Tag Archives: expostulations on the volcano

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.

Geoffrey Hill’s Expostulations on the Volcano and the Poetic

The one quality that I share with the immortal William Cobbett is that I’m not in the least bothered by inconsistency. I think it’s important for people to change their minds and this is why I preface most of the writing here with a ‘provisional’ and ‘tentative’ disclaimer. I have to report that whilst sunbathing this afternoon (newly discovered pastime), I started on the above sequence with the intention of paying it some attention instead of my previous dive-by reading.

A couple of years ago I went on at some length about how irredeemably bad the Oraclau collection was because it’s rhymes were both forced and wrong-footed. In fact I thought it was so bad that it shouldn’t have been published, even though Hill has a line somewhere vowing to make his readers wince. I’d now like to retract this and confess my prior knee-jerk and unwarranted prejudice.

Up until now, I thought that Sir Geoffrey and I agreed on one fundamental point: the teaching of creative writing is a Very Bad Thing indeed. I now discover that we may agree on the Poetry problem. More than ever I have to state that what follows is exceptionally tentative and subjective and heavily influenced by my tendency to over-read when someone appears to agree with me.

A central plank of the Bebrowed position re the Poem is that it has for centuries been far too poetic, far too in love with its own lyrical flow. I’ve made this argument before and no doubt will do so again but today’s speculation is whether Hill might (approximately) agree.

I have several items of evidence, each with specific flaws but, like a good conspiracy theorist, this isn’t going to get in my way. I have to admit that I’ve only just started to pay attention to Expostulation having previously flicked through it, alighting on poems that caught my eye. This was a mistake, I should have remembered that it isn’t helpful to read Hill in a piecemeal way. I’ve now started at the beginning and have noticed that ‘themes’ keep recurring and being expanded upon. One of these is the nature of The Poem. This is the end of the seventh poem in the sequence:

In stark of which, demand stands shiftless. Words
Render us callous the fuller they ring;
Stagger the more clankingly untowards;
Hauled to finesse in all manner of wrong:

Which is how change finds for us, long-lost one.
Oratory is pleading but not pledge;
Such haphazard closures of misfortune
Played by commandment on mechanic stage.

There are several things that I want to pull out from this. The first is this fuller ringing that render us callous. Words that ring in this way might be read as overly ornate or used for effect rather than content. It would therefore seem that this is a reasonable piece of evidence until we start to wonder about who ‘us’ might be. As with The Triumph of Love’s view of poetry as a “sad and angry consolation” it is unclear whether this refers to the readers or the poets, or both. With regard to this passage I’m currently voting for the poets because the poetic bag of tricks can be used with great cynicism and more than a little dishonesty, I believe that this ‘fits’ better with the finessing of all manner of wrong.

The second verse’s assertion about oratory is another, perhaps more tenuous, piece of evidence that I’d like to rely on. The pleading / pledging juxtaposition is worth some thought. I’m currently reading this to indicate that ‘strong’ poetry involves the commitment of the self to something, almost a formal commitment whereas the oratorical flummery that makes up most of The Poem is an act of persuasion rather than a statement of fealty.

My third piece of evidence is one of the sequences two dedications, it is Kate Lechmere’s 1914 observation of Pound reading aloud: “Such a voice seemed to clown verse rather than read it”. Now, clowning has been a strong element in much of Hill’s work since The Triumph of Love and my re-consideration of the Oraclau sequence is because it may be an extended clowning with a more serious purpose. This may be to undermine the poetic and the tricks that it has by producing bad poems with even worse rhymes. Incidentally, I think it might be urgently essential to get the clown back into The Poem.

My penultimate item is this from the end of Poem 9:

Justice is song where song is primitive 
As with poetics. Elsewhere more complex
Denouements, if folly can stay alive;
Innocence, if machination strum lax.

I’m not going to dive into the Hillian syntax of the last two lines but simply point to the observation that justice is song where The Poem is primitive i.e. before it got carried away with itself. There’s also something here about the honesty of the primitive poem. Isn’t there?

My final link comes from Hill’s introduction to his Annunciations which was published in the Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse from 1962:

I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (the banquet) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is, I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

So, a degree of consistency, if I’m correct, going back over fifty years. I hope that the above has established a hint, if nothing more, of a sincere attempt to upturn at least part of the status quo, to make us wince (as he says elsewhere) in order to push us out of inertia, dumb acceptance, complacency. I do however need to have another look at Oraclau.