Shaggy Fellows

David Norbrook

  • A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After by David Perkins
    Harvard, 694 pp, £19.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 674 39946 3
  • Collected Poems by Geoffrey Hill
    Penguin, 207 pp, £3.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 14 008383 9
  • The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill by Henry Hart
    Southern Illinois, 305 pp, $24.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 8093 1236 0

‘In the gloom, gold gathers the light against it.’ In choosing this line from Pound’s 11th Canto as one of the epigraphs to his Collected Poems, Geoffrey Hill concentrates our attention on one of the central problems posed by Pound’s poetry and explored by his own. Beauty is no absolute guarantee of truth or morality; art may illuminate or corrupt. As David Perkins points out in Modernism and After, Pound is incomparable amongst modern poets for the rhythmic subtlety of his evocation of sensuous beauty, of the play of light and shade. For Perkins, this lyricism is the redeeming feature of his poetry. He deplores Pound’s fascistic and anti-semitic politics, but he feels able to abstract the beauty from the politics. ‘Evaluation,’ he says, ‘is always personal’; he enjoys the lyrical passages, and for him these outweigh the political unpleasantness.

Separations of political from literary issues are frequent in Perkins’s massive book, the second volume of a continuing encyclopedic survey of modern American and British poetry. It is difficult to review such a book without producing a catalogue of inclusions and omissions. The scope of the inclusions is certainly impressive, with attention given to black and woman writers and to a broader range of British writing than might have been expected from an American critic: there can be few readers who will not find ways into new poetic territory from this enthusiastically written book. Perkins is at times forced into self-parody: ‘Except for her poetry and madness, Anne Sexton (1928-74), née Harvey, lived as a suburban housewife.’ But he does his best to enliven things with biographical vignettes. The revelation that John Ashbery was a radio Quiz Kid at the age of 14 does nothing to undermine my prejudices against his work, but the ever-catholic Perkins gives a sympathetic introduction. How far, though, is the book a history? By continual cross-cutting, Perkins gives an idea of the interactions of different literary schools. However, he provides little sense of the external relationships of these schools, or of the interactions between poetry and the public world, and he is suspicious of poets who seek explicit political involvement. The suspicion seems to be deeper when it comes to anti-Vietnam war poets such as Bly and Levertov: Pound gets off relatively lightly.

Sifting out the good, lyrical bits of the Cantos from the bad, political bits is no way to come properly to terms with Pound’s poetry. The desire ‘to dream the Republic’ is central to the Cantos, and informs its rhetoric. Gold is at once an instrument of usurious decadence, a false, parasitical, fecally dark supplement to natural light, and an emblem of a pristine order in which linguistic and monetary value were natural rather than arbitrary signs; Pound’s poetry of light tries, in the face of its own artifice, to recapture that order, to vindicate its organic unity against the capitalist, democratic, pluralistic proliferation of arbitrary representations which he denounced as ‘Jewsury’. If the anti-semitism is structural rather than incidental, the critical problem becomes intense – for those, at least, who find the poetry compelling, yet are unable to resort to the bland evasions of personal taste. The problem of the Pisan Cantos is that stated in Walter Benjamin’s dictum: ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.’ Pound’s paradise, like many utopias, is a hell for the excluded; Milton long ago raised the possibility that the songs of the fallen angels, which ‘suspended Hell’, might be indistinguishable from the songs of the saved.

Or might, as Geoffrey Hill puts it, ‘harmonise strangely with the divine/Love’. The publication of Hill’s Collected Poems illustrates how consistently he has worried at the problem of how far poetic beauty can ‘suspend’ or redeem the weight of moral and political judgment. The question that has polarised his critics is whether Hill’s poetry offers a solution or is part of the problem. Perkins, whose book will delight those who complain that critics don’t offer value-judgments any more, ranks Hill as one of the three best living British poets (as an index of Perkins’s preferences, the other two are Thom Gunn and C.H. Sisson). In the opposing camp, Tom Paulin provoked an indignant response in this journal in 1985 when he indicted Hill for his reactionary and derivative ‘kitsch feudalism’. Hill’s admirers responded with extreme defensiveness, representing Paulin’s intrusion of politics into the realm of culture as outrageous vandalism, and arguing that, since he speaks with an Irish accent, he has no right to pronounce upon English poetry. But can a better case be made for Hill?

His poetry certainly seems to echo Pound’s nostalgia for a lost economy in which gold and language have not yet become corrupted by usury and mass civilisation. (Offa, creator of titles and coins, and presiding genius of Hill’s Mercian Hymns, appears in the Cantos: his most famous achievement was to draw a clear political – and racial? – boundary across the land, an instance of the precise delineation which Pound opposes to usury.) Hill declared in an interview that ‘the history of the creation and the debasement of words is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice.’ His poetry may be massively allusive, but Hill is no unequivocal celebrator of intertextuality: the obtrusively anxious acknowledgment of all his sources in the Collected Poems implies a fear of robbing words of their just ownership. His poetry is concerned with authority of all kinds, but perhaps above all with the authority of the author. Any page of his work will reveal striking instances of radical ambiguities – in many earlier poems, he aims rather mechanically for an optimal ambiguity count – but he views such pluralities, or equivocations, with deep suspicion, and his poetry gains much of its force from the struggle to contain proliferations of meaning. He is fascinated by the myth of incarnation, in which body and word can become naturally unified: ‘there is no bloodless myth will hold,’ he writes in the early ‘Genesis’; ‘mother-earth’ is seen as ‘the crypt of roots and endings’; Péguy’s links with the earth of France mean that he ‘spoke to the blood’, and his death mingles his body and works with the ‘fraternal root-crops’. At a time of growing polarisation in Britain between unilateralist sentiment and the Falklands spirit he published a long work about a poet who celebrated, rather than protested against, the First World War.

And yet he adopts a more critical and ironic view of traditional culture than Paulin implies. He is sceptical of the notion that ‘history can be scraped clean of its old price,’ and the hands of his ‘Humanist’ were once ‘thick with Plato’s blood’. The note to ‘Funeral Music’ drily records that ‘Tiptoft, patron of humanist scholars, was known as the Butcher of England because of his pleasure in varying the accepted postures of judicial death.’ The Collected Poems could be said to illustrate the collusion of civilisation with barbarism. The past kingdoms Hill documents are realms of violence and exploitation, and their ‘vacuous Ceremony of possession’ is far from innocent. Such a vision of universal corruption is politically ambiguous: an awareness of past injustices may perversely serve to legitimise present ones. Paradoxically, Hill’s obsession with the moral responsibilities of writing threatens to trivialise the issues: while to mispunctuate is a sin calling for a ‘penitential exercise’, Pound’s anti-semitic outbursts are seen as essentially a matter of misconstruing ‘a fine point of semantics’. An obsession with ethics can be a way of excluding politics, and heaping guilt on poetry’s head may have its own complacency: if poets can be condemned for not being Jesus Christ, one must presume that they are pretty important people. But at their best Hill’s anatomies of cultural history are sufficiently edged with particularity to work against too banal a contemptus mundi: what Hugh Haughton has called ‘fraught anachronism’ in Hill’s texts may function, not to indicate that human nature is always the same and always nasty, but to break down a blandly continuous notion of historical process and progress. In the second poem of ‘Funeral Music’, we are the future that flashes back on the victims and we know that their hope of reconciliation is false; Mercian Hymns gives us an archaeologist’s vision of the industrial recent past. Hill has referred to Emerson’s notion of language as ‘fossil poetry’: a historical dictionary is the record of the linguistic fissures caused by past upheavals, the ‘versions and perversions’, tropes and returns, of human history. Poetry can bring to the surface contradictions which have been smoothed over by routine and tradition, registering ‘deep shocks of recognition’ breaking through ‘custom’s pressure’. Hill structures his own texts, on the levels of allusion and of rhythm, around such shocks and fissures, consciously resisting the call from ‘the Movement’ for a syntax whose order would enact a convention-based civility. His project is

To have discovered and disclosed
The buried thrones, the means used.

Of all the manifestations of modern barbarism, anti-semitism has been most central to this admirer of Pound. ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,’ wrote Adorno at the climax of his essay on ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’. But less attention has been paid to the ensuing qualification: ‘And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.’ The claim that the Holocaust is unrepresentable is itself becoming a cliché. The neo-Christians who fostered an anti-semitic climate before the war could perversely take the Holocaust as a vindication of their Christian pessimism, and the more reckless Post-Modernists are now using the Holocaust as the ultimate rhetorical counter to indict whatever they dislike about the modern world. Hill, while recognising that speech cannot be uncompromised, has rejected the ‘stylish aesthetic of despair’ that desires ‘the ultimate integrity of silence’.

How far has Hill broken with Pound’s aesthetics as well as with his politics? This is a question that needs extensive treatment, and Henry Hart provides some illumination in the first full-length study of Hill’s poetry. Apprehension may be aroused by the sentence from Donald Hall’s introduction quoted on the dust-jacket: ‘Geoffrey Hill’s intense Englishness leaches back into the bones of the Legionaries tangled with the bones of their shaggy foes.’ The archaic, or pseudo-archaic, verb vivifies the otherwise implausible claim that there is some timeless entity called ‘intense Englishness’ which has variously animated legionaries from Italy or Syria, shaggy Celts, and shaggy Fellows of Emmanuel College. This is the kind of mystification of which Hill himself has been accused, but one of Hart’s main contributions is to bring out a demystificatory, iconoclastic vein in Hill’s work.

The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill originated as a doctoral thesis, with the brief of surveying the entire canon poem by poem, including a considerable body of uncollected early verse. This method is not conducive to forceful overall argument, or to a recognition of weaknesses as well as strengths: the tone tends to the reverential. Hart’s bland paraphrases of Hill’s agonised involutions can be bathetic: ‘ “I would not wish to describe myself as an agnostic,” he says plainly.’ There are too many banalities: ‘The Hymns, like The Waste Land and the Cantos, make extensive use of old books but are refreshingly original.’ But the book does provide a useful overview of the whole canon to date: detailed exposition and contextualisation is essential with a poet as allusive as Hill, and Hart brings out some significant themes.

In his introduction to the American collection of Hill’s poetry, Harold Bloom acclaimed him as the ‘strongest British poet now alive’. Hill’s work, he said, ‘testifies to the repressive power of tradition’, but also forms an ‘immensely moving protest against tradition’. An inveterate foe of Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism, Bloom clearly would not endorse Paulin’s alignment of Hill with those traditions. Nonetheless, Bloom’s obsession with poets’ private Oedipal struggles has made his reading of his alternative, visionary tradition increasingly conservative, and his emphasis is on Hill’s toughness as a counter to the wimpish utopianism of ‘Marxists and assorted contemporary shamans’. Hart draws on Bloom’s model, but he lays more emphasis on Hill’s resistance to tradition: ‘Unlike Eliot, Hill refuses to accept tradition or history as a completed whole.’ Hart is particularly interested in Hill’s vein of black, satirical comedy at the expense of past masters. His frequent descriptions of this comedy as ‘hilarious’ may arouse misleading expectations, but Hill’s wit has been underplayed by critics and is a constant counter to the temptations of pomposity. Offa’s regal majesty is juxtaposed with juvenile fantasy, exposed, in Hart’s words, as ‘barbaric civilisation’; Péguy trips on beetroots into eternity. Hart emphasises that Hill’s treatment of the Christian imagery of bloodshed and sacrifice has a strong satirical undercurrent. In the Lachrimae sequence Hill the revisionist seems to be outdoing the English Metaphysical poets by creating the kind of full-blooded baroque mystical poetry which Protestantism inhibited. But he also mocks Christian sado-masochism: the crucified Lord wears a ‘wreath of rakish thorn’. Religion emerges from the sequence as a supreme fiction rather than as something unequivocally affirmed. The Arnoldian claim that literature may take the place of religion becomes anything but consoling if the Christian model appears as gruesomely cannibalistic as it does in ‘Annunications’.

The sonnet sequence that is a companion to Lachrimae takes a partly ironic look at 19th-century attempts to confront the dilemmas of faith and secular culture. Hart mentions two possible connotations of an ‘apology’ for Christian art – justification and lament – but the most straightforward meaning of the word is surely there as an ironic colouring. The ‘old hymns of servitude’, as ideologically functional as the ‘equable contempt for this world’ of ‘Funeral Music’, serve to justify the gentry’s ‘mannerly extortions’. Some readers have condemned as a decadent indulgence the Keatsian or Tennysonian lushness of these sonnets, but Hill has reworked that idiom in the light of a very different historical and political consciousness, so that the registers jar with each other. In his essay ‘Redeeming the time’ he anatomises the increasing blandness of 19th-century public discourse in the face of the Industrial Revolution, the exclusion of ‘the antiphonal voice of the heckler’: that voice half-roughens the polished surface of his sonnets. Hill has said that his aim was to offer a diagnosis, not a symptom, of nostalgia, and his view of the English past has something in common with Patrick Wright’s illuminating analysis in On Living in an Old Country.

Of course, the polished images of the surface are still there. Hill’s poetry would be blander if the acknowledgment of barbarism were not accompanied by powerful celebrations of the monuments of culture. But Hart shows how often religious and social icons in Hill’s work are viewed as chill reifications. Gold in his poetry is charged with Midas’s gloom. The more incorporeal art of music sometimes appears as a distant evocation of apocalyptic redemption, but it too can appear indifferent to the world’s cries, like the Medusan tones whose haunting invocation finally extinguishes the lights of the Tenebrae volume: ‘Silver on silver thrills itself to ice.’ The thrills on offer may be masturbatory sensation rather than transcendent ecstasy. Such ambivalences lead Hart to speak of Hill’s giving ‘all parties’ in the ‘Christian Architecture’ sequence ‘equal time’: ‘respectful of utopian reformers, Hill cannot resist upbraiding “wild-eyed” schemes for human betterment.’ But something is going wrong when Hill ends up sounding like Shirley Williams: if he has spoken of poems as presenting both terms in an antiphonal ‘drama of reason’, this implies a process, rather than a final product with a detachable political moral.

Moreover, it can be questioned whether Hill really does give the opposing voices equal weight. Ambiguity gains its air of even-handedness by first making a set of binary oppositions that are bound to prejudge the issue. The very terms in which Hill anatomises culture and society are heavily weighted by the conservative organicist tradition. In ‘Redeeming the time’ he analyses the 19th century in terms of a dissociation of sensibility, a fall from rootedness, and shows a sceptical awareness of the ways in which agrarian myths and the notion of a natural bodily language can be politically fabricated. But his characteristic strategy is to raise such doubts and then pass on without having fully assimilated them. The emergence of Coleridge as the figure who almost uniquely transcends the dissociation is not unfamiliar in English critical writing, and not immune to challenge. Hill’s historical imagination in the end responds more keenly to agrarian rhythms and Tory myths of unity than to the dissenting currents in British history. He is more at home in subverting Tennyson than in accommodating Clough.

The most recent major work in the Collected Poems, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, involves a change of national setting but not of these fundamental concerns. Again, one can speak of a political ambivalence which is limited in range. In the lyrical passages Hill evokes Péguy’s Pound-like nostalgia for ‘images/of earth and grace’, for an organic pre-capitalist realm. Péguy was a socialist, yet he showed little interest in working-class movements. His brand of socialism was so nationalistic that it could be exploited for national socialism: many of his key terms anticipated those of French fascism. His agrarian images emerge in the poem as compensatory fantasies: the fields celebrated by Péguy, who, for all his mystical agrarian populism, was not really a horny-handed son of the soil, were ‘fields of discourse’. A charitable view of the over-literary clumsiness to which Paulin objects, a clumsiness which occurs quite often in the Péguy poem – ‘Landscape is like revelation’ – would be that Hill is registering a resistance to the easy naturalisation of metaphor. Certainly he is, as ever, sensitive to the sociology of representation: as the 19th-century industrialisation reaches its climax in ‘juddery bombardment’, the new technologies of modernity are exemplified by the jerky frames of early films whose movement is in turn an analogue for the poem’s abrupt, genre-crossing transitions. Hill’s reference to Bergson may recall us to Benjamin’s analysis of the dialectic between the unassimilable shocks of modernity and nostalgic memory-images. The structure of Péguy oscillates, without final stable resolution, between poles of affirmation and satire. Hart draws attention to Hill’s difficulty in ending the Péguy poem: his iconoclastic vein resists traditional closures. In this sense, the poem deconstructs its own organicism.

Péguy himself was not as single-minded an organicist as Pound: Hill recalls his honourable role in the Dreyfus case and distinguishes his socialist patriotism from that of the military caste. And yet the poem reminds us that he was to end up by provoking the assassination of the Socialist leader Jaurès. Péguy’s characteristic idiom was perhaps more conservative than his principles. Conor Cruise O’Brien has suggested that Hill’s poem, despite explicitly condemning anti-semitism, seems to reinforce one aspect of anti-Dréyfusard propaganda by turning the Captain’s dignified behaviour into the primness of ‘the school prig’. Hill’s note drily tells us that Jaurès’s assassin was ‘over-susceptible to metaphor’: a description that would serve for conservative organicism in general. And yet he says that Péguy’s metaphors were powerful precisely because they ‘spoke to the blood’, appealing to a ‘regenerative and sacrificial’ patriotism: it is, presumably, because of this ability to speak to the blood, as opposed to the mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment, that he finds Péguy ‘one of the great prophetic intelligences of our time’. Where Benjamin had seen a potential for liberation in new forms of mechanical representation, Hill retains, for all his iconoclasm, a fastidious distaste for modernity. To the extent that the iconoclast is defined by the images he tries to break, Hill’s poetry remains a symptom of the problem it so intensely seeks to diagnose.