Ruling Imbecilities

Andrew Roberts

  • The Enemy’s Country: Words, Contexture and Other Circumstances of Language by Geoffrey Hill
    Oxford, 153 pp, £19.95, August 1991, ISBN 0 19 811216 5

On 11 November 1990 Geoffrey Hill published a Remembrance Day poem entitled ‘Carnival’, in the Sunday Correspondent. The occasion, and the appearance in a national newspaper, suggested the sort of work that a poet laureate might be expected to produce, although Hill’s acerbic satire on contemporary Britain was most unlike the arch public lyrics that Ted Hughes has published since his elevation to that role. The Sunday Correspondent finally folded just over two weeks later. There was, as far as I know, no causal connection between the two events, but the circumstance has a certain ironic appropriateness in the light of Hill’s new volume of critical essays, which takes as its main theme the writer’s struggle with political and financial pressures, and as its principal exemplum the troubled career of the poet laureate, Dryden. In The Enemy’s Country, based on the 1986 Clark Lectures, Hill considers a number of 17th-century writers, including Dryden, Donne, Henry Wotton, Izaac Walton and Hobbes, together with Ezra Pound. The essays focus with characteristic acuity on nuances of style and tone, but Hill is concerned throughout to detect, in writers’ engagements with words, the traces of their engagement with what he terms ‘the world’s business’, from the vicissitudes of Dryden’s relations with patrons and publishers to Pound’s battles against the faults of modern culture as he saw them. In this project, Hill reveals a somewhat Foucauldian sense of words as receivers and transmitters of power, and of language as the site of a remorseless ideological struggle, arguing that ‘the writer’s judgment of word-values both affects and is affected by his understanding of, or his failure to comprehend, the current reckonings of value in the society of his day,’ so that ‘a poet’s words and rhythms are not his utterance so much as his resistance.

Hill’s conception of the relationship between power and language, as it emerges from these complex and oblique studies, is a dual one. On the one hand, there can be no ideologically or morally pure use of language, whether in poetry, criticism or public life, since words entangle the user in negotiations with the ways in which they have previously been used and misused, so that we are constrained and controlled by language even as we attempt to constrain and control it. As a result, our writings and utterances are always liable to rebound on us, revealing our complicity with oppression, or complacency. On the other hand, Hill also believes that a certain morality can be exercised in language when an utterance or text shows its awareness of such dangers, acknowledges their inescapability, but resists with an exemplary scrupulousness.

Hill regards style as, above all, a moral struggle. The intense self-consciousness about meaning that this view produces can make his own style something of a struggle for the reader, but it should be said that in this new volume the occasions when obliquity tips over into opacity are rarer than in some of the essays Collected in The Lords of Limit (1984), so that there is less obstacle to the appreciation of the mannered elegance of Hill’s prose.

There is a further change from the earlier volume, suggesting that Hill may have responded to comments made by, among others, Eric Griffiths. In an essay included in Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work (1985, edited by Peter Robinson), Griffiths expressed reservations about Hill’s ‘unsteady reliance on religious metaphors’ in his critical writings. In Hill’s essay ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement” ’ in particular, the idea that poetic language may escape from contingency through technical perfection was tentatively figured through the metaphor of Christian atonement, and the constraining force of language was equated with original sin. Such metaphors have been all but abandoned in The Enemy’s country. In the earlier essay Hill writes: ‘Karl Barth remarked that Sin is the “specific gravity of human nature as such”. I am suggesting that it is at the heart of this “heaviness” that poetry must do its atoning work, this heaviness which is simultaneously the “density” of language and the “specific gravity of human nature”.’ In ‘Unhappy Circumstances’, the first essay of the present volume, he is still concerned with the writer’s obligation to recognise and resist a ‘gravitational field’, but this field is identified with the negotium or business of practical life, not with original sin.

Admirers of Hill’s poetry will find much in these essays of relevance to his own poetic technique, in particular his observations on the strategic use of paronomasia. In the second essay. ‘The Tartar’s Bow and the Bow of Ulysses’, Hill is concerned with the equivocal nature of language, quoting Hobbes (‘there is scarce any word that is not made equivocal by divers contextures of speech’) and Bacon (‘wordes, as a Tartars Bowe, doe shoote backe vppon the vnderstanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and peruert the Iudgment’). Bacon’s simile is itself tangled: clearly he is describing a 17th-century version of shooting oneself in the foot, but equally clearly the Tartars are not to be imagined as shooting themselves, but as shooting their enemies while appearing to flee, whereas in the case of language it is those who use it who are hit. Hill’s argument is that, since ‘even the most unequivocal utterance is affected by the circumstantial and contingent matter implicated in our discourse,’ the response of the poet should be a creative and resistant form of equivocation, a technique which he traces back to Chaucer. So, commenting on the ending of Wyatt’s ‘They fle from me that sometyme did me seke’ (‘but syns that I so kyndely ame serued/I would fain knowe what she hath deserued’), Hill notes that ‘Wyatt’s “kyndely” tacitly declines into a contrary as the ingenuous compiler of Tottel’s Misceellany conceded and confirmed in changing it to “vnkyndly”. “Serued” and “deserued” encounter and mock one another by their much resemblance, but not “pleasantly”.’ Such contraries and encounters are staples of Hill’s own poetry, as in ‘Carnival’:

The spouting head
spiked as prophetic
is ancient news.

Here politicians or media talking heads are involved in a mocking encounter with heads on spikes (evoking also Conrad’s Kurtz, who both spouted and spiked), while the suggestion of a newspaper editor’s spike for postponed material hints that modern prophets may be ignored rather than decapitated.

However, the interest of these essays as part of the Hill oeuvre should not obscure their value as a contribution to 17th-century literary studies. They represent an exacting and meticulous scholarship illuminated by the acute ear of one of our finest poets and the argumentative abilities of one of the most subtle of critics. Hill’s ideas are not readily summarised, since they emerge out of a sustained process of weaving together quotations and allusions from a range of sources. A word or phrase from Donne or Wotton or Hobbes is quoted, assessed in its context, and then, the argument having meanwhile shifted to some other text, the word or phrase recurs to test and be tested by a new set of circumstances and pressures.

An example of the process is found in the first essay, which includes a virtuoso consideration of ideas of labour and leisure as they appear in Dryden’s work and in his comments on his conditions of work. Hill sets up a play between the Latin words otium (‘idleness’, ‘leisure’, ‘ease’, ‘time for anything’, ‘peace’, ‘repose’, ‘quietness’) and negotium (‘absence of leisure’, ‘business’, ‘occupation’, ‘employment’, ‘public business’, ‘affairs’, ‘money transactions’, ‘management of a household’) He remarks that the terms are ‘etymologically impacted’ (negotium being derived from negotium, ‘non-leisure’). This play, which becomes a strand running through the volume, is used to reveal some of the ironies and constraints of the literary life. Poetry is the business of a poet, but it can be a business finding enough leisure to write it and enough money to live while you are doing so. Pound is quoted: ‘the only thing one can give an artist is leisure in which to work’ (so this negotium can take place, it seems, only within its contrary, otium).

Dryden’s use of the word ‘labour’ is then explored: for a commission (‘enjoin’d a fresh Labour’), in deriding his enemies (‘What labour wou’d it cost them to put in a better Line than the worst of those which they expunge in a True Poet?’), in lamenting his circumstances (‘when I labour’d under such Discouragements’), and, repeatedly, to emphasise the laboriousness of rural life in his version of the Georgics. Then, in a characteristic and Tartar-like turn, Hill points out the possibility of ‘a blind complicity between labor and otium’, since, in poetry, the ‘laboured’ or ‘otiose’ words or passages may be those that the poet has not laboured over sufficiently. Perhaps, it is suggested, Dryden’s repeated use of the word ‘labr’ing’ in the Georgics is not after all a strategy for highlighting the ‘bare and bitter subsistence’ of agrarian existence, but rather shows the overworked laureate falling back upon ‘time-saving pre-fabrications’.

Given the overwhelmingly 17th-century focus of the first four essays in The Enemy’s Country, the fact that the fifth and last essay is devoted to Pound’s ‘Envoi (1919)’ invites remark. Hill argues for a comparability between Dryden and Pound in then awareness of the crucial connection between a writer’s handling of words and his or her understanding of the economic and political situation of the time. Considering Pound’s notorious views on economics and politics, this is certainly raising the stakes. Oddly, Hill does not directly address the view that Pound was very wrong indeed about certain ‘political and economic realities of circumstance’, although it must be acknowledged that Hill has already given his views on Pound’s anti-semitism in ‘Our word is our bond’. Instead Hill offers here a finely-judged reading of ‘Envoi (1919)’, addressing the question of that poem’s archaic language as this bears upon its place in the ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ sequence and on Pound’s contention with the literary and cultural ethos of his time. He suggests, on the one hand, that Pound’s use of conditionals (‘Hadst thou but ...’, ‘Might, in new ages ...’) represents a form of integrity, presumably as an acknowledgment of historical circumstances which cannot be mastered or wished away. On the other hand, he argues that the poem’s ‘lyrical affirmatives’ insufficiently distinguish themselves from the work of the ‘minor American lyrists’ included in Jessie B. Rittenhouse’s anthologies. In other words (though Hill does not use this term), Pound’s poem comes dangerously close to kitsch. This raises the question of how far ‘Envoi (1919)’ may be read as a critique of a culture in which certain forms of beauty seem unavailable. As Hill implies, the melopoeia of the poem is drawn into logopoeia since its verbal music stands in ironic rather than merely parasitic relation to that of Waller’s original ‘Goe lovely Rose’.

In one respect the choice of Pound as an instance of the writer traversing the ‘enemy’s country’ seems dangerous. Hill writes of Pound that ‘the world’s obtuseness, imperviousness, its active or passive hostility to valour and vision, is not only the object of his denunciation: it is also the necessary circumstance, the context in which and against which valour and vision define themselves.’ Such a heroic view of the poet is shadowed by another, less admirable possibility: that a poet, needing to see himself as a heroic and embattled figure, may either imagine a hostility in those he encounters, or act so as to produce such an effect. Hill acknowledges this possibility while recouping it for his own argument: ‘the stubbornness of one’s dogmatism, the force of one’s own hubris, are themselves factors in the world’s general arbitrariness.’ That is an admirably frank admission, but still leaves me with a reservation concerning that term ‘the world’ and other similar generalised terms of contempt in this book: ‘Opinion’, ‘the consensus’, ‘contemporary civilisation’, ‘modern criticism’, ‘the ruling imbecilities’. Pound’s liability to a certain rhetorical shooting from the hip seems a regrettable influence here. There is, surely, no single consensus such as these terms imply. Hill alludes scathingly to ‘“culture” and “education” as currently understood and practised’: but are there not fierce debates on these matters? In a single footnote to the first essay, Hill does make his attack on the ‘vast apparatus of Opinion’ more specific, criticising Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby for presenting Margaret Drabble and John Le Carré as ‘most important writers’. He goes on to reproach the same critics for appealing to a ‘supposed consensus’ and for the use of the phrase ‘our time’, which Hill glosses as ‘your time made placable to our cultural scenario’. Hill’s achievement as a poet, his scholarship and his critical acumen more than earn him the right to be listened to with respect on such topics, but if he wishes to avoid the suspicion that he is engaged in making our time placable to his own scenario, which places him in heroic opposition to ‘the ruling imbecilities’, more specificity is required. Hill has shown a similar reticence as regards contemporary poetry, referring to it unfavourably while mentioning few names, and this is frustrating since his judgments would undoubtedly set new terms for the debate.

Like otium and negotium, text, context and contexture are ‘etymologically impacted’, the common root being Latin texere, ‘to weave’. Hill’s weaving together of 17th-century texts offers a compelling model of how the pressure of context and circumstance may be felt within the very contexture or fabric of literary style. It is to be hoped that he will, at some point, turn his formidable critical gifts onto the analysis of the contemporary.