Tag Archives: Speech! Speech!

Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill and celebrity

Speech! Speech! has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. It’s meant to be the middle part of a sequence that starts with The Triumph of Love and ends with The Orchards of Syon. I’m familiar with both of these but I’ve never been able to pay attention to the filling in the sandwich until the last week when I noticed that the blurb has “allowing us to glimpse the mythical in the insistently modern, the tender in the intensely savage, especially in the elegaic sections on the death of Princess Diana”. Obviously, being congenitally attracted to the odd, I immediately sought these out and was not disappointed.

First of all, a couple of clarifications. Hill isn’t terribly keen on the current state of our nation and is instead very keen on an England that never actually existed. Politically Hill would be most at home with UKIP because of a shared patriotism and a detestation of all things EU. Hill is not, however, stupid and his views should be seen as part of the long line of Tory paternalists that stretches back to the 18th century rather than the inanities of this current crop of patriots.

The relationship between myth and the time of writing is one of the things that poetry has always done, what it hasn’t done with any great success is ‘deal’ with the problems of fame and celebrity. I’m interested in the figure of the celebrity in our culture because of what this says about us and the contents of our collective heads. I’m indifferent to the British Royal family and I was completely mystified by the extent and depth of national trauma brought about by that particular car crash. I saw Diana as a particularly vacuous member of her class who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I still don’t think that she will have more than a fleeting effect on the rest of us. It transpires that Hill is not of this view, that he is firmly entrenched in the nation’s grief and has written about it.

We need to take a bit of a pause here, you have just published one of the finest poems of the last 30 years, a work that is a remarkable and innovative and wonderfully human meditation on the many traumas of our recent past and yet you choose to follow this up with a sequence that contains a number of mawkish sentimentalities about a product of the culture that you effect to despise.

This is the first Di-related stanza:


Age of mass consent: go global with her.
Challenge satellite failure, the primal
violent day-star moody as Herod.
Forget nothing. Reprieve no-one. Exempt
only her bloodline's jus natalium.
Pledge to immoderacy the outraged 
hardly forgiven mourning of the PEOPLE,
inexorable, though in compliance,
media-conjured. Inscrutable I call
her spirit now on this island: memory
subsiding into darkness | nowhere
coming to rest.

(The vertical line between darkness and nowhere is the closest I can get to how it appears in print. There’s an acute accent above the o in ‘her spirit now’ which WordPress doesn’t (won’t) render)

There are a couple of typographical tics which we can reasonably avoid but the capitalised ‘people’ might require some attention. I’m taking the Latin as ‘birthright’ which would seem to make grammatical sense of the line and would suggest that those who are to be exempted are her two children. I’ve spent at least twenty minutes with the OED and what I know of Hill’s work and have come to the regrettable conclusion that “Pledge to immoderacy” doesn’t actually work, even allowing for Hill’s penchant for obscure words and secondary definitions. I think I know what he’s aiming for in his typically convoluted way but I think there are more precise ways of saying it. The rest is reasonably clear but I’m not sure that it’s accurate. My (admittedly dim) recollection of those strange few days is that the media were unprepared for the extent and depth of the collective grief. One of the things that interests me about celebrity is the mutual involvement of the media, the audience and the individual. Diana fed the media’s need to report this new and much trendier addition to the cast of dysfunctional misfits and the audience could take sides in the ‘narrative’ whilst the celebrity felt that she could manipulate sections of the media into supporting her ‘position’. I can’t explain this grief but I have to report that relatively sane friends of mine got caught up in it and were clearly feeling some pain. The last three lines are oddly mawkish and I wonder why Hill feels the need to say them unless, of course, it’s an example of the mythical in the present as advertised in the blurb.

Thirteen stanzas later we get these two:


Say you dispute the audit - no offence
to her intended (or to her intended)-
pending the hierarchies so soon to be
remade | though not with her demotic splendour.
Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one's country | bearing with it
always something over- or under-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing - marching - in and out of tune
to Holst's JUPITER | as to JERUSALEM.


Huntress? No, not that huntress but some
other creature of fable. And then for her|
like being hunted. Or inescapably
beholden (this should sound tired but not
emotional to excess). Half forgotten
in one lifetime the funeral sentences
instantly resurrected - how can they do it?
Whatever of our loves here lies apart:
whatever it is you look for in sleep:
simple bio-degradation, a slather 
of half-rotted black willow leaves
at the lake's edge.

(Again all the accents are missing).

This is much more to my taste, there’s the assertion of the patriot, the brief riff on the power of a Christian funeral – even if ‘resurrected’ might be going a little too far – there’s nothing clumsy here, the phrasing and word-choice seem to be adept and accomplished rather than mannered. The image of the charwomen speaks to me of a culture and a set of values that disappeared at about the time that the nation discovered sex (1963) and does so with exceptional skill and warmth. Some might argue that 36’s bracketed aside is both arrogant and out of place but I’m of the view that it’s a mark of the confidence of an able and accomplished craftsman who simply knows what he can get away with and does so.

Given my interest in the man and his work, I’m intrigued by ‘apocryphal’ which, for the moment I’m taking to mean “of doubtful authenticity” rather than relating to the Apocrypha. Hill can be relied on to promote the patriotic cause and I’ve always got the impression that he saw this as something innate in him and in others so this puts a new light on things. It certainly adds another layer to an already complex and contradictory picture. It’s also very heartening to note the completely unfunny ‘intended’ jape and the use of ‘slather’ which the OED tells me is limited to Scotland and the North of England but is also one of the most expressive nouns in the language.

So, I’m now going to persevere with Speech! because it might have other really good bits and it may persuade me to like ‘Orchards’ a little more.

Commentaries, Annotations, Glossaries and the Poem

For the past few months I’ve been trying to broaden my reading to incorporate poetry written before 1570 and also to get to grips with the joys of Middle English. Thus far this has involved engaging primarily with Thomas Hoccleve and John Skelton, for both of these I’ve made use of editors which has proved to be a ‘mixed’ experience. I’m also in pursuit of most things relating to David Jones and this morning I received Rene Hague’s commentary on The Anathemata. Obviously I haven’t begun to read this in depth but this from the preface encapsulates some of my concerns:

I very soon met two difficulties. The first was the problem of whom I was addressing, and what knowledge, apt to help him in his interpretation, could I attribute to him. For while it is annoying not to be told, something of which you are ignorant, it is equally, or even more annoying to be told what you have known since childhood: it is as bad as having an obvious joke explained to you. I could only take my own friends, so often better informed than I, as a standard. I found it impossible to be consistent, and in the end I had to write as though simply for myself, with a friend reading over my shoulder.

The second difficulty arose from the impossibility of defining a literal meaning. That exists at no more than syntactical abstraction, which has little use unless it allows the reader to move onward into the intricacies of allusion, allegory, spiritual and even mystical interpretation; and here (even though a commentator may provide a useful starting-point) every reader must do his own work based on his own reading and thinking. Anyone who has studied the great poets closely and for many years will know how endless is that work, and how entrancing.

Needless to say, Hague has now been promoted to one of the Few who write well about poetry and understand the needs of the attentive reader. This balance is a useful benchmark and I would add, from recent personal experience, explanations or definitions that the reader doesn’t understand- I don’t think I should need to consult the OED to understand this kind of explanation. The other infuriation comes from notes/glosses that are wrong, that are factually incorrect and (usually) misleading.

In order to exemplify what Hague is describing, I set out below the sinners and saints in my recent (ish) reading with some examples. I readily accept that each reader brings a different knowledge base and vocabulary to this material but (as ever) this is a subjective view and I’d be grateful for other responses from interested readers.

Roger Ellis on Thomas Hoccleve’s ‘La Male Regle’.

Editors of Middle English poetry place modern definitions alongside the line in question. This particular poem is an extended version of what Drayton categorised as ‘ah, me!’ poetry in that the poet spends a lot of time bemoaning his plight and generally being sorry for himself. These lines are from the second stanza, Ellis’ definitions are in italics:

 And now my body empty is, and bare
of ioie and ful of seekly heuynesse, sickly
al poore of ese and ryche of evel fare. in things bringing ease; in misfortune

I would argue that this last line is done an enormous disservice by this inept heavy-handedness. Not many readers will need to be told that ‘ese’=’ease’ but if they did then it might be better/more helpful to give the phrase as ‘ill at ease’. With regard to being incorrect, ‘in misfortune’ completely misses the point. I’m not any kind of expert in these things but I can think of many more precise definitions and ‘evel fare’ doesn’t really need an explanation because most of us will be able to define both words for ourselves. It could of course be argued that this edition is aimed at students who might need this kind of assistance, I would then point out that in that case there is an even greater need for precise definition and not what appears to be lazy platitude.

Alexander Dyce on John Skelton’s ‘Diuers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous’.

Skelton was writing about a hundred years after Hoccleve at the start of what is thought of as the early modern period (a decidedly movable feast). This is the second verse of one of his more minor ‘ditties’:

Allectuary arrected to redres
These feuereous axys, the dedely wo and payne
Of thoughtfull hertys plungid in dystres;
Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and greene;
Of lusty somer the passing goodly quene;

Dyce’s edition of Skelton’s verse was published in 1843 and is a delight in that it is hopelessly partisan and idiosyncratic but you can feel the enthusiasm for the work bouncing off the page- the notes can be read on their own merit although it does help to know something of the period. However, Dyce often omits words and phrases which should be glossed and also gives explanations that the interested reader (me) may not understand.

This is how Dyce deals with the above:

Allectuary- Electuary. Arrected – appointed. Redres- relieve, remedy. Axys – (access) fits, paroxysms. Of thoughtful hertys plungid in dystre- Skelton borrowed this line from, Lydgate whose ‘Lyf of our Lady’ begins: “O thoughtful herte plungid in dustressed”. Thoughtfull is anxious, heavy, sad. Herber – arbour.

So, how many of us are familiar with ‘electuary? Was this a common word in 1843 and do we need a definition of ‘redres’ when we aren’t given one for either ‘condute’ or ‘enverduryd’? Because of his enthusiasm I should nevertheless confess that Dyce annoys me far less than Ellis.

At this point I could repeat what I’ve said elsewhere about commentators on Spenser, Herbert, Milton, Marvell and Wordsworth but instead I’ll move forward to the present and the problem of the introduction.

Ann Hassan on Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Speech! Speech!’

Thus far I’ve only read the introduction the Hassan’s commentary but it does contain one roadblock of a sentence. Following Hague, I’m of the view that the reader should be encouraged to undertake his or her own reading and to do the work of attention in all it’s senses. Early on in her introduction Hassan has this: “Hill’s stock preoccupations (in shorthand the triumvirate of martyrdom, memory and responsibility) are still present.” This glib, albeit ‘shorthand’, observation has no place in such an introduction because it sets out a position rather than encouraging readers to form their own impressions and views. For this reader, I think I know Hill’s work reasonably well and I’m deeply sceptical of a ‘triumvirate’ that omits God and England but I am deterred from preceding by the simple fact that this kind of generalisation isn’t helpful and may portend even more infuriations to come. There’s also a degree of complexity in Hill’s work that makes the adjective ‘stock’ either simplistic or (more likely) wrong. I will continue eventually however because I’m a Hill completist, I haven’t paid sufficient attention to this particular sequence and there are 294 pages for me to get lost in and annoyed with.