Geoffrey Hill died last week, on June 30, at age 84. Nobody doubts that he wrote some of the greatest English poetry of the twentieth century; but the critical consensus on Hill’s poetry falls out of harmony when confronted with the collections that coincided with its close.
William Logan, one of Hill’s stauncher American admirers, is disparaging: “The caterwauling of “The Triumph of Love” (1998), “Speech! Speech!” (2000), “The Orchards of Syon” (2002) and “Scenes From Comus” (2005), despite their peculiar gifts, has diluted a career of painstakingly crafted, close-managed poems.” For a critic of Logan’s persuasion, the collections that follow, and the Day-Books especially, make mostly for a further dilution. But not entirely so: in the solution of those later books, Logan finds measures of beauty precipitated on the page: “Hill is the most glorious poet of the English countryside since the first romantic started gushing about flowers, his verse so radioactive in its sensitivities that his landscapes have been accused of cheap nostalgia…his poetry is burnished by the late lights of observation. Philosophy is not enough to turn the gold entirely to gloom.”
I quote at such length from Logan (his entire piece can be found here) because his response is representative of a generous reader of Hill’s late verse; the (Oxford-based) academics who are most devoted to the late Hill seem most often to explicate his prose, his critical ideals, and the metaphysics of the poetry, while skirting the practical criticism. Logan, like many readers, does not feel he needs to understand, let alone subscribe to, Hill’s defense of poetry, implicit through the criticism, in order to appreciate or justifiably fail to appreciate the late verse. His assessment of the criticism is unfairly disparaging: “too guarded, too miserably grave, to yield to casual reading (his dislike of readers has been a disease in the poetry but a pathology of the prose).” Logan’s words appear in the “Book Review” of The New York Times, where pieces do not so much yield to as beg for casual reading; I am writing a blog, where casual reading is likewise an expectation, to some degree; but it is not clear why criticism ought to yield, any more than philosophy, history, or poetry itself, to casual reading.
Skirting the obvious gulf between Logan and Hill on the relationship of poet and audience, I’d suggest that Hill’s criticism provides terms and principles by which Logan’s own un-ease with the late poetry might be fruitfully elaborated on, not so as to be dissolved, but so as to serve for a better understanding of appreciating what goes right in those later poems, to represent them as more than as inadvertent backsliding or side-stepping into a love for the sensual language of natural description.
We do not need to endorse or assent to the metaphysics and theology of the criticism in order to align our own critical instincts with Hill’s terms; Hill’s criticism is itself a consistent demonstration of how the best critical insights may be reoriented, readjusted, and refitted. His critical language is obviously continuous with that of the poetry, and the late poetry especially; it should serve for purposes of practical reading and practical criticism, as well as for further metaphysics and theology; being criticism, it is a tissue of principles, even where it hints at a system of thought.
The most famous of Hill’s critical works, his explicit apologia, is the essay “Our Word is Our Bond,” coming at the end of his first collection of essays, The Lords of Limit. But the essay that might be more pertinent for considering what goes right and wrong in the late poetry comes instead at the collection’s opening: “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement'” is more a genuine essay, an assay at working through Hill’s abiding sense, affirmed and deepened by his scholarly work and poetic practice, that writing poetry offers possibilities of both “menace” and “atonement”; his uncertainty with those terms, his unwillingness to adopt them, is heard in the rattle of the scare-quotes he sets around them.
Hill opens the essay proclaiming his desire to resist “the attraction of terminology itself, a power at once supportive and coercive.” And it is easy to become transported by Hill’s thrillingly grave phrases; here is an essay that makes the case that poetry could matter more than nearly anyone thinks possible, in which Hill contemplates being “possessed by a sense of language itself as a manifestation of empirical guilt,” all while conceding that the anxiety of a poet over “empirical guilt” might be reduced “to an anxiety about faux pas, the perpetrations of ‘howlers’, grammatical solecisms, misstatements of fact, misquotations, improper attributions.” It is an essay that asks, repeatedly, whether and how poetry matters and that answers, with no more certainty than insistency, that it does.
Among the essay’s many formulations of question, answer, affirmation, and doubt, one stands out. Discussing Coleridge’s poem “To William Wordsworth, ” Hill writes that “a poet can transfigure his own dissipation by a metaphor that perfectly comprehends it.” The lines Hill quotes:
In silence listening, like a devout child,
My soul lay passive, by thy various strain
Driven as in surges now beneath the stars,
With momentary stars of my own birth,
Fair constellated foam, still darting off
Into the darkness ; now a tranquil sea,
Outspread and bright, yet swelling to the moon.
Hill: “the private utterance of highly organized art can for a while stabilize the self-dissipating brilliance of the listener’s mind, that is, Coleridge’s mind, the mind that is concentrating upon that very diffusion.”
Elsewhere, Hill turns to D.M. MacKinnon: “In the course of a discussion of Butler’s ethics…refers to a suggestion which as he says, perhaps ‘strikes us as ill-conceived and old-fashioned’: the ‘suggestion of an “ought” somehow imposing itself upon us out of the matter of the actual.”
Hill’s discussion is inescapably moral, with theological undertones; I would like to emphasize the implications for poetry as an aesthetic creation; it is hardly a betrayal of Hill’s intentions to do so because his point is that a successful poem represents a convergence of the moral and the aesthetic; I focus on the latter.
Hill’s reading of MacKinnon and his sense of Coleridge’s achievement come together later in the essay:
The poet as I envisage him is quite unlike the Baudelaire of Eliot’s celebrated panegyric (‘Baudelaire was man enough for damnation’); whereas the craft of poetry itself, as I describe it, comes close to resembling the ‘frightful discovery of morality’ to which Eliot alludes in one of his finest passages, the account of the nature of Beatrice in Middleton and Rowley’s play The Changeling:
“In every age and in every civilization there are instances of the same thing: the unmoral nature, suddenly trapped in the unexorable toils of morality–of morality not made by man but by Nature–and forced to take the consequences of an act which it had planned light-heartedly. Beatrice is not a moral creature; she becomes moral only by becoming damned.”
But even though I choose to regard that vision of ‘the unmoral nature suddenly trapped in the inexorable toils of morality’ as an oblique yet penetrating insight into the nature of the creative act, the resemblance is imperfect; and in that imperfection lies our ambiguous hope. The reason why the poet’s ‘discovery’ is finally not to be confused with Beatrice’s ‘discovery’ is perhaps implied by my reference to that vision of ‘the unmoral nature’ by which I attempt to set at one the piercing insight and the carnal blundering, in which I intentionally recollect Coleridge’s capacity to ‘transfigure his own dissipation by a metaphor that perfectly comprehends it.’
The discovery of the aesthetic and the discovery of the moral occur simultaneously. What is most surprising is the implication that the poet, being analogous to Beatrice, writes for him or her self–or rather, in words that would be truer to Hill, writes on the behalf of his or her own self. Hill’s vision in the essay is intensely personal: “However much and however rightly we protest against the vanity of supposing it to be merely the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, poetic utterance is nonetheless an utterance of the self, self demanding to be loved, demanding love in the form of recognition and ‘absolution’.”
To spell out what is I hope clear from the line-up of quotations: the actual medium of language might impose upon the poet a suggestion of an ought, the imposition of which is manifest as a formal ordering and harmonizing of that medium–the achievement of something aesthetic. A poem might be, at its start, at its root, a “light-hearted” thing, but its consequences are an engagement with the nature of language (Eliot’s “Nature” refracted here), which expose the poet’s inadequacies, menacing him with its potentials and impulsions, but also offering the possibility for atonement.
Eliot, in the passage Hill quotes, discusses a drama, so that Beatrice is imposed upon by Nature, and sees the consequences of her light-hearted act, in a series of events over time. Hill is discussing lyric poetry, a form in which the dissipation and the transfiguration might be made co-present, the former registered in the occurrence of the latter; that double movement, each part antagonistic to the other, might be considered the essence of what Coleridge, speaking of poetry, referred to as the “drama of reason” (one wonders whether his “reason” is a translation of the Greek “Logos”).
In Hill’s early poetry, the drama is contained within a short form; the lines from Coleridge that Hill quotes might, in themselves, constitute a single piece of writing. But Hill’s later poetry could be said to follow Coleridge’s example more faithfully: the lines that he quotes are a small excerpt from a much longer poem (112 lines); it is not equally consonant, harmonious or “successful.” We might ask whether Hill does justice to the effect of the lines by excerpting them; how does their simultaneous act of transfiguration and representation of dissipation bear on the rest of the poem, where the dissipation may be less purposive, the transfiguration unsought or incomplete?
It is a question that we might ask of Hill’s later poetry, where the moments of transfiguration, in the splendid descriptions of the natural world but also in metaphysical abstraction, emerge from other sorts of verse, poetry where we feel instead the weight of the actual imposing itself with a suggestion of “ought” only partially realized. Sometimes the drama of the poetry stretches out over a poetic sequences, and sometimes within single poems, where the sought-after effect crystallizes in a single line.
Logan’s inclination is to anthologize: to take the transfigured and to lose the rest. But I would argue that we need instead a readjustment of our expectations in reading poetry: Hill, devoted as he is to the principles of Romanticism, ceased, in his later years, to writing poetry that equated transfiguration with a unified whole, in which all parts succeed and bear on one another equally. He turned away from a principle that he articulates in “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement'”:
Edward Mendelson, the editor of the posthumous Collected Poems of W.H. Auden, has said that ‘as he grew older Auden became increasingly distrustful of vivid assertions, increasingly determined to write poems that were not breathtaking but truth telling’ and has endorsed the poet’s motives and actions with his own suggestion that ‘the local vividness of a line or passage can blind a reader into missing a poem’s overall shape’. I would suggest, however, that the proof of a poet’s craft is precisely the ability to effect an at-one-ment between the ‘local vividness’ and the ‘overall shape’ and that this is his truth telling. When the poem ‘comes right with a clock like a closing box,’ what is there effected is the atonement of aesthetics with rectitude of judgment.
Christopher Ricks has criticized Hill’s hyphenation of ‘at-one-ment’:
At-one-ment is simply, and finally, and unanswerably, not a word in the English language; and it will not do to be told that the technical perfecting of a poem is ‘an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense–an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony’: it will not do to be told this unless, in the very act of telling, it is conceded that there can be no reconciling, no bringing into harmony, of words like ‘a reconciling, a uniting into harmony’ and the non-word ‘at-one-ment’; indeed, more radically despite the etymology, that there can be no atonement of atonement and at-one-ment. For one thing, even if the latter were alive and well and living in our language, it would now be pronounced differently from atonement….There are therefore sound reasons for believing that atonement is doggedly and most ironically irreconcilable with at-one-mient. The loss of the ancient concord may be grievous; it must be irrecoverable.
In his late poetry, Hill has moved further in his dissent from Auden and rather unexpectedly suggested a concurrence with Ricks’ point: the later poetry consistently registers the distance and irreconcilability of atonement and at-one-ment; it seeks for moments of atonement, but these moments do not click easily in place with an ‘overall shape’: though a single poem in a sequence might feel that its vividest parts serve the truth-telling of its whole, it is rare for that poem to fit with similar grace into the overall shape of the sequence; likewise, a line that blazes forth from a single poem; and even in Hill’s translations , we are reminded of the chafing between original and recreation.
But neither is this to say that the relationship is irrelevant between line and poem, poem and sequence; to suggest (as I have assumed, with presumption, that Logan might suggest) that later Hill would benefit from the anthologist’s scythe gets things wrong also. In the poetry of the late Hill, we are asked to drive across a range of attempts at bringing atonement about, with the recognition that the transfigured moment of beauty will not bring with it a sense of closure or unity, a locking into place, a feeling that the parts and whole are at-one; the late Hill needs us to not-know what he means always, to bear the actual so that the emergent ‘ought’ is recognized even when it falls short; to find at times a moment of harmony, a breathless relief, but to question (and genuinely question, and try to answer) how it came about, how it bears on what comes before and what comes after. We are asked to look for half-satisfactions, without knowing where they will be present; there are no moments in the late Hill that can be dismissed as importations of prose, as simply trying to bring into the poem the subpar stuff of the world.
Open at random, and do not expect to feel with certainty where dissipation is transfigured, or given, or assumed; and do not expect to feel with certainty whether the transfiguration is complete–but it can be beautiful for all that.
Into life we fell by brute eviction:
What prize brutish joy; what price compunction?
To feel by trust
Most things ill-won,
Gross in its mistiming.
In the dead mist
The fleet sweeps past, Invincible, others
Derfflinger, Grosser Kurfust; it is a dream
Chaste, all weathers.
The journal ends
Here in its fronds;
Oblivious the calm
Jolt of a wave.
That is a odd world from which to derive
History and our craft not feel the help.
On the loss of Empire the spent compère.