281. (Geoffrey Hill)

In his review of Hills final, post-humous The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, Seamus Perry provides a lengthy explication of the references in one section of Hill’s poem.  First the section:

The ‘Irish Salamis’: a commonplace flourish (Yeats) about the clerkly author of Tar Water (Berkeley).

He was sending intelligence out for audition; he believed a win would be good for the nation, the mind of Ireland freed, raw body, old head, albeit Swift died mad.

The ‘Irish Salamis’ is a price you must pay for some victory over and above Pearse and Connolly and the ‘right rose tree’. It is, as he said, also ‘liable to bias’.

The Queen at the wall in Ireland was not entirely unlike Willy Brandt at the Ghetto memorial.

Whether ‘the ultimate reality must be anarchy’ who can presume to say?

‘Tradition is kindred’: perhaps that is true; perhaps a great cross-roaded mind has blundered: ‘nadir to nadir’, riches to rags; in the temple of order decapitated stone figures struck from niches; mobbed cattle with their drool and ordure; at their hooves dogs.

Now Perry’s explication:

So what do you make of that? Salamis was the famous naval battle at which the Greeks defeated the Persians; but that won’t help with the phrase ‘Irish Salamis’, which of course is not ‘commonplace’. It appears in Yeats’s diary for 1930, passages of which were published posthumously by his widow in a book called Explorations (1962). Yeats coined it to praise the philosophy of George Berkeley, the 18th-century bishop of Cloyne (and so a cleric, as well as ‘clerkly’), which Yeats thought had seen off a threat to civilisation no less deadly than that posed to Greece by Xerxes and his men: the enemy for Berkeley, as for Yeats, was not military but intellectual, the empiricist philosophy of John Locke. Berkeley did indeed write a book entitled Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar Water, a work of great eccentricity much loved by Coleridge, but his attempt to refute Locke occurs elsewhere, principally in the Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and in the early manuscripts belatedly published in 1930 as his Commonplace Book (hence, perhaps, the appearance of the word ‘commonplace’): that was Yeats’s favourite, and Hill refers to it with pleasure elsewhere in The Book of Baruch. Eccentrically, Yeats liked to think of Berkeley’s form of idealism as somehow Irish, a clear marker of difference from the dreary materialism of the colonial power; although his victory doesn’t seem to have done much to soften the terrible end of Jonathan Swift, who died demented in 1745, unconsoled by his compatriot’s breakthrough in epistemology. Yeats saw Berkeley’s immaterialism as a return to ancient wisdom, a reinstatement of the proper sovereignty of the imagination, and thus, or so Hill seems to suggest, it saved Ireland from a more earthbound nationhood, such as that which required the shedding of blood, the subject of Yeats’s poem ‘The Rose Tree’ (1920), in which Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, leading figures in the 1916 Dublin Rising, concur that ‘nothing but our own red blood/Can make a right Rose Tree.’ (Pearse had declared that it would take ‘the blood of the sons of Ireland to redeem Ireland’.) Yeats said in this same diary that, thanks to the ‘Irish Salamis’, ‘we were biased, we are biased’ in literary judgments of Irish writers; but the phrase Hill uses suggests he is also remembering a passage in the marvellous introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse where Yeats is describing the rebellious poets of his youth who wanted to kick over Victorian moralism: they thought of poetry, he says, as ‘a tradition like religion and liable to corruption’. And what about the queen? In 2011 the queen made the first state visit by a British monarch to an independent Ireland, where she paid her respects to the republican dead in the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square; the German president Willy Brandt made a gesture of contrition that became famous as the ‘Kniefall von Warschau’ before the monument to the Warsaw Rising during his visit to Poland in 1970. The person who speculated that ‘the ultimate reality’ must be ‘anarchy’ was Basil Bunting, whom Yeats quoted in his diary, in which he also said that ‘tradition is kindred’ and that civilisations generally last for two thousand years ‘from nadir to nadir’. The closing lines seem to rise from this tangle of reference into an imaginative space all their own, exemplifying Hill’s genius for the clinching image, here some post-apocalyptic collapse into barbarism, rather as Yeats depicted it with such relish in poems such as ‘The Second Coming’. The vandalised temple is now occupied by harried cattle: some catastrophe has occurred.

This is excellently complete in the stock it lays bare, but at the same time it is incomplete as a comment on the poem; to point out that a poem has so much going into it, without then going on to say what it is doing there, and how it lives there, is to imply the verse holds together as erudite rubble. I don’t think as intelligent and eloquent a reader as Perry thinks that but leaving off as he does, he might open the way for his own readers to reach that conclusion.

What’s more, a less complete inventory of the facts of the poem might have cleared space for more appreciation of the design and motivation. Attending, by google, to only the phrases in quotation marks, adjoined to “Yeats,” would provide ample information: Yeats saw Berkeley’s defeat over English materialism as analogous to the Greek victory over the Persians; the “The Rose Tree” presents Pearse and Connolly coming to agree that bloodshed is necessary to restore the Irish state; Berkeley’s idealism is liable to bias; the line about anarchy and reality shows Hill mulling Yeats’ words, those words themselves reflecting on the “real,” as Berkeley had; the final section shows Hill wondering whether tradition–of poetry, of nation, of struggle–makes kindred, alluding to Tennyson and the poem on the light brigade, and setting forth a vision of civilizational collapse, different from, if kin to, Yeats.

The poem is self-suspicious of a British poet contemplating Ireland’s past; and yet it seeks kinship with Yeats, as a fellow-poet, as a poet in a time of cultural crisis, and most of all, perhaps as a poet working out, confusedly, the relation of poetry and politics, of idealism (and even beauty) and the violence of history, how a poet is to overcome alienation not only from a divided history, but from a people or nation or commonwealth, or even the idea of any of these things–how they can possibly be imagined and harmonized, when nationalism is often brutish, bloody, and barbaric (Hill is distressed at Brexit).

The challenge of the poem is only firstly, and superficially, a matter of information. It is more subtly a matter of accepting that Hill’s late poetry posits glimpses of harmony and reconciliation, only to find them thwarted by what it would have to be the medium of poetry itself, and all that adheres to it. It’s poetry that wants to find a form for irresolution without glibly accepting it; it is poetry that wants to retain the ideal of a harmony without pretending to have achieved it; it holds itself out as a witness to a possibility that cannot be realized, but that can be intimated, shadowed, recalled to mind–especially by means of orientation towards the great imaginations of the past, whose struggles are like, but also usually crucially unlike, Hill’s own, and who have, like Hill, not deceived themselves or their readers as to what cannot be calibrated or set at rights in language or the world. That, at least, is the broad background to the entire book–and to much of the late poetry.

What can make that account feel insufficient for poem after poem, or book after book, or section after section, is its breadth of occasion–not the erudition of particular references. How is this poetry to be “placed”? Can or need it be set against a local and particular pressure, situation, and exigency? The answer, I think, is that it cannot in the sense that a lyric by, say, Thom Gunn can; that is, Hill is not writing in the tradition of Ben Jonson.  Instead, we need to accept the background as History itself, with Hill as the hero and his rumination and reflections as his peregrinations through the landscape.

The struggle for readers and critics is to accept that for Hill, the scenes of history have the same concrete immediacy as the scenes of nature for which the late Hill is rightly prized. That means that readers and critics need to prize and appraise them in the same fashion, for their sensuality and passion, felt in the play of words, the careful rhythms, allusions and echoes. Surprisingly, then, the erudition does not disguise, but is the inscape of historical immediacy, and it is that immediacy Hill wants for us to engage; his words are the light catching it, as elsewhere they catch on the wintry dusk scenes beyond his window. And reading for immediacy means, what will come as more of a surprise to some readers, attending with special care to the auditory imagination that animates Hill’s late poetry no less than does the historical imagination. It depends on hearing the words, slowly, carefully, and hearing the evolutions of sound that carry their sense:

The ‘Irish Salamis’: a commonplace flourish (Yeats) about the clerkly author of Tar Water (Berkeley).

He was sending intelligence out for audition; he believed a win would be good for the nation, the mind of Ireland freed, raw body, old head, albeit Swift died mad.

The ‘Irish Salamis’ is a price you must pay for some victory over and above Pearse and Connolly and the ‘right rose tree’. It is, as he said, also ‘liable to bias’.

The Queen at the wall in Ireland was not entirely unlike Willy Brandt at the Ghetto memorial.

Whether ‘the ultimate reality must be anarchy’ who can presume to say?

‘Tradition is kindred’: perhaps that is true; perhaps a great cross-roaded mind has blundered: ‘nadir to nadir’, riches to rags; in the temple of order decapitated stone figures struck from niches; mobbed cattle with their drool and ordure; at their hooves dogs.

This sends something out for the auditory. In his his review, Perry notes that the poems “sometimes wanders as far from a solemn music as to approach the clerihew, ” with their half-rhymes and near-rhymes, which I’ve bolded above (some in sequence, as with “nadir,” “order,” “figures,” “ordure”; others, as with “bias” and “Salamis,” doubling back). The poems strain and gratify the ear, as well as the memory. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether they are there at all. There is not much criticism can say about this, except to make the general point that it approximates a harmony that more often than not is refused or defused in the act of uttering. It also suggests the poetry was written with a jubilant play that we might associate, say, with Don Juan, and there is in fact a real similarity between Byron’s ironic self-dramatizing poses and those of Hill, as well as between the clashes of rhetoric.

When we slow to hear the way the words sound, we can hear more clearly also the way in which Hill encounters history: “commonplace” is both because the book where Yeats recorded the remark is a diary, but also because he takes this as a standard Yeats “flourish,” and because he is ambivalent throughout this section on whether he can endorse Yeats’ words. “Clerkly” because Berkeley was of the Anglican clergy, but also the term shows Hill assuming the judgment of stolid appraisal and realism–not philosopher Berkeley, this. It’s the nature of a private diary–of the private diaries that both Yeats and Berkeley wrote–to be a place where intelligence is sent out for “audition,” and that word also captures a nice divide between the private musing and public performance of intelligence. Hill’s own poem occupies an equivocal place on the axis between the two. But note also the brusque demeanor of the phrase: “He was sending intelligence out for audition.” Not narration, exactly; tune the ear more finely and it becomes instead an explanation, not of words and ideas, but of action, with an edge of defensiveness (“he believed a win would be good for the nation”); and yet both the explanation and defense are brisk and direct, with the edge of a military man who thinks the motives for the action ought to be obvious. It is not inept as a phrase but it is inapt, the “albeit Swift died mad,” a concession the weight of which we are to feel inadequately registered by the syntax of the lines. The defense falls flat; Hill is both moved to comprehend Yeats’s thought but only offers a knowingly limited comprehension of it.

What emerges is an increasing quarrel with Yeats’ quarrel: how are we to hear the “you” in “a price you must pay”? Who must pay the price of the “Irish Salamis”? And is it “victory over and (also) above”  (beating Pearse and Connolly and also happening on a higher plane than them) or “victory over and above” as in “victory greater than that won by them,” which was hardly a victory at all, since their rebellion ended in bloodshed and was quashed? The logic would suggest that it is the British who pay the price of the Irish Salamis, ceding the field of the intellect and imagination (though Berkeley was Anglo-Irish, Yeats invokes him as a predecessor in the native Irish imaginative tradition) in order to win the military conquest. If that is the case then the “you” is addressed, with some mockery in the bullying tone (“price you must pay”–says who?) or else complacent (“you must pay”–tant pis), I suspect, towards a British reading public; and that then cuts against the gesture of humility and forgiveness that is the Queen before the wall in Ireland in the next line. On the other hand, “you” might open in the other direction: “The Irish Salamis” is the price that is paid (“you must pay” is doleful and universal) by those who want another sort of victory from that for which Pearse and Connolly and their nationalism hoped. It is a “price” because such a victory can only be equivocal, the word “Irish” perhaps even suggesting “Irish Bull” as if such a victory were itself a contradiction in terms. “Liable to bias” but also capable of catching the light on more than one aspect. “It is, as he said, also ‘liable to bias,” where “also” means “in addition to everything else it is liable to being” and “like so many other things that are liable to bias.” We might hear an echo of sounds between “Pearse” and “bias,” a consonance between the historical figure and the fraught interpretation of the figure.

Listen carefully to “not entirely unlike”: here again, more than one intoning suggests itself: on the one hand a cautious similitude, and on the other hand a near-sarcastic marking of the great difference between the two gestures.

What we hear in the variegated tinctures of the phrasing and words is an apprehension of historical apprehension itself. Is this anarchy? Is this the ultimate reality? That line now looks back, and questions once more Yeats, querying once again the word “must”: necessity is uneasily admitted into Hill’s sense of the past. In the next lines, the word “Perhaps” may be heard as a continuation of Hill’s cautious criticism of Yeats; Seamus Perry suggests this final portion is akin (“tradition is kindred”) to Yeats’ “Second Coming,” but that poem turns on “Surely,” repeated twice, whereas this has “perhaps” twice repeated. “Some great cross-roaded mind has blundered.” The echo is of Tennyson (“someone has blundered”), and the British military commands for the Light Brigade blundering–not in Ireland, but in the Crimea, but in the Empire nonetheless. “Cross-roaded mind” sounds to me very much like a late Yeats epithet, and might be thought to apply to Yeats or to Hill himself, or neither.

The final image of the hollowed out church, full now of grazing drooling cattle, a mob of them, mobbed with them, is pastoral and desolate at once; the dogs are at their hooves, not their heels, and both menace and accompany; “order” has become “ordure” and “rags” and “dogs” crudely punctuate the murmuring “r”s. There is not, I think, as much work to be done hearing these words, or seeing this scene, but we are to see, nonetheless, that it is not different in sensuous, passionate simplicity from what has come before.

It might be thought a great deal of work to take this much time reading each section–and maybe it is. But it is not the work that one might think the late Hill requires: it is the work of the ear as well as the mind, and the play of pitch affords a pleasure that is missed if that work is shunned.


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