Fallen Language

Donald Davie

  • The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas by Geoffrey Hill
    Deutsch, 203 pp, £12.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 233 97581 0

If, when we rhyme ‘tomb’ with ‘womb’, we conceive that we are making a connection never before thought of, we are innocent indeed; and our innocence will rightly be derided – as a callowness in ourselves which the language that we use, British English, has long ago grown out of. We have shown ourselves to be less grown-up than the language that we attempt to bend to our immature purposes – an attempt that the language itself frustrates by appealing, implicitly and inevitably, to English-language-users more worldly-wise than we are. If this is true (it is a matter seldom canvassed), out of many possibilities that spring to mind two should be noticed: first, we may conceive of a language – as it might be Russian, or even American English – that is less worldly-wise than British English; and secondly we may conceive of, and even think that we register around us, a linguistic community – users of British English – which by wilful or enforced ignorance of past usages may force their experienced language back into inexperience, to a point where rhyming ‘tomb’ with ‘womb’ may once again seem to be innocent, a thunderclap of unheralded revelation.

These reflections are prompted by Geoffrey Hill’s formidably erudite and compacted essay, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, which reappears now in The Lords of Limit, a volume which, it must be said, in everything from format to price does very great credit to the publishers. This particular essay has provoked in another attentive reader, John Lucas (LRB, Vol. 5, No 20), the reflection that ‘language cannot be innocent.’ But surely it needs to be remarked that whereas indeed the British English that Hill and Lucas share cannot be in this sense ‘innocent’, that doesn’t necessarily hold true of other languages (Russian, Mexican Spanish, American English, and so on) – a possibility which at once raises perhaps insoluble problems for translators from those languages into British English. However that may be, we can with only a little rhetorical overemphasis declare that British English is ‘fallen’, is ‘depraved’. And such theological terminology is very much in Geoffrey Hill’s line. The problem for a British poet like Hill is precisely that his medium, British English, is much more knowing than he can hope to be, or perhaps would want to be.

However, recognising that British English is unavoidably depraved, let us be continually aware, and make our readers aware, of how duplicitous it is – that is at all events one way forward, and the way that Hill has taken in his Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, and in other poems also. John Lucas, once he has admitted that British English has lost its innocence, seems to have no firm footing for distinguishing, as he tries to do, acceptable from unacceptable depravities (decadent refinements) that British English, at Hill’s hands, indulges in. Many of Geoffrey Hill’s most devoted admirers applaud the opalescent sonorities that from time to time he contrives for them, while refusing to pay the price that he scrupulously demands – of recognising that such gratifying resonances are part and parcel of a way with language that he will expose, at other points, as heartlessly casuistical or sportive.

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