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The Case for Geoffrey Hill

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.

Tom Paulin

The Oxford Vote

SIR: I wonder if I might be allowed to answer the eight points which Professor Pulzer selected from my letter (Letters, 2 May). The answers will be brief, since when one has deleted caricatures or inventions, there is not a great deal of substantive material left. I do not, for example, understand the references to ‘Mintruth’. Is Professor Pulzer saying that a check on government funding of universities, or the introduction of private funding or endowments, is equivalent to state censorship? Does he think there was more freedom for intellectuals in socialist states such as Cuba, Allende’s Chile, or today’s Nicaragua? I am genuinely curious.

1. I am grateful for the revelation that the award of an honorary Oxford doctorate was always a celebration of the Butskellite consensus. I wish that this knowledge could be more widely disseminated.

2. As was made clear in my letter, the most unattractive aspect of Oxford politics is not Marxism, but the self-indulgent, cowardly, woolly fantasies known as the Butskellite consensus.

3. I am not responsible for what was said to Professor Pulzer on ‘the morning after’, and do not understand his comment. I can only repeat that one of the most distressing aspects of life in what should be a fountainhead of learning is its apparent inability to resist new and trashy intellectual fashions, as the current ‘rereading’ of literature (no doubt soon to be followed by the ‘rereading’ of history) shows.

4. The prospect of a science park in Oxford is hardly an argument for more state funding of research. If businessmen feel they can make money out of Oxford science, it is quite disgraceful that they should be enabled to do so by money coerced on pain of imprisonment from those in employment. If there is to be a substantive spin-off from Oxford inventions, it should be financed by the world of industry, just as industrialists should be financing the training of engineers and computer operators. Why should such training be a charge on the state when it is of benefit to specific interest groups?

5. I did not suggest that there had been a ‘mass recruitment’ of Marxists at Buckingham, but simply demonstrated that there was more ideological tolerance in a privately-funded university than at Oxford. Furthermore, UCB has survived despite having to attract payment from students and their parents, not at the expense of disadvantaged members of the nation state.

6. The attack on Japan is irrelevant to today’s reality: indeed, the ESRC has published numerous studies which demonstrate this point (in this area, at least, catching up with current general knowledge). The day has long gone when Japan was dependent on exploiting other people’s inventions. Today she is so far ahead that multi-million-pound research institutes are being established in Europe to try to compete, but with the certain knowledge that they will fail. Japan has enough inventions of her own, and the research was largely funded by private enterprise. There is no reason why the supply of knowledge or research should be a natural monopoly, and hence the prerogative of the state.

7. Professor Pulzer seems to be saying that any attempt to evaluate the worth of research projects financed by the nation state will result in thought control and totalitarianism. Strange that this is not the case in Europe and America. What, besides, is so special about those currently in charge of research funding that makes them immune to fashion, to prejudice, to personal resentments and to political bias? Who are these giants of integrity and originality? Any research student who has had to spend weeks concocting projects in a form that they hope will appeal to what they perceive as the current obsessions of the various research councils will want to know. Does Pulzer feel that all problems are ‘obvious’? That what are perceived as the ‘right’ fields of research are always unchallengeably and exactly that? This is Popperian idealism run mad.

8. I am thrilled to learn that there are ‘lots’ of Thatcherites at Oxford. Perhaps he could let me have a list, so that we could emerge, blinking, from our bunkers and get to know each other.

It is a pleasure to be abused by A.J.Ayer (Letters, 23 May). Unfortunately, his descent into epistemological precision (‘the ludicrously inept image of Wittgenstein’s cavorting around his room with a poker has no basis in fact’) is a little hasty and hotheaded. Friedrich Hayek has referred to an incident in the early 1940s when

Suddenly Wittgenstein leapt to his feet, poker in hand, indignant to the highest degree, and he proceeded to demonstrate with the implement how simple and obvious Matter really was. Seeing this rampant man in the middle of the room swinging a poker was certainly rather alarming, and one felt inclined to escape into a safe corner. Frankly, my impression at that time was that he had gone mad!

(‘Remembering my cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein’, Encounter, August 1977). In the November 1977 issue of the same journal, a correspondent referred to a similar incident described by Karl Popper, in Unended Quest: An Intellectual Biography (1976):

At that point, Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor’s baton to emphasise his assertions, challenged me: ‘Give me an example of a moral rule!’ I replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers’. Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.

Perhaps A.J. Ayer thinks that Hayek and Popper invented this ‘ludicrously inept image’ which has ‘no basis in fact’. Certainly, something is ludicrous here: but I fear it is the self-satisfaction of those with high reputations and inadequate information. Neither of my questions was rhetorical. Despite the efforts to sanctify Russell and his work, the question remains: ‘how much’ did he contribute to ‘basic scientific thought’?

A.C. Bramwell

Saatchi and Sartchi

SIR: Nicholas Penny (Letters, 18 April) accuses Waldemar Januszczak of inconsistency in praising Julian Schnabel two years ago while now attacking his kind of art and his Saatchi patrons (LRB, 21 March). But Januszczak is more ‘inconsistent’ than this, to put no finer point on it. In the London Review of Books he attacked the Saatchis and big-business sponsorship of the arts, yet, just over a month before, he published a half-page article in the Guardian (16 February) welcoming the Saatchis’s new art gallery so enthusiastically that the Saatchis enclosed photocopies of it in the press pack they handed to reviewers at the official press view of the gallery. In his Guardian piece Januszczak described the Saatchi collection of paintings by Andy Warhol as ‘hugely impressive’, adding that ‘Saatchi agrees with me that the 13 major Warhols on show reveal a political and moral dimension to his art which is usually overlooked. It is not Warhol’s passive acceptance of these mass-produced images that you sense here, but an implied criticism.’ Yet in the London Review of Books, Januszczak writes of Warhol:

The man is so dangerously pragmatic he even accepts atom bombs. In Warhol’s Disaster series a whole block of mushroom clouds is repeated over and over again like a postage stamp. This is pragmatism on an unbelievable scale. Take away a human being’s urge for self-improvement and you have Andy Warhol.

Has Januszczak now ‘overlooked’ the ‘political and moral dimension to his art’ which five weeks before he and Saatchi were in agreement on? Is this opportunism, hypocrisy, or just cynicism?

Paul Overy
Hackney, London

Killing an error

SIR: I am nonplussed by my friend Edmund Leach’s judgment (LRB, 7 March) that the refutation in my book Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth of the conclusions reached by Margaret Mead in her Coming of Age in Samoa was ‘justified but academically unnecessary’. This refutation was both justified and academically necessary for the very substantial reason that Mead’s demonstrably erroneous conclusions about Samoa have been, over many years, repeated in numerous anthropological textbooks, from Herskovits’s Man and His Works: The Science of Cultural Anthropology of the 1940s to Swartz and Jordan’s Culture: The Anthropological Approach of the 1980s.

Nor was this process confined to the USA. Professor E.E. Evans-Pritchard, of the University of Oxford, in his Social Anthropology, based on his influential BBC lectures of 1950, repeated Mead’s conclusions about Samoa without questioning them in any way. Professor Morris Carstairs, in his Reith Lectures of 1962, based part of his argument on quite erroneous statements about the sexual mores of the Samoans which he had derived from Mead. Further, Mead’s erroneous general conclusion about adolescence in Samoa has been enshrined as though it were a scientific fact in major works of reference such as Makers of Modern Culture (Justin Wintle, ed., 1981). Yet it is surely beyond question that if science and scholarship are, in Francis Bacon’s words, to ‘turn upon the poles of truth’, there can be no tolerance of error within them. As Charles Darwin once remarked: ‘to kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.’

Derek Freeman
The Australian National University, Canberra

Eliot at Smokefall

SIR: Neither ‘social geography’ nor any other kind will get the main entrance of Harrods ‘looking north-east’, as Barbara Everett avers (Letters, 2 May): it faces almost exactly north-west. And while Gloucester Road does run from about due west to nearly south-west of the Brompton Road store, it is nearly a mile away at its closest, not ‘some half-mile’s distance’.

At the risk that what I don’t know will make me disingenuous, I feel bound to ask whether I ought to buy a second-hand poetry reading from someone who plainly can’t read a map?

Charles Plouviez
London NW3

William Empson

SIR: I have been commissioned to write an authorised critical biography of the late Professor Sir William Empson, and would be grateful to hear from any of your readers with personal or professional reminiscences – colleagues, students, friends and chance acquaintances. Original letters and other documents (including telling comments on student essays) would be most welcome and carefully returned, but I would be just as happy to receive copies – to be sure, as Sir William might have said.

John Haffenden
Department of English Literature, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TD

Sam Shepard

SIR: One small point about David Jones’s excellent review of Sam Shepard’s work (LRB, 2 May) – Hawk Moon was not published in the US in 1981, as stated, but by Black Sparrow Press in 1973.

Michael Moorcock


Wolfgang Leppmann’s Rilke: A Life was published by Lutterworth on 25 April (419 pp., £17.50, 0 7188 2620 5). It has been translated by Russell Stockman in collaboration with the author, and contains verse translations by Richard Exner. Reviewing the German edition in LRB, Vol. 5, No 20, J.P. Stern praised the ‘fine detail of the biographical reconstruction’ – achieved by Leppmann in the face of some difficulty, since ‘the art of biography has few outstanding examples in German.’ In Vol. 4, No 13, Clive James wrote about the Australian poet and ‘no-hoper’ Christopher Brennan. A selection of Brennan’s poems, letters and critical essays, edited by Terry Sturm, has been published by the University of Queensland Press in its ‘Portable Australian Authors’ series (477 pp., £16.95 and £9.95, April, 0 7022 1736 0).

Richard Wollheim’s The Thread of Life, reviewed by Jon Elster in the last issue, and ascribed there to its American publisher, Harvard University Press, is published in England by Cambridge.

Editors, ‘London Review’