In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Awkward BowJeremy Noel-Tod
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Orchards of Syon 
by Geoffrey Hill.
Penguin, 72 pp., £9.99, September 2002, 0 14 100991 8
Show More
Show More

The first poem of For the Unfallen (1958), Geoffrey Hill’s first book, was entitled ‘Genesis’. It declared:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

Hot blood is at the heart of Hill’s theological, oppositional poetics. Man’s passions may turn vicious, but without them he is unredeemable. Hence Hill’s admiration for righteous anger and blood sacrifice. Blood, in his poems, functions as a metonym for sincerity as much as savagery; and the image of fake blood (a ‘wound’ from a ‘red biro’) recurs as a metaphor for the problem that preoccupies Hill as a writer: how to be both artful and sincere. ‘Artistic men prod dead men from their stone’ in one early poem. The ambiguity – whose stone is it? – is accusatory. Hill presents himself as a writer compelled to memorialise the glorious dead in verse, even though the cold-bloodedness of the artist aestheticising the suffering of others troubles and inhibits him.

This agonising attitude seemed, until recently, to be reflected in the curtness of Hill’s forms and the infrequency of his output. Since the mid-1990s, though, he has produced a book-length work in a remarkably free new style every two years. After the costive Canaan (1996), Hill returned to the semi-autobiographical method of his most successful volume, Mercian Hymns (1971), to write The Triumph of Love (1998), one of the great long poems of the 20th century. This is high confessional poetry:

vulnerable, proud
anger is, I find, a related self
of covetousness. I came late
to seeing that. Actually, I had to be
shown it. What I saw was rough, and still
pains me. Perhaps it should pain me more.

The book begins with a Tennysonian heart attack, ‘the blown aorta/pelting out blood’. Hill’s emotional and medical history, seen up close, became an unstaunchable source of subject matter, no longer problematically second-hand.

Two books have followed: Speech! Speech! (2000), and now The Orchards of Syon. All three are artfully structured. The Triumph of Love circles, repeating its first line almost verbatim as its last, like the apocalyptic medieval dream-poem Pearl, while its 150 irregular stanzas correspond to the 150 Psalms. Speech! Speech! is divided into 12-line stanzas, also like Pearl, but its 120 sections stand for de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom. The Orchards of Syon is written in 72 24-line cantos, making it perhaps a Book of Days, as well as a version of the kabbalistic exercise of meditating on the 72 names of God. In fulfilling these structures, Hill has encountered the same problem Eliot did when he conceived of Four Quartets – a symmetrical crown for his life’s work modelled on one poem, ‘Burnt Norton’. The quality-control lapses in the three quartets that followed, especially ‘The Dry Salvages’, are the result of this new approach to composition, which required certain patterns to be strictly completed. The sections of The Triumph of Love – Hill’s ‘Burnt Norton’ – expand and contract instinctively, leanly, providing necessary variety. The whole book is a beautifully balanced expression of Hill’s characteristic alternating rhythm. The repetitive stanza structures of Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon, on the other hand, are more hospitable to dense, self-parodic filler.

In a recent Paris Review interview, Hill insisted that ‘genuinely difficult art is truly democratic,’ because it resists the politically expedient simplification of experience. ‘Accessibility’, for Hill, is a bloodless myth. There is a danger of taking the maxim syllogistically, though, and arriving at the position that difficulty is necessary if poetry is to attain Hill’s ideal of public art. Hill also insists that he is a ‘simple, sensuous and passionate poet’. Many critics cannot credit this. Stanza 56 of Speech! Speech! was singled out as evidence, by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian:

Flanders poppy no trial variant. Does
my bad breath offend you? Pick a name
of the unknown ypres master l as alias.
Abandoned mark iv tanks, rostered by sex,

Marlbrough s’en va-t-en . . . frozen mud
wrestlers
entertaining the Jocks. Arrest yourself:
for grief of no known cause, excuse me.
A superflux among bit players l which
happens to be the best part: unnatural
wear and tear but finished by Christmas.
Beef of Old England’s off. You can eat cake.
yeomanry horseplay fails as light relief.

Despite the rapid switching of tones, the passage is broadly coherent. We begin at the Western Front in the First World War. Flanders poppies, Ypres, the invention of the tank, mud, ‘over by Christmas’ – none of this is specialist knowledge. The way Hill elaborates his subject is more complicated. He seems to be interleaving the modern campaign in Flanders with that led by the Duke of Marlborough (why misspelled?) in the 18th century. The allusion to Marie-Antoinette’s apocryphal words about cake is presumably an indictment of the high-handed attitude of the World War One generals: massive casualties are considered ‘unnatural/wear and tear’ of a ‘superflux’ (a word which, horribly, blends the bleeding men with the rain and liquid mud). In contrast to Marlborough, Haig pressed on disastrously during the winter months. The prevailing mood is ‘Oh what a lovely war’ irony: horror is entertainment; the unknown soldiers are ‘bit players’. The punning ‘horseplay’ and ‘light relief’ of the facetious final headline completes the time warp from tank warfare (tanks were, incidentally, classified by ‘sex’: males and females) back to cavalry. The Flanders poppy is ‘no trial variant’ because it isn’t a new strain of the poppy family, but a flower of symbolic significance, memorialising sacrifice that Hill fears is being forgotten (‘grief of no known cause’).

Although the surface is troubled, the sentiment is essentially simple. Hill’s passionate sincerity about his subject is only thinly disguised as the shorthand sarcasm of the political cartoonist (‘Beef of Old England’ is from Gillray). And there is a characteristic sensuousness in the words chosen both for sound (in this instance, careful cacophony) and precisely double meaning. Like Hill’s earlier sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, which used the French Symbolist sonnet – a supposedly hermetic aesthetic object – to address episodes from British history, Speech! Speech! plays at unlovely difficulty, while retaining a conservative faith in a rational tradition of poetry. This is a polemical conceit that is ultimately more problematic than anything found in ‘difficult’ contemporaries such as Ashbery or Prynne. In those Postmodernists, the instability of the sign is accepted and exploited; associations are not prioritised. For Hill, there is no interest in arbitrary surrealism or real incoherence. One of the stylistic reference points for Speech! Speech! is cryptography through the ages, but it’s hard to believe that it contains any entirely meaningless ciphers included to baffle interceptors. Hill values control and accountability too highly.

This intense control is the problem with stanza 56. Reading it means decrypting each dense statement. It is an accumulation of squibs on a theme, made difficult by the fact that it is an abortive dramatic monologue, which half supposes a hostile reader/ auditor (‘Does/my bad breath offend you?’) who is never fleshed out. Here and elsewhere, the poem’s subject is too much itself: public speech that fails. It suffers because it is not sufficiently counterbalanced – as The Triumph of Love was – by the theme of Geoffrey Hill, private man. The imbalance leads to passages which attempt seriously, but not entirely persuasively, to mourn Princess Diana.

The best way to read the book is not to decrypt but to skip. At its best, Hill’s late manner has a compelling rhetorical rhythm, quarrelling the reader (and himself) into a corner, then breaking away into stranger, more emotionally vulnerable – and often more visual – territory. It is a wary rhythm of short relieved by long: cool then hot. The following passage – also declared unfairly difficult, by Alan Brownjohn in the Sunday Times – is a fine example:

Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one’s country l bearing wíth it
always something under- or over-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon-animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing – marching – in and out of time –
to Holst’s jupiter l ás to jerusalem.

The sentence can be divided into two four-line halves, each employing a stop-stop-start rhythm of adjectives launching longer clauses, hesitating over the line breaks until the second half makes good on its crescendo. The weird, English apocalypse conjured up by the wordplay – the women march ‘to jerusalem’ ‘in and out of time’ – is only glossed, not explained, by the information that something similar happened during a rehearsal for the premiere of Holst’s Planets suite (Brownjohn’s objection was the obscurity of the incident). Hill is talking about his mixed (‘under- or over-subscribed’) feelings towards England (‘I vow to thee my country’ takes its tune from Jupiter). He is attracted by the possibly apocryphal anecdote, yet typically suspicious of its easy appropriation, mindful of the fate of Blake’s prologue to Milton. The image of the marching charwomen, which might be either Walt Disney or Stanley Spencer, expresses the full range of his feelings on the subject. When poetry achieves this, it is its privilege not to append any more prosaic explanation.

‘Don’t look it up this time; the sub-/ conscious does well by us; leave well alone,’ Hill instructs wearily in The Orchards of Syon. The poem’s more personable tone should appease the critics who thought that Speech! Speech! went wildly off-message. ‘You have sometimes said/that I project a show more/ stressful than delightful,’ the opening lines acknowledge. The Hopkinsian staccato stress accents, which bristled above the logomachic lines of Speech! Speech!, are sparingly deployed. It is Hopkins’s example as a delighting Christian nature poet that now prevails – here, after a rain shower:

new-fangled light, the slate roofs briefly
caught in scale-nets of silver, then
sheened with thin oils. These signals
I take as apprehension, new aligned
poetry with truth

Hill’s sincere engagement with Christianity places him intellectually as far from most of his contemporaries as the Catholic Hopkins was from most of his. The theme of The Orchards of Syon is classically Victorian, Arnoldian: how to reconcile the romantic love of nature with the otherworldliness of Christianity. Or, on Hill’s terms, how to align poetry with truth.

After Arnold and before Hill, the problem of Christian romanticism also kept T.S. Eliot awake, though not late enough, if Hill is to be believed. In a 1996 essay published in Agenda, Hill deprecated Four Quartets for having too readily ‘assuaged and consoled’ its first readers, and for subsequently embodying ‘Anglican Einfühlung’. Church of England chumminess is again attacked in The Triumph of Love: ‘The rule is clear enough: last/alleluias forte, followed by indifferent/ coffee and fellowship.’ Hill is clearly much exercised by this bloodless version of Christianity – the Holy Coffee Morning – and contrives to find Four Quartets (and in particular ‘Little Gidding’, the final quartet) guilty of its readers.

Strenuous prose notions can become subtle poetry. Section VI of The Triumph of Love reworked and rejected Eliot’s mystical closing alleluia, ‘And the fire and the rose are one’:

From the front room I might be able to see
the coal fire’s image planted in a circle
of cut-back rose bushes. Nothing is changed
by the strength of this reflection.

Eliot’s heavenly symbolism is brought back to earth, to the particular topography of Hill’s life. As with Eliot, the intensity of certain memories becomes a spur to meditation on the nature of eternity. But Hill is less ready to grant such moments – ‘this reflection’, which is both the poet’s reverie and the visual illusion of a burning bush – transfiguring power.

The Orchards of Syon finds him more peaceable. There is no explicit truce with Eliot, but Hill does concede that a snide remark in The Triumph of Love about Julian of Norwich – source of the reassuring refrain from ‘Little Gidding’, ‘All shall be well’ – was an ‘injustice’. The momentum is now towards the merging of visions:

And here – and there too – I
wish greatly to believe: that Bromsgrove
was, and is, Goldengrove; that the Orchards
of Syon stand as I once glimpsed them.

Hill uses ‘Goldengrove’, Hopkins’s generic term for the natural world (in ‘Spring and Fall’), to mediate between his childhood home in the Midlands and his hesitant vision of the apple groves on the edge of the Holy City. Hopkins’s sombre poem about a child ‘grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving’ invokes the Fall but not the Resurrection. It is typical of Hill to choose such a doubtful touchstone while also alluding – in the recurrent autumnal imagery – to Donne’s more redemptive analogy of the mortal and immortal: ‘in heaven it is alwaies Autumne, [God’s] mercies are ever in their maturity.’

Red, the colour of fall in New England, where Hill now lives, serves throughout The Orchards of Syon as the colour of reconciliation between life and death. Again echoing Eliot (‘Journey of the Magi’: ‘but set down/ This set down/This’), he writes:

Set this down
as anomy’s coherence, and the full-
blooded scrub maples torch themselves in the swamp.

The sentence itself barely coheres; its non sequitur accepts the oppositions of existence, the hot, the cold, ‘clashed consanguinity,/. . . diverse/affinities; unassuaged; rejoicing.’

The younger Hill admitted modern life parsimoniously into his short, stern lyrics; the older Hill is masterfully voracious. Here is the penultimate canto of The Orchards of Syon:

But now and in memory never so
wholly awaited, the breadth of this
autumnal land. In Goldengrove the full
trees trumpet their colours: earth-casualties
majestic; unreal as in life they build
riches of cadence, not yet decadence,
ruin’s festival. This much is allowed
us, forever tangling with England
in her quiet ways of betrayal. Natural
mother, good but not enough. Again, bring
recollection forward, weeping with rage.
Debit the lot to our chequered country,
crediting even so her haunted music.
Loyal incoherence not official
but now and then inspired: when circling
Heathrow on hold we are entertained
by Windsor’s scaled-down perfect replicas;
or as Sussex, dormant, rippling with shadows
of airflow, tilts, straightens under, and they
switch off the flight-chart.
So much for my conclusion, a small
remembrance, nos fidelités sont
des citadelles
– peguy. Our fealties taken
to be your places of refuge and defence.

As in the Holst passage from Speech! Speech!, the subject is Hill’s ambivalent feelings about his homeland: ‘chequered country’ is both a visual and moral epithet. Again, the difficulty is tempered by the rhythm, as the short, knotty abstractions give way to more expansive and personal writing. The first half flies dangerously close to the purely portentous, but the description of descending into England – ironically confusing Legoland UK with the House of Windsor’s place of refuge and defence nearby – is fresh, exact and movingly modern. Hill’s angry question in Speech! Speech! – ‘nów whose England áre you?’ – is itself put on hold above Sussex, Kipling’s heaven on earth (‘we, in godlike mood,/May of our love create our earth,/ And see that it is good’).

This is not Hill’s Paradiso, as Speech! Speech! hinted that it might be (‘Could this/perhaps end here: a Paradiso/not accounted for’)? The Orchards of Syon dwells on the paradisal more than any previous book but gestures only brokenly towards a conclusion, confessing ‘I cannot make it cohere’.

Here are the Orchards of Syon, neither wisdom
nor illusion of wisdom, not
compensation, not recompense: the Orchards
of Syon whatever harvests we bring them.

Hill’s scrupulousness prevents him, in these final lines, from asserting that the Orchards of Syon ‘are’ or ‘will be’ anything for certain. Instead, by a sleight of syntax he dramatises the mystic threshold where speech fails. This is a wisely awkward bow, and one that suggests Hill has not yet finished exploring his fruitfully ambiguous apprehension that ‘I’m/myself close to the inarticulate.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 25 No. 8 · 17 April 2003

Jeremy Noel-Tod askes why Marlborough is misspelled in Geoffrey Hill’s poem Speech! Speech! (LRB, 6 March). ‘Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre’ was a French popular song referring with schadenfreude to rumours (exaggerated) of Marlborough’s death at the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709. Lady Marlborough’s page dressed in black brings her the bad news. The name was even spelled ‘Malbrouk’ in German versions. Hill may have been thinking of Goethe’s second Roman Elegy (1790) in which he refers to English tourists being hounded by this song, immensely popular in the Revolutionary period. He compares it with his own dislike of being asked about The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Phil Poole
London N19

Vol. 25 No. 6 · 20 March 2003

Jeremy Noel-Tod’s meticulously close reading of a single stanza by Geoffrey Hill (LRB, 6 March) would have been an even better example of how these things should be done if he had spotted the provenance of the word ‘superflux’. In Hill’s Western Front context, it might very well be ‘a word which, horribly, blends the bleeding men with the rain and mud’. But it also contains Hill’s memory of King Lear. On the blasted heath, Lear admonishes himself:

Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Clive James
London SE1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.