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.

An important essay by Hill that he has unaccountably excluded from The Lords of Limit is called ‘The Conscious Mind’s Intelligible Structure: A Debate’ (Agenda, Autumn-Winter 1971/2). Here Hill says of Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’: ‘One is moved by ... the tune of a mind distrustful yet envious, mistrusting the abstraction, mistrusting its own mistrust, drawn half against its will into the chanting refrain that is both paean and threnos, yet, once drawn, committed utterly to the melody of the refrain.’ Except that Hill’s poem doesn’t have any one refrain to parallel Yeats’s ‘A terrible beauty is born,’ this seems to define exactly what Hill has attempted and perhaps accomplished in his poem about and for Péguy. And if Hill’s poem goes much further than Yeats’s in indulging clenches and word-play of the sort that moves John Lucas at times to exasperation (‘the game seems solipsistic, arbitrary and tiresome’), might we not plausibly argue that Hill’s British English in 1980 is unavoidably more ‘depraved’, more experienced, than Yeats’s Anglo-Irish was in 1917? And that Hill’s word-play is his way of acknowledging this? It’s striking, however, that Hill doesn’t exculpate himself in this way. He enters no such plea. For his focus in his essays is nearly always philosophical or theological, hardly ever historical. In ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, for instance, he assumes – implausibly, surely – that the issue as between plain and figurative English was the same for Spenser and Greville and Sidney, for Hobbes and Cudworth, for Locke and Berkeley, as for J.L. Austin and Iris Murdoch and himself. Similarly he assumes that Americans like Santayana and John Crowe Ransom and Kenneth Burke, when they speak of language, have in their sights and in their ears the same language as the one that he and Austin and Iris Murdoch speak. Yet both assumptions are surely, to say the least, questionable; and they minister to the unthinking insularity which leads Austin and other British philosophers to suppose that what they can observe about the behaviour of British English today is true of all languages anywhere and at any time.

John Lucas seems to agree with them, as when in one specific and revealing instance he objects to Hill’s lines:

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

Of this Lucas remarks, in a way that he plainly considers conclusive: ‘I cannot note how sweetness devours sorrow in English, because it doesn’t.’ But this is to assume that English, in that sense, is the language that Hill’s poem is written in. There is so much French in the poem that this is surely a very hazardous assumption. Lucas, we may suppose, is too sophisticated to think, with Alan Massey writing in PN Review, that words like ‘porte-cochère’ comfortably remove Hill’s poem from any applicability to the England where it was written and published: ‘The scene is France: the time is Péguy’s time, 1873-1914 ...’ But if that is not the function of the generously interlarded French, then what is its function? It is related surely to what Hill in ‘Our Word is Our Bond’ excellently defines as the effect of the quotation-marks in Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: ‘the effect is not that of avoiding the rap but rather of recording the rapping noise made by those things which the world throws at us in the form of prejudice and opinion ...’ (The playing around with the idiom, ‘taking the rap’, is of course just what we are talking about: the knowingness of our language.) The effect of the French words and phrases in Hill’s poem – sometimes within quotation-marks, sometimes not – is surely in some measure that of the time-honoured style that was once called ‘macaronic’; it announces and acknowledges, and to that extent it deflects, the criticism that the idiom the poem is otherwise written in is infected, perhaps incurably. A British English that so often lapses into French declares, by that token, its awareness of its own loss of innocence. As Hill finely says in his essay, ‘ “inverted commas” are a way of bringing pressure to bear and are also a form of “ironic and bitter” intonation acknowledging that pressure is being brought.’ The French interlardings in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy are thus crucial to Hill’s intention that the poem should enact, in his own words, ‘mistrusting the abstraction, mistrusting its own mistrust, drawn half against its will ...’

Lucas suggests harshly but plausibly that it was the foredoomed attempt to find or recover an innocent language that destroyed Matthew Arnold as a poet. However that may be, the impossible enterprise did not end with Arnold, and it has not ended yet. On the contrary, the poetic scene is full of people who believe that by writing like Edward Thomas, on the one hand, or William Carlos Williams, on the other, they can recover or reconstitute innocence in their medium. And even a senior poet like Norman MacCaig, who is too old a hand to chase such a will of the wisp, has nevertheless over the last twenty years moved perceptibly nearer to such seemingly limpid, seemingly artless styles. Indeed, such accommodations have become so much the rule since 1960 that Hill’s refusal of them takes on the character of a dogged or haughty recalcitrance. ‘Post-modern’ is a cant term; but if we risk it, we may say that Hill in a post-modern period has stood out as on the contrary a late, a belated, Modernist. He wants us to see his poetry (and so we can) as continuous with that of Yeats, of Eliot, and of the Pound who wrote Homage to Sextus Propertius if not the Pound of The Cantos. In its abstruse and courtly way his essay, ‘Our Word is Our Bond’, seeks to persuade us that any alternatives we seem to find are false: that, differentiate as we may between American English and British English and Irish English, what Eliot and Yeats and Pound demonstrated sixty years ago – the depravity of the language we have to work with – can only have been aggravated, not ameliorated, by the passage of time between their day and ours.

Yet even if we grant this, does it mean that when one of our contemporaries lightens and loosens his forms we should see in this only a canny or craven acquiescence in a shift of fashion? (Not that Hill anywhere says this, but it seems a necessary implication of his argument.) Surely not, unless we were wrong to recognise as only one way forward that way which Hill has taken: ‘Let the depravities be seen for what they are.’ Another way would be, while knowing that the depravities cannot be expunged, still so far as possible to minimise the damage that they can do. One way of doing this would be to concern ourselves much more than we usually do with genre; for overt word-play is much more in keeping with some poetic genres than with others. And another way might be to ventilate our poetic structures, to let air into them – the air that we use when we speak, as we do not use it, except minimally and notionally, when we write. This Hill has never done: his diction has never been colloquial, nor even conversational. It cannot afford to be, because the laxer structures and rhythms of speech do not permit double-meanings, submerged puns, the duplicities of British English, to grind against each other (and thus highlight each other) in the way that Hill thinks necessary and honourably required of him. It is the relaxation of rhythm (not necessarily all the way to vers libre) which permits of ‘ventilation’. And metrically Hill has been, as he still is, very conservative – one of the least noticed accomplishments of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy is that it consists of 400 lines of iambic pentameter, handled very inventively so as to avoid monotony. The Marlovian ‘mighty line’, the drumming decasyllable, is in the background throughout, as paradigm and promise. And sure enough, at times the promise is honoured:

How the mood swells to greet the gathering storm!
The chestnut trees begin to thresh and cast
huge canisters of blossom at each gust.
Coup de tonnerre! Bismarck is in the room!

One of the things that a more ventilated poetry must deny itself is the chance of producing lines as memorable and quotable as these. Another way of saying this, or perhaps only a related reflection, is that art, to be good or even great, does not have to be monumental: whereas Hill seems always to have wanted to create a monumental art – in this following one of his American masters, Allen Tate, and disregarding another, John Crowe Ransom, who eschewed the monumental as consistently as Tate strained after it. (In The Lords of Limit there is an essay on Ransom which argues in the end – in the end only, for the drift is hard to discern and hold onto – that Ransom betrayed himself and his vocation.)

If British English has thus become, for us who inherit it as a literary medium, depraved and duplicitous, does it not follow that we must be cagey about it in our prose as well as our verse? Hill nowadays does not refuse the inference; and this means, I’m afraid, that for most readers most of the time his recent essays are unreadable. ‘The confines of a determined world “give” so as not to give; tropes are predestined to free election; the larger determinism allows for the smaller voluntarism.’ Thus to turn on a sixpence three times in one sentence might be just about tolerable if the sentence were helped out by the melody that could come of its being strung across verse-lines; without that easement it is irreparably crabbed and indigestible. And yet some of these essays in The Lords of Limit were originally given as lectures – if they are hard to read, what must they have been like to listen to! Hill, however, won’t compromise. In one essay here he excuses, he almost applauds, the Victorian philosopher T.H. Green for being, as a lecturer, perplexed and perplexing. And in another, which doesn’t persuade me at all, he goes so far as to declare ‘decadent’ John Stuart Mill’s surely commonsensical observation that ‘a certain laxity in the use of language must be borne with, if a writer makes himself understood.’ Not for Hill such laxities! Instead he commends, as 19th-century models, Hopkins’s prose and Coleridge’s, and that often enough as found in their private journals and personal letters. But this is surely foolish: their prose-styles, admirable though they are in ways that Hill brings out, just are not serviceable for any of the public occasions (a newspaper review, an inaugural lecture) when prose has to serve us. Hill’s wariness about our slippery language is honourable: but when it leads him to such impractical stringencies, it is self-defeating. Moreover, what we call ‘stringencies’ may as well be called, if we shift the focus only a little, ‘self-indulgences’.

In some of the earlier and less strenuous essays here, he shows he can recognise with sympathy the constraints which such public poets as Ben Jonson and Swift agreed to observe, even as they reserved the right to transgress them on occasion. More strikingly, as late as 1979, in an important lecture here printed for the first time, Hill could tease out with daunting erudition and sympathy the similar though special constraints that the recusant poet Robert Southwell likewise bowed to. When he agrees that Southwell’s ‘Burning Babe’, with its deliberate naivety, should be read as a sophisticated variation on the Mediaeval nativity-ballad, he is surely near to acknowledging that we can guard against the duplicities of British English in other ways than by forcing those duplicities onto the surface and into the open. Southwell’s stanzas, it might even be said, are ventilated. It is when Hill gets to 19th-century writers that suddenly this option is closed, even for a recusant writer like Hopkins. And we are invited to suppose that for us, a century after Hopkins, such an option is even less available. But we don’t have to agree; and I don’t think we should.