Tag Archives: rhetorics of value and intrnsic value

Geoffrey Hill, William Cobbett and Jeremy Corbyn

For the past decade or so I’ve been intermittently musing on the nature of Hill’s politics, citing elements of his work as indicative of a kind of Little Englander High Tory (LEHT). The posthumously published The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin provides additional qualifiers and amendments on both points which I’ll try and outline here.

The first startlement comes with Poem 186;

This, it is becoming clear, is more a Daybook than ever The Daybooks were:
          il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the
          door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry
          which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.
Corbyn must win. Though he is a flawed man it is not my belief that Hogarth 
           would set him down as a tout or a thief.
To ask whether again Labour could ever again take power is beside the point at this
           juncture and hour.
Let me recomence my old caterwaul of 'intrinsic value' if only to rile you.
But why should you be riled at all? No disordinancy has been revealed, other
         than in the cabals that have reviled Corbyn with claptrap lobbymen.
It is the lobby that corrupts the language of praise, determines greatness to be 
         derisory. I should not trust even Hogarth on the topic of Jews and ususry.
         And Cobbett would be worse. I count them amongst my grievous heroes,
         whose structural stature - each minute particular of unbribed observa-
         tion, whether of turnip or fashion - combines in a singular authentic
         judgement upon the nation


I’ll start with Cobbett. For those that don’t know, William Cobbett was an early 19th century journalist and radical who was a key figure in the movement for parliamentary reform. He was also an ardent supporter of and advocate for all things English and rural. I rate him as the finest writer of prose that we have ever had, a talent that makes me smile a lot. I don’t share his politics nor do I admire him as a man but his writings are a constant source of pleasure and inspiration.

Hill has always been a bit evasive about the precise nature of his politics apart from his patriotism and his belief in the need for some kind of hierarchy in the way that we govern our lives. It is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that he shared many of Cobbett’s beliefs and compassion for the rural poor. Here he seems to be troubled by his hero’s antisemitism which appears to be akin to the current workings of the Westminster lobby industry.

The statement Corbyn must win is unusually short and direct. I’m taking it that this refers to the 2017 UK general election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party was narrowly defeated by the incumbent Conservative leader, Theresa May. No doubt there will be many books written and many debates had over the Corbyn phenomenon and what it may have signified.

I’m one of those lefty cynics who recognised the gift that a Corbyn leadership would give to an already divided Tory party. As a paid up member of the ongoing failure that is the Great British Left, I’d followed Corbyn’s career with interest and had been unable to work out why the party hadn’t expelled him many decades ago- his views having much more in common with some of the small grouplets of the far left than they do with the parliamentary party.

It is therefore more than a shock to read these three words coming from this self confessed High Tory especially when, elsewhere in the series, he confesses to being a Remain supporter in the ongoing Brexit fiasco. Hill had made his anti-EU views clear in the Canaan collection of 1996 esp with regard to the political strife around the ratification of the Mastricht Treaty- an internal Tory kerfuffle mostly about the loss of sovereignty.

I’m going to glide over the Hogarth reference because I want to attend to all that Baruch has to say about him in another piece. I have however been casting about for commonality between Cobbett and Corbyn and it occurs to me that both of these are political outsiders. Neither were accepted by the political elites/establishment even though both, at times, enjoyed extraordinarily wide public appeal. Cobbett took several attempts to get elected to a seat, even after the 1832 Reform Act whilst Corbyn led his party to two defeats and gave the Tories their biggest majority since 1931.

We are pointed in the direction of two essays where Hill pays attention to the nature of intrinsic value. The first of these, Rhetorics of Value and Intrinsic Value, which starts with David Hume, proceeds to Joseph Butler and George Eliot before moving on to Richard Hoooker before alighting upon Ben Johnson;

“Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the publicke riot. The Excesse of Feasts, and apparrel, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantnonnesse of language, of a sick mind.”

Hill’s comment is telling;

The intelligence that believes in these words, from wheresoever derived, and seals that belief by giving them this cogent stability, affims also its acceptance of a doctrine of intrinsic value, albeit tacitly. The tacit understanding here is that language does not universally descend into corruption in company with a sick mind, or the mind of a sick state. Johnson had no doubt that his own times were sick; but he never doubted the capacity of language, his own language in particular, to guard its sanity and to guard the sanity of those who give it their assent…….. If you do answer with yea, yea! – as I admit that I do- you are henceforward committed to a course of thought and statement that accepts opposition as part of the common lot, which can hardly avoid controversy, and which will be, or from some points of vantage will appear to be, narrowly constrained and constraining.

To this reader, at least, things become a little clearer, the ‘old caterwaul’ is recommended because it identifies the value that both Corbyn and Cobbett brought redressing the sick state and the ways in which both were entangled in controversy. The Tory press took great delight in reminding all of us of Corbyn’s earlier support for the IRA and the PLO whilst his own campaigns gained popular support because he talked of a new kind of politics, one that was based on a sense of commonality and economic justice.

I’m not entirely sure that Corbyn has a notable mastery of language, as time went on his speechifying became increasingly equivocated by the supposed need hedge his bets, especially with regard to Brexit. Given Hill’s notion of value, it does make sense to see the Jeremy Corbyn of 2017 as a figure coming out of the cold to speak truth to power.

As might be expected, I don’t share this view of language as something special and apart from our daily lives. I remain of the view that the words we use are tethered to the lives that we live and the ways in which we live them. Words are very powerful but they aren’t special, they don’t transcend everyday life in the way that most poets seem to claim.

The other thing that I may wish to attend to is how much of this idea of value should be applied to Hill’s own work. For example, can Mercian Hymns be read, at least in part as an attempt at sanity guarding? What about the stunning Mysticism and Democracy poems from the Canaan collection?