The Case for Geoffrey Hill

Tom Paulin

  • Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work edited by Peter Robinson
    Open University, 259 pp, £18.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 335 10588 2

Geoffrey Hill’s second collection of poems, King Log, was published in 1968, that year of student radicalism and disappointment. Hill’s title is reactionary in its implications and derives from Aesop’s fable of the frogs who desired a king. In my edition of L’Estrange’s royalist version of Aesop the fable runs like this:

The Frogs, living an easy, free life everywhere among the lakes and ponds, assembled together, one day, in a very tumultuous manner, and petitioned Jupiter to let them have a King. Jupiter ridiculed the request; and, throwing a large Log down into the pool, cried, ‘There is a King for you.’ The sudden splash which this made by its fall into the water at first terrified them so exceedingly that they were afraid to come near it. But in a little time, seeing it lay still without moving, they ventured, by degrees, to approach it; and at last, finding there was no danger, they leaped upon it; and, in short, treated it as familiarly as they pleased. But not contented with so harmless a King, they sent their deputies to petition again for another ruler, for this they neither did nor could like. Jupiter next sent them a Stork, who, without any ceremony, began to devour and to eat them up, one after another, as fast as he could. Then they applied themselves privately to Mercury, and begged him to speak to Jupiter in their behalf, that he would be so good as to bless them again with another King, or restore to them their former Sovereign. ‘No,’ says he; ‘since it was their own choice, let them suffer the punishment due to their folly.’

From this fable a Victorian cleric, the Rev. G.F. Townsend, draws the moral: ‘Resist not, for slight reasons, constituted authorities.’ And he adds that Aesop’s fable ‘inculcates lessons of loyalty, and fosters that spirit of obedience so dear to the hearts of Englishmen’. Townsend speaks with the voice of the status quo, and he would no doubt have agreed with the judge in the Ponting trial that the interests of the state are identical to those of the political party in power.

Although Hill’s conservative imagination endorses the cleric’s simple-minded concept of national loyalty, it is possible to read much of his verse as a protest against what Hugh Haughton terms ‘the indignity of King Log’. Haughton argues that Hill seems to yearn ‘for real authority and real title, the kind of transcendence embodied in a language of kingship derived from the past and earlier power-relations’. It is a serious charge, and though Haughton argues that Hill resists the temptation to succumb to ‘his glamorous rhetoric and grand style’, it is significant that none of the other contributors to this collection of critical essays raises the difficult political issues implicit in the poetry. Haughton’s fellow contributors all believe in the magical transcendence of art and the cover of this volume expresses that archaic humanist cop-out. It reproduces a recent portrait of Hill in the act of composition: brow furrowed, pencil poised, the poet sports a rust-red silk scarf over a black shirt and wears a large ring mounted with a chunky ruby. The painting is clumsy but it does express how seriously Hill takes himself and the stupefied awe his critics feel for him.

One of Hill’s most notable champions is Christopher Ricks and we may approach this volume by applying the critical principles which Ricks enunciated in a recent consideration of Empson’s work. Ricks praised his critical master in this journal for speaking ‘with the direct personal commitment that, prior to the current scientism and theoreticity, used to be thought germane to the understanding of literature’. Ricks went on to quote a stray remark of Empson’s about Hugh Kenner and commented: ‘This precipitates not Ooh but Ah.’ Let us indulge the King Edward Professor for a moment. Supposing critical judgments – and judgments about judgments – may be reduced to a series of sounds like ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’, what ‘direct’ and ‘personal’ vocal reaction is precipitated by Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work? The Ricksian ‘Ah’? A MacGregorish ‘Nope’? A Belfast ‘Yuk’? Or the ‘Pprrpffrrpfff’ of a Leopold Bloom? You can take your pick of these further descriptions, but in my view the Fabian Dubliner’s reaction most nearly approximates to the hollow truth of the matter. Not since the unremembered days of Reconstructing Literature has this reviewer had to hunch over a collection of dull, dim essays straining to articulate they know not what. The volume’s self-reflexive murkiness seems symptomatic of a more general malaise, and it is hard to remind oneself that it is simply the product of a small group of academics who have lost all touch with an audience and a society. It appears to express some deeper and more terrifying sickness:

Loud thunder to its bottom shook the bog,
And the hoarse nation croak’d, ‘God save King Log!’

Pope’s couplet refers to Ogilby’s 1651 version of Aesop’s fables, and Hill’s use of that fable in his second volume inevitably attaches a disabling reminder of the Dunciad to Peter Robinson and his assembled chorus of scholars. There is something cosy and desperate in their yawping enterprise.

It could be that Ricks, in his essay ‘Tenebrae and At-One-Ment’, is deliberately baiting ‘the current scientism and theoreticity’, but his discussion of hyphens – yes, hyphens – in Hill’s work must represent the nadir of traditionalist close textual analysis. To read Ricks on the hyphen is to taste that abject world of trivialising critical duncery which filled Pope with such savage despair. Assonating from one loose sentence to the next, Ricks’s mannered style preens itself in a fussily rebar-bative manner – ‘extend to and attend to’, ‘tonally and totally’, ‘at once ended and endless’, ‘does effect a true fusion because it does not strive for a “true-fusion” ’. There is no glimmer of a critical intelligence in this type of paronomasia:

The hyphen has the capacity which Hill sees as ‘an essential quality of Swift’s creative intelligence: the capacity to be at once resistant and reciprocal’. ‘Their spades grafted through the variably-resistant soil’ (Mercian Hymns, xii): there the variably-resistant hyphen at once joins and divides, at once grafts and grafts through.

Similarity is difference, difference is similarity – anything is like anything else, Ricks’s non-argument suggests. And more disturbingly, it also suggests that Hill and Swift are different but similar. Like most of Hill’s critics, Ricks takes the poet at his enormous self-estimation and the result is a reputation hyped by a series of adulatory comparisons. Hill is like – and therefore on the same level of achievement as – Eliot, Yeats, Mandelstam, Lowell, Blake, Pasternak. Ricks pretends to discover a mystic complexity in pure platitude and bathos:

The hyphen cannot but acknowledge, in the moment when it conceives of two things coming together, that they are nevertheless two not one, just as Hill’s need not exactly to spell but to articulate the word ‘atonement’ differently when he means at-one-ment is tacitly an admission that the two, the same and not the same, will always be magnetically held apart and held together by being like-poles.

Kipling’s McAndrew discerned a Calvinistic predestination in ‘the stride o’ yon connectin’ rod’, and Ricks appears to identify some type of Medieval Catholic solder or theological magnetism in Hill’s use of hyphens. He concludes by exclaiming: ‘But as a child his first recorded word was “jam-jar”.’ This deadly bit of trivia is meant to offer a final bucolic epiphany, for even the pre-literate child was vouchsafed an atoning primal hyphen.

Ricks’s essay is a piece of self-indulgence instinct with that reactionary Anglo-Catholicism which T.S. Eliot managed long ago to foist on Protestant England. His trapped critical outlook prevents him from confronting the essentially Blut-und-Boden nature of Hill’s imagination – an imagination in love with the dark age of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. Even Gabriel Pearson (a founder-editor of New Left Review) succumbs to the kitsch feudalism which flaws so much of Hill’s verse. ‘The critic,’ writeth Pearson, ‘enters the poet’s castle, having given his little tinkle or sounded his annunciatory horn, with some foreboding that he is to be humiliated or scorned.’ This is Jamesian camp, and throughout his essay Pearson struggles to sound the high exquisite immaterial note of James’s prefaces. Art is daunting, mysterious, difficult of access – the critic must manner himself into it with a great deal of oohing and ahing, and with much affected reverence for the superior image who built the castle and installed the dungeons.

Sometimes the critic cometh on ye tiptoe, like Master Jeremy Hooker, who begins his essay, ‘For the Unfallen: A Sounding’, with the tremulously respectful:

To adapt a phrase from ‘Of Commerce and Society’, Geoffrey Hill in For the Unfallen is a poet who exposes the muddle of Europe’s dreaming. I may perhaps be excused for beginning boldly and generally, by abstracting, from parts of this poem, an overview of his apprehension of the history to which the poems are, in part, a highly critical response; density and complexity must come soon enough to an argument that tries to remain faithful to the very concentrated poetry in this book and at the same time to say something useful about it.

Hooker’s idea of density belongs at the bottom of Pope’s quivering bog.

Hooker is convinced that Hill is the equal of Wallace Stevens and he is incapable of distinguishing a literary pastiche from a poem which can honour its influences. Quoting Hill’s lines, ‘Each day the tide withdraws; chills us; pastes/The sands with dead gulls, oranges, dead men,’ he fails to point out that they are ripped off from Eliot’s description of the Mississippi’s ‘cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops’. Hill is a parasite upon Eliot’s imagination and any account of his work must face this frankly in order to argue the ultimate authenticity of the style.

Take ‘Idylls of the King’ from Tenebrae:

The pigeon purrs in the wood; the wood has gone;
dark leaves that flick to silver in the gust,
and the marsh-orchids and the heron’s nest,
goldgrimy shafts and pillars of the sun.

Weightless magnificence upholds the past.
Cement recesses smell of fur and bone
and berries wrinkle in the badger-run
and wiry heath-fern scatters its fresh rust.

‘O clap your hands’ so that the dove takes flight,
bursts through the leaves with an untidy sound,
plunges its wings into the green twilight

above this long-sought and forsaken ground,
the half-built ruins of the new estate,
warheads of mushrooms round the filter-pond.

Hill’s title is straightforwardly Tennysonian and so is the poem’s dank mossy texture, its stagnant vowel-music. The imperative, ‘O clap your hands,’ is Yeatsian (‘Soul clap its hands, and sing’), while the ‘wiry heath-fern’ echoes Hopkins’s ‘Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern’. The berries and the pigeon/dove with its ‘untidy sound’ echo the last section in Stevens’s ‘Sunday Morning’. Hill labours to produce an image of ye olde England covered by the secular ruins of the Welfare State. At times his evocation of the past’s ‘weightless magnificence’ wobbles slightly as a less-than-perfect ear skews the rhythm of the lines. Thus the rhyme, ‘flight/twilight’, wrenches the natural vernacular spondee, ‘twílíght’, into a fast freakish iamb ‘twilight’, in order to complete the full rhyme with ‘flight’. The pentameters are too monotonously definite to allow any rhythmic leeway, and the result is a false, flat note. Even so, these lines retain a certain gravid power, though in saying this I’m aware that the buried Anglican in me has a soft spot for this type of visionary mustiness.

Although Hill is endorsing the natural threat posed to collectivist society by the ‘war-heads of mushrooms’, the image carries a contradictory suggestion of missile silos, of England as a nuclear province of the United States. Here it would be tempting to detect a Powellite strain in Hill’s conservatism, and it is interesting to note that Peter Robinson makes the connection between the visionary poet and the prophetic politician when he compares ‘He set in motion the furtherance of his journey. To watch the Tiber foaming out much blood’, in Mercian Hymns, with

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.

Robinson shows that Hill began his poem in the year Powell made his speech, and he adds that the speech was delivered to the Conservative Political Centre ‘at the Midland Hotel, Birmingham; that is to say, in the modern-day regional capital of Offa’s Mercia’. Though Robinson deserves credit for tracing Offa’s spoor back to the Midland Hotel, he baulks at drawing any conclusions from this sinister conjunction of Black Country powers.

Robinson, like the other essayists, is an old-fashioned, sacerdotal critic, and it is unsettling to read in a book published by the Open University a critic who speaks of ‘a witness to the truth, not of God, but of our unwillingness for God’: reading Michael Edwards’s statement in multi-racial Britain in 1985, I wonder at its exclusive, ethnically-biased use of ‘our’ and ‘God’. Edwards employs the words in a manner which assumes the existence of a white Christian monoculture (‘that spirit of obedience so dear’ etc), rather than a pluralist society composed of many different religious and non-religious cultures. Does Edwards never switch on Channel 4? Clearly not, or he would realise that British society is not just composed of those neo-Christians Empson so despised.

There is one contributor to this collection – the gifted and intelligent Hugh Haughton – who puts the case against Hill very forcefully. Although Haughton appears not to have entirely lost his faith in the work, he lacks that reverential gullibility which so mars the other essays and he rightly detects something ‘obstinately archaic about Hill’s poetry’. He asserts that all the poems, even the most original, contain an element of ‘historical pastiche’, and he describes their ‘fraught anachronism’, their lack of common humanity, their reductively Hobbesian identification of memory and imagination, and their disabling evocations of a contradictory ‘lost kingdom’.

Noting Hill’s ‘temperamental conservatism’ and archaic monarchism, Haughton points to his cunning ‘book-making’ and suggests that Hill’s titles ‘have a smack of a holy Madame Tussaud’s about them’. Shrewdly, he demonstrates how Hill’s ‘mannered sonnets re-enact and petrify a language of the past largely invented by the Victorians’. Hill’s sense of tradition is revealed as bogus because his poetic language originates with the Victorians and ‘can be said to be less their inheritance than their legacy’. He accuses Hill of creating a ‘stilted international baroque’ and cites many examples of glutted rhetoric.

Surprisingly, Haughton concludes by suggesting that if the work’s ‘own authority’ strikes us as anachronistic, ‘it may be that that will help to liberate us from anachronistic authority.’ It seems to me that this critical enterprise aims to prop up a shabby and reactionary hegemony and that Haughton – he is clearly radical and egalitarian – ought to have refused to participate in it. Still, he has signalled a wish to defect from Offa’s camp, and a reading of David Norbrook’s recent, excellent study of political poetry, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, should make him aware of the necessity for that defection.