Tag Archives: the triumph of love

Geoffrey Hill’s soul and ‘anarchical Plutocracy’

I know these two don’t really go together but I’ve discovered a bit more about one and I want to think out loud about the other.

The other is the thorny issue of the soul of Geoffrey Hill which the great man tells us has caused him lifelong anxiety in terms of its fate. He also informs us that all of his writing relates in some way to this anxiety. The obvious response to this would be “No it doesn’t” and then to move on but this would mean not looking deeper into this soul business and that would be a mistake.

If I’d been asked, prior to watching the Economist clip, I’d have said that Hill’s work is primarily about struggle and the wrestling that he does with faith, the dead, the landscape and politics and that it is the dynamics of this struggle that cry out from the work.

I’m resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to glide into counselling mode but I do need to point out that a struggle with faith always precedes anxieties about the soul. In order to recognise the existence of your soul and believe that it lives on after your death you need to have resolved a large part of your struggle with God. I must emphasise that I’m only having an educated stab in the dark here because I don’t share Hill’s faith.

I can say with much more certainty that I wouldn’t read poetry if I felt was mostly ‘about’ the poet’s concern for the fate of his soul. So, I’ve been looking on the work to try and separate out the struggle with faith from any specific soul-related concerns. I started with ‘The Triumph of Love’ (which is always a joy) and looked at the Bradwardine reference and then recognised that poems 38-45 might be worth having another think about. I then came to ‘The Orchards of Syon” (which is much less of a joy) which does seem to have a much greater focus on Dante in particular and the afterlife in general.

Before preceding any further with this purported anxiety, there is the abiding interest in and predilection for memorialising martyrs and others that Hill considers to have died well. One of the themes in Christian theology is the link between martyrdom and a place in heaven. When asked about this interest, Hill has spoken of his admiration for these individuals and explained that these are people that he would have liked to have known.

He’s also said that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorialising, a memorising of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of ‘solidarity with the poor and the oppressed'”. This would seem to indicate a need to bear witness to the lives of others and maybe a hope that such actions will go some way to safeguarding their souls.

Turning now to the operatically magnificent ‘Triumph of Love’. In the interest of brevity, I’m going to rely on the following poems to think further about this particular anxiety:

                   XXXIX

Rancorous, narcissistic old sod - what
makes him go on? We thought, hoped rather
he might be dead. Too bad.So how
much more does he have of injury time?

XL

Ford wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distinction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

XLI

For iconic priesthood, read worldly picque and ambition.
Change insightfully caring to pruriently intrusive.
Delete chastened and humbled. Insert Humiliated.
Interpret slain in the spirit as browbeaten to exhaustion.
For hardness of heart, read costly dislike of cant.

XLII

Excuse me - excuse me - I did not
say the pain is lifting, I said the pain is in
the lifting. No - please - forget it.

XLIII

This is quite dreadful - he's become obsessed.
There you go, there you go - narrow it down to obsession!

I like to think of this as remarkably and utterly frank which is what makes it so powerful. There are many things in the above but I’m particular fond of the Max Miller vignette and that Hill uses the second part of the quote without italics. There’s also the forthright assertion ‘against’ accessible poetry which is probably more honest than the various explanations that he’s given in interview. In this context, I think we need to note that the ‘framing’ is about mortality and the struggle (pain) involved in being Geoffrey Hill. I don’t, however, detect any kind of anxiety about his soul and would have thought that this is the part of ‘Triumph of Love where it is most likely to occur.

I said before that I don’t like ‘The Orchards of Syon’ because of the homage to Hopkins and the misguided musings on Celan and Ingeborg Bachman. I’ve also been suspicious of the extent of name-dropping and what feels like a touch of self-importance. Having re-read the sequence, I may now need to re-assess what’s going on and try and see where it ‘fits’ in my current understanding of the work as a whole.

The whole sequence does seem permeated with matters eschatological with much use of Dante, Revelations and the Day of Judgement but I’m not sure whether this extract amounts to an anxiety about the soul:

LVIII

La vida es sueno and about time;
about hanging in there, about my self,
my mins as it is, to be remembered,
regarding timegraphs: these I understand
as the nongrammatical speech of angels.
I mean they're beyond grammar that reminds
us of our fall and the hanging out there.
My mind, as I know it, I still discover
in this one-off temerity, archnidous
abseiling into a pit, the pit a void,
a black hole, a galaxy in denial.
Life is a dream. I pitch
and check, balanced against hazard,
self-sustained, credulous; well on the way
to be hit by accident a coup de grace.
Intolerable stress on will and shall,
recovery of sprung rhythms, if not rhythm;
test of creation almost to destruction-
that's a good line; it can survive me.
In denial not my words, I'm moving
blindly, all feelers out. Cosmic flare wind
tilts the earth's axis, then returns us
with our ears singing, our eyes rolled back,
mute, Atlantean.

Having now typed this out, and thus taking care with the punctuation, this is better and more confessional than I thought. I’m even prepared to look fondly on the concern about posthumous reputation (‘can’ survive him rather than ‘may’ or ‘might’ but at some remove from ‘will’) and of the reference to Hopkins. The strongest part (in terms of technical efficiency and beauty) relates to his mind descending into a ‘galaxy of denial’. The other thing to note is that it is ‘our’ fall as if we are still unredeemed by the life and death of Christ but that’s more of a theological query rather than a personal one.

Whilst there is certainly anxiety here, it still seems to relate mostly to the present struggle rather than what lies in wait for the soul so. I’m now going to make a very big guess. Hill isn’t getting any younger and with old age (at least in the case of my parents) there seems to be an increasing awareness of mortality and a desire to make sense of the life that’s been lived in the light of that mortality and I think that this might be what’s going on with Hill, that he’s imposing this anxiety on his work in retrospect from his current position.

Of course the work is part of ‘Christian discourse’ whether he likes it or not and the essays also consciously make a series of contributions to that discourse. Whether Hill likes it or not, he writes as a Christian (as well as a ‘hierarchical Tory) and there is an audience to whom he speaks about God.

I’ll finish this with an update on the ‘anarchical plutocracy’ that Hill refers to. I’ve stolen this Hill quote from the eminently perceptive Don Share’s blog

<p?"Until very recently I thought that I had invented the term plutocratic anarchy, but it appears to have originated with William Morris… Morris’s term, to be precise, is “anarchical Plutocracy”. Anarchical Plutocracy destroys memory and dissipates attention; it is the enemy of everything that is summoned before us in Bishop Butler’s great pronouncement of 1729; “Everything is what it is, and not another thing”. Bad poetry, bad art, also dissipate the sense of things at once exactly and numinously understood. Great poetry is an act of unfailing attention; its frequently cited “music” must so be understood."

Butler features prominently in one of the later essays and I think the above may be an attempt to distance himself from the Morris speech which is the sort of nonsense spouted in the name of progressive politics by privileged rich boys down the ages. Here’s the last paragraph:

“Art is long and life is short; let us at least do something before we die. We seek perfection, but can find no perfect means to bring it about; let it be enough for us if we can unite with those whose aims are right, and their means honest and feasible. I tell you if we wait for perfection in association in these days of combat we shall die before we can do anything. Help us now, you whom the fortune of your birth has helped to make wise and refined; and as you help us in our work-a-day business toward the success of the cause, instil into us your superior wisdom, your superior refinement, and you in your turn may be helped by the courage and hope of those who are not so completely wise and refined. Remember we have but one weapon against that terrible organization of selfishness which we attack, and that weapon is Union. Yes, and it should be obvious union, which we can be conscious of as we mix with others who are hostile or indifferent to the cause; organized brotherhood is that which must break the spell of anarchical Plutocracy. One man with an idea in his head is in danger of being considered a madman; two men with the same idea in common may be foolish, but can hardly be mad; ten men sharing an idea begin to act, a hundred draw attention as fanatics, a thousand and society begins to tremble, a hundred thousand and there is war abroad, and the cause has victories tangible and real; and why only a hundred thousand? You and I who agree together, it is we who have to answer that question.”

The full text of the speech is available here. Anybody who can be bothered to wade through all of it will see that the Morris ‘position’ is a long way from anything espoused by Hill whose thoughts on the central role of attention are absolutely correct- whatever we may think of his faith and his politics.

Both @The Triumph of Love’ and ‘The Orchards of Syon’ are available from Abebooks.

Metamodernist poetics

This might take some time.

Over the weekend I fell across (largely by chance) ‘Notes on metamodernism’ by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker and read it. Normally I get quickly annoyed/bored by attempts to find a label for whatever replaced the last label but this makes a number of points that might have some relevance to the current state of British poetry.

The first thing that caught my eye was this quote from Jerry Solz in the New Yorker:

I’m noticing a new approach to artmaking in recent museum and gallery shows. . . . It’s an attitude that says, I know that the art I’m creating may seem silly, even stupid, or that it might have been done before, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t serious. At once knowingly selfconscious about art, unafraid, and unashamed, these young artists not only see the distinction between earnestness and detachment as artificial; they grasp that they can be ironic and sincere at the same time, and they are making art from this compound-complex state of mind.

These description seems to ‘fit’ with a lot of the poetry that has impressed me in recent years and I want to use this opportunity to think about the different ways that this ‘compound-complex’ mentality may have found voice in poetry.

A definition.

The authors make a case for the metamodern consisting of an ‘oscillation’ between the modern and the post-modern with a twist of neo-romanticism thrown in. I accept that this is a crude characterisation but I think it does get to the essence of the argument.

I continue to have an inherent distrust of labels and of periodisation because they usually hide lazy ways of thinking and the modern/postmodern distinction is often as useless as the medieval / early modern divide. However I am prepared to concede that something did seem to occur in the mid-seventies involving a loss of faith in the relentless march of progress. I’m also prepared to concede that modernism tends to be quite serious/pompous and that the postmodern sets out to undermine this by use of irony and pastiche.

The essay doesn’t bother to define oscillation which is a pity because I think that this might be the most salient point of the argument. The OED has a number of definitions- “movement to and fro; periodic motion about a position of equilibrium, as the swinging of a pendulum”, “A single movement to and fro; a vibration”, ” In music, same as beat‥or beating”, “Vacillation, fluctuation, or wavering between two states, opinions, principles, purposes, etc.; an instance of this” and ” A rapid alternation in the direction of flow of a current; the state of a circuit in which this is occurring. Also: an electromagnetic wave produced by such a current”. I think they mean a rapid movement between two points rather than as in a pendulum- because this would imply a ‘position of equilibrium’ which doesn’t actually exist. I’m trying to ignore the application of ‘metataxis’ because apparently it leads to things being ‘here, there and nowhere’ which is a vain attempt to have your cake and eat it.

Metamodern polarities.

Here’s some polarities identified in the essay;

  • a desire for sens / a doubt about the sense of it all;
  • enthusiasm / irony;
  • hope / melancholy;
  • naivety / knowingness;
  • empathy / apathy;
  • unity / plurality;
  • totality / fragmentation;
  • purity / ambiguity;
  • authenticity / pastiche
  • involved / detached;
  • elitist / democratic.

I’ve added the last two because they seem relevant to what the essay is trying to say.

You may think that this has little or nothing to do with contemporary poetry in the UK but I want to show this rapid movement is used by several different poets with very different aims in mind. I’m going to use Geoffrey Hill, Keston Sutherland, Simon Jarvis and Jonty Tiplady to attempt to demonstrate this. As ever, this is an entirely provisional view that may well be amended / refuted at some later date.

A metamodern Triumph of Love.

Geoffrey Hill is often described as a ‘late’ or a ‘high’ modernist poet. This isn’t particularly useful but a lot of his output does seem to sit firmly at the ‘modern’ end of the spectrum listed above. There are however a number of glaring and significant exceptions to this observation. Two of Hill’s finest works are ‘Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ neither of which fit altogether comfortably into the exclusively modern camp.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is on one level a deeply serious consideration of the Very Bad Things that have occurred in the 20th century which concludes that grace, individual love, decency and endurance have enabled us to endure / survive. At the time of publication, Hill came in for some critical flak for the way that this very serious theme was interspersed with several much lighter / knowing elements. There are the editorial comments placed within the poems, the direct abusive addresses to three unfortunate critics and the occasional refrain from stand-up comedy. The sequence is made up of 150 numbered poems, most of these fit into one category or the other but some combine both. Poem LXIII belongs firmly at the modern end:

These obscenities which - as you say - you fancy
perverting the consecration; you hear them all right
even if they are unspoken, as most are. It is
difficult always to catch the tacit
echoes of self-resonance. Is prayer
residual in imprecation? Only
as we equivocate. When I examine
my soul's heart's blood I find it the blood
of bulls and goats.
Things unspoken as spoken give us away.
What else can I now sell myself, filched
from Lenten Hebrews?

Here we have a desire for ‘sens’ together with a strong interest in unity and authenticity. There’s also a very earnest and serious tone together with the elitist obscurity of the last two lines. It’s also significant that this kind of stuff epitomises how Hill is portrayed in the ‘quality’ press: religious; grumpy; obscure and more than a little intimidating.

At the other end we have poem XL:

For wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distiction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

Excessive wordplay, the self-conscious anticipation and defiance of criticism (to write accessible verse is to be ‘openly servile’) followed by pastiche- this is all fairly post-modern, isn’t it?

Now we come to oscillation, ie moving between the two extremes in a single poem this is CXXXI:

Mourning registers as celebration. Haydn
at sixty-six, his clowning majesty
of invention never bettered [He means,
I think, the late 'Erody' Quartets - ED]
Bartok dying in New York, unfinished
music among the sickbed detritus:
ta-Rah ta-Rah ta-rarara Rah

This is the third of five poems with the same last line, all of which are intended to be playful. This is the only one of the five to have an editorial intervention. There is a to-ing and fro-ing between these two devices and the serious point being made about how one element of mourning can be seen as a celebration of the dead person’s life (the whole business of memorialisation is a key factor in Hill’s work. So, can this movement be usefully described as metamodern? Or is it simply late modern with a few postmodern bits thrown in?

Keston Sutherland

We now come to the slightly more complex case of Keston Sutherland. I’m going to use ‘Hot White Andy’ and ‘Stress Position’ because they both throw up quite involved questions about the use of stylistic and formal devices. The first observation to be made is that Sutherland is a Marxist and, as such, he ought to be a clear advocate of modernism’s totalising and Grand Narrative tendencies. He should be writing deadly serious and committed poetry about the political and economic issues of the day, he should have no time at all for the playful fripperies of the postmodern.

There is also the problem of differentiating between the modernist sneer and postmodern playfulness. The first is profoundly elitist and undemocratic whereas the second runs the danger of being simply vacuous. The first example for consideration is from ‘Hot White Andy’ where “I remember that / they were showing Bleaching Lenny. which has this gloss at the bottom of the page-

British reality TV show. Famous comedian Lenny Henry is caught on camera indavertently bleaching himself, one body part per week. In the final episode (8) of the series we are given to contemplate a morose Henry, by this point a ghastly supernatural alabaster from head to foot except for his (since episode 7) quasi-autonomous scrotum, engaged in teabagging an unnamed but invidiously Chinese companion of unfathomable gender. Henry fails to detect through the dark suck-hole in her latex Marsillio Ficino mask, the two tiny hidden natatorium of bleach fashioned ingeniously out of an aluminium peel-lid from a peach yoghurt pot Henry dared to lick out in the first episode (2).

Using the ironic, knowing footnote is a postmodern device, an interest in celebrity is a postmodern trait. The language of the above is also an ironic comment on the glossing of poetry. For those who don’t recall, Henry started his career by impersonating and making fun of black immigrants to the UK from the West Indies and was subsequently pilloried (as a black comedian) for pandering to racial stereotypes. So, I guess we’re meant to go along with this rather facile bleach metaphor and have a bit of a white-boy sneer, all of which feels a bit second hand even if we pause to reflect on the inclusion of Ficino’s first name. I think I’m of the view that this is a piece of old=fashioned modernism trying quite hard to wear a postmodern frock.

The next obvious candidate for metamodernism is Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’. It is deeply po-mo to include fictional characters from other periods and genres as if to flaunt notions of authorial/poetic chicanery and sleight of hand. Having Black Beauty (the horse created by Anna Sewell) as a main character in a poem about American imperialism and torture in Iraq would not normally be seen as a modernist device. I have written at length about the poem as a whole but looking at it in terms of this particular divide then it does contain many postmodern devices together with passages that are resolutely in a ‘modern’ voice. The clearest examples (apart from the horse) ar the b-movie quasi kitsch ending and the remarkable and very modernist dream riff on mental illness.

I’m not entirely clear that there is much oscillation going on between the two but I’ll give this further thought.

The Jarvis sneer.

With regard to Simon Jarvis, I’ve looked again at the Princess Di / Paul Burrell ‘theme’ in F0 and at the Cheryl and Ashley Cole quips and I can’t get much further than reading them both as straightforward modernist sneers. I’m prepared to accept that I might be missing some key ingredient but I see both as old-fashioned elitism. I’m not entirely sure where the Jarvis interest in the British road network and related signage fits in ths spectrum, if at all which might underline the problem with this kind of exercise.

Jonty Tiplady’s hurt face.

When I first read the essay, two poets were vying in my head for attention in the metamodern, Geoffrey Hill and Jonty Tiplady. The second of these was provisional but stemmed from something I’d written about Jonty’s contribution to ‘Better than Language’. I don’t normally quote myself but I am rather pleased with this- “This is really clever stuff that’s deceptively straightforward whilst actually managing to undermine to poetry-making business in a number of different ways. I’m particularly impressed by the humanity of the ‘voice’ running through this and the way in which the playful tries to batter the serious into submission”. I think this ‘battering’ process might be close to what the essay calls ‘oscillation’. It so happens that on my hard drive sits a prose piece by Tiplady that has yet to see the light of day. It is called “But my face hurts” and this is from somewhere in the middle-

Sit down in your room if you have one and think carefully about whether there is really anything left to say. Make sure you say in the next moment whatever it is you decide is then left. The end of the end is the end. You can find
my eyes in the sockets in my skull. Please come straight up to me and kiss me. Please rape me properly. Bugs Bunny is a
stupid fucking bunny rabbit. I am not interested in wearing any clothes anymore. I am not surprised by how many times I
pretend to have conversations with you. I am surprised by how cruel kindness seems. I have never had any idea what is
happening. Such cruelty comes from everything. I think I have a mania about the planet. This morning I was worried my
hands would hit me. Last night I was worried my Dad would be in the bathroom when I turned the light on. I am getting older and I will die eventually. My hands are so big. There have been several perfect moments.

At some time in the future I want to go on at much greater length about how utterly wonderful this is but here I want to point out the embodiment of the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ the utterly serious within the incredibly banal’ and the absence of earnest intensity that the metamodern might be about. I think the above demonstrates a very, very clever use of oscillation between and within registers. I was going to list the modernist and then the postmodern but I think they are reasonably obvious. What leaves me in jaw-dropping awe is how this very self-conscious series of statements manages to find by shifts in register and focus a very clear and compelling account of what it might be like to be alive in the clattering now.

So, am I now converted to labels? No, I don’t think that they are particularly useful but I do think that looking for common traits within those labels can be a useful way of rethinking some work. For example, I’m now more confident about what ‘The Triumph of Love’ might be trying to achieve and I’m even more convinced of the towering genius that is Geoffrey Hill. The New Yorker quote above has also pushed me into thinking about an ‘ethical turn’ that might be under way but I’ll need to think a bit more about this.

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?

Geoffrey Hill and comedy

In the essential ‘Complicities’ collection Thomas Day has an essay on comedy and contexture in ‘Comus’. As a long standing reader/fan of this poem, I read the piece with interest and it has given me some cause to re-consider my reading. For those who aren’t familiar with Hill’s work, the response falls into three broad camps. The first camp levels the charge of wilful obscurity thereby denying Hill any poetic/creative status at all. The second camp acknowledges the brilliance of the early work but denigrates the later stuff which was written after Hill sought help for his mental health condition, these later poems are sneeringly referred to as the ‘Prozac stuff’. The third camp is of the view that Hill remains one of the most important poets writing in English. I am firmly in the third camp and came to that view by reading Comus before I read anything else.

One of Hill’s more endearing traits is that most of his jokes aren’t very funny but they have a level of self-deprecation that makes me smile. When I first read Comus I was struck by its confidence and exuberance and by the fact that Hill felt able to throw various aspects of himself into the poem without becoming mawkish or confessional. The first section is a brilliant collection of  maxims which lead us gently into the performance of Milton’s Comus at Ludlow. These stanzas are not without humour, there’s a wonderful play on accountancy and righteousness which is funny but not in the music hall way that Day seems to be looking for.

Given his reputation for difficulty, it may surprise some to know that ‘The Triumph of Love’ also strives for laughs but in a much more self-conscious knowing way with Hill parodying the best efforts of stand-up comics. I don’t feel that this earlier attempt works as well as the bad jokes in Comus, probably because it reads as if Hill is being a little too clever for his own good.

The other thing to realise is that nobody should come to anything by Hill looking for laughs. Hill’s work challenges the attentive reader to think again about the world and to consider anew the power of the poetic voice. The jokes are very much a by-product. Whilst Day covers important aspects of the poem, he fails to situate the comedy in the context of the work and this is disappointing. The one comedic aspect that is ignored is the figure of Geoffrey Hill as randy old goat primarily lusting after the Sabrina character in the original Comus. I find this kind of self-deprecation amusing and can’t understand why Day should overlook it.

Day quotes extensively from the critical plaudits on the back of the paperback edition of Comus as if to demonstrate that Hill has won the recognition that he deserves and also that Hill finds this validation a bit difficult. Day also makes the claim that Comus is a gauntlet thrown down at the critic’s feet in defiance of the view that his later stuff isn’t very good. Whilst it is obvious that Hill does care about critical reception, I don’t think Comus is particularly defiant- I think it’s much more an homage to a particular poem and a meditation on the possibility of poetry in this weighted world. Being very open about your past (marriage, earlier poems, childhood) is surely not the best tactic when confronting your enemies.

I may be biased (I often am), but Comus stands alongside The Triumph of Love and Mercian Hymns as Hill’s finest work. A very strong case can be made for each but it is a credit to Hill that he has produced three very different but equally enduring pieces of work. He’ll never be a great comedian but he will always make me smile.