The Case for Geoffrey Hill
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.
Eliot at Smokefall
SIR: I’m interested to learn from Jonathan Raban’s letter (Letters, 18 April) what I didn’t know before, that ‘behind Harrods’ can have a specialised, even snobbish meaning. Why we should all pretend to be Belgravian dealers in ‘social geography’ is less clear. If you look south-westwards from the City, not an unnatural procedure since London itself developed that way, Harrods faces you with its main entrance looking north-east, and behind it at some half-mile’s distance to the southwest runs the Gloucester Road. Plainly it matters a lot where you stand. Where Mr Raban stands is interesting too: he turns geography into ‘social geography’, and finds his locus for that in literature. In talking about Eliot and Biography (rather than Harrods) my argument was similarly centred on the literary. Biography, being a written art, does what Eliot himself did in the Quartets, and what – as it happens – Raban is doing here: it transforms the notionally objective subjects like ‘geography’ into areas where it particularly matters where you stand. It therefore seems that biography ought to be fully conscious of what it is doing, even to the point of giving credit where credit is due: especially if its subject is a writer who has happened to map out most of the mental territory we all seem to be moving in here (the place that is, as Raban quotes, ‘a bit off the map’). One way of giving such credit is not to put ‘truth’ into inverted commas as Peter Ackroyd does when talking about Eliot’s poetry. He also says of ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘We look down for a recognisable landscape, but find it concealed.’ I think he is here unconsciously quoting what Eliot had already made his Chorus say in The Family Reunion: ‘We do not like to look out of the same window, and see quite a different landscape.’ For Ackroyd to make Eliot’s own poetry condemn itself for its supposed ‘concealment’ seems to me illogical. I find illogical, too, Jonathan Raban’s assumption that any reference to ‘Little Gidding’ must be ‘sneaking’, and that what you don’t know makes you ‘disingenuous’.
Somerville College, Oxford
The Oxford Vote
SIR: May I reply briefly to some of Dr Bramwell’s more specific points (Letters, 18 April), leaving on one side the question of Oxford’s guilt for all the evils of post-war Britain, from high-rise flats to membership of the Common Market?
1. No one sought ‘revenge’ on the Prime Minister. But since the Butskellite consensus had – for better or worse – gone, we thought it odd that it should be resuscitated for the sole purpose of honouring its chief opponent. Anyone as hostile as Dr Bramwell to this consensus will surely acknowledge the logic of our position.
2. I am relieved that the few Marxists in Oxford are kept as pets. That is not what we were told the morning after. Mintruth must have been nodding.
3. I am even more relieved to learn of our ‘cravenness in resisting new and trashy intellectual fashions’. That, too, is not what we were told the morning after. Mintruth is nodding badly.
4. Dr Bramwell asks what we have achieved in recent years. Let me turn the question round. The company that wants to set up a science park on the site of the old railway yard in Oxford explained that the essential feature of this location was that it was within easy cycling distance of the university. Why should an entrepreneur risk his money in his way, if we are as useless as Dr Bramwell claims? Why not go to growing and flourishing Buckingham instead?
5. Apropos Buckingham: it is splendid news that it should be progressing so well, despite the mass recruitment of Marxists. But what is it growing and flourishing at? Advanced research? The teaching of the sciences and technology that the government sees as essential to Britain’s economic recovery? And if not, why not? And if not, what is the relevance of Dr Bramwell’s advice to imitate Japanese methods of private funding?
6. Apropos Japan: not everyone agrees on the merits of its funding methods. Writing in the Times on 3 April, Sir Douglas Hague, chairman of the Economic and Social Research Council and not, I think, a great consensus man, says: ‘I would not go so far as one business leader who recently suggested to me that Britain should stop basic research altogether for thirty years and concentrate, as the Japanese used to do, on learning how to exploit other people’s inventions.’ Mintruth must be for the chop, I fear.
7. I am sorry one of Dr Bramwell’s colleagues felt constrained to miss Congregation for fear of incurring the wrath of the Centre. I can name numerous persons who opposed the degree, but declined to sign our flysheet because they feared it would harm their research projects. No wonder we are not entirely happy with the ‘unbiased external evaluation’ offered to us by Dr Bramwell on behalf of the conviction politicians.
8. Lastly, Thatcherites are far from ‘virtually banned’ here. We have lots. As pets, of course.
All Souls College, Oxford
Saatchi and Sartchi
SIR: For a former art historian, Nicholas Penny suffers from remarkably foggy vision (Letters, 18 April). Had he read what I actually wrote, he might have spared himself all that shrill indignation and spared your readers his misrepresentations of my text. Nowhere in the piece do I declare that art and commerce have never enjoyed a fruitful relationship. Nor do I assume for one moment that they cannot. I merely expressed dismay at the way that certain commercial interests had become the most powerful force in today’s art world, and the way that Commerce itself had returned to a dominant position which I thought, and hoped, it had ‘ceded’. Clearly Penny needs to have things spelled out for him. It is not commerce per se that I rail against: it is the particular form of commercial involvement we are currently witnessing, what we might call the monetarist form, which is only interested in events at the fashionable top of the tree and has no involvement with the roots or the spirit, a commerce detached from ideals.
If Mr Penny spent less time daydreaming among the spires of Oxford and more time finding out what is really happening in the London art world, then even he, with his foggy vision, could not fail to detect a very real and very rapid growth of involvement by big business in the art world. ‘The discreet association’ he dreams of – of the United Technologies Corporation with the Tate’s George Stubbs exhibition – was nothing of the kind, as I pointed out in the original piece. There is nothing discreet about museum officials chasing after art critics to remind them to mention the name of exhibition sponsors in their copy, as has happened to me. There is nothing discreet about the way that the Arts Council handed out printed notices to all critics at the London Renoir show insisting that they name and thank their sponsors. There was nothing discreet about the caviar-and-champagne binge thrown by the sponsors of the Caro retrospective at the Serpentine for the clients they were trying to impress. No one looked at the art. But the boozing and free-loading scenes we witnessed were worthy of a tavern interior by Jan Steen.
Penny may see nothing wrong in making the art world completely reliant on hand-outs from arms manufacturers and credit-card salesmen but, thanks be to Goya, some of us do. Since he seems rather badly informed on the subject I had better advise him that sponsors are, by and large, ignorant, short-sighted and self-serving. They embark upon sponsorship programmes because it is a relatively cheap form of advertising that can usually be written off against tax. It is also a way in which certain dirty reputations can be laundered. To think that they do it out of philanthropy or love of art is to display a naivety that borders on stupidity.
Or perhaps Mr Penny belongs to that wretched modern school of pragmatists who do not mind where the money comes from provided there is lots of it and it ‘helps the art world’. Disillusion yourself again. The money from sponsorship never arrives on the plate gleaming, crisp and free. These people are not fools with big holes at the bottom of their purses, as certain inhabitants of the art world fondly imagine. Sponsors only support what is going to be of use to them. They impose conditions. They orchestrate events. They are not in the business of taking risks. They know damn well that supporting George Stubbs at the Tate will bring more attention to themselves than encouraging six young painters from Hornsey who, unlike Stubbs, might actually need the support. Thus sponsorship becomes a form of censorship. People who know nothing about art, and care less, are being put into positions in which they can determine what the rest of us will see, while the art world, silly as ever, thinks it has them in the palm of its hand.
I wish Nicholas Penny had been present at the Royal Academy on the day that Cimabue’s once-great Crucifixion was being installed. The cross was being toured around the world by Olivetti, who had paid for a ghastly computer-calculated restoration which had frozen it for ever in a lurid pointillist limbo and left it looking like a cheap souvenir of Florence. Watching that once-sacred object being bashed around, levered through doors, scraped, shunted, abused, lugged around the world like a fairground freak, just to sell more typewriters, brought me face to face with the ‘discreet association’ of sponsors. Does Mr Penny know which two great powers have succeeded in removing the Horses of San Marco from Italy? The first was Napoleon, who had them put up on the Arc du Carrousel in Paris, hitched to a golden chariot driven by himself. The second was Olivetti, who again lugged one on a promotional tour of the world which lasted several years.
I mention this because Penny singles out Venice in his letter. I imagine that he believes, as I believe, that Venice is a past example of a successful ‘union of art and commerce’, although it’s hard to know what Mr Penny believes for his letter is so remarkably free of coherent statements. His reference to Titian is, I presume, a reference to the fresco decoration of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi undertaken by Giorgione, helped by Titian, around 1508. What is his point? Does he imagine that the German warehouse was some sort of shed of the kind you find in Wapping? It was a grand, canal-side office. Giorgione and Titian were being used as political ambassadors to improve and strengthen commercial links between Venice and the North. The Venetian state was good to its artists. It valued and used them. It encouraged them. It paid the Bellini family a state pension. It employed Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese to decorate not only its warehouses but also its palaces, churches and government offices. It believed that posterity would remember it for its art rather than its commercial successes, as the Venetians themselves remembered the Greeks. And the Venetians have been proved right. Does Mr Penny really believe that what we are witnessing at the moment is a comparable union of art and commerce? Will we, too, be remembered for the art which our commercial interests are encouraging? Or is the truth that in our times the state can be seen frantically trying to wash its hands of art, leaving the market wide open for speculators, sponsors, dealers, trendy collectors, art ‘consultants’?
Finally, in what I presume to be an attempt at delivering some kind of epistolic coup de grâce, Penny reveals that I had once written favourably about Julian Schnabel, an artist whose work can be found in the Charles Saatchi collection. So what? Just because I question the role of a giant collector like Saatchi doesn’t mean that I think that all the work he collects is worthless. On the contrary, he is clearly a collector of real conviction and enthusiasm whose thoughts on art are worth considerably more than a penny – which is more than I can say for some. I will save Nicholas Penny the trouble of consulting his files any further by admitting here and now that there are many artists in the Charles Saatchi collection whose work I admire.
The Guardian, London EC1
Mr Penny wrote ‘discrete’, but meant discreet.
Editor, ‘London Review’