Geoffrey Hill and comedy

In the essential ‘Complicities’ collection Thomas Day has an essay on comedy and contexture in ‘Comus’. As a long standing reader/fan of this poem, I read the piece with interest and it has given me some cause to re-consider my reading. For those who aren’t familiar with Hill’s work, the response falls into three broad camps. The first camp levels the charge of wilful obscurity thereby denying Hill any poetic/creative status at all. The second camp acknowledges the brilliance of the early work but denigrates the later stuff which was written after Hill sought help for his mental health condition, these later poems are sneeringly referred to as the ‘Prozac stuff’. The third camp is of the view that Hill remains one of the most important poets writing in English. I am firmly in the third camp and came to that view by reading Comus before I read anything else.

One of Hill’s more endearing traits is that most of his jokes aren’t very funny but they have a level of self-deprecation that makes me smile. When I first read Comus I was struck by its confidence and exuberance and by the fact that Hill felt able to throw various aspects of himself into the poem without becoming mawkish or confessional. The first section is a brilliant collection of  maxims which lead us gently into the performance of Milton’s Comus at Ludlow. These stanzas are not without humour, there’s a wonderful play on accountancy and righteousness which is funny but not in the music hall way that Day seems to be looking for.

Given his reputation for difficulty, it may surprise some to know that ‘The Triumph of Love’ also strives for laughs but in a much more self-conscious knowing way with Hill parodying the best efforts of stand-up comics. I don’t feel that this earlier attempt works as well as the bad jokes in Comus, probably because it reads as if Hill is being a little too clever for his own good.

The other thing to realise is that nobody should come to anything by Hill looking for laughs. Hill’s work challenges the attentive reader to think again about the world and to consider anew the power of the poetic voice. The jokes are very much a by-product. Whilst Day covers important aspects of the poem, he fails to situate the comedy in the context of the work and this is disappointing. The one comedic aspect that is ignored is the figure of Geoffrey Hill as randy old goat primarily lusting after the Sabrina character in the original Comus. I find this kind of self-deprecation amusing and can’t understand why Day should overlook it.

Day quotes extensively from the critical plaudits on the back of the paperback edition of Comus as if to demonstrate that Hill has won the recognition that he deserves and also that Hill finds this validation a bit difficult. Day also makes the claim that Comus is a gauntlet thrown down at the critic’s feet in defiance of the view that his later stuff isn’t very good. Whilst it is obvious that Hill does care about critical reception, I don’t think Comus is particularly defiant- I think it’s much more an homage to a particular poem and a meditation on the possibility of poetry in this weighted world. Being very open about your past (marriage, earlier poems, childhood) is surely not the best tactic when confronting your enemies.

I may be biased (I often am), but Comus stands alongside The Triumph of Love and Mercian Hymns as Hill’s finest work. A very strong case can be made for each but it is a credit to Hill that he has produced three very different but equally enduring pieces of work. He’ll never be a great comedian but he will always make me smile.

4 responses to “Geoffrey Hill and comedy

  1. Far from feeling aggravated to come across these criticisms of my article, I am in fact enormously gratified. I do feel that ongoing criticial contestation is utterly vital to what Hill is about, even amongst – especially amongst – those of us who might find ourselves in or around your ‘third camp’. When in Speech! Speech! 87 Hill ends his meditation on ‘That long-dead young Igbo master’ with the words ‘Style undisputed’ I take it he is articulating a source of defeat for the poet as much as a triumph.

    You are of course right that the kinds of comedy found in Hill’s work are many and various, far more so than my article had scope to explore. I take some solace in that the the one comedic aspect you say I’ve ignored – I’m pretty sure I’ve ignored more than that, but if it’s only one that seems good going – was not ignored in, indeed was the focus of, a review of Scenes from Comus I’d published 2 years before. And in that I’m currently at work on another chapter on Hill and comedy which tries to bring to account a fuller range of comic types and possible influences from commedia dell’arte to Little Britain. But mostly in that writing about Hill strikes me a process of constant (re-)discovery and self-discovery in which the risk of failure is hardly avoidable, if no less painful for that. ‘Criticism’, as Hill put it in one of his Milton talks, ‘has to risk being rebuffed by the poem itself’.

    To say that my article overlooks self-deprecation, however, makes we wonder closely you can have read it; nor do I think it overlooks the complacencies of self-deprecation, nor the complacencies of finding a poem merely ‘amusing’. And your point that ‘Day quotes extensively from the critical plaudits on the back of the paperback edition of Comus as if to demonstrate that Hill has won the recognition that he deserves and also that Hill finds this validation a bit difficult’ is a travesty of my point, which was not at all ‘to demonstrate that Hill has won the recogntion he deserves’. Rather, to show that the weight of expectation placed upon the poetry by Hill’s ‘long standing reader/fan’s is integral to SC’s sense of this weighted world, and to suggest that the critical tendency to take Hill too seriously (which seems as prevalent now as when David Gervais diagnosed it in 1986) forms a context for the comic possibilities and failures of the poem. Of course there are other kinds of seriousness at work in Hill, but am I to be taken to task for not having adumbrated all of these in a short article?

    Could I ask you to clarify, then, what exactly you mean by ‘Day . . . fails to situate the comedy in the context of the work and this is disappointing’, which reads as something of a non-sequitur? ‘The’ context?

    I am happy to agree to disagree on the point of defiance vs homage (though surely you mean homage to a particular piece of music not a poem?). Yet I find a note of defiant homage in the line ‘Let’s go to ground around the grinning cake’, which I would suggest registers something threatening to the artist (both Hugh Wood and Hill) about the Festschrift mode of critical response, the cake perhaps ‘grinning’, in attenuated comic spirit, at the credulous critic.

  2. I’m going to have to take some time over this. I’m happy to plead guilty to careless/partial reading and I’m also happy to apologise for any misrepresentation of your views. Your essay was the first that I read in the ‘Complicities’ collection and then I read it again (once or twice) a couple of weeks later. As I’ve tried to point out at the beginning of the blog, your perspective has caused me to reconsider my reading of Hill.
    This is no mean feat as the Hill that exists in my head is usually stubbornly impervious to what anyone else has to say (whichever camp they’re in). I also only write about stuff that is important to me and that I feel ought to be important to others. As an example, prior to reading your response, I’d spent some time thinking about whether to pen something on Ricks’ new book on Hill’s complex relationship with Eliot and had decided that I didn’t really care enough.
    So, I’m delighted to have this debate with someone who has far greater knowledge of Hill than I and I apologise in advance for any more gratuitous one liners that may ensue (a stylistic fault that I’m working on). My glib assertion about not situating the comedic aspects of the work relates to the way in which the intentionally funny bits fit in with the other ‘themes’ (memorialisation, grace, the redemptive power of language etc) that I discern as threads running through the work. I was hoping that you would write a bit more about why Hill feels the need to be funny in the first place. Perhaps you did this and it didn’t register.
    I was a bit disappointed that you chose the critical quotes that you did- we both know that they’re not representative and are chosen with the sole purpose of selling the book. Having said that, of course there remains an enormous danger of readers and critics taking Hill far too seriously and anything that can be done to redress this tendency (as your essay does) has to be a very good thing.
    I’m also incredibly impressed by anyone who is prepared to have a go at the ‘grinning cake’ problem- you’ll have to give me at least a few days to think about your suggestion.
    I think the self deprecatory aspects of the work are worthy of much greater consideration on my part. Is your review of ‘Comus’ online? The only reviews I’ve read go on about the Milton thing and ignore what it may really be ‘about’.
    One final thought that’s come to me whilst writing this, people try to be funny in order to get us to like them. Does Geoffrey Hill want our love as well as our admiration/respect?



    ps When’s the book coming out?

  3. Hi John,
    I’m also delighted: I liked your blog, despite my display of sub-Hillian animus. I’ve tried – increasingly since I published that piece – to write provocatively about Hill, so I can’t afford to be very put out when people are actually provoked.

    I meant what I said about the vitality of debates like this. The fallout from Tom Paulin’s savage review of Peter Robinson et. al in the pages of the LRB was I think a high point for Hill criticism, even though – no, because – the contributors variously missed the point. It was the closest Hill has come to experiencing ‘the preponderance of discourse’ he finds so crucial in 17th century thought and polity. What is more, I believe he would appreciate stubbornly impervious readers like yourself and your chosen medium: have you come across that interview in Publisher’s Weekly (available online) where he speaks with ingenuous delight of the internet as an egalitarian forum? Deeply difficult to reconcile with the technophobia of Speech! Speech!, but such is the nature of the beast.

    Now those quotes were clearly not chosen for their critical rigour, but to make the very point that you do, that they were there to sell the book – I’d thought my attribution of them to the ‘Penguin marketing men’ would have made that unambiguous. To my mind Hill is deeply preoccupied with the dangerous temptations of compromising one’s integrity, of succumbing to public expectation, of selling out, of becoming the eminent man of letters who is a self-parodic presence in the poem. But when this a matter of a poem’s entry into and reception in the world, when the book is seemingly out of the author’s hands, it’s not so easy to write it off as parody since one is dealing with the man who suffers rather than the mind which creates. But I wanted also to suggest that Hill blurs that very fine line between real and figurative suffering (the latter a form of self-deprecation). I don’t imagine Hill, ever one to want to test the limits of control, is entirely at the mercy of the Penguin marketing men: he obviously has a strong opinion about what goes on the front covers of his books so why not the back covers too: perhaps the marketing men are also yes men – a resonance I was hoping to capture. I love William Logan’s daring suggestion – plausible too – that Hill actually wrote the blurb to his Collected Poems (1985), Logan noting the hubris with which the badges of adverse criticism adorn the volume. I would reverse that and suggest that the badges of complimentary criticism adorning SC are marks of the poet’s perverse humility, their pins stuck firmly in.
    And I would relate this to your excellent question about whether Hill wants us to like him, and whether we can understand the attempts to be funny as a manifestation of that (my essay emphasized more the hostility of joking, pace Freud). It’s more than that though: Hill wants us to like him but seems to want to pour scorn on us for the fact that we do. Does Hill like himself? To these questions I could only cite two crucial sentences (are there any non-crucial ones?) from ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’:

    ‘One is left with the awkward observation that the acceptance of a principle of penitential humility in the conduct of a life does not necessarily inhibit a readiness to accept the status of “maestro” conferred by a supportive yet coercive public . . . However much and however rightly we protest against the vanity of supposing poetry to be merely the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, poetic utterance is nonetheless an utterance of the self, the self demanding love in the form of recognition and “absolution”’.

    The point of yours I do take on board is that I don’t say enough in that article about how humour functions – or doesn’t – in serious contexts (though I do look at the line ‘I mean what I say, saying it obscurely’ in terms of (mock-)seriousness). I ought to have done this since it was only one step away from the recognition that no part of the poem is self-self-sufficient (would the next logical step be that no single book of his poetry is self-sufficient – an inference rather undermining the conclusion to your blog). This is exactly what I’m working on right now, in a chapter entitled ‘Humour and Humiliation’. On this point I’d also recommend a short essay by Jeremy Noel-Tod, mainly on Peter Manson, but partly on Hill, entitled, I think, ‘Joking Apart . . .’. It was in the Chicago Review special on British Poetry, also edited by Purves and Ladkin, which came out in 2007.

    My review of SC, entitled ‘The Comedy of Eros’, was in The Cambridge Quarterly 34.4 (2005): if you can access an online subscription to the journal you’ll find it. Otherwise I’d be happy to post you a copy, or send you a scanned one. My book manuscript is due in June 2011, so hopefully it will be out soon after.

    All good wishes,

    • Tom,

      Thank you for your swift and gracious response, you’ve given me far too much to think about and I’ll probably need some time to make a full and coherent response. First of all, I’m pleased that you like the blog. This originally was an opportunity to think out loud about things that interest me and to promote a similar interest in others. I’ve run a web business in recent years and also wanted to explore how this odd and hybrid device could be used ‘creatively’. I have found that the web does offer the opportunity for all kinds of relationships and dialogues that have never previously existed.
      I think that it is really important that good/strong work like Hill’s is put under the most careful scrutiny. I say this because poetry is important in it’s uncanny ability to effect personal change and it’s eagerness to hold up a different kind of mirror. I do worry when people who are passionate about poetry allow themselves to fall out over arcane points that very few people in the real word care about. I know that bitchiness is part of the territory, I just wish this wasn’t the case.
      I do take a degree of pride in being ‘stubbornly impervious’ if this means that I’m happy with what I think and enjoy the opportunity to defend my thoughts. This is primarily because I come to poetry as a reader and I’ve chosen to put a lot of my time in to reading stuff that interests and challenges me. I am impervious to most of what I see as critical ‘fluff’ because it doesn’t interest me I can discern no challenge. Most of it is also expressed in a language that I find increasingly tiresome. Your piece did challenge me and altered (in an interesting way) the Geoffrey Hill that is in my head. I wrote the piece not as an expression of resistance but as a means of trying to absorb the challenges that you had triggered. I put in this small corner of the public domain to try and take the challenge further.
      I hope that Hill would approve of this kind of conversation but I don’t do this for Hill, I do it because I believe that important stuff should be talked about in the clearest possible terms and that we should all respect each other’s right to differ.
      I’ve spent most of today thinking about your hypothesis on Hill wanting to like us but also pouring scorn on us for doing so. I’m not entirely comfortable with this assertion because it points in a difficult direction. I spent far too many years doing direct work with what is now termed troubled and troubling adolescent males. The psychology that you describe is very common amongst young people who have experienced some degree of adversity in their early years. The reason I find this difficult is that I’m with Hill’s view of confessional poetry and the spot-on charge he lays against Sylvia Plath. I prefer to find in his self-deprecation an ‘ordinary’desire to be liked and a kind of half-hearted attempt to dispel his reputation for being fearsome. I’m more than happy to say that I’m scared of Geoffrey Hill, I may find his politics risible and his faith incomprehensible, he may make me smile with a degree of indulgence but he still terrifies me and I don’t scare easily.
      So, from a purely subjective perspective, every time he runs himself down I become a little less scared and a little more fond.
      We could spend many a happy hour exchanging crucial lines but I think ‘A postcript on modernist poetics’ is a prose example of Hill attempting to humanise his reputation (which other critic would give his wife a mention?) just as the remarkable Gillian Rose poem shows us a blend of tenderness and self-mockery that belies his reputation.
      I’ll need to give further thought on the self-sufficiency issue, at the moment my brain is still arguing against itself on that one- my initial reaction to Comus was that Hill was taking great delight in alluding quite directly to previous work- I didn’t know what that work was about but I did want to read it. I am going to have to give greater though to the notion of self-sufficiency because I do feel that each of the really good poems can and must stand by themselves.
      No doubt I’ll have many further thoughts in the next few days and may add to this thread…
      Thanks for the offer re your review, I’ll e-mail you details, I’d love to read it and (probably) disagree with it.


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