Tag Archives: To William Cobbett: In Absentia

Geoffrey Hill on William Cobbett

Regular readers of this blog will know of my admiration for Geoffrey Hill but I haven’t yet mentioned my devotion to William Cobbett. For those who don’t know, Cobbett was a leading radical and prolific journalist at the beginning of the 19th century.  He campaigned vigorously for reform of Parliament and on behalf of the rural poor. I was first introduced to him by E P Thompson’s seminal work on the working class and read ‘Rural Rides’ which is an excellent introduction to his brilliant writing style. Cobbett is the greatest writer of polemic that the English language has and we ought to honour him far more than we do.

Geoffrey Hill has many things in common with Cobbett, they both share a love for the English countryside, a fierce nostalgia for an England that never was and a hatred of the money men who infest the City of London. Hill has variously described himself  as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and a ‘red Tory’ neither of  which  are a million miles away from Cobbett’s position.

In ‘Canaan’ Cobbett published ‘To William Cobbett: in Absentia’ which is a kind of memorial and one of Hill’s finest short poems. It begins- “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.” This can be construed as Hill’s attempt to re-appropriate Cobbett back into the Anglican tradition. Although Cobbett had a reputation for being anti-clerical and blasphemous, he always thought of himself as a fully committed member of the Church of England even though he made no attempt to hide his view that many of its practices  and beliefs were absurd. He was in favour of religious tolerance and felt that individual beliefs should be respected.

The poem also has- “your righteous and cordial anger / your singular pitch where labour is spoken of “. We now have to pose the important question- is Hill speaking about Cobbett or about himself? He has spoken about the writing of poetry as a sad and angry consolation and his work contains frequent reference to his grandparents who were members of the rural poor.

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with Hill’s admiration of Cobbett, indeed it is surely fitting that one of our finest poets should write in this way. What I am suggesting is that there may be some over-identification going on, the poem also contains reference to Cobbett’s contemporary critics (there were many) and Hill’s work also contains ripostes to his critics in a similar vein. The question therefore needs to be asked- is Geoffrey Hill the William Cobbett of 21st century England? If so, this would clarify a lot of the mystique that currently surrounds his political stance.