The Case for Geoffrey Hill
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’
SIR: In his book Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History, W.J. McCormack tells us – in a rather curious phrase – that Yeats ‘rewrites the terms upon which he would be interpreted’. (He also tells us that when he refers to Yeats he doesn’t mean the ‘biographical individual’, but ‘the summum of texts bearing his name’.) There’s a certain circularity about this statement which makes it difficult to get to grips with what it actually means (I think it means that Yeats’s view of Irish history was both selective and subjective, but I cannot be sure of this). An element of imperspicuity runs through the book, and it’s as much an effect of Mr McCormack’s use of language as anything else. This is why I chose, in my review of Ascendancy and Tradition (LRB, 5 September), to consider the manner in which the book is written as well as its matter – an approach to which Mr McCormack takes great exception (Letters, 3 October). Clearly, he would like to write the terms upon which he would be reviewed.
He reads some odd opinions into my review. In his letter, he goes on to align himself with a lot of affronted Catholics whom he imagines seething at my miscalling of their religion. In fact, in this case, he’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick he has selected to beat me with. When I use the phrase ‘a more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism’ (which he quotes), I am saying that Catholicism can take some rancid forms, of which I give two examples taken from one of the other books under consideration: an instance of religion becoming fused with pagan lore, and a ‘more orthodox’ case of anti-Protestant feeling running very high indeed.
McCormack refers dismissively to ‘the language of the tea-party’, which he implies I favour: clearly he prefers the language of the Boston Tea Party – everything overboard, cogency included. Finally, I am puzzled by the word ‘maudlin’ which appears at the opening of his onslaught. I assure him that I was neither tearful nor tipsy when I wrote the review, though if anything could drive me to drink or make me weep, it is Mr McCormack’s fondness for academic jargon.
SIR: I can only apologise. Antonio Tejero’s attempted coup took place, as Maria Eugenia Fuentes says (Letters, 19 September), in 1981 and not, as I stated in my review of David Gilmour’s The Transformation of Spain, in 1980. As for her other point, I can only reply that it is obviously the case that no set of political claims is ever likely to be met to the full satisfaction of all the claimants, particularly if such claims demand the partial dismemberment of a nation state. I would still maintain, however, that ‘by and large’ the more moderate, at least, of the Catalan nationalists have ‘got the measure of autonomy they asked for’. That the ‘vast majority of the Catalonians themselves’ have often wanted more than their able and honest politicians were able to secure for them, or wanted other things, I don’t doubt.
Mr Todd Mitchell, on the other hand, on the same Letters page, seems consistently to have missed – or, enraged by my ‘Leftist litany’, has wilfully distorted – every point he raises. I did not deny that many Republicans before the outbreak of the Civil War (and a great many more after) were ‘Reds’. My, or rather Gilmour’s, point was that before 1936 their numbers were too small to constitute a threat to parliamentary democracy and certainly too small to legitimate an assault by the Army on an elected government, and that, in the official historiography of the war, the Republican cause and the ambitions of the Communist Party were made synonymous. Nor, of course, do I ‘place Franco in the 15th century’ (however that might be achieved). What I said was that Franco’s political values were largely modelled on a fantastic vision of those of 15th and 16th-century Castile who believed that Spain could only be una, grande y libre if it became, once again, a Castilian society (hence the fierce suppression of all separatist ambitions), stamped out the hated liberalism which had lost Spain its empire, and closed its frontiers to foreign ideas and foreign values, though not, of course, to foreign capital and foreign technology. Nor does this claim in any way deny Franco’s skill as a negotiator. Franco could be – since Mr Todd Mitchell urges us to rush to our Machiavelli – as much a fox as he was a lion. He could hardly have remained in power for so long if he had not been. But that does not make him a ‘statesman’, much less does it make him the architect of a ‘modern’ political regime. We still know too little about what took place during Franco’s famous meeting with Hitler at Hendaye railway station. But it clearly suited Hitler in 1940 to have a ‘non-belligerent’ ally at the entrance to the Mediterranean. A German occupation would not only have meant a further extension of German military forces, since the Spaniards had none of their own worth speaking of, but would have obliged the Reich to shore up an almost bankrupt economy, in addition to granting Franco, as the price of his continuing co-operation, an African empire.
As to accusations of anti-semitism. The only ones I can find in my review are a reference to the ‘Judeo-Masonic Conspiracy’ and the claim that, for Franco, the Civil War had been a ‘crusade’ against ‘liberalism, Freemasonry, anti-clericalism and Judaism’. Since the first is a phrase used by Franco himself and the second could be found, when I was a student at Barcelona University in the early Sixties, in any of the accepted histories of the war, I see no reason to recant. Castile, as Mr Todd Mitchell must surely know, has a longer history of anti-Judaism (although an ambiguous attachment to the image of Al Andalus has precluded simple anti-semitism) than any other European state, and something of this attitude persisted under the Franco regime. But that regime did not persecute Jews – I never claimed that it did – although in the early days of the regime it did not make life easy for them either. As for the Centre for the study of Sephardim culture, well yes, it is ‘15th’, or at least ‘16th-century’ in a way. The first Hebrew studies in Spain, after the Reconquista, were in fact established at Alcala de Henares in 1527.
King’ College, Cambridge