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.

This is a dignified poem, and unlike several of Hill’s works, it is not obscure. The difficulty of the valediction is signalled at the beginning, when Hill commits the apparent impropriety of calling Mandelstam a friend. The dead cannot be appropriated like this, he acknowledges; they ‘keep their sealed lives’ (‘sealed’ nicely captures the sense of sealed coffins and sealed lips, essential in a country of secrets and spies, yet not always sealed enough to protect someone from being killed). The poet goes on to apologise for being ‘too late’ with his salutes; his cries are ‘brazen’. The second stanza is the best of the three: the images are perhaps those that Mandelstam might have seen on his long, arduous journey towards a prison transit camp, as he crossed the steppe. The poet concludes by reminding us that tragedy watches over everything, ‘has all under regard’. Tragedy is here made to sound a little like the police state, keeping tabs on all its citizens. Yet Hill properly marks our difference from Mandelstam: tragedy does not touch us as it touches him; instead it watches us like a greedy summer sky.

Despite the poem’s sorrowful attentiveness, it leaves no residue of feeling with the reader, once we have scanned this careful frieze, this screen of deliberateness. We learn only that the poet is moved by Mandelstam’s life and that he is careful to hedge his tribute with warning signs that say, in effect, ‘No trespassing’. ‘Tristia’ grinds the teeth of its scruples. It is wide awake. But the very apologies hem the poem; and I do not think, as some critics might, that its acute sense of its own trespass is a large enough subject. Or perhaps it is too abstract a subject. The middle stanza blazes, and we hope that the poem will go on to make something of it. But it does not. The final stanza resumes the deep quibbling of the first; the material is exchanged for the immaterial.

If a poetic connection of sorts with Mandelstam has been made (and apologised for), a personal one with the reader has not. The poem compares poorly, in this regard, with Derek Walcott’s ‘Forest of Europe’, also about Mandelstam, but which is not afraid to hazard a connection between Mandelstam’s exile and that of Joseph Brodsky (to whom it is addressed), and then to Walcott’s softer exile.

Abjuring Hill’s clenched penitence, yet mindful of his own rude belatedness, Walcott joins himself in ideal alliance with Brodsky and Mandelstam, linking the Caribbean islands with the Russian prison of Mandelstam and the English tongue of Brodsky. The verse coins itself in shimmering, bold similes which are themselves a homage to Mandelstam’s great metaphoric power:

Who is that dark child on the parapets
of Europe, watching the evening river mint
its sovereigns stamped with power, not with poets,
the Thames and the Neva rustling like banknotes,
then, black on gold, the Hudson’s silhouettes?

From frozen Neva to the Hudson pours,
under the airport domes, the echoing stations,
the tributary of emigrants whom exile
has made as classless as the common cold,
citizens of a language that is now yours,

and every February, every ‘last autumn’,
you write far from the threshing harvesters
folding wheat like a girl plaiting her hair,
far from Russia’s canals quivering with sunstroke,
a man living with English in one room.

The tourist archipelagoes of my South
are prisons too, corruptible, and though
there is no harder prison than writing verse,
what’s poetry, if it is worth its salt,
but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?

Hill, I suspect, would find Walcott’s poem vulgar (and in truth, it is not a great poem); yet ‘Forest of Europe’ obscurely lives in the reader, because of the boldness of its claims, while Hill’s is coiled in its explicit necromancy. The distinction between the two poems is a version of what Pascal meant in saying that ‘when we discover a natural style we are surprised because we had expected to find an author and instead found a man.’ Geoffrey Hill is often an ‘author’.

Unfortunately, Hill’s most recent poetry is also his most abstract and rebarbatively academic. It is, above all, the author’s authority that far too much of the verse in Canaan and The Triumph of Love asserts. Others are not poems at all, but graduate-study lectures, written in prose, and broken into hard plates of something resembling verse:

Do not stand witness; observe only
natures and polities aligned with rectitude yet not of it;
commonweal their lodestar, inordinate
and thrusting dominion their enterprise;
purposed ambition not to be confined by reason of defect.

This poem, one of a series in Canaan called ‘Mysticism and Democracy’, is a kind of digest of faults, from its vatic pomposity (‘commonweal their lodestar’) to its cliché (‘thrusting dominion’), to its slithery abstraction (‘purposed ambition not to be confined’), to its inherited music (the Audenesque ‘observe only’). But it is lyricism itself by comparison with many of the stanzas in The Triumph of Love, a long argument which the poet conducts with himself, and with England and Europe, across 150 numbered sections. The verse is dismayingly loose, with little of the lateral pressure that has made Hill’s lines so impressive in the past. Instead, a crabbed chattiness is evident everywhere: ‘Parades of strength are not, in the long view,/Aristotle’s magnitudes’. Or:

                  Then there is this
Augustinian-Pascalian thing about seeking
that which is already found.

Or this, from the start of stanza XXIII:

What remains? You may well ask.
                                    Construction
or deconstruction? There is some poor
mimicry of choice, whether you build or destroy.
But the Psalms – they remain; and certain exultant
canzoni of repentance, secular oppugnancy.
                                                      Laus
et vituperatio, the worst
remembered, least understood, of the modes.
Add political satire. Add the irrefutable
grammar of Abdiel’s defiance.

Authority is created by a poem, not clattered by a poet, however angry, and it is unconvincing to be informed so swellingly that the Psalms ‘remain’ by one who is, at present, writing so poorly, whose own ‘canzoni of repentance’ are no more than recitatives of resentment. Hill is beginning to sound not like a poet but like the Cambridge critics who have written so well about him in the past. In Canaan, he praises Cobbett for ‘your singular pitch where labour is spoken of’, and the reader, rolling around ‘singular pitch’, murmurs to himself: ‘Christopher Ricks.’ Nothing is more Ricksian than Hill’s phrase in The Triumph of Love about Ruskin’s ‘wedded/incapacity’ (meaning, at least primarily, his famous disappointment on his wedding-night):

                  Ruskin’s wedded
incapacity, for which he has been scourged
many times with derision, does not
render his vision blind or his suffering
impotent.

A certain joviality of the arid, which so enlivens and deepens the verbal textures of Ricks’s criticism, succeeds only in turning Hill’s verse, at such moments, into witty, or perhaps we should say ‘witted’ criticism. Should he continue in this direction, he will soon sound like William Empson, the Keeper of the Seven Seals in this area, a great critic posing as a terrible poet, who was apparently content to commit lines such as ‘Project her no projectiles, plan nor man it.’ It is bewildering that Hill, once so richly lyrical, should want to finish his lines in this cracked glaze. This is the poet, at his best a true heir of Hopkins, once capable of lustre – ‘Where fish at dawn ignite the powdery lake’ (‘To the (Supposed) Patron’) – and immediacy: ‘The lamps grew plump with oily reliable light’. His beautiful poem, ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, from Tenebrae (1978), measured its blank-verse lament in wide lyrical links:

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds.

Alas, neither the tone nor the metre of the new poems has that bosomy largesse. Instead, Hill is angry, frothing with laus et vituperatiovituperatio, above all, against contemporary Europe and the ignorance of the young:

By what right did Keyes, or my cousin’s
Lancaster, or the trapped below-decks watch
of Peter’s clangorous old destroyer-escort,
serve to enfranchise these strange children
pitiless in their ignorance and contempt?

Like Matthew Arnold telling the early Romantic poets that they did not know enough, he needles us with our callowness. Some of the poems in The Triumph of Love adopt voices other than Hill’s, but those that sound like him resemble the angriest poems in Canaan, in which Hill draws on the example of the Old Testament prophets – ‘the voice of Amos/past its own enduring’ – to denounce ‘the fouled catchments of Demos’, the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain and the reductions of British life since the war:

                  What we arrived at without fail,
national débâcle, was sometimes called victory.
India did for us finally, hideous
sub-continental death-rites, the widowed Queen-
Empress felled like Lenin, melted down; new
sacred monsters bellowing at the pyre.

In stanza CXLVIII, Hill concludes that a poem ought to be ‘a sad and angry consolation’. His own consolation, it seems, is to be found in selected exemplars of the past, literary and moral. Some are familiar from his earlier work: Robert Southwell, Ruskin, the Church Fathers, Boethius, the Book of Daniel, ‘the solitary great ones – Isaiah, Amos,/Ezekiel’. To these can now be added ‘the De Causa Dei of Thomas Bradwardine’, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat, Milton (or, ‘Joannis/Miltoni’), Lucian, Erasmus, Sir Thomas More (‘Morus, humble and witty at the end’) and ‘the English Church,/the Church of Wesley, Newman, and George Bell’.

Those last names, ‘Wesley, Newman, and George Bell’, incompatible figures who comprise several different English churches, alert us to a certain strain in the way Hill gathers and transmits his intellectual tradition. It is not philistine to object to the rattle of learning in Hill’s poetry – precisely because it is a rattle, and not a dance. Such academicism, which perhaps flows from a misreading of Eliot, is an unhappy perversion of the modern poet’s status, not his glorious culmination. What was the natural inheritance of Wordsworth, or even of Hopkins, became the struggle of Eliot, and is now the academic fusillade of Hill. He twitches quickly from model to model, like a man with too many alibis; his allusion is merely allusive, the crust of something dead, or kept alive artificially, leaving the reader to register not what is alluded to, but the existence of the allusive. This has become the mark of authority, and we notice only after we have been beaten over the head with it that Hill’s tradition and his models of high literacy are as personal as anyone else’s. And if Hill, like anyone else, is shut out of a common high culture, it is because there is no longer such a thing. His task, you might think, would be to lament this, or to animate for us those works which are dear to him. (Or, of course, to write poems which renounce the academic habit altogether.)

Unfortunately, he does nothing of the kind. Instead, he builds pillars of piety: he reminds us again and again that we are beneath the greatest works, unworthy of them. In The Triumph of Love he creates Croker, MacSikker and O’Shem, imagined critics of his poetry. Occasionally, they burst into verse with complaints against his conservatism: ‘This is quite dreadful – he’s become obsessed.’ The poems in which MacSikker et al. have their say pose as apologies on Hill’s part, as moments of penitence interspersed between bouts of bearded, Old Testament anger. In fact, they represent a corruption of the earlier work, for in this new volume, the penitence is self-serving and self-absolving. Here is one apparently apologetic poem:

Shameless old man, bent on committing
more public nuisance. Incontinent
fury wetting the air. Impotently
bereft satire. Charged with erudition,
put up by the defence to be
his own accuser.

But a phrase like ‘Incontinent/fury wetting the air’ commits the crimes it is supposed to atone for: in its pompous windiness it is itself an enactment of incontinent fury. And by ‘charged with erudition’ he may mean ‘accused of’, or again, ‘charged with, electrified by, full of’, but in any case, he is pleased by how much he knows, and later in the book he erupts truthfully:

And yes – bugger you, MacSikker et al., – I do
mourn and resent your desolation of learning ...

The reader resents the desolation of Hill’s old, wide, lyrical frequency.

This is a book in which, it seems, Hill’s resources of scruple, penitence and wrathful attention have hardened into exercise. He goes through the motions of these once-religious categories – and Hill has always been a most religiously alert poet – but the gestures seem weightless, godless, not because he is newly hard, but because his religious categories have always been rather soft. Might it be that Hill has not been too religious but, on the contrary, not religious enough? The Triumph of love appears to dramatise Hill’s struggle with Christian faith, yet we rarely feel it to be much of a struggle. There is little sense of the humility, the simplicity, the preparedness of someone encoiled in questions of doubt and faith. A studious pride is in fact conspicuous throughout. We are very far from George Herbert – the Herbert of, say, ‘A Wreath’:

Give me simplicitie, that I may live;
So live and like, that I may know Thy wayes
Know them, and practise them; then shall I give,
For this poore wreath, give Thee a crown of praise.

It seems legitimate to discuss Hill’s faith only because he appears so eager to do so in several stanzas of The Triumph of Love. They are some of the most frustrating in the book. Here is LXVI, in full:

Christ has risen yet again to their
ritual supplication. It seems weird
that the comedy never self-destructs.
Actually it is strengthened – if
attenuation is strength. (Donne
said as much of gold. Come back,
Donne, I forgive you; and lovely Herbert.)
But what strange guild is this
that practises daily
synchronised genuflection and takes pride
in hazing my Jewish wife? If Christ
be not risen, Christians are petty
temple-schismatics, justly
cast out of the law. Worse things
have befallen Israel. But since he is
risen, he is risen even for these
high-handed underlings of self-
worship: who, as by obedience,
proclaim him risen indeed.

Not all of this is appealing. It is easy enough to follow. At Easter-time, the poet watches, with some alienation, the rituals of a ‘guild’ who would bully his Jewish wife. Then, adapting St Paul, the poet argues that if Christ did not rise, Christians are wasting their time. But, since Jesus has risen, he has risen even for those who seem unworthy, perhaps for the very priests who would bully the poet’s Jewish wife.

The difficulty arises with the final turn, when Hill seems to decide that Christ has risen. There is something a little flippant which makes this an inadequate vessel for the settling, or even the unsettling, of such questions. If, in a Herbert-like coda, Hill is proclaiming Jesus as risen, the decision seems abrupt and unlikely. If, as seems much more likely, Hill is being ironical, suggesting that Christ rises only for those who insist on proclaiming him risen, there is something rather insulting about this, too. And the Jewish wife: on the one hand, the fact that some Christians bully her does not seem sufficient reason to turn the Church into an obnoxious guild – i.e. their being nice to her will hardly validate the authenticity of Christianity. On the other hand, if their Christianity is authentic, and the risen Christ is Christ triumphant, what are the implications for a non-Christian, for the Jewish wife, excluded from the true faith? Either way, one feels that she should not be the hinge of proper theological discussion, and that no one who really believed or really disbelieved could write this.

For Hill’s Christianity does not seem to be a faith so much as a faith in faith, an assemblage of proper texts and examples: ‘But the Psalms – they remain ...’ In poem XXIII, the poem in which the Psalms are said to remain, Hill admits that

                                                      if not faith,
then something through which it is made possible
to give credence – if only to Isaiah’s prophetically
suffering servant.

In other words, a faith in the faith of certain selected others. Poem CXVI laments the death of the old Catholic humanism of Erasmus. The line failed under Thomas More, says Hill, but not because of More’s fondness for burning Lutheran protesters. Why did it fail?

                          Memory
and attention died, comme ça ...

Hill’s church, the English ‘church’ of Wesley, Newman, and George Bell, is really the church of memory and attention. Hill is a séancer of its ghosts. Or as he puts it in a poem from Canaan, ‘To William Cobbett: In Absentia’: ‘I say it is not faithless/to stand without faith, keeping open/vigil at the site.’ It is what he has called keeping ‘ “in stride” with Anglican parochial and national life. The power of this Anglican “rhythm” should not be underrated.’

What gives rise to disquiet here is only the idea that Hill tends to make a piety out of postures – scruple and penitence again – that are not fully religious for him. In his essay ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement” ’, he writes: ‘Karl Barth remarks 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”.’ This is a position of dignified piety. Yet Barth also remarked that only Christians can sin, meaning, exaggeratedly, that sin should have a specific gravity for Christians, for those for whom it is more than merely a position. In the same essay, Hill rightly warns, as Eliot did before him, that most ‘religious’ poets are merely religious about poetry. But there is also the problem of being merely religious about religion, and in these failed recent poems, Hill seems to commit that soft sin.