The Case for Geoffrey Hill

Tom Paulin

  • Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work edited by Peter Robinson
    Open University, 259 pp, £18.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 335 10588 2

Geoffrey Hill’s second collection of poems, King Log, was published in 1968, that year of student radicalism and disappointment. Hill’s title is reactionary in its implications and derives from Aesop’s fable of the frogs who desired a king. In my edition of L’Estrange’s royalist version of Aesop the fable runs like this:

The Frogs, living an easy, free life everywhere among the lakes and ponds, assembled together, one day, in a very tumultuous manner, and petitioned Jupiter to let them have a King. Jupiter ridiculed the request; and, throwing a large Log down into the pool, cried, ‘There is a King for you.’ The sudden splash which this made by its fall into the water at first terrified them so exceedingly that they were afraid to come near it. But in a little time, seeing it lay still without moving, they ventured, by degrees, to approach it; and at last, finding there was no danger, they leaped upon it; and, in short, treated it as familiarly as they pleased. But not contented with so harmless a King, they sent their deputies to petition again for another ruler, for this they neither did nor could like. Jupiter next sent them a Stork, who, without any ceremony, began to devour and to eat them up, one after another, as fast as he could. Then they applied themselves privately to Mercury, and begged him to speak to Jupiter in their behalf, that he would be so good as to bless them again with another King, or restore to them their former Sovereign. ‘No,’ says he; ‘since it was their own choice, let them suffer the punishment due to their folly.’

From this fable a Victorian cleric, the Rev. G.F. Townsend, draws the moral: ‘Resist not, for slight reasons, constituted authorities.’ And he adds that Aesop’s fable ‘inculcates lessons of loyalty, and fosters that spirit of obedience so dear to the hearts of Englishmen’. Townsend speaks with the voice of the status quo, and he would no doubt have agreed with the judge in the Ponting trial that the interests of the state are identical to those of the political party in power.

Although Hill’s conservative imagination endorses the cleric’s simple-minded concept of national loyalty, it is possible to read much of his verse as a protest against what Hugh Haughton terms ‘the indignity of King Log’. Haughton argues that Hill seems to yearn ‘for real authority and real title, the kind of transcendence embodied in a language of kingship derived from the past and earlier power-relations’. It is a serious charge, and though Haughton argues that Hill resists the temptation to succumb to ‘his glamorous rhetoric and grand style’, it is significant that none of the other contributors to this collection of critical essays raises the difficult political issues implicit in the poetry. Haughton’s fellow contributors all believe in the magical transcendence of art and the cover of this volume expresses that archaic humanist cop-out. It reproduces a recent portrait of Hill in the act of composition: brow furrowed, pencil poised, the poet sports a rust-red silk scarf over a black shirt and wears a large ring mounted with a chunky ruby. The painting is clumsy but it does express how seriously Hill takes himself and the stupefied awe his critics feel for him.

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