Tag Archives: e o wilson

Geoffrey Hill, Clavics and dissonance

I’ve been re-reading Clavics and there’s a couple of conceits that I don’t quite ‘get’. I’m more understanding of the pattern that’s adhered to because Helen Wilcox tells me that this was reasonably common in the 17th century which looms large in the sequence. I’m also more on board with the rhymes and the half-rhymes although I still think that this kind of constraint doesn’t do Hill any favours and I remain relieved that the sequence isn’t anywhere near as naff as ‘Oraclau’.
The stumbling blocks that I have relate to what Hill says about dissonance and the nature of that dissonance together with the varying shades of his persona that Hill portrays. With regard to ‘dissonance’, I’m not at all sure why Hill should justify the inclusion of dissonant lines or phrases by his intention to make his readers ‘wince’. The OED has three definitions of this term:
1. an inharmonious or harsh sound or combination of sounds;
2. (specifically with regard to music) A combination of tones causing beats (cf. beat n.1 8), and thus producing a harsh effect; also, a note which in combination with others produces this effect;
3. Want of concord or harmony (between things); disagreement, incongruity.
These are the first two lines from Poem 11:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.

As I’ve said before, there are a few wince-inducing lines in this sequence, although nowhere near as many as in ‘Oraclau’, and some of these may be deliberately plugged in. I’ll get to these in a moment but the question does have to be asked as to why you would want to be so inept in the first place. I think I’ve recognised and forgiven many of Hill’s foibles in the past but this does seem as if he wants the best of both worlds- the self indulgence to include lazy lines and the arrogance to claim that this is deliberate as if this makes everything okay.

Perhaps I’m missing some really sophisticated and esoteric point but I don’t understand why you would want to do this. I’ve given some consideration to what Keston Sutherland has written about Wordsworth and ‘wrong’ poetry but I don’t think that this is what Hill has in mind because, unlike Wordsworth, his dissonances don’t even function enough to make sense. I’ll give two examples, the first is from Poem 10:

Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes.
Near admirers
Cope with our begging Nescafe and rides.

This is the end of Poem 7;

            You say
Well then
Haul Irony
Upon its rack; refrain
Clavics archaic iron key:
Splash blessings on dead in Afghanistan.

(This is the closest that WordPress lets me get to the pattern as it appears on the page).

Even if the first of these is saying anything (who are these admirers and why do they have to ‘cope’ these requests? etc) then ‘rides’ isn’t a very good word to end on because the softness of the vowel sound tends to drift off. The other odd thing is that I think of ‘ride’ in this sense as being used on the other side of the Atlantic whereas we would usually use ‘lifts’ but perhaps that isn’t naff/inept/dissonant for Hill who would not doubt argue that there is a half-rhyme with ‘odes’.

Moving on to ‘Afghanistan’, this comes at the end of a moving piece on the theme of memorialisation which Hill sees as being a central function of the poetry making business. He does these things very well without becoming either jingoistic or cringingly sentimental and up until the last line things move along quite properly but, to my mind, the dissonance created by the last word fundamentally undermines what has gone before. He might find this amusing (he does know how to end poems properly, he’s spent the last 50+ years ending poems properly)- it isn’t the constraint of the format that is getting in the way because most of the time this is managed reasonably. Perhaps there’s something deep and profound going on that has passed me by but after several attentive readings I get the impression that this is lazy self-indulgence on a grand scale (again).

The Hill persona that’s thrown into Clavics lacks some of the ‘bite’ of previous works. He is unusually gentle on Robert Lowell’s ‘The Dolphin’ which he has previously held up as the antithesis of what poetry should be about. This is an enormous disappointment to those of us who share this view and would expect some scathing polemic. The same can be said for the slightish dig at Dawkins and the gentle refutation of E O Wlison and the notion of consilience which he prefaces by acknowledging that he doesn’t ‘have the science’. He doesn’t have the economics either but that hasn’t stopped him ranting (appropriately) about the more dismal aspects of high finance. I confess that I come to Hill to some extent in expectation of bad-tempered and ill-judged polemic and am disappointed with this mellowing. It is however reassuring to note that the jokes are as bad as ever and that he is still trying to educate us.

Hill has spent the last fifteen years telling us how difficult he finds this poetry making business and this is underlined here although there’s more frequent reference to his age and a sense of his career drawing to a close which doesn’t come across as either self=pitying or unduly sentimental.

I may be wrong but the more pronounced emphasis on mysticism (“By which I mean only mystical / and eccentric though with centrist leanings.”) which is in a similar vein to Sean Bonney’s line about hanging around with Trots. I also get the impression that he wants to tell us about the 17th century for itself but also as a way of telling us about God. Geoffrey Hill continues to do God and the workings of grace very well indeed and again there seems to be a less pointed attitude when God is being done.

All of which is saying that Hill might be mellowing and also taking a bit more pleasure in his poetry making, I just wish he’d edit himself a bit more.

One final thought- I seem to be reading more of the books that Hill reads, this is not intentional but should I be worried?


As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain
Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills 
          Be laws. Again
          Swift and neat hand
          Notate the viols
          Flexures of styles
       Extravagant command
          Purposeful frills
What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen
These fantasies constrained by their own strings
          Narcissus then
          Crowns fantasy
          Feasts what feasts brings
      Consort like winter sky
          Drawn from the wings.
Jolt into the epilogue by your leave
As into a mixed skirmish, a rout,
          Punched semibreve
Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat.

Because Metaphysic is what you will
  Marking time is not bearing time
     As Inevitable
      The pale sun's rime
        No sun
      No dying climb
    Statute's oxymoron
   Impassionate lost thistle-rhomb
No intercept from zero friskly drawn.

The above is the third poem in Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Clavics’ sequence. I’ve tried very hard to format the above accurately but this hasn’t been a complete success- The line ‘Extravagant command’ should end after the line above and Consort…’ should end after ‘brings’ which is two lines above. ‘As inevitable’ should end after the line below it. There are thirty two poems in the sequence and they all have exactly the same shape.

I was one of those disappointed by ‘Oraclau’ because of the prevalence of lines that don’t work and the attempt to adhere to a rigid form. I was also less than impressed with the way in which Hill deals with Wales and Weshness.

‘Clavics’ arrived at the same time as my recent depressive episode and I was initially thrown by the uniform shape of the poems, some of which is achieved by letter and word spacing and by slight variations in font size. I then put ‘Clavics’ down and got on with being depressed.

Recently I fell across Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of ‘Clavics’ in  The Independent. He ascribes the shapes of the poems to George Herbert indicating that the first section ‘looks like a modified version’ of ‘The Altar’ and that the second is a copy of ‘Easter wings’. Mackinnon goes on to describe the book as the ‘sheerest twaddle’ and ends by stating the Hill is wasting his own time and that of his readers.

I may be wrong but isn’t Mackinnon one of the critics directly addressed (abused) in ‘The Triumph of Love’? I only mention this because ‘sheerest twaddle’ manages to be both extreme and less than specific.

Some things can be said about ‘Clavics’ before we get to any consideration of quality. The first thing that can be said is that we are back in the 17th century and that this is ground that Hill knows very well indeed. The main focus of our attention is meant to be William Lawes, the musician and composer, brother of the less talented Henry who features fleetingly in ‘Comus’.  The rest of Hill’s seventeenth century cast are also mostly present (the Vaughan twins, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Charles I etc) but there are also references to more contemporary concerns.

The tone is an odd mix of the comedic quips from ‘The Triumph of Love’ (which still aren’t funny and the later and more personal asides from ‘Comus’ and ‘Treatise’. In fact oddness seems to characterise the whole sequence. We have jokes that aren’t funny, elements of erudition that seem merely boastful and some very strange obscurities which feel quite ‘dark’.

I don’t really want to engage with Mackinnon as he’s had lots of attention already from this but his observation about shape is only partially feasible. ‘The Altar’ is unlikely to be the model for the first section because of the number of lines, line length and especially the variation in line length in the middle.  As for ‘Easter wings’, the shape is exactly the same except for a gap between lines 5 and 6 and that my pdf of the first edition has the poem lying on its side so as to resemble a pair of wings, something Hill acknowledges in poem 20 referring to this shape as an ‘egg timer’.

There are some poems that ‘work’ really well and make a Geoffrey Hill kind of sense. The incidence of really naff lines is much less than in ‘Oraclau’ and I think I’m probably offended by some of the darker sentiments but that is likely to be Hill’s intention.  This is odd because I’ve viewed his earlier attempts to shock as either childish or quaint.

The other point is that reading this sequence, for all its many faults, is a far more useful way of spending time than paying attention to any of what passes for mainstream English verse.

One of the more significant contemporary themes appears to be the atheist gang headed by Richard Dawkins who gets a couple of mentions. More intriguing is the first part of poem 26 which obliquely addresses the central theme of “Consilience” by E O Wilson. This purports to set out a way of unifying the many varieties of scientific thought, I read this some years ago and didn’t find it particularly persuasive but it also contains one of those extended rants against relativism which is also Dawkins’ underlying fear about religion. What Hill has to say about “Consilience” is more than usually enigmatic with a riff on ants, bees and butterflies. Wilson’s major research has focused on ants. The last section of the poem takes us back to Charles I, the Vaughan twins and William Lawes which seems to have nothing to do with the above debate until you get to the last line- “Talk of closure keeps open the matter.” which does.

I feel much more inclined to ‘bother’ with “Clavics” than I do with “Oraclau” even if it isn’t in the same league as some of the earlier work. At the end of the last poem Hill asks “Is it slight cant / Wishing to end well?” This stanza as a whole is oddly revealing and throws up further issues for attentive readers.

The first epigraph reads “CLAVICS: The science or alchemy of keys – OED 2012”. I think I might need to unpack that once I’ve spent more time with the collection as a whole. Coincidentally, Poem 28 contains a direct quote (“Ah my dear”) from Herbert’s “Love III” which I’ve written about recently.