Accidents of Language

John Lucas

  • The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy by Geoffrey Hill
    Agenda and Deutsch, 31 pp, £3.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 233 97549 7

In the issue of Agenda for Spring 1983 there is an essay by Geoffrey Hill which will obviously become required reading for anyone who is seriously interested in his poetry. ‘Our word is our bond’ is in many ways an apologia for Hill’s view of poetry and, more particularly, for his sense of himself as poet. It is as dense and allusive as much of his poetry, and so closely argued that it’s almost impossible to tease out individual threads without running the risk of damaging the entire fabric. Still, the risk is worth taking, if only because to do so helps with the reading of his new, long poem, in the publication of which Agenda had a hand.

‘Our word is our bond’ is, among other things, a meditation on what happens to language when it enters a poem. How much play is there in language which is not reduced to plain, denotative, logical prose? (Always supposing such a reduction to be possible.) And what does ‘play’ mean? Hill directs his questions against a Hobbesian view of language, which regards words as clear and unambiguous signs that identify a world of things we can confidently know. Hill’s own view of the matter seems to be that the world cannot be as aggressively captured by language as Hobbes and his recent admirers assume. It has its own claims, almost its own aggressions, and these are registered through a language which is accident-prone and enables its user to discover or become aware of matters which will lie hidden from those who disdain the opportunities that figurative language puts in their way. Hobbes called metaphor the ignis fatuus of scientific reasoning. Hill is a grandly metaphoric poet and one who also rejoices in the accidents of pun and verbal coincidence. As he himself puts it, ‘in a poet’s involvement with language, above all, there is, one would darkly and impetuously claim, an element of helplessness, of being at the mercy of accidents, the prey of one’s own presumptuous energy.’ The play of this syntax has about it an untiring self-consciousness that is positively Jamesian. The ‘one’ who speaks does so on behalf of the generality of poets, is any poet. Yet he is also a particular poet. And for that poet to claim anything ‘darkly and impetuously’ is at one and the same time to make an almost Shelleyan bid for the primacy of imagination while accepting its possible solipsistic and error-laden basis. For those accidents, that energy, may well issue from a personality that can’t be taken on trust. Indeed, as we shall see, Hill says as much: although ‘one’ would make the claim for a poet’s helplessness before language, something prohibits the claim from sticking, since that would indicate a surrender to forces with which ‘one’ rightly feels ill at ease.

The almost inexhaustible tact of this sentence is typical of the entire essay and might, I suppose, strike some as a mere matter of tactics: ludicrous rather than ludic. Yet at one point Hill is plain enough. He gives his assent to Ransom’s dictum that ‘the density or connotativeness of poetic language reflects the world’s density,’ and he goes on to remark that certain key terms in Wordsworth’s poetry – ‘blind’, ‘gleam’, ‘perplexity’ – ‘gather their reciprocating force from this blank recognition: from the sense that without perplexity there would be no gleam and that the “blindness” embodies them both.’

Although Hill does not say so, his sense of language as something that arrives ready laden with ambiguity, and, as it were, the necessary infections of the world, is not merely anti-Hobbesian: it is anti-Arnoldian. ‘Where shall we find language innocent enough,’ Arnold asked himself, to be able to tell the truth in ‘a natural and thence irresistible manner’? The answer, as he himself seemed to feel but did not want to accept, is nowhere. Language cannot be innocent, and Hill takes for granted the poet’s responsibility to deny those ‘adamantine affirmations’ of linguistic and aesthetic theorists whose confident pronouncements ‘foreclose on other possibilities’. Arnold’s impossible yearning for an innocent language is one reason why he became three-parts iced-over. (It may even have helped him out of an intolerable dilemma: how, on the one hand, to wish to produce a poetry that should be ‘a criticism of life’, while, on the other hand, suspecting that life was altogether too much of a mess for poetry to cope with.) By contrast, Hill’s chosen ‘helplessness’ before the dreck of language is what makes it possible for him to function as a poet.

It is true that Hill does not say this, but it can be inferred from his argument, as can an even more important point: that history is itself not to be known through theory, fact or positivist assertions, but through accident and contingency. History is not merely known through language, history is language. That, I suppose, is evident enough from Hill’s manner of procedure in such previous volumes as King Log and Mercian Hymns, but it feels particularly the case with his new poem. In an end-note he claims that ‘Péguy, stubborn ran-cours and mishaps and all, is one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences, of our century,’ and putting it that way suggests that he admires Péguy because Péguy behaved towards his time as the poet should behave towards language. (But then Péguy was not only a poet – he was the author of Le Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d’Arc.) His stubborn rancours imply a distinctively Post-Modern attitude to the world and in particular to history: confident only of its density, perplexity, of its having escaped from the net of theory.

Hill’s poem starts in blood, absurdly. ‘Crack of a starting-pistol, Jean Jaurès/dies in a wine-puddle.’ An accident of language, or was Péguy’s call for Jean-Jaurès’s death responsible for his murder? ‘Must men stand by what they write?’ Yes and no, seems to be Hill’s answer to a question that possessed Yeats. But he is more concerned with trying to read history through language, and seeing it as resistant to specific answers.

History commands the stage wielding a toy gun, rehearsing another scene. It has raged so before, countless times; and will do, countless times more, in the guise of supreme clown, dire tragedian.

Those oxymorons may at first seem reminiscent of Marvell in their accidental discovery of the ways in which clichés lead to truths. (‘He nothing common did or mean/Upon that memorable scene.’) But Hill is a very different poet. In his essay he remarks that ‘the language a writer uses and the writer who uses the language are inextricably involved and implicated,’ and he adds that ‘the deepest intuitions of any creative spirit are ineluctably compounded with its inveterate stubbornness and incapacity.’

Stubbornness is not a quality that one associates with Marvell, nor can he be readily imagined as the author of a remark that is at once so chastening and aggrandising. Intuitions are contaminated by stubbornness but only stubbornness can produce them. And for Hill Péguy is characterised by stubbornness. ‘Stubbornly on guard’ he says of him:

Truth’s pedagogue, braving an entrenched class
of fools and scoundrels, children of the world,
his eyes caged and hostile behind glass –
still Péguy said that Hope is a little child.

Violent contrariety of men and days; calm
juddery bombardment of a silent film
showing such things: its canvas slashed with rain
and St Elmo’s fire. Victory of the machine!

The brisk celluloid clatters through the gate;
the cortège of the century dances in the street;
and over and over the jolly cartoon
armies of France go reeling towards Verdun.

It would be impossible not to admire the ways in which Hill brings alive the contrarieties he identifies: the victory of the machine, which is at once the war machine, the machinery of war and the cinematograph, is made to reveal and become accountable for the physical conditions that soldiers had to endure; and by a perfect accident of language film-reel shows the fate that awaits Nivelle’s army at Verdun.

History comes before us as tragic farce, at least as we may read it through the cartoon quality of early cinema. But what of that class of ‘fools and scoundrels’? Not quite an old bitch gone in the teeth, a botched civilisation, but not that different either. The rasping impatience of the formulation certainly comes a long way short of Marvell’s poise, and leads to the question of just whose stubborn rancour this is: Péguy’s or Hill’s? In an early poem Hill claimed that ‘There is no bloodless myth will hold,’ and in this new poem it often feels as though he is out for blood. In view of the material he confronts, his rejection of a melioristic, liberal reading of history is proper enough: less proper is what occasionally feels most like a glowering, unlovely egotism, a pedagogy that lacks, say, Yeats’s generous understanding of the motley history forces all of us wear. On one occasion, it is true, Hill allows for his own implication in history.

We are the occasional just men who sit
in gaunt self-judgment on their self-defeat,
the élite hermits, secret orators
of an old faith devoted to new wars.

True also, Section Eight modulates into a kind of weary tenderness for the ‘Lords of life, stump-toothed, with ragged breath’, who ‘slowly come to use/dreams of oblivion in lieu of paradise’. Nevertheless, the poem’s presiding tone is more frequently mandarin, abrasive or – well, schoolmasterly. We must

turn away and contemplate the working
of the radical soul – instinct, intelligence,
memory, call it what you will – waking
into the foreboding of its inheritance.

There is a heavy prosaicism about these lines which occurs elsewhere in the poem, which its rhythms reinforce, and which I dislike because of the way it advertises its seriousness. It too clearly has designs on the reader, as do the obtrusive half-echoes of Tate and Eliot. It is demanding to be taken as important, but ends up seeming merely self-important. In addition, the persistent games-playing with words comes across less as serendipity than as a matter of wilful labour.

Patience hardens to a pittance, courage
unflinchingly declines into sour rage ...

                      the common ‘dur’
built into duration, the endurance of war;
blind Vigil herself, helpless and obdurate ...

‘Encore plus doloreuxet doux’. Note how
sweetness devours sorrow, renders it again.

I do not know what purpose is to be served by my noting these things: if it is to show how the density of history and/or its violent contrarieties must be apprehended through the accidents of language, then I have to say that as far as I am concerned the game seems solipsistic, arbitrary and tiresome. Besides, I cannot note how sweetness devours sorrow in English, because it doesn’t.

Yet the poem has intensely dramatic moments, and some of them result from the fact that Hill, whose ability to write a fully sensuous poetry has never been better shown than in the moment where he evokes Péguy’s dangerous dream of an ancien régime – ‘musky red gillyvors, the wicker bark/of clematis braided across old brick’ – deliberately contains such stylistic graces within a poem that strives for what he presumably regards as more important, more graceless effects. In his essay he says of Hopkins’s ugly phrasings that they exemplify ‘a consciousness which accepts that the determining of grace necessitates at times a graceless articulation.’ In his own poem he relentlessly pursues puns and clichés for the revelations they may contain, and this inevitably requires a certain amount of ‘graceless’ writing. (It also leaves this reader, at least, not always sure whether a cliché is knowingly used or has slipped through unnoticed. ‘Must men stand by what they write?’ I look in vain for the possible exploitation of that dead phrase.) At all events, the strategy of Hill’s poem seems to be deliberately pyrrhic. Whether you find that acceptable will almost certainly hinge on whether you accept the validity of his seeing history by the glimpses that a particular kind of language affords.