Poetry as persuasive harmony; it rises from the conditions of its making, and justifies itself against the discord of that condition; a false poem, like any false work of art, cheats or lies by failing to acknowledge that discord or by celebrating its resolution prematurely.
Such a thought is not a prerequisite for appreciating the late poetry of Geoffrey Hill; instead, it arises with an appreciation of that poetry: it is frequently what it is about. It is very much, then, poetry about poetry, but only if poetry be understood as an achievement won out within and against a great deal that is not poetry. The poet, like the musician, like the revolutionary and political visionary becomes, in Hill’s late poetry, a hero of sorts.
By “late Hill” I mean specifically the The Daybooks, of which there are six. They are distinguished by a series of rigid formal experiments, varying from book to book (but not poem to poem; each book is a series in a single form), and by hungry erudition and a free range over the locutions and registers of English, past and present. In that freedom, they are modernist, Hill a poet in the “imaginary museum.” They are more specifically Yeatsian in their performance of rhetorical intimacy and exhaustion; they are poems of old age and old anger, fear, and hope.
I’ve written about Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti elsewhere. It is the most immediately yielding to a reader of the late work. But now, reading Clavics, it seems the most helpful in understanding their ambition. Harmony is, after all, in the title: “Clavics” may refer to the “science or alchemy of keys” and, per a blurb on the book when it was published to stand alone, its subject is William Lawes, the court musician killed in 1645. Both of those words, “court” and “musician” bear equal weight in Hill’s imagination, where the latter is associated with compromise and negotiation, with the world’s betrayals and unavoidable feigning, and where the latter promises to wrest harmonies from, and provide them for, that world nonetheless.
In Clavics, Hill would do the same. It is a defense of poetry—and not just of Hill’s late poetry. It is, then, a continuation of Hill’s criticism, an extension of his reading, a poem that interrogates the possibility of whether poetry can fit into the world, or whether it can anymore make the world fit into it; or finally, whether poetry can make the world fit with itself, whether it can effect something like a reconciliation against the odds and with the odds.
What’s more, and most valid as a reason to approach and appreciate Clavics, it is a book on the nature of poetry in so far as it is a book on the nature of the conditions of poetry; the fundamental critical moment in the late Hill-as-critic is his approving deployment of F.H. Bradley’s observation that a poem needs to get within its judgment the conditions of its judgment. A poem about poetry needs to get within its judgment on poetry the conditions of its judgment about poetry; a poem about poetry that defends poetry as a harmonizing of the discordant conditions that it admits into itself needs, in a wild regress, to get within itself the discordant conditions of that defense. That is what Hill does in Clavics.
Except when it is not. At times, we are supposed to feel the inadequacy of the formal limits, the distant between form and subject matter; we are supposed to feel, that is, what resists harmonization and unity. Here is the thirty sixth of the sequence, turning on David Jones’ woodcuts for The Chester Play of the Deluge:
Chester Play of the Deluge played again
But this time outside the city. I fear
Will’s put to pain
For his trouble.
Blame the Bible
Or curse the year.
Pin it all on Prynne’s ear.
Cut and quibble.
When have ever not been in a mess?
I inquire of the winds and waters. They
Slither and pass
Such hauteurs gay
Sent slaughter’s way.
Gaunt unwritten music
Ripe now to play.
Strikes angular as in Dai Jones’ woodcuts
For the pretty edition you once had
Before the Flood.
A watery sun squats on the mud-flats.
The poem’s rigid form is at once a virtuoso performance and a self-aware farce of a virtuoso performance, as in the ninth poem:
How far give attestation its free ride—
A fair question. Poetry is eccentric
Labour of pride;
Pitch and con trick;
Nor hewer nor drawer;
Claim that it rises to its own jerked bait
Cites polity its raison among such
Affairs of State
You, I, might name
Set within touch
Of heightened speech
In some awed interim.
You believe that?
I remit your citations, Lord Apollo,
Bestower of conundrums. Try me: what
Flex to allow
Fixing this swing arm.
The form, then, at times feels absurd, and perhaps most in the tightened typographical hour-glass that shadows, or speaks back against, what might be thought the chief poem of each number; and we are tempted to find it absurd to think that it could be justified until, with a breathtaking, turn of phrase, it justifies itself. Where the ninth poem struggles with the conundrum of poet’s eccentric place in relation to the public realm, turns skeptically on itself asking “You believe that,” the lines at the bottom of the page respond with an assertion of belief:
Listen to and make music while you can
Pray Mater ora Filium
Cry Spem in Alium
God is made man
Impartial these tributes.
Creation call it that believes
Even to blasphemy in our ranged throats.
This is both an urgent appeal and a sardonic challenge; the rigid cadence is not easy with where it moves, but there are very few cadences in Clavics that are easy or natural. But Hill is not uneasy even with the thought that the unease of the poem, its resistance to the harmony of poetic movement, might be imposed at will; discord no more than harmony might be a matter of false notes rightly (or wrongly) placed. Consider the interplay of the twelfth section and the twelfth “reply” or coda (as it were):
What constitutes Metaphysics: you are
A revived soul like the spirit of Donne?
Or none; or none
Too bright a light.
Yet you rally.
I thought you might.
Sadly and hopefully
Climb to our sight-
Zenith, broad Jupiter. Not to desire
Sentiment on such track is difficult.
My fault my fault
Sense the next line
Strike to result
From the dull melt.
Eager and unbenign
The click, the cult.
Will it be like leaving tokens to hand:
Tapes, I mean, unburned CDs, chinograph
Funky confessions wiser not to send?
I detect something false in that disquiet;
So let’s mark time as it remains.
Fiction may find itself
In the Bible;
In a bright simple clef;
Sal ponte, bearing on the strains;
Break C minor to C major at LIGHT.
Donne’s formal precedent is significant throughout the volume—think of the compressed stanza endings to “Goe and Catch a Falling Star,” a song of a poem—and the stress of syllables he enforces, the meter accommodating a rhythm of speech against its patterned demand. Among the Daybooks, none are as serrated by self-doubt as these, none as wary of the metaphysical reconciliation of parts into whole, self into other, duality into whole; in aspiring to the harshness of Donne against the sweetness of Campion, they seek to register the yearning for, and difficulty of, such unions, which may seem epiphanies. The sixteenth:
Between dissatisfaction and finish
Is where it goes wrong. Getting under way
The things vanish
Leave as code
Like sonnets of Spanish
Yes, I hear her: my self-abnegation
And drug-taking. I am in my right mind
Do you still find?
So that I spell
And keep station?
Of entitled travail
Contempt of kind.
Ah, but the wound of love is never healed!
While male and female voices busk and thrill
The air grows riled:
Insidious the epiphanic spill.
“Epiphanic spill” recalls Hulme’s “spilled religion,” but also the visceral mistrust Hill feels (his name a rhyme with “thrill” and “spill”) for what a poem might yield but not contain, what it might not succeed in holding as one.
The estrangement carried out within the poems, of part from part, and of part to whole, finally, returns to William Lawes as its emblem, with his death in the Civil War, and his estrangement from his nation, becoming for Hill not a mirror but an admonition of the relation of the euphonies of art and the grimly fictitious constructions of a polity. The forty first:
Rage will not assuage the instrumental
And timeless jury. Tall equitation
In the front hall
Of the nation.
Notes; and barely retire;
Take up true place
With paid assessors of much-prized fiction
And affordable truth; allegory’s
The plaster ducks
Of the Furies,
Guy Fawkes’s tyres;
The seaside for two weeks’
None would then have proposed me the fine arc
So newly taken for justice. Flight path
Collides with wraith.
Need quivers. Waters thrust from the sac.
Here, the penultimate poem finds in its answering coda a voice accordant in its angered pessimism:
After all, the shallow-leaded letters
Rot among sodden marble chis
The cracked vase is askew
And holds nothing
Weeds with no rose to shew
Proclaim growth. Fatality grips
And is held. I am nailed by my fathers.
These are poems about being in a muddle; but they seek also a reconciliation to that state, and they strain against it metrically and formally so that when something of aesthetic unity and brilliance emerges, it feels hard-won, and in the case of Clavics more than the rest of the Daybooks, barely-won, from the grounds of imagination, consisting, Hill suggests, of what history has bestowed: the instances of virtue, of courage, of the relative successes and inspired failures of others who have sought something like a harmony out of their clashed surroundings, without selling short how costly the clashes are, how high a price they exact—and without proceeding as if the harmony can redeem what has been sometimes wasted, sometimes lost or hurt without regard. In the closing (forty second) poem:
Undertaken for honouring the dead
From our nation. Fulfilled in a thrusting
Forward of rhyme
Upon a theme
Some lame nation
I had and have: barely
Devoted to those I disregarded,
Who looked to me, then; and no more retain
The common pain.
From gapped inscripts let them gape recorded.