(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Geoffrey Hill is generally recognized as one of the most accomplished poets and literary critics of the post-World War II period in English literature. He has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry since 1959, beginning with the much-acclaimed For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 (1959) and, most recently, The Orchards of Syon (2002). Although his poetry has gained much academic recognition, Hill’s readership remains relatively small compared to that of many a lesser poet, due largely to the sheer difficulty of his work. His previous critical productions, The Lords of Limit (1984) and The Enemy’s Country (1991), have also been quite formidable in their density and erudition, fully revealing their riches only to the most determined and vigilant reader. They, along with the present volume, display an impressive range of interest. Hill moves with astonishing ease from the literature of the Renaissance to the high modernism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Another feature of Hill’s writing that distances it from the work of his contemporaries is its preoccupation with religious themes. In an increasingly secular age, Hill remains engaged with matters of belief and doubt and, above all, with the language of faith. This is, conspicuously, the case in Style and Faith, a gathering of seven essays focused largely, but not exclusively, upon literary figures of the Reformation era. All of these essays were previously published—all but one as lengthy book reviews—and appear to have been reprinted in this volume with little or no alteration. Nevertheless, the essays generally work together well, sharing a preoccupation with the convergence of style and faith. In the preface, Hill makes a claim that may pass as the work’s thesis: “It is a characteristic of the best English writers of the early sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries that authors were prepared and able to imitate the original authorship . . . of God, at least to the extent that forbade them to be idle spectators of their own writing.” In these essays Hill seems mostly to explore the latter part of this claim. To be an idle spectator of one’s own writing is to fail to understand that “style is faith,” that style is no mere ornament but, rather, inseparable from the message it conveys.

The initial essay in the collection strikes one as an odd departure for a volume concerned with matters of style and faith. “Common Weal, Common Woe” was occasioned by the publication of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989). Hill demonstrates a detailed acquaintance with the publishing history of the dictionary since its late nineteenth century inception and does not fail to praise the editors for the breadth of their philological knowledge, their succinct and copious annotations, and “an initial vigilance of such scope that it can take up an out-of-the-way word, furnished with five instances of its usage . . . [then] does not grudge time and labour spent in adding a further five citations.” He does find, however, much to fault in the editors’ (past and present) reductive method, one which compiled exhaustive histories of usage and clearly demarcated significations of terms but which remained, on principle, indifferent to the “comparative elegance or inelegance of any given word,” and thus to the signification inherent in style—a central preoccupation of Hill in all of his critical work. Thus, one can begin to see why this first essay was included, however awkwardly, in the present collection.

The problem of style, of discerning the nuances of style and its subtle shaping of meaning, becomes especially apparent, Hill notes, in the dictionary’s treatment of seventeenth century significations. There, under the pressures of civil war and religious rebellion, “distinct [and] even opposed senses of a word alternate in the work of a single author,” as in Edward Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion (1648; a work much cited throughout Style and Faith). In such cases, clear and distinct significations can be difficult to pin down. Moreover, new stylistic fields emerge out of the “compounding of language with political or religious commitment.” Hill singles out Clarendon’s brilliantly elusive use of the term “dexterity,” which was what Hill calls one of the “rhetorical janus-words of seventeenth-century politics.” His admiring reflection on Clarendon’s rhetorical singularity serves not only as an indication of the weakness of the Oxford English Dictionary but also of the quality that Hill himself is most inclined to admire in a great writer: “When I say that Clarendon was a master of his style I mean that dexterity is a word embedded in the usage of the time . . . and that his partiality and animus are most notably successful when they are contriving their own exceptions in the midst of this common medium.” It is precisely such exceptions that the dictionary frequently fails to capture.

Toward the end of the second essay in Style and Faith, Hill notes that “the English Bible and the English Dictionary [are] the two great recorders of our memory, conscience, travail and diligence.” At the fountainhead of translations of the Bible into English is Tyndale’s New Testament, usually recognized as a monument of the plain style. In “Of Diligence and Jeopardy,” Hill reviews the Yale University Press 1989 edition of Tyndale’s early sixteenth century religious and literary masterpiece, questioning the wisdom of the editor’s decision to modernize the spelling. On the face of it, he concedes, the modernizers have a case: Modern spelling and orthography make a late medieval text more accessible to the common reader. Why, the modernizers might ask, should a religious and literary work of such significance remain the exclusive preserve of a handful of scholars and dilettantes? Those who oppose such tidying up of musty tomes are merely sentimentalists with an antiquarian passion for pristine artifacts. Hill’s response to this view is anything but sentimental—though it may be, depending upon how one defines the term, elitist. He is concerned that the effort to make Tyndale’s text...

(The entire section is 2545 words.)