Tag Archives: a treatise of civil power

Geoffrey Hill, mysticism and Gabriel Marcel

I’m currently paying attention to Expostulations on the Volcano, a new sequence which makes its first appearance in Hill’s Collected and it appears to contain a more direct exploration of the spiritual and mystical Hill.

Mysticism covers a great multitude of beliefs and activites, previously Hill has wondered out loud about the nature of Spirit and less about the workings of Grace. Expostulations sees him becoming increasingly involved in a particular aspect of the Kabbalah tradition, the Qiphloth. This is Poem 13:

What am I hymning that is not absurd?
I have reworked the least of me twelve times
For Cabbalistic humours, for the dead,
Buoyed by the storm music from Peter Grimes;

Fancying myself as a storm-petrel 
With excellent reflexes and at ease
In the burly element I patrol;
Tempted by instinct's sinew to be wise.

There would be scandal. Let me off my hook
Of retrospection; say I was not caught
By what I feared: one mere untimely look;
It is not nature's way to be distraught.

The Secrets of Creative Elements
Are not creation; nor do they vault forth
Loved-clown-like, but, to exorbitant wants,
Protract and retract themselves, mould Qliphoth.

As to these pots, frost-broken, white, exposed
Roots, tendrils, pebbles. In a mouldered cake,
Some would still argue: have the mass composted
For as long as deconstruction may take.

I’ve chosen the above because it seems to be at least a partial summary of the current state / condition of Hillian thinking and belief. Before I proceed, I need to point out that my only knowledge of things mystical is due to reading Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism some years ago and forgetting most of it, apart from Plotinus, shortly thereafter. My woes are further compounded by there being a whole range of spellings and definitions for Qliphoth on the interweb so I’m only able to offer my very wobbly grasp on things. In this particular tradition there is a Tree of Life which is a good thing made up of other good things. Qliphtoth is figured by some to be the bark of the tree and by others to be the shell of the nut produced by the tree and is a Very Bad Thing Indeed (evil). Some people apparently think that the Qlippoth is evil because it has been given an over-abundance of good/holiness.

Rather than undertake the usual bebrowed dissection, I think I want to consider the poem in total. What seems to be going on is the fretting over this retrospective hook and the drawing of a couple of conclusions, which may or may not be provisional.

The open. The next aspect is the numbers ‘game’ once we’ve got over the for/four pun, the four being: blood, phlegm, choler, and so-called melancholy or black bile which are in turn associated with hotness, dryness, coldness and moistness all of which were. for about two thousand years, thought to be the most reliable / unly indicators of health. Twelve is more of a problem, according to my brief skim through Major Trends the Tree has only ten components. I like the idea that, prior to the publication of the Day books there were twelve published books of verse. Of course, I want it to refer to the work because that kind of ties in with the end of the poem which is probably trying to say too many thing at once. The ‘reworking the least of me is nearly as good as ‘a sad and angry consolation’, Hill’s definition proffered at the end of The Triumph of Love and will now be used my me to describe my own meanderings. Or it could refer to the months of the years, the signs of the zodiac, the amount of pennies in a shilling and many other things besides.

Being me, I like the ‘exorbitant wants’ partly because it’s the kind of conjuring that his detractors hate but also because it shows the strength in depth that Hill still retains in re-working the language that we hold in common. I talked about clowns and clowning last time and was going to skim over it here but he might be saying something (in retrospect) about the light-comedy entertainer that Hill has, on occasion, aspired to be. A whole range of clown-related cliches come to mind but I do want to get on to the role of evil here and these broken pots and detritus.

Time for another confession, I first cam across Gabriel Marcel in A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power in the A Treatise of Civil Power which was published in 2007. I found out from the interweb that he was a Christian existentialist and I left it at that. This was a mistake because, with the assistance of the increasingly impressive Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I’ve found a few things that slip almost neatly into what appears to be Hill’s current world view:

  • the world is broken and it may always have been broken but it is made more broken by historical events;
  • this brokenness is best characterised in the contemporary world in the refusal, or inability, to reflect or to imagine and the denial of the transcendent;
  • this is largely because we have prioritised and technology and this leads us to despair because it has no answer to the ‘bigger’ questions about the philosophical truths:
  • we still have a need for transcendence because we feel a degree of dissatisfaction which stems from this functional way of living;
  • with regard to transendence itself, Marcel has: “There is an order where the subject finds himself in the presence of something entirely beyond his grasp. I would add that if the word “transcendent” has any meaning it is here—it designates the absolute, unbridgeable chasm yawning between the subject and being, insofar as being evades every attempt to pin it down”;
  • Marcel makes a distinction between problem and mystery in that problems can be resolved by technique whereas a mystery is a “problem that encroaches on its own data” such as the relationship between body and soul, the nature of evil, freedom and love.

I’ll readily confess to tearing all of this out of context to suit my own purposes but, as a means of justification, I’d like to use the first few lines from part I of A Precis:

Could so have managed not to be flinging
down this challenge.
True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house. Cogito a bare
threshold as G Marcel sagely declares,
of what's valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated and knock. Echo the answer
in spare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.

Now, might this be a precis of the above lines of thought? Might this reveal a late acceptance of said line? Are the Day Books in part a working through of this acceptance? I, of course want to answer all of these in the affirmative because Hill’s disdain for the functional in this broken world does seem in the later work to march in step with an exploration of the transcendent.

Of cause this is tentative, subjective and provisional. I know I read something recently about Hill’s view of the relationship between the political and the mystical, once I’ve dug it out I may well change my mind. I am however particularly fond of these spare strophes that are said to be raw with late wisdom. Wonderful.

Reasons to like Geoffrey Hill

I’ve started to re-read Hill and have given some consideration to Tom Day’s view that Hill wants his readers to like him but then despises us for doing so. This isn’t going to be a lengthy analysis of the man’s psychology but rather why we should feel some affection for Hill as well as admiration for the strength of his work.

I’d like to start with why I find myself feeling genuine affection for Hill. First of all, he’s very, very clever and I like cleverness, his views and mine coincide on a number of subjects, we’re both against the teaching of creative writing and dislike ‘confessional’ poetry especially when written by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. We both like the work of Anselm Kiefer and the poetry of Paul Celan and we share a strong interest in the history of 16th and 17th century England. We’ve also had more than our fair share of mental health problems.

So, there’s a number of affinities and it is generally easier to like someone when you have some common ground.

I don’t share Hill’s faith but I do respect it as it is clearly something that’s very important to the way that he is in the world. I view his politics as absurd, so absurd in fact to be part of the man’s charm (if that’s the right noun).

I am of course envious of Hill’s skill as a poet but it’s what he chooses to do with that skill that makes him likeable to me. The re-reading just undertaken has been an interesting process, there’s more pomposity and, paradoxically, more self-laceration in the work if you try to look at the man through the poems rather than for meaning.

There’s a couple of lines from ‘The Triumph of Love’ that speak to me in a very personal way-

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

My family is one of those ‘places’ where grief has stood mute-howling since the Somme offensive and which was then intensified by deaths in the following generation during World War II. It takes a lot to express this stuff when it is very close to home. I appreciate that the rest of this particular part of the sequence is Hill at his little Englander worst but ‘mute-howling’ and ‘self grafted to unself’ are the mark of a compassionate man.

Prior to this re-reading, ‘Comus’ was my favourite because it seemed to contain a more personable poet and I always took great pleasure in reading it for the breadth of thought and the amount of self-deprecation. I also thought that ‘Without Title’ was the weakest collection because it struck me as self-indulgent- especially the ‘Pindarics’ and the very bad Hendrix poem.

Both of these views have now changed, ‘Comus’ has been replaced in my affections by ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ and I’m now more tolerant of the ‘Pindarics’ (the Hendrix poem is still very bad). I’ve also noticed that some of the earlier poems aren’t very good, ‘A Short History of the British in India’ from ‘Tenebrae’ now seems ineffectual and naff.
‘Without Title’ contains three poems on Ipsley Church Lane which are brilliant. I’m not normally keen on nature poetry but these three poems manage to address something in me- I find them almost therapeutic and have often stood in this lane in my head as a way of keeping my particular demons at bay.

Speaking of demons, I think it’s important to recognise that it isn’t easy being Geoffrey Hill, there’s the struggle with faith, the struggle with verse and the struggle with chronic depression amid bouts of OCD. There’s also the fact that Hill doesn’t think like the rest of us which can also be quite isolating. What’s likeable is that these struggles are never rammed down our throats, the nearest we get is the acknowledgement that poetry is a “sad and angry consolation”.

The full text of the Paris Review interview with Hill has now emerged from beyond its pay wall and this gives me another couple of reasons for liking Hill. There’s: “There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it is true of Wordsworth. It’s a quality that these poets possess supremely. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life”. Which I love because of the image of language hovering above itself- articulating what I feel about Milton and Celan and pointing to my own fumbling and inarticulate aspirations as a poet.

One of the things that has always interested me about Hill is his interest in martyrs and martyrdom. In the interview he says: ” My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment”. What is striking is that he mentions likeability prior to suffering.

“In Memoriam: Gillian Rose” is a remarkably humane tribute to the life and work of a remarkable woman. It contains:

I did not blunder into your room with flowers.
Despite the correct moves, you would have wiped
in the championship finals of dislike.

He’s right but I can’t get the image of Hill as suitor (with flowers) out of my head- an image that manages to be both funny and touching.

The poem ends with:

I find love’s work a bleak ontology
to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.

‘Love’s Work’ is searing in its honesty and the way that it looks at the prospect of imminent death. Gillian Rose was one of this country’s leading intellects and was particularly effective in the demolition of cant. In writing this poem, Hill lets us see as much of himself as we’re ever likely to get.

So, is Hill likeable? I think that he probably is and I don’t think Day’s assertion that he wants us to like him in order to despise us for it holds water. The sea-change that occurred when Hill started to put more of himself into his work doesn’t mean that he’s still playing out the extent of his permanent damage. Does it?