Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2139
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 works is to select poems which are themselves carefully construed judgments of other poets and writers, poems which pose a regress of complicated problems in making literary judgement. Hill attempts then “not only the ways in which judgement is conveyed through language but also the difficulties of clearing the terms of judgment amid the mass of circumstance, the pressures of contingency.”
Hill praises, for example, the balance of what Izaak Walton achieved in his writing, including The Compleat Angler: a love of choice and song, the religion of the service book and catechism, as well as the art of angling. The Compleat Angler was Walton’s tribute to the life of Sir Henry Wotton, “the man,” according to Hill, “who has fought his way through defeats and pyrrhic victories to achieve, at last, a felicitous mediocrity between contemplation and action, conscience and policy; a felicity for which the art of angling provides at once the mystical ideal and the practical exercise.” The tension, as Hill sees it, is in the negotiation in the seventeenth century concept of art, which comprises both the skilled artlessness of angling as well as the higher art of song. Walton’s tribute then is a perfect marriage, as a tribute, between the ethical and the aesthetic, awareness of context and constraint and demonstration of individual contemplation.
The major poetic examples which Hill focuses on are readings of Dryden’s elegy “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” and Pound’s “Envoi (1919)” the interlude between the two major parts of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.” Hill finds that Dryden and Pound are “comparable in their awareness of the political and economic realities of circumstance, of the ways in which the writer’s word-values both affects and is affected by his understanding of, or his failure to comprehend, the current reckonings of value in the society of his day.” There is some negotiation in Hill’s idea of “political and economic realities,” for which he preserves the more general metaphoric domain of “value,” rather than the more literal subject matter of contemporary events.
Hill provides one of the most illuminating readings available of Dryden’s “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” a tribute to the poet John Oldham, who died in his early thirties. Combining subtle attention to both language and biography equal to the best work of William Empson, Hill shows that Dryden’s verse is more ambiguous than notable critics such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden have realized. Hill reads the poem as double-edged, praising Oldham while at the same time providing consolation for the unhappy circumstances which produced his fame. Hill shows that the patronage of Oldham by the Earl of Rochester and the Earl of Kingston and the older Dryden’s falling out of favor with the same provides the drama behind the poem. Hill praises Dryden for avoiding the pitfall of an overcooked panegyric to Oldham and for combining elegy with an awareness both of the younger’s poet’s limitations and consolation for his own neglect. Dryden admired the youthful wit in Oldham’s verse but was attuned to the roughness which in part made him appealing to the more crass sensibilities of his admirers. Hill provides a fascinating reading of Dryden’s Virgilian reference to the race of Nisus and Euryalus, in which the lesser runner wins in part because of accident and circumstance. Because of its restraint and balance, its subtle reworking of the tradition of elegy, and its demonstration of Dryden’s acute awareness of his place among his contemporaries, “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham,” is, in Hill’s view, Dryden’s “prize-song.”
Much of Hill’s aesthetic judgment builds on the spare, imagistic sensibility of Ezra Pound’s logopoeia (defined by Pound as “the dance of the intellect among words”). Hill’s own spare archaism in his poetry is a tribute to the Poundian tradition. Perhaps less like the later Pound, excepting perhaps the darker tones of The Pisan Cantos, Hill also admires the modernist’s early poetry which gestures more to themelopoeia, the beautiful and the lyrical with which Pound uneasily negotiated. Hill focuses his final chapter on Pound’s “Envoi (1919)” which is based upon the Renaissance lyric “Go Lovely Rose,” by Edmund Waller, a poem set to perfect music by the admired composer Henry Lawes. In this poem Pound reveals his desire to create a perfect music but also of the hazards of doing so in the circumstances of his own age.
The situation of “Envoi” is one which has obviously preoccupied Hill from the start. One of his first major poems, “Genesis,” mimes the meter and rhythm of Christopher Smart’s uncanny “A Song to David,” a work aptly called by Robert Frost “the one work of splendor in an age of wit.” The strong echo of the Smart poem reveals Hill’s desire for the lyric perfection and religious fervor of the earlier work. But the language of Hill’s “Genesis,” scattered with blood sacrifice and bone, is acutely aware of the limitations of a pure and unmarred praising of man and God in the years after the Holocaust. The negotiation of desire and historical limitation gives the poem its gnarled power.
Pound’s “Envoi (1919),” while it translates the song of Waller and Lawes, is itself a negotiation, standing between the better known parts of “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.” Pound’s attitude toward Mauberly is ambivalent and often deeply ironic; he perhaps admires his well-wrought craftsmanship in an age of banalities but is also skeptical of that craftsmanship. If in the first sequence, Pound’s object of scorn is the age, in the second sequence it is Mauberly himself. “Envoi” negotiates between the attack on the age and the attack on Mauberly by attempting the beautiful song but building into it an awareness of becoming another cliché of beauty, a giving in to the banalities of the genteel tradition of poetry. Hill’s comment on the conclusion of the poem reveals his acute sense of the balance between terror and beauty, negotium and otium in self-conscious modern poetry: “The concluding words of ‘Envoi (1919),’ ’Til change hath broken down/ All things save Beauty alone,’ maintain the idea of ‘sheer perfection’ though at some remove from the complacent aplomb with which that phrase is commonly uttered.”
A similar kind of negotiation occurs in more condensed form in Hill’s own poem “Ovid in the Third Reich,” in which the poet of love ironically attempts to celebrate “the love choir” in the context of a horrific social and political travesty. Many of Hill’s finest poems address the problem of writing poetry in the face of the Holocaust, of the uses of love, beauty, and elegy in the midst of what many have attempted to argue is the unspeakable. It is Hill’s genius that enables him to avoid both murdering the humanity of those who suffered with insufferably grave truths and the somewhat precious dogma of maintaining silence. The “enemy’s country” in Hill’s own life has been twofold. It encompasses the forbidding landscape of social and political reality—a reality which Hill indicates is not unique to his own time. The “enemy’s country” is also the anxiety of influence produced by the world of academic patronage, which challenges the poet’s domain with multiple and often jargon-ridden theories about the necessity of maintaining silence. Hill’s essays reveal how a poet defends himself in this treacherous domain while winning occasionally with well-wrought medallions of beauty.
Sources for Further Study
London Review of Books. XIII, November 7, 1991, p. 18.
The Spectator. CCLXVII, September 14, 1991, p. 33.
The Times Literary Supplement. December 27, 1991, p. 6.
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