there. The exclusion was merely local and tactical. Similarly, in ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture’, Hill’s concern with a Tennysonian and Hopkinsian legacy from the last century does not bring with it a judgment that Dickens and Clare left nothing of interest behind them.
Lucas, in the cause of some less exclusive concept of literature than the one he derives erroneously from Eliot, several times turns back on me the phrase ‘experienced speaker of English’ with the suggestion that I believe that not to talk as I do is to be beyond some culturally-determined pale. (Lucas’s own discourse is throughout undercut by a self-contradictory exclusionism directed at Hill’s admirers.) It was Paulin, however, not I, who initiated a discussion of Hill’s metrics; it was Paulin, then, who plumped for one unvarying pronunciation of the word ‘twilight’. The fact is, however, that whilst I produced testimony in support of a clear stress on the first syllable as the rule in contemporary pronunciation (the ‘rule’ in the sense that other pronunciations would be noted by those outside the language as somehow deviant), Paulin produced none for his own assertion. I merely wondered if he had been spending his time somewhere where, amongst speakers of some other language – French, perhaps, or German – his ear had become desensitised as Lucas’s seems to have been also. After ‘a year abroad’ he, too, now hears the word ‘twilight’ with a perfectly equal stress on its two syllables when spoken by ‘the experienced speakers of English among whom I live’ (my italic). I commend this phenomenon to phoneticians and dialectologists. But perhaps Lucas and Paulin were scanning quantitatively? There, I agree, ‘twilight’ would count as a spondee, but they would be in a dilemma whether to praise Hill for breaking with the dreary tradition of stress-based verse or to castigate him for a backward leap into the realm of privilege, a metrics based on, of all things, Latin.
By the way, was it you or John Lucas who made such a hash of the last line in the quotation from ‘The Laurel Axe’?
John Lucas has written to correct his misquotation: ‘moods and clouds’ had become ‘wood and stone’.
Editor, ‘London Review’
Vol. 7 No. 21 · 5 December 1985
SIR: Martin Dodsworth is running for cover. He now says (Letters, 7 November) that when he disagreed with Tom Paulin’s pronunciation of ‘twilight’ he was merely wondering whether Paulin had been spending his time among ‘speakers of some other language – French, perhaps, or German’. In fact, he originally invited Paulin to consult the OED, if there was ‘no experienced speaker of English’ at hand. Can there have been any reader of the LRB who failed to recognise that Dodsworth intended by this snide remark to imply that as some kind of an Irishman Paulin couldn’t be trusted to know how properly to speak the Queen’s English? Eric Griffiths (Letters, 7 November) finds this kind of thing urbane. It doesn’t seem to me much of an argument for urbanity. Besides, why refer to the OED? Because that’s how people do speak or how they should speak? Dodsworth doesn’t make it clear, probably because the distinction doesn’t seem to him to have any point. It does, however. I tried the word on various friends and acquaintances, and the majority of them stressed it as Paulin evidently does, and as I do. By way of making my final contribution to this particular debate, I will say that if you took the following line of a recent poem, ‘I’ve left them where they are, in the leaflight,’ and substituted ‘twilight’ for ‘leaflight’, you could say the line without in any way straining against its natural stress pattern.
But this is a minor matter. The major area of dispute is over the sonnet sequence which Paulin saw grounds to attack and which Dodsworth, and now Griffiths, wish to champion. Since the red mist of Griffiths’s apoplectic rage obviously made it difficult for him to see the case against the sequence, I will try to re-state it as simply as possible. Perhaps it will help if I refer to an interview which Hill gave in 1980, which for all I know Griffiths may have had in mind, and which is certainly relevant because there Hill says that ‘I think my sense of history is in itself anything but nostalgic, but I accept nostalgia as part of the psychological experience of a society and of an ancient and troubled nation.’ Now my point was: 1. That in the sequence under discussion such nostalgia is identified through a particular, heavily allusive language, which is certainly not the language of society in its widest sense. In which case, 2. What Hugh Haughton calls Hill’s ‘fraught anachronisms’, and correctly identifies as pastiche, become ways of warding off the kinds of criticism that are independent of nostalgia. (‘The consequences of old betrayals,’ Hill calls them in the interview.) To put the matter as plainly as I can: I suggest that although Hill may say he is using nostalgia, in fact nostalgia is using him. Thus, phrases such as ‘weightless magnificence’ and ‘complex fortunes that are gone’ are unable to break free from the heavy layers of allusion and echo in which the sonnets are cocooned, which the phrases’ own literariness endorses, and which the sonnet form itself in this case underpins.
Tom Nairn has recently said that ‘British daily consciousness is more and more under siege from its own past.’ Hill’s sequence offers eloquent testimony to Nairn’s case. The sonnets are characterised by a betraying nostalgia, so that even where they offer to place this, or raise critical questions about its worth, they do so in ways that are inevitably muffled and/or have been far more forcibly addressed by earlier writers, who are better able to place the nostalgia which has so strong a hold on Hill. This is why I said that Hill’s worrying at the matter of Platonic England seems to me an addiction; and I cited the example of ‘The Laurel Axe’ because yet another revisiting of the country-house theme provides clear evidence of such an addiction. We’ve been there too often. And I added the suggestion that if Hill’s champions weren’t much bothered by this it’s because they are similarly addicted.
To say this, however, is not to offer a wholesale denunciation of Hill, which is what Griffiths, very crudely, tries to make out I do. For what it’s worth, I’m on record as praising Hill’s ‘extreme sensitivity’ in ‘probing those values unique to any age’, and when I said that, I was trying to point to links between his literary criticism and his poetry.
Two last points. Dodsworth wants an explanation for the phrase ‘chthonic nationalist’. Seamus Heaney has said of Mercian Hymns that ‘it seems to me here that Hill is celebrating his own indomitable Englishry, casting his mind on other days, singing a clan beaten into the clay and ashes, and linking their patience, their sustaining energy, with the glory of England.’ That there are other vantage-points offered in the Hymns I would not wish to deny, which is why they seem to me to succeed where the sonnet sequence we are discussing fails. But that Heaney is here characterising a cast of mind which will explain the phrase that so bothers Dodsworth seems to me equally undeniable. Heaney also suggests that Hill’s language works best, is properly ‘refreshed’, when he allows his rhetoric to incorporate the ‘vigour of common speech’. My argument is that in the sonnet sequence such vigour is killed off by the deadening effects of pastiche. I offered evidence for this, which Griffiths doesn’t bother to challenge. Instead, he uses the tricks of any cheap journalist, talks of my wanting ‘street-credibility’ and says that my argument is a ‘despicable’ form of ‘arm-wrestling’. He wouldn’t be trying to make me toe the line, would he?
Vol. 8 No. 2 · 6 February 1986
SIR: John Lucas writes like an intellectual skateboarder – the swerves are hair-raising. Thus, he wonders why anybody should refer to the OED on a matter of pronunciation (Letters, 5 December 1985), and supposes that such reference must assume that the dictionary records ‘how people do speak or how they should speak’. He then imputes to Martin Dodsworth (whom, incidentally, I did not call, and do not consider, ‘urbane’) an inability to tell the difference between linguistic description and prescription, or recognise the importance of such a difference. All a reference to the dictionary shows, though, is how people have spoken, but, showing that, it gives a reason to suppose that they may still so speak. Reference to the OED proves that it is possible to pronounce the word ‘twilight’ with stress on the first syllable, and this is all that need be shown to disprove the claim that it must be pronounced with two equal stresses. It is those who specify pronunciation with two equal stresses who are in the business of prescribing pronunciation, and who display contempt for the speech-habits of others.
He cuts many such corners with dash. I am said to have misunderstood his ‘case’ against the sequence, ‘An Apology … ’ This case dwindles to a ‘point’ two sentences later, and shrinks to an ‘I would suggest’ in the next sentence. Lucas, no doubt, suggests many, very various things to many people, but a suggestion is not a point and a point does not constitute a case. At the heart of this glissade, Lucas makes out that Hill’s use of ‘heavily allusive language, which is certainly not the language of society in the widest sense’ entails that Hill’s allusions are ‘ways of warding off the kinds of criticism that are independent of nostalgia’. I cannot see that this follows; it sounds oddly like Leavis’s old argument about ‘Shakespearean’ as against ‘Miltonic’ relations to the language, and amounts, as did Leavis’s argument, to no more than a stipulation about how poets should write. But there is no reason why poets should welcome every idiom or usage into their poems, as there is no duty on a householder to welcome any and every caller into his house. Some things you may set your face against, or turn your back on. You may be right or wrong to do so in particular cases, but the mere fact of doing so does not prove that you are a victim of embattled nostalgia and unable to tell the difference between your house and a castle. Anyway, there is no such thing as ‘the language of society in the widest sense’: we are a multilingual society, and this is why, as the first editor of the OED noted, ‘no man’s English is all English.’ Not even Hill’s (or Shakespeare’s).
Pastiche is one way of recognising this fact, because it rests on a sense of linguistic distinctness, the distinction between what you might say and what the language you are pastiching would say. It need not convey a belittlement of what is pastiched because it may simultaneously recognise the paucity of your own means of speech. Even had Lucas a ‘case’ against ‘An Apology … ’, it could not rest on the supposed fact of pastiche in these poems and the assumption, in Lucas’s first letter, restated without examination in his second, that pastiche must have ‘deadening effects’. Nor could it rest on the fact that the poems contain ‘heavy layers of allusion and echo’ from which they ‘are unable to break free’ – another little corner cut there, as Lucas assumes that the only thing worth doing with allusions and the like is to break free from them. There is no ‘evidence’ offered for such assumptions, and they are not clearly analytic truths about the words ‘pastiche’ and ‘allusion’. Lucas puts things as plainly as he can when he suggests that ‘although Hill may say he is using nostalgia, in fact nostalgia is using him.’ This plainness is shoddy. Hill did not say, in the remark Lucas quotes, that he was ‘using’ nostalgia; he said: ‘I accept nostalgia as part of the psychological experience of a society and of an ancient and troubled nation.’ And it is not a matter, as Lucas’s syntax implies, of either using nostalgia or being used by it. Hill’s remark accepts that one is used by what one uses. This is a well-known feature of poetic imagination, the ‘dyer’s hand’, etc, but not known to Lucas who belongs to the Black and Decker school of criticism, which talks as if verse-forms, cultural shifts, linguistic history and so on lie to hand, to be ‘used’ or not, as occasion suits. Hence the moth-eaten cant in his first letter about choosing ‘how we see or have access to our sense of the past’. Something that could be chosen, like a drill-attachment, is not likely to be a past.
Sly of hand and fleet of foot, Lucas proceeds to remark that ‘yet another revisiting of the country-house theme provides clear evidence’ of addicted nostalgia. (He uses the word ‘addiction’ and its cognates in a light-hearted manner.) It is not clear whether he means that Geoffrey Hill is always banging on about country houses, or that other English poets have sufficiently ‘done’ the theme. If the former, the remark is untrue; if the latter, meaningless, unless Lucas can explain just how many times a theme may be treated in a literature before it has been treated ‘too often’. A judgment is foisted on us by the phrase ‘yet another revisiting’: we are not given a chance to protest that ‘The Laurel Axe’ does something different, doesn’t just revisit. I suppose that such foisting of judgments is what Lucas means by making a case, but you don’t need the OED to see that this is a corrupt and corrupting use of words.
John Lucas likes rhetorical questions (there were 15 in his two letters), but seems less fond of actual questions. So he doesn’t explain his use of the word ‘orthodoxy’ in his first letter, nor does he address the point that, though there are country houses in ‘An Apology … ’, there are other dwellings too, nor reply to the reasons given for thinking the sequence not unquestioningly Anglican. One question he does address is what Tom Paulin meant by ‘chthonic nationalist’. Address, but not answer. His answer tells us what Seamus Heaney might have meant by the phrase had he used it. Perhaps he believes that all Irishmen are indistinguishable from each other (being illogical, troublesome, perpetually drunk and with peat behind their ears), but I would need to be given a reason for believing this. In the absence of such a reason, I can still tell the difference between Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney, and know that a quotation from Heaney praising Mercian Hymns (and alluding – horrible dictu – to Yeats) probably does not give a good gloss on a phrase of Paulin’s criticising Hill.
Trinity College, Cambridge