No 13 - Spring/Summer 1999
“Pardon?”: Our Problem with Difficulty (and Geoffrey Hill)
Geoffrey Hill: The Triumph of Love. London: Penguin, £8.99.
The present writer understands little of Geoffrey Hill’s recent The Triumph of Love, and he knows from past and continuing experience that growth in understanding will not only be slow and painstaking, but also worthwhile. Geoffrey Hill writes difficult poetry about difficult subjects in difficult times. Why should we have a problem with that? For many – though it is significant that they are not saying so in print, critical ignoring being presently a more effective means of control than critical argument – The Triumph of Love is a mistake: distorted by anger, it betrays a want of taste and a want of proportion. Its “humour” can only be described as such by resort to scare quotes. Hill, it is being said in the comparative privacy of the academy, has gone off; in the old-fashioned idiom, he isn’t cricket. Even Hill’s anticipatory parody, in The Triumph of Love, of this hostile reception is deemed to go too far and to be too easy – although “easy” is a strange word to use in relation to Geoffrey Hill. A consensus is growing, and has notably strengthened since the publication of Canaan, to the effect that there is something wrong with Geoffrey Hill. There is something wrong with Hill’s aesthetic, with his relation to language, with his politics, with his religion, with his erudition – although what precisely all or any of these may be are more difficult questions which have yet to be answered in any adequate way. However, on one thing only we can all agree: Geoffrey Hill does not fit in.
Such reviews of The Triumph of Love as have appeared have been rather odd. They present the fact of Hill’s major standing as a chilly concession rather than a celebration, and proceed to unearth or reveal or expose the “real” Geoffrey Hill beneath the implicitly unnecessary clutter of his difficulty. Two examples: writing in the Sunday Times (9 February, 1999 Books p. 12) on the way to identifying in Jo Shapcott “the future health of poetry”, Sean O’Brien managed de haut en bas to discern in Hill “beneath the modernist encrustrations [...] an altogether freer, less encumbered imagination, according to which love of place and delicacy of detail have their own validating power.” Thus Hill, albeit rather late in the day, is finally showing some promise as a simple landscape poet. In a much longer review in the TLS (29 January, 1999, pp. 7-8) Adam Kirsch began by presenting Hill’s erudition as a wall behind which he hides – a charge which The Triumph of Love’s own “Charged with erudition” is charged to anticipate. There is thus a fallacy lurking here which is acquiring a general currency. In response, one must assert that in Hill, the poetry is in the difficulty; and Hill as poet is realised in, rather than concealed by, his erudition. It merely takes, and will go on taking, time and effort to appreciate that realisation.
The Triumph of Love is more overt than earlier Hill in making available to us its extraordinary effort of remembering, the array of art and writings, names, events and places with which it is in dialogue: Shakespeare, Kenelm, Emerson, Daniel, Rouault, laus et vituperatio, Peirce, Bletchley Park, Callot, Haig, Gower, Masaryk, Arras, the Convention of Cintra, Petronius... The mere identification of these references, “sources” and allusions is, of course, merely a beginning for readers. Such a gathering is undoubtedly daunting, and uncharacteristic of contemporary writing, not least because, in the face of current theorisations of the death or irrelevance of the author, Hill strives to take responsibility for this vast intertextuality and to explore its difficult relation to history. Moreover – Mercian Hymns has long since taught us as much – there is nothing of the dispossessed Hoggartian scholarship boy about Hill: far from limiting himself, self-protectively, in the realms of “high culture”, Hill provides as good a record – for posterity – as any of colloquialisms, of popular idioms, of popular culture, past and present. To be adequate to Hill, readers will have to know about Gracie Fields as well as Thomas Bradwardine. Hill may not be cricket, but he knows about football, and about the horses, about brands of dog food, and about Monopoly – albeit Monopoly resonantly transformed:
Ur? Yes? Pardon? Miss a throe. Go to gaol.
The reviewers, discussed above, were confronting the inadequate Penguin paperback edition of The Triumph of Love, a slim and bland mid-blue and yellowish book with an understated blurb. One suspects they would find it harder to take the superior American edition, a hardback published by Houghton Mifflin in 1998. There the inside of the dustjacket declares:
Geoffrey Hill is a moralist, and his subject is pain – the suffering of man at the hands of man. He judges us all – for the enormities of this sordid century and our cowardly responses to them, for our lack of self-understanding, for our inability to acknowledge what is properly owed the dead. He judges us for our failings, but he judges himself more fiercely. He prays for divine forgiveness, and for the grace that we need to begin to forgive ourselves.
This is entirely in keeping with the poems that follow and makes it clear that being difficult and being direct are not incompatible aims. It is outrageously funny; it may also be true. However, the majority of Hill’s readers are, it seems, not amused.
The dustjacket illustration of the American edition is a triumphal arch in black and white, adapted from the title page of The Tryumphes of Fraunces Petracke, edited and translated by Henry Parker, Lord Morley, c.1553. It bears the date 1998, the author’s name in black capitals, and, at the centre, the collection’s title in red. When one finds, on the first page of the book, Geoffrey Hill telling us in the voice of Nehemiah, four times in four different languages and more in exasperation than out of defensiveness, that he is engaged in “A GREAT WORKE”, then one cannot resist the comparison with another Renaissance poet, Ben Jonson. Jonson’s great Folio of 1616 has as its title page an elaborate triumphal arch at the centre of which the word “WORKES” faces down any suggestion – such as that made by Suckling and many others – that all Jonson was about was “but Plaies” (1). Jonson gave primacy to his medium – language; it is what all his writing is about; and he is the great poet of the English language, something different from being the best poet in the English language. For Jonson “Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee”; and Jonson knew “Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is. It imitates the publicke riot.” (2) Hill, too – the evidence is everywhere in his work – is a great poet of language. He experiences words as an intense, at times violent, physical presence. He tells us this again, now in cartoon fashion, in The Triumph of Love:
The nerve required to keep standing, pedaling,
grinning inanely, strikes me (splat!) as more
than temperamental luck.
No contemporary writer can match Hill in being alive to and alive in the language, and no writer is more alert than Hill to “the tongue’s atrocities”. Hence it is staggering to find the TLS reviewer missing the point to the extent that he complains that Hill’s verse is “clotted with ambiguous syntax and abstruse allusions”. And “clotted”? Are we in Devon or Accident and Emergency? In the context of a poem which has “the blown/ aorta pelting out blood”, such linguistic inattention is remarkable. Perhaps, after all, we can diagnose a want of proportion in Hill’s latest work; perhaps The Triumph of Love isn’t angry enough.
Hill has always been attentive – for many readers too attentive – to words. But, in The Triumph of Love, Hill’s relation to language has undergone a cruel, ironic change. And it is again to Ben Jonson that we might go to reveal that change since, in Volpone and in the figure of Corbaccio, the ever linguistically attentive Jonson exposes the vicious yet rich linguistic comedy of deafness:
MOS[ca]: Your worship is a precious asse –
CORB[accio]: What say’st thou?
MOS: I doe desire your worship, to make haste, sir.
CORB.’Tis done, ’tis done, I goe. (3)
Deafness, for Jonson, is the archetypal sick joke.
The Triumph of Love is hard of hearing. Undeniably eloquent (“You can say you are deaf in several languages –”), it insists on a difficult relation to its own time (“For definitely the right era, read: deaf in the right ear.”) and a difficult relation to its interlocutors:
– Well as I hear I hear you but as I
hear you you are in dumb-show. –
It is a (non-)dialogue of the deaf, of the diversely deaf, for Hill’s readers are as deaf as his speaker:
Excuse me – excuse me – I did not
say the pain is lifting. I said the pain is in
the lifting. No – please – forget it.
If, amongst so much else, the later Beckett became the poet of old age and Parkinson’s Disease (in the Hillianly-entitled Ill Seen, Ill Said, for example), then Hill has become the poet of ageing, of isolation and of encroaching deafness. In discussion of the writings of these two great figures of the second part of this century, we have no choice but to renew and realise, amongst other necessarily difficult terms, two of the tiredest of critical words: in part because of its precise imaginative realisation of what it means to be deaf, The Triumph of Love is a moving and beautiful work. But it also full of loud, insistent repetitions, abrupt buttonholings, staccato explosions, sudden exclamations and spluttered exasperations. Even the most hostile of readers must notice this poem’s extraordinary energy, energy which serves anger and memory and refuses to “forget it”.
The experience of the world as errata (“For Cinna the Poet, see under errata.”) has a harshly, tragically satiric appositeness. Sean O’Brien notes that there are jokes in The Triumph of Love but jokes “from all of which Hill’s normally punctilious timing is missing”: yet notice the important “all” here – not just hit-and-miss, but a thoroughgoing, conscious consistency of missing. In a poem which “well understands itself not well-disposed” and a poem which puts the normal in question, a poem a-roar with mishearings, mistakings and misplacings (“Where/ was I?”), mistimings are decorum. The jokes in The Triumph of Love are not bad; they are terrible, and terribly funny: “Who are you to say I sound funny.” –
In loco parentis – devoured
by mad dad. Hideous – hideous – and many like it –
So many hideous mistakings are part of a strategy which allows Hill, unlike so many, to expose and to resist a hideous world, albeit a world in which Hill knows himself to be as fully implicated as the rest of us.
“A hideous world?” Is not that to overstate matters, particularly in relation to what might be mistaken locally for a mere conservative grumble about the decline of Latin into “Latin/ Through Pictures”? So far I have shared in the emphasis of reviewers to the effect that The Triumph of Love is primarily about Geoffrey Hill; and certainly this collection is highly self-conscious in its own right and in relation to Hill’s own earlier works. However, self-consciousness in Hill is never an end in itself, but always part of an effort to address something beyond the poet. The problem is rather that the reviewers seem to be bored by the matter that Hill is addressing. In particular, the TLS reviewer can barely stifle a yawn in encountering what he describes as “Hill as cicerone to the Holocaust, pointing out a particularly grisly scene” and he argues that horror in Hill is aestheticised:
This danger is most evident when Hill rails against the Holocaust, which appears throughout the poem as the high crime of the century, the final proof of contemporary wickedness. Obviously, the subject is one about which all decent people, certainly all his potential readers, agree; Hill will find no one to dispute that it is a hideous blot on human history. But just for that reason, to try to make one’s own condemnation of it louder and more sincere than everyone else’s, to treat it as in some sense a personal affront, does not drive home its evil with greater force. Instead, it deflects attention from the crime to the judge, and demands admiration for his moral sensitivities.
One wonders if the tone of decent reasonableness in the above is dependent on a necessary inattention. A familiarity with Hill’s own writing exposes the inertia of the language here: “a particularly grisly scene...appears...Obviously...all decent people...certainly...a hideous blot...just for that reason...”. But, in support of the argument, TLS readers were offered partial quotation of the twentieth poem in The Triumph of Love, given here in full:
From the Book of Daniel, am I correct?
Quite correct, sir. Permit me:
refocus that Jew – yes there,
that one. You see him burning,
dropping feet first, in a composed manner,
still in suspension,
from the housetop.
It will take him for ever
caught at this instant
In close-up he maintains appearance –
Semitic ur-Engel -
terminal agony none the less
interminable, the young
martyrs ageing in the fire –
thank you, Hauptmann – Schauspieler? –
Run it through again and for ever
he stretches his wings of flame
This is poetry of a difficulty which no reviewer can fully address. It is true that there is loud coarseness and aggression here, uncharacteristic of Hill’s earlier verse addressing the Holocaust, but it is to miss the point to take the poem straight, to assume that Hill is speaking or “railing” simply and sincerely in his own voice. Nevertheless, of those who habitually lament the lack of human warmth in Hill one must coarsely ask: is this warm enough for you? And of those for whom Hill describes an England in which no one lives, one must ask: is this what you intend by a land devoid of human life?
This poem concerns a “particular...scene” in more senses than the TLS reviewer recognises. Hill’s ‘September Song’ from King Log, scrupulous in its insistence on the anonymity of its Holocaust victim, on the vast plurality of such victims, and on the routine, unexceptional nature of the Holocaust, should have taught us that any claim to sum up the Holocaust in one “particularly grisly scene” is suspect. (Compare Schindler’s Ark or Schindler’s List, which, shaped by a narrative which traces the survivors and leaves the dead behind, is false to the history it offers to depict.) Any attentive reader must wonder why the voice is so intent on “that Jew – yes there,/ that one”. How is one to assess degrees of the grisly in a context where, as Hill repeatedly reminds us, the very notion of proportion is put in question? The twentieth poem of The Triumph of Love is suspicious of itself, and must be read in sequence as the preceding poem (“You will have to/ go forward block by block, for pity’s sake,/ irresolute as granite. Now/ move to the next section.”) and the one which comes after (“What did I miss?”, “Should I leave it like this?”) both make clear. This poem also relates to Poem LXXXV, in which Hill remembers the “Photo-negatives” of his seventh year and “stills of the burning ghetto”; and to LXXX:
Hopelessly-lost storyteller found.
Self-styled czar of ultimate
disaster movies says
everything must go. Daniel
a closed book.
The “abstruse allusions” in the twentieth poem matter – even if this reader is as yet unable to grasp their full significance. The Book of Daniel which introduces the scene of this poem bears, with, for example, its “fiery furnace”, a complex, multi-faceted relation to it, and to the collection as a whole. Moreover, the voice in this twentieth poem seems to be addressing an actor, a Schauspieler, (a “showteller”) or Hauptmann. This, I presume, is Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946), the German playwright, poet and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1912. The creator of naturalistic drama, he wrote starkly realistic tragedy which shocked audiences. In the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he aimed to create an “artistically reproduced social reality”. In later years, he showed himself privately hostile to the Nazis, who barely tolerated him, yet he stayed in Germany to be denounced by émigrés. Thus an awareness of the naivety of naturalism and of the compromised nature of any art in attempting to treat the Holocaust is present in this poem in a more complex manner than reviewers can manage. Art is never more suspect than when it claims to be loud and direct.
But it is the language of film and photography which is so noticeable in the poem, to a degree that makes it surprising that any reader could mistake the poem as an effort simply and directly to reproduce reality: “refocus”, “in a composed manner”, “still”, “this instant/ of world-exposure”, “close-up”, “maintains appearance”, “Run it through again”. The poem voices the peremptory directness of the movie maker, but the poem itself is a work of marked and heavily ironic indirection, as words seek to reach though the cinematic distortion of the visual to an unassimilable reality. And if this “documentary” film is silent, then, in being deaf to “so many routine cries”, the falsification is all the greater. We are told of a film of obscenity, but we are also alerted to the potential obscenity of film. In this difficult poem, the analogy with present day czars of disaster movies is sadly all too plain.
The Triumph of Love might be read as an elegy for a verbal culture, at a time when we embrace, all too glibly, the authenticity of the visual. Hill’s great and awful subjects in The Triumph of Love – two World Wars and the Holocaust that was part of one of them – have become merely cinematic clichés. We have saved Private Ryan and compiled Schindler’s List; the Holocaust is now Hollywood. In a remarkably short time, matters once held to be well-nigh unspeakable have been assimilated and left behind, a closed book. It is this incredible change, a change in the “potential readers” of Hill’s verse, which goes some way to explaining Hill’s increased anger, his raising of his voice. But how is such a change to be justified?
(1) John Suckling, ‘“The Wits” or “A Sessions of the Poets”’, The Works of Sir John Suckling, ed. Thomas Clayton, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pp. 71-76, line 20.
(2) Ben Jonson, ed. C.H. Herford, Percy Simpson, and Evelyn Simpson, 11 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925-1952) 8: 625 and 593.
(3) Ben Jonson 5: 39-40.
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