Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2545
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 more accessible to modern ears, to spare the reader unnecessary discomfort, is a betrayal of the spirit of Tyndale’s work. The encounter with Tyndale should be uncomfortable, even jarring. Hill allows that Tyndale himself cultivated a plain style precisely for the purpose of reaching the lay reader, but he suggests that the “Yale editor writes in the apparent belief that there is little to distinguish ‘today’s reader’ from Tyndale’s ‘laye people’, . . . [that] ignorance at the end of the twentieth century is not to be distinguished from ignorance in the first quarter of the sixteenth.” The difference is this: Ignorance in the present age derives from “methods of communication” (does he refer to mass media, the culture of the “sound bite”?) and a system of education that “have destroyed memory and dissipated attention.” Tyndale, on the other hand, had no patience for common ignorance and presumed to make demands upon the “memory and attention” of his lay readers. To encourage the reader in his natural passivity—as the Yale editor seems to—would have been for Tyndale to yield to the lethargy inherent in humankind’s fallen condition. It is all persuasive enough, but one wonders whether Hill disapproves of modern spelling editions of all literary works prior to the eighteenth century (when spellings began to be standardized in their present form). Should everyone be reading the works of William Shakespeare in the Elizabethan spelling?
The sixth essay in this volume, “The Weight of the World,” dwells upon similar concerns. Originally a review of Isabel Rivers’s Reason, Grace, and Sentiment: A Study of the Language of Religion in England 1660-1780 (1991), it mercilessly dissects Rivers’s authorial preoccupation with that “accessibility” which, Hill laments, has become little more “than a commodity cry.” Hill’s inaccessibility is so pronounced in this essay that one is hard-pressed to follow the thread of his argument. He claims, for example, that Rivers was mistaken in choosing to deal with matters of “reason” and “sentiment” in separate volumes of her book, on the grounds that “the quality of sentiment is itself a factor in the debate between ‘grace’ and ‘reason.’” This sounds fair enough, as does the further claim that the influence of sentiment in the aforementioned debate “reveals itself mainly in grammar: vocabulary, syntactical order and affective device.” Then Hill proceeds to illustrate his point with a series of quotations from the likes of Jeremy Taylor and Edward Stillingfleet, prominent seventeenth century preachers and writers. The examples turn on the usage of the term “nice,” presumably—to judge by the quotes—a word loaded with sentiment, as in affective significance. Near the end of this string of examples, Hill remarks of the writers quoted, “In attempting to describe their several styles of rational persuasion, one is touching on a symptomatic elision of the deliberated and the unwitting.” What is one to make of such an utterance? What light does it cast on the role of sentiment in the “debate between reason and grace”? Yes, the sentence makes a certain elusive sense, but even a specialist in the period under discussion would likely find it cryptic, to say the least. Unfortunately, such utterances turn up all too often in these essays, as if Hill were taking some perverse pleasure in his own obscurity.
The fourth essay in the collection, “A Pharisee to Pharisees,” is the only one that did not originate as a review article but is, rather, a less discursive example of Hill’s undeniable abilities as a literary critic. It is a well-organized and generally clear close reading of “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, a seventeenth century poet whose work is not often given the attention it deserves in contemporary literary studies. The poem, quoted at length in the essay and reprinted in the notes in its entirety, takes as its subject the New Testament story of Nicodemus, in which the Pharisee approaches Jesus by night to inquire the way to Heaven. The passage is, of course, the occasion for one of Jesus’s best-known teachings: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:1-2). The “chop-logic” Nicodemus, genuinely perplexed, wishes to know how a man can enter a second time into his mother’s womb. The spiritual paradox upon which Vaughan dwells is the matter of Nicodemus’s “conversion” under cover of darkness, a movement from darkness to light: “There is in God (some say)/ A deep but dazling darkness. . . ./ O for that night! where I in him/ Might live invisible and dim.” Hill performs upon the poem not so much an interpretation as a sharply nuanced explication of the mosaic of voices that are fused so effectively, and yet disturbingly, in Vaughan’s poem. “The Night” is haunted by echoes not only of the Old and New Testaments but also by Vaughan’s hermetic reading as well. In addition, Hill suggests that the poem’s “several darknesses” may, to some extent, reflect the conditions of Vaughan’s time, the period of the English Civil War. As a “Royalist and Anglican [he] was the adherent of twin causes, both defeated.” Out of that defeat “The Night” can be read as “a positive embracing of abnegation, a transferring of potentiality from the darkness of a stricken soul, a stricken cause and a stricken church into a visionary intensity.” A lesser critic might simply have claimed, in the jargon of psychoanalysis, that Vaughan “sublimates” his sense of loss and defeat by channeling it into the private mysticism of his poetry, where loss is solipsistically transmuted into eternal bliss. Hill, however, reminds one of the sense of contingency always just beneath the surface of Vaughan’s lyricism, that “envisioning of perplexity” so evident in his use of conditional tenses, or the doubt that dogs his affirmations: “There is in God (some say)/ A deep, but dazling darkness.”
Hill’s affinity for the work and personality of Robert Burton, author of one of the finest works of seventeenth century prose, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1651), is evident in every line of “Keeping to the Middle Way,” the third essay in Style and Faith. First published as a review of the 1994 Clarendon Press edition of the The Anatomy of Melancholy (Volume 3: Of Religious and Love Melancholy), this essay situates Burton’s masterpiece within the tradition of the great Elizabethan apologists, especially Richard Hooker, principal architect of the via media, the Anglican middle way between Roman Catholicism and the radical Calvinism of the English Puritans. In his Ecclesiastical Polity (1593-1597), Hooker was primarily concerned to point the way toward a reasonable theological compromise, but his work is also celebrated for its philosophical moderation, for its constant insistence upon the “need to free our mindes . . . from all distempered affections” so that a lasting communion of faith might be achieved. Hill locates the purpose of Burton’s text in precisely that: “Burton anatomizes melancholy in its hydra-headed forms; he dissects its monstrous capacity to hinder communion and fellowship.” Much of Hill’s analysis is focused, as one would expect, upon stylistic traits shared by the Anglican apologists, including their mastery of “tonal indetermination” in the use of phrases such as “the common good.” Hill is also alert to the striking stylistic differences between Burton and the Elizabethans. Where Hooker seeks to comprehend the obstacles to civil peace and theological accord by means of sober reason and law, Burton “is a parodist of ‘loose regarde’ and a hunter of vulgar folly,” an approach that would not have met with much sympathy from Hooker. Hill is referring to Burton’s well-known taste for exploring at great digressive length the realm of human folly and superstition. Like Thomas Nashe before him, Burton is inclined toward a “theatrical opportunism”: His philosophical and moral purpose may be to “adjure us to keep our hearts with all diligence,” but “[his words] catch the excitement of . . . voyages and romance.” Hill comments, with some cogency, that the prose of Nashe and Burton reflects the frustrations inherent in attempting to translate philosophical wisdom into political praxis: “The energy has to go somewhere; since it cannot realize itself as legislative act, it turns back into the authority and eccentricity of style itself.”
Hill’s affinity for Burton may have something to do with the latter’s brilliant and always fascinating “eccentricity of style.” Certainly Hill’s own work has of late veered more and more in that direction. Large tracts of the prose in these essays are seemingly designed with the purpose of frustrating the reader’s need to extract from them some manageable generalization, but Hill’s analyses are, for the most part, so stubbornly embedded in the vagaries of style that summary or paraphrase are rendered all but impossible. Add to that digressions within digressions, abrupt shifts of direction, and frequent lack of sufficient historical context, and even the most persistent readers may find themselves defeated by the effort to follow the labyrinthine movements of Hill’s thought. Style and Faith seems to demand a reader who is as intimately acquainted as Hill is with the history and literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even that select few will find the adventure daunting.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, December, 2003, p. 58.
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