Too Many Alibis

James Wood

  • Canaan by Geoffrey Hill
    Penguin, 76 pp, £7.99, September 1996, ISBN 0 14 058786 1
  • The Truth of Love: A Poem by Geoffrey Hill
    Penguin, 82 pp, £8.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 14 058910 4

Geoffrey Hill the poet is often washing his hands. Sensuous but deeply penitential, his poetry visits waves of scruple upon itself. No contemporary poet has a more contrite ear for the confessions, and the betrayals, of words. Of course, much great poetry has not worn this bent gesture, nor do we always want it to, and it can be irritating when Hill’s more pious admirers speak as if verse’s highest theme should be not the intolerable wrestle with words, but, as it were, a further wrestle with the wrestle. Thomas Mann, like Hill, an artist wary of the claims and capacities of art, lamented that his Doctor Faustus was ‘joylessly earnest, not artistically happy’, and Hill’s two new books certainly tread the gravel of the joyless.

Yet in the past, Hill has made great poetry out of lexical scruple. More than any other English poet, he weighs the historicity of language (‘etymology is history,’ he has said), and he hears well the doublenesses, and triplenesses, of words, the ways in which they have decayed into cliché, or have instead retained their dead meanings like a house with old wiring. He buys back the title-deeds of words; he relocates the past. Being a communion with the dead, his verse is crowded with elegies; yet it makes constant reparation for the difficulty, and even the impertinence, of that communion, atoning for what Hill has called ‘an apprehension of its own trespass’. ‘Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed’ is how one of his formal elegies, subtitled ‘For the Jews in Europe’, begins, and one large theme of his work has been exactly how we can ‘know’ the dead. One of his finest poems, ‘Funeral Music’, concludes with the acceptance that ‘we bear witness,/Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us.’ Hill writes what might, both pejoratively and admiringly, be called a poetry of deep quibble, in which words leak meanings and counter-meanings. Thus, ‘what is beyond us’ is both what is distant from us and also beyond our capacity to bear witness to it. The same poem concludes that

                                  If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity.

Hill’s verse is alive to the selfishness of how we suffer but vaunt at the same time, and that these may or may not be activities of any consequence. This is what he has called a poet’s ‘virtuous self-mistrust’. His ‘September Song’, written to memorialise a child who died in the Holocaust, admits that vaunting and suffering may go together:

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

There are difficulties nonetheless with Hill’s enactment of his scrupulousness – difficulties which have grown more acute in his most recent work. It is hard to avoid the feeling that his penitence and wary identification with the dead have become something of a false religion. Part of the trouble is that Hill has been drawn to the most extreme of historical occurrences: the Jews in Europe, the armies of the Plantagenet kings, the sinking of the Titanic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his cell, the persecution of Osip Mandelstam. His latest books are rammed with death: the ghettoes, the Jews again, soldiers in both world wars, the martyred Sir Thomas More, the anti-Hitler Kreisau conspirators. Yet the more extreme the subject, the more outlandishly distant the poet’s grief from that subject, the more ‘penitent’ – or scrupulous, or careful, or distancing – the art will be. The greater the liberty, the greater the apology; which may mean neither a freer nor a more penitent art, but instead (and awkwardly) a freely penitent art, an art that takes excessive liberties while apparently apologising for the excess. The greater the penitence, moreover, the stranger the initial choice of subject comes to seem. For an excessive scrupulousness of apology only serves to make the choice of subject seem less scrupulous.

Then a deeper problem becomes apparent. Once the poet gets trapped in this dialectic of identification with the dead and his acknowledgment of the difficulty of that identification (the dialectic being that the acknowledgment and the difficulty retroactively infect the initial identification), the likelihood is that the poem will take this dialectic, wittingly or not, as its subject, becoming stiffly impersonal and abstract. Atonement then begins to obscure the question of whether a connection can or might be made between the poet and his subject, because it is the apology itself that is really making the connection. And how is the poet to connect with his subject if his only connection is his penitence for having chosen it in the first place? One feels uneasy in this way whenever Hill elegises those who are not near to him.

Hill’s elegies are often poems of personal identification which disavow personality. Take, for instance, a poem from the collection King Log (1968), subtitled ‘A Valediction to Osip Mandelstam’, and entitled ‘Tristia: 1891-1938’. It is quoted in full:

Difficult friend, I would have preferred
You to them. The dead keep their sealed lives
And again I am too late. Too late
The salutes, dust-clouds and brazen cries.

Images rear from desolation
Look ... ruins upon a plain ...
A few men glare at their hands; others
Grovel for food in the roadside field.

Tragedy has all under regard.
It will not touch us but it is there –
Flawless, insatiate – hard summer sky
Feasting on this, reaching its own end.

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