SIR: It is clear from Patricia Craig’s maudlin and evasive review of Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History (LRB, 5 September) that she is unwilling to discuss the ideas advanced in my book and prefers to deal in matters of style. It seems to her that I favour verbs like ‘energise’, ‘traumatise’ and ‘valorise’, and these are deplorable ruffian neologisms trying, in her view, to edge their way into the English language. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, they have been with us since 1752, 1857 and 1907 respectively. I concede that the literary-critical use of ‘valorise’ is a modification of the commercial term recorded in the dictionary – perhaps it is that vulgar provenance which gives offence to Ms Craig. On the other hand, among the vulgar, semi-literate Bolshevik innovators who imposed ‘energise’ on an unsuspecting language, I must list Henry Fielding, Archbishop Whately and Sir William Hamilton.
What Ms Craig’s review indicates indirectly, of course, is not so much devotion to an out-of-date linguistic purity as a refusal to discuss arguments concerning the transactions between literature and politics. Such transactions cannot, in my view, be discussed in the language of the tea-party, especially in an Irish context where literary culture is intimately involved with a violent (and not wholly Irish) history. Having finally moved on to review other books and in doing so reached the safer waters of narrative and paraphrase, Ms Craig suddenly refers to ‘a more orthodox variety of rancid Catholicism’ (her own phrase, I should add). It will be clear to readers of Ascendancy and Tradition that I am far from being a Catholic. But in deference to the feelings of numerous fellow human beings, I find the phrase highly offensive. Would a less orthodox variety have manifested more or less rancidness? Who would wish to choose style as against content, or content as against style, in discussing this view of things, coming as it does from one claiming to pronounce on Irish history and the English language? In failing to meet Ms Craig’s stylistic requirements, I do not necessarily end up styleless.
The Case for Geoffrey Hill
SIR: Having just returned from a year abroad, I naturally hastened to catch up with my reading of LRB. Among much that interested me I found Tom Paulin’s review of a collection of essays on Geoffrey Hill particularly stimulating, and I was very intrigued by the responses it produced. He is surely correct in wanting to challenge that view of the past elaborated in the much-praised sonnet sequence from Tenebrae, which is where most of the ensuing discussion has concentrated. Paulin rightly pointed out that in one of the sonnets, ‘Idylls of the King’, there are some very obvious echoes of Tennyson and Hopkins. Martin Dodsworth says that these echoes are functional. Paulin said – or implied – that Hill’s attitude to the past is idealising-sentimental. Dodsworth says that Hill’s attitude to the past ‘is not uncritical, as “weightless” [in the phrase ‘weightless magnificence’] makes clear’. I’m not quite sure what that word does make clear, but even if I were there would still be an unresolved problem. For where Paulin detects in the poem a readiness on Hill’s part to identify a merely literary/academic construct as the past, Dodsworth seems to think that such a construct is the past.
So do most of the contributors to the collection under review. In the essay which Paulin quite properly singles out for praise, Hugh Haughton says that ‘I think it can be argued that the fraught anachronism of Hill’s poetry represents the imaginative pull of the past for a poet obsessed above all by the persistence of what has been lost, and the impossibility of re-appropriating it: the idea of continuity – and the stark fact of distance … [Hill’s] “fraught anachronism” is a paradoxical resistance to the specious glamour of the “timeless moment” (to which even Eliot succumbed), and the inertia of “traditional appeal” – indeed the appeal of tradition.’ I can understand this, although I am far from sure why Haughton says that even Eliot succumbed to the specious glamour of the ‘timeless moment’. Surely it was Eliot who above all, or anyway most persuasively, latched onto that Arnoldian ideal of a mythic (weightless?) tradition, for ever on offer as the past, the tradition? In other words, Eliot became the accepted spokesperson for a cultural orthodoxy whose terms Hill unquestioningly takes over. That was Paulin’s point and it seems to be Haughton’s. But ‘the idea of continuity – and the stark fact of distance’: this very Leavis-like formulation no doubt explains why Haughton has to speak of Hill’s sonnets as pastiche, for Leavis, the champion of Arnold and – until late on – Eliot, endlessly asserted a view of the past as at once desirable and unattainably gone. ‘Hill’s mannered sonnets,’ Haughton says, ‘re-enact and petrify a language of the past largely invented by the Victorians, and which can be said to be less their inheritance than their legacy’ (his italics). Maybe so, but Paulin’s point was that such language is a legacy only if poets choose to inherit it, and that if they do so choose they are colluding with that entirely academic notion of the tradition, the past, which is routed through Arnold, Eliot and, as an influential branch-line, Leavis. Which Victorians does Haughton have in mind? Dickens? Clare? Well no, Tennyson, or as much of Tennyson as can be identified with an England of melancholy landscapes, country houses, and the uninspected pathos of Anglicanism. But this past, this tradition, is a very exclusive affair. (As exclusive as Dodsworth’s ‘experienced speaker of English’, who apparently pronounces the word ‘twilight’ in a manner very unlike any of the experienced speakers of English among whom I live.) In which case ‘functional echo’, no matter how critical, becomes fatally weakened by its readiness to accept as the past a very partial, etiolated version of pastness.
You could of course argue that this is inevitable since we all are forced to choose how we see or have access to our sense of the past. But this does not appear to be how Hill’s champions regard the matter, which probably explains why Dodsworth cannot understand Paulin’s entirely reasonably identification of Hill as a ‘chthonic nationalist’. You could also argue that my criticisms are unreasonable since a sonnet sequence can only do so much. But this argument cuts both ways. The sonnet is, surely, more or less a pastiche form unless it’s radically rethought. Does Hill use it seriously or not? Haughton implies that the sequence is trapped by its form. (For what else is pastiche?) Dodsworth seems to suggest that this is not so. It is true that Hill uses lower-case initial letters and that he doesn’t always rhyme fully. (Or so I assume, because I take it that even the most experienced of experienced speakers of English won’t be able to make full rhymes of, say, twilight/estate or solitudes/clouds, and there may even be a few doubting souls who find the rhymes pretty desperate.) Are these matters to be explained as fraught anachronism, or merely the deadening effect of pastiche?
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of wood and stone.
The allusion to Pope in the first line is meant to alert us, I take it, to the final laying to rest of the dream which engaged some poets of the early 18th-century: that peace and plenty would always return to the land. The echoes of Tennyson in the second and third lines then intensify an apprehension of England in decay; and line four switches Yeats’s brimming water into brittle floods in order to suggest a skin of ice – winter’s approach – or water about to be smashed by (apocalyptic) winds. And so we could go on, explaining every allusion, echo and ‘petrified’ word as essential to Hill’s ‘fraught anachronism’, his complex sense of the past. (Or are there experienced speakers of English who think that such words as ‘resume’ – in that context – and ‘beset’ are current, or that ‘replete with complex fortunes that are gone’ has the timbre of a living speech rhythm to it?) But when we have done all this aren’t we bound to notice that the poem asks us to identify with that narrowly exclusive and academic notion of tradition which Paulin identified as being so deeply debilitating? Well, obviously not, if ‘we’ are Hill’s champions. But the fact is that these champions are part of a cultural orthodoxy – of experienced speakers of English – which others may think spells a kind of imaginative death, no matter how critically it is viewed. To continue to worry at the matter of ‘Platonic England’ as Hill does is surely to demonstrate an addiction that ought to meet with a tougher response than it gets from those adulatory essayists whom Paulin attacked. It does not surprise me that certain experienced speakers of ‘English’ should wish to come to Hill’s defence. But where, I wonder, are those other, equally experienced speakers of – non-Oxford – English who must surely understand the strength of Paulin’s case?
SIR: Jenny Koralek (Letters, 5 September) is certainly not alone in feeling troubled by Patricia Craig’s ‘ferocious attack’ on some children’s writers: many people I have spoken to share her unease. It is evident that Ms Craig is not a Christian. Perhaps she may even be anti-Christian. On the issues of Christian writing few can be unbiased: but while love and I understanding nearly always result in a good review, hostility does not, and may stand in the way of the fundamental knowledge of Christian ideas which is necessary to the criticism of Christian literature.
Pennard, West Glamorgan
Change of Heart
SIR: I am reminded by A.J.P. Taylor’s Diary (LRB, 5 September) of the time during the war (around 1942-43) when my job brought me into contact with Hungarian émigré organisations. Among the people I met were Count and Countess Karolyi, who invited me to dinner in a Soho restaurant to meet Arthur Koestler. Throughout the meal Koestler gave me the impression of a man obsessed by an idée fixe: he continually urged Karolyi, as leader of the socialist and democratic Hungarian emigration in Britain, to do all that he could to distance himself from the Soviet Union, whose popularity at the time was high with the British press and public. I thought Karolyi was fairly resistant to Koestler’s persuasion, but that may have been due to my own bias. Being myself at the time an enthusiastic Communist (in the 18th-century sense of the word ‘enthusiasm’), I saw in Koestler a sinister arch-reactionary and conceived a violent dislike for him. It is ironic to reflect that, si ’était à refaire, I should probably find myself arguing Koestler’s point even more vehemently.
SIR: There is a misprint (or was it what I typed?) in the Diary I wrote for your last issue. The published text has me describing the young transient Clive James as ‘a bundle of bread, booze and borrowed blankets’. The ‘bread’ should be ‘beard’.