(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Geoffrey Hill’s second collection of essays is a continuation of the tapestry of meditations on the possibilities and limitations of poetry inThe Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas (1984). Readers of this work will find the same embattled strategies found in the earlier collection: a defense of his own poetics woven through tightly reticulated studies of lesser known works of major authors or major works of lesser known authors. Hill considers carefully ideas about language, judgment, and context in Thomas Hobbes, John Donne, John Dryden, and particularly Ezra Pound, who occupies a crucial place in Hill’s aesthetic pantheon.

Reading Hill’s prose poses some of the same questions one might have for Pound’s poetry, particularly the later cantos: How are we to regard all of this carefully selected erudition? Is it a masquerade of ironic evasions? Is it a passion for the lost nuances of archaic circumstance and detail? Hill hurls the reader into a web of reference and learning from the first page, “A Note on the Title.” Within a few sentences we are informed that prefaces and dedications by Thomas Nashe and William Davenant, works known but to the few most interested, provide the title. It is no accident that the works to which Hill refers are attacks by poets on academic pedantry. Thus begins the series of involved ironies of poetry and art which haunt not only the essays but also much of Hill’s poetry. While Hill stands clearly against the anti-intellectualism and romantic love of ignorance often associated with the poet’s freedom, it is also apparent that he wants to preserve the idiosyncratic love of learning which he finds in any good intellect but which he finds wanting in the vast critical apparatus of current academic opinion.

Thus, Hill’s, title registers his awareness that the context of public opinion about poetry comes largely from the academy. He pays tribute to erudition and scholarship, but in a way that reaffirms his own domain of oddity. And while his subject is the way various poets’ language is governed and constrained by circumstances, he affirms that the poets, at their best, remain masters of these contexts and circumstances. In the light of the critical discourse in recent decades, particularly the new historicism, Hill concedes to the reality of politics in the life of a poet’s mind but insists that it does not completely delimit him. And unlike the structuralists and poststructuralists, Hill rejoices in the ambiguities inherent in language but insists that they cannot be understood outside the interplay of the author’s intent and the relevant historical circumstances. In this way Hill provides a defense of poetry against the debilitations of many types of modern critical judgment.

Hill’s tapestry consists largely of the elaboration of a series of terms which outline the poles of his thought about poetic activity. Virgilian laboris contrasted with otium (rest or leisure) which eventually must give way in a poet to the nec-otium and later the negotium, or the way a poet negotiates between indulging in his own flights of imagination and the irreducible substratum of political, social, and economic realities of the world around him. “Value” in poetry is part of the bond of language, its “obligation” to the world of its audience which is both a demand and something which the poet transcends by the act of obliging. Hill seizes joyfully on a Hobbesian coinage, “compleasance,” which combines the idea of pleasure and compliance and the extra measure of satisfaction of combining the two. These terms seem to be Hill’s assertion of his own jargon in response to more recent terminology—most notably the Derridean “differance.” The poet must become what Pound called “master of the forces which beat upon him,” and to Hill “the individual poetic voice can, and must, realize its own power amid, and indeed out of, that worldly business which makes certain desires and ambitions unrealizable.”

The core of Hill’s argument, which unfortunately becomes at times intolerably atmospheric instead of logical, is that judgment of poetic language cannot be made outside the context of the author’s intent in a particular environment. He is attacking the tendency in academic criticism to judge the merits of a poem in the abstract—as in much of the New Criticism—and the tendency of new historical and ideological critics to judge a work as complicit in a kind of ideological conspiracy of which the poet is an unwitting dupe. Hill asserts that we can and must consider the poet’s intentions, and to do that we have to consider the complex interplay of language and circumstances in making judgments. Citing Hobbes, Hill asserts the primacy of intent in judging literature: “When we ask of someone ‘What do you mean by it?’ we are not implying that a literal translation will suffice. We are objecting to an imposition, to an intent that we suspect we discern; we are letting it be known that we wish to trace and find out the whole ‘drift, and occasion, and contexture, of the speech, as well as the words themselves.’” Hill’s strategy for showing us how this...

(The entire section is 2139 words.)