11. (Geoffrey Hill)

Not newly appearing in the new Collected Poems, the poem there that nonetheless surprised me most—-thumbed over, by chance, on the way to the title poem, “Broken Hierarchies,” also not newly appearing—-is “In  Memoriam: Gillian Rose,” first collected in A Treatise of Civil Power, in 2007. Hill has made only two small revisions–I’m inclined to call them corrections–to the poem: in the ninth section, the second line: “a good legacy which you shouldn’t be proud of” has become “a good legacy, which you shouldn’t be proud of” and, more boldly, the fourth section, which had opened “You might have responded to my question, | one will never know”, now opens “Might you have responded to my question | One will never know.”

I won’t say it’s the best but can say it’s a remarkable entryway into Hill’s late work–and on Hill’s own terms, and this perhaps because the poem is not only in terms that are Hill’s alone; they are also terms that he consciously borrows from, graciously shares with, Gillian Rose. The poem addresses her directly, as a friend (a friendship shaded by an unrealized possibilities of something else?), as an intimate with a shared history of conversation; most commonly Hill extends the courtesies and sympathies of friendship across history, or across languages, or both. Contemporary friends usually receive dedications, rather than Hill’s direct attention.  Because of this common background of friendship, this is a distinctly (uniquely?—at any rate rarely) urbane occasion in Hill’s late poetry.

Donald Davie made the term “urbane” critically essential; he sounded it as none had before him. But I’ve never been satisfied with using the term myself, since it carries with it the association of a conservative civilized ideal. I think now, though, that it need not; it instead describes a tone and register of verse written within shared conventions of tact, compassion, candour (another word that Davie does much to help us appreciate), honor, and generosity. Urbanity in verse is achieved where the rules of public friendship are established; in the mannered world of eighteenth-century society, such rules were perhaps more codified, commonly shared, or elaborated upon than in other eras of modern poetry. But there are pockets or urbanity in all eras, where public friendships–friendships that must sustain themselves in public, and so friendships open to public scrutiny–are found. Writing a poem to a friend and knowing it will be published constitutes a form of public friendship; an elegy to an anonymous lover, because that lover is not identified, does not.  Horace was beloved by most of Davie’s masters of urbanity and this is because Horace excelled at writing about public friendship; Tennyson achieves his most urbane–and also most Horatian–note in poems like “To the Rev. F.D Maurice” and “To E. Fitzgerald.”  Shelley shows himself, to Davie, as urbane in those poems where he writes to the woman whom he loved, but only as a friend, “To Jane” and the other Jane poems. Granted, Davie recognizes urbanity in poems that are not addressed to friends–Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” for instance–but I think it is helpful to start with the publicity of friendship even when thinking of those other poems.  (One might retort that I’ve confused a Horatian tone with urbanity; but Juvenal’s satire can strike an urbane tone, the tenth might be heard as an address to friends, to be judged as candid and tactful even by members of the public it represents with scorn; Juvenal’s loathing for the world is not an outcry directly against the world, since the poem is offered as advice to a particular person, and to a particular person who is very much in the swim of city life, well-acquainted with power and prestige).

Among friends, compromise is essential; but compromise according to shared standards of conduct and virtue; the classical tradition of friendship (put forward by Cicero)—a tradition alive still in Johnson’s Rambler and Idler essays—being that one cannot be true friends with another who is is either a great deal more or a great deal less virtuous than oneself.

“In Memoriam: Gillian Rose” offers readers of late Hill a good place to start because it offers a glimpse of what Hill so rarely gives: the poet as a friend. The complaints against Hill, especially late Hill, are inscrutability, remorseless and barbed allusiveness, a poetry muttering in circles to the idiosyncratic obsessions of the poet; occasionally, detractors admit, the head lifts from the downward gaze, eyes raise upwards in a wild stare, and the voice wrenches itself into distortions no less strange than what we have already heard, but suddenly wildly beautiful, even as they remain oblivious to the listener. The late Hill does not mind talking to himself, and makes a show of talking to himself, (like man at speaker’s corner in Hyde Park who occasionally turns and denounces the crowd for listening), because he does not feel that compromise would be other than surrender to a civic life that has lost a sense of what it means to have a properly civil and civic language.

Such a compromise would be a collusion with the enemy, an abnegation of responsibilities to one’s self (Hill would not use that word any more lightly than Hopkins, with his “abrupt self,” would), to the past, and to the inherited language without which neither can be conceived. Rather than compromise with standards of accessibility, Hill prefers his works to stand away from the world with “alienated majesty,” a phrase that Emerson turns to a different purpose, and that Hill takes as a title for several essays exploring nineteenth-century American literature. Dylan caterwauls with fantastic, falsetto irony, in the opening track on album that would light the match that would start the fire that would simmer some his audience to seething catcalls, “All I really want to dooooooo is baby be friends with you”–but he knew full well that such friendship, on the terms in which it could be offered, did not interest him, as much as he knew how nice friendship could be.

But we do see Hill as friend in “In Memoriam: Gillian Rose.” He does not, of course, compromise with his reading public–and he does not, even in this poem, compromise with Gillian Rose. Though I launched the word myself, I should summon it back; a revision is in order in light of Hill’s sense of the way things stand in the world.  Instead, the poet does something else that is essential to a friendship between equals: he “accommodates.” Here, with accommodation, the necessity of shared virtues is more apparent than it is with “compromise”–for accommodating another implies letting him or her in, making that other, if only for a passing time, a part of oneself; and who would want to alloy one’s self with impurities.

In this poem, Hill does not accommodate the reading public any more than he ever does (he never entirely refuses to accommodate them), but he offers us distant readers a chance to at least see what it looks like when he accommodates a friend to his poetry, when he accommodates his poetry to a friend (the first section from section 8):

The just city is finally of some interest                                                                 chiefly in the base senses of curiosity                                                                    and self-serving, if you understand me. You                                                          do, of course, since I am using your three primers,


Mourning Becomes the Law, Love’s Work, Paradiso:                                                a good legacy, which you should be proud of                                                        except that pride is forever irrelevant                                                                  where you are now.

And, from section 12:

The odds are heavy-set against us all                                                                  though medics call the chances symbiosis                                                            in their brusque insolent manner that denies                                                         self-knowledge as the sufferer, her formal agon:                                                      that word you chose to use, a standard term                                                         but not despicable in context of Love’s Work.

“If you understand me”–not so unexpected in the late Hill, though normally we would expect to find it after a particularly gnotty passage, and if followed by “You do, of course,” we would likely hear irony in that phrase. But none of that here, and because, Hill admits, the act of accommodation: the terms are hers. Accommodation of the words of others is nothing new in a poet of such allusiveness (he addresses us in Orchards of Syon XXI: “Don’t look it up this time; the sub-| conscious does well by us; leave well alone.), but the accommodation here is somewhat startling because it is commented on as accommodation of understanding, not only accommodation of language, and because the language is that of a contemporary (and British), language that has been scarred in the same struggle as Hill’s. He reaches out to another in their terms, meeting them, as it were, on and within their terms. And the tone itself is not that of distant admirer, but of a supportive fellow: “good works, that you should be proud of.” The risk is condescension, the school-master’s seal of approval, but the alternative, and the alternative that I hear Hill finding, is praise that needs no further elaboration because the standards of value have been agreed up, rest undisturbed in the background, not imposed by either party, but agreed upon between them; we can feel the history of conversations in which many works were not found “good,” including, one imagines, the works of Hill and Rose. Few others, ourselves not among them, are permitted entry to it, but a window has been opened for all readers into the besieged enclave where Hill and Rose sat.  And there is, in that shared world a slight leniency of understanding: the wry and backhanded approbation of the worn-out word “agon”: “not despicable in context of Love’s Work.” Not entirely redeemed, but redeemed somewhat from what it usually is; and this, maybe with a sardonic grin, the best that can be achieved, most of the time.

When I started writing, I had intended to quote only two lines from the poem, and to offer only a few words on them–and now I’ve found that I’ve not quoted them at all, and that they do not obviously pertain to what I’ve been saying.  But it would seem a shame to leave them out; they at least might provide an incentive to read the whole poem, for the pleasure is no doubt more in arriving at the lines, than in the lines themselves. They are the poem’s last words:

I find love’s work a bleak ontology                                                                       to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.

The poem can be found transcribed onto another blog (I will not vouch for accuracy).


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