I think I’m ready to say a bit more about this sequence although there are some poems (or some parts of poems) that remain more than a little baffling. This particular form of bafflement isn’t so much about meaning but it is about motivation and intent.
For those who are accustomed to the trademark diversion into the English landscape, Clavics will disappoint- the closest we get is the first five lines of poem 5-
Making of mere brightness the air to tremble
So the sun's aurora in deep winter
Blazing white floss
Silent stentor! -
Which isn’t particularly outstanding and some way below his capabilities but this is likely to be due to the rhyme problem. This effectively undermined (some would say destroyed) the ‘Oraclau’ sequence and it rears its pretty little head again in ‘Clavics’. The damage is nowhere near as great on this occasion and there are a few places where the rhyme actually ‘works’ by adding either emphasis or intensity to the point being made. There are also places where Hill seems to overlook the scheme that he’s set himself- ‘bramble’ is here the rhyme for ‘tremble’ but then again the scheme seems to vary from time to time. The question does again have to be asked as to why the rhyme constraint is there at all if it means trying
As ever with late/high modernists, there are more than a few foreign phrases, a few obscure English words (almagest, praeterient, constatation) and words that Hill has created (ecrased, phage used as a verb). The significant change is with the foreign phrases which are usually given with some translation but not in this collection.
Things are a little more oblique than usual, it took me a little while to work out that “Parasites intolerant of rivals.” from poem 31 is a direct attack on Dawkins’ aggressive attitude to those who do not share his view. In the last piece on ‘Clavics’ I speculated as to whether Hill was putting forward a relativist position in response to the extreme positivism of Dawkins and Wilson as well as attacking their atheism. It turns out that this may well be the case but, as with all things Hill, there’s a bit of a twist.
Hill appears to be advocating a quite specific kind of 17th century mysticism in response to scientific ‘rationality’. This is signaled by the first line of the first two poems “Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise,” and “Torching Cabbalah not a fine refrain” and by the inclusion of Thomas Vaughan, Henry’s twin brother, and mention of his ‘Lumen de Lumine’, a tract which is subtitled “A new magical light: a tract concerning light from the fount of light”. I haven’t read this but Thomas is described as a “hermetic scholar and alchemist” by DNB and did enter into a acrimonious debate with one of the Cambridge Platonists. I’m taking this from poem 10 as a self-description: “By this much I mean only mystical / And eccentric, though with centrist leanings.”
I hadn’t considered mysticism as part of Hill’s beliefs prior to Clavics but in retrospect I can see that there were references in both “The Orchards of Syon” and “Comus” that I should have picked up on and will now spend some time with these to give bit more context.
I don’t know a lot about English mysticism but I’m not entirely sure how it ‘fits’ with Hill’s high Anglicanism, I do however like his description of being eccentric but with centrist leanings. I don’t think (this is provisional) that mysticism is being advocated just because it’s at the opposite end of the Dawkins’ spectrum, there seems to be enough throughout ‘Clavics’ to indicate that this is part of Hill’s faith / belief.
In thinking about this sequence I was led to re-read the essay on Henry Vaughan’s “The Night” which is brilliant in itself but also has a long discussion about rhyme and which contains a lengthy footnote quoting from ‘Lumen de Lumine” which Hill seems to be tying in with Aquinas’ more orthodox position.
The sequence does contain lines that don’t work, probably the most flagrant example is:
Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes
Cope with our begging Nescafe and rides.
Which, to my small brain, doesn’t makes any kind of sense and the last line is both completely flat and inept. This occurs at the end of the long section of poem 10 and Hill then tries to have his cake and eat it by starting poem 11 with “Plug in a dissonance to make them wince. / Density a workable element.”
There are several ‘dissonances’ that make me wince and acknowledging that this might be the case really does nothing to improve the situation- it’s like he’s recognising and flaunting his own weakness.
With regard to technique, there’s a strangeish identification with Yeats which seems to equate Hill’s prosodic clunkiness with the fact that Yeats taught himself the art of versification. Poem 14 has “Yeats and your author / Photomontaged / Graciously inclined each to the other”. Yeats also had a strong interest in the esoteric.
There are other more familiar themes, Hill continues to regret the loss of Empire, is critical of Nato’s presence in Afghanistan and appears to be particularly scathing about the size of Fred Goodwin’s pension- all of which is to be expected.
As can be seen from the above, I am finding ‘Clavics’ very absorbing and a great improvement on the self-indulgence of ‘Oraclau’ I hope that I’ve also shown that Mackinnon’s description of it as the ‘sheerest twaddle’ is hopelessly prejudiced and wrong.