Geoffrey Hill’s soul and ‘anarchical Plutocracy’

I know these two don’t really go together but I’ve discovered a bit more about one and I want to think out loud about the other.

The other is the thorny issue of the soul of Geoffrey Hill which the great man tells us has caused him lifelong anxiety in terms of its fate. He also informs us that all of his writing relates in some way to this anxiety. The obvious response to this would be “No it doesn’t” and then to move on but this would mean not looking deeper into this soul business and that would be a mistake.

If I’d been asked, prior to watching the Economist clip, I’d have said that Hill’s work is primarily about struggle and the wrestling that he does with faith, the dead, the landscape and politics and that it is the dynamics of this struggle that cry out from the work.

I’m resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to glide into counselling mode but I do need to point out that a struggle with faith always precedes anxieties about the soul. In order to recognise the existence of your soul and believe that it lives on after your death you need to have resolved a large part of your struggle with God. I must emphasise that I’m only having an educated stab in the dark here because I don’t share Hill’s faith.

I can say with much more certainty that I wouldn’t read poetry if I felt was mostly ‘about’ the poet’s concern for the fate of his soul. So, I’ve been looking on the work to try and separate out the struggle with faith from any specific soul-related concerns. I started with ‘The Triumph of Love’ (which is always a joy) and looked at the Bradwardine reference and then recognised that poems 38-45 might be worth having another think about. I then came to ‘The Orchards of Syon” (which is much less of a joy) which does seem to have a much greater focus on Dante in particular and the afterlife in general.

Before preceding any further with this purported anxiety, there is the abiding interest in and predilection for memorialising martyrs and others that Hill considers to have died well. One of the themes in Christian theology is the link between martyrdom and a place in heaven. When asked about this interest, Hill has spoken of his admiration for these individuals and explained that these are people that he would have liked to have known.

He’s also said that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorialising, a memorising of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of ‘solidarity with the poor and the oppressed’”. This would seem to indicate a need to bear witness to the lives of others and maybe a hope that such actions will go some way to safeguarding their souls.

Turning now to the operatically magnificent ‘Triumph of Love’. In the interest of brevity, I’m going to rely on the following poems to think further about this particular anxiety:

                   XXXIX

Rancorous, narcissistic old sod - what
makes him go on? We thought, hoped rather
he might be dead. Too bad.So how
much more does he have of injury time?

XL

Ford wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distinction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

XLI

For iconic priesthood, read worldly picque and ambition.
Change insightfully caring to pruriently intrusive.
Delete chastened and humbled. Insert Humiliated.
Interpret slain in the spirit as browbeaten to exhaustion.
For hardness of heart, read costly dislike of cant.

XLII

Excuse me - excuse me - I did not
say the pain is lifting, I said the pain is in
the lifting. No - please - forget it.

XLIII

This is quite dreadful - he's become obsessed.
There you go, there you go - narrow it down to obsession!

I like to think of this as remarkably and utterly frank which is what makes it so powerful. There are many things in the above but I’m particular fond of the Max Miller vignette and that Hill uses the second part of the quote without italics. There’s also the forthright assertion ‘against’ accessible poetry which is probably more honest than the various explanations that he’s given in interview. In this context, I think we need to note that the ‘framing’ is about mortality and the struggle (pain) involved in being Geoffrey Hill. I don’t, however, detect any kind of anxiety about his soul and would have thought that this is the part of ‘Triumph of Love where it is most likely to occur.

I said before that I don’t like ‘The Orchards of Syon’ because of the homage to Hopkins and the misguided musings on Celan and Ingeborg Bachman. I’ve also been suspicious of the extent of name-dropping and what feels like a touch of self-importance. Having re-read the sequence, I may now need to re-assess what’s going on and try and see where it ‘fits’ in my current understanding of the work as a whole.

The whole sequence does seem permeated with matters eschatological with much use of Dante, Revelations and the Day of Judgement but I’m not sure whether this extract amounts to an anxiety about the soul:

LVIII

La vida es sueno and about time;
about hanging in there, about my self,
my mins as it is, to be remembered,
regarding timegraphs: these I understand
as the nongrammatical speech of angels.
I mean they're beyond grammar that reminds
us of our fall and the hanging out there.
My mind, as I know it, I still discover
in this one-off temerity, archnidous
abseiling into a pit, the pit a void,
a black hole, a galaxy in denial.
Life is a dream. I pitch
and check, balanced against hazard,
self-sustained, credulous; well on the way
to be hit by accident a coup de grace.
Intolerable stress on will and shall,
recovery of sprung rhythms, if not rhythm;
test of creation almost to destruction-
that's a good line; it can survive me.
In denial not my words, I'm moving
blindly, all feelers out. Cosmic flare wind
tilts the earth's axis, then returns us
with our ears singing, our eyes rolled back,
mute, Atlantean.

Having now typed this out, and thus taking care with the punctuation, this is better and more confessional than I thought. I’m even prepared to look fondly on the concern about posthumous reputation (‘can’ survive him rather than ‘may’ or ‘might’ but at some remove from ‘will’) and of the reference to Hopkins. The strongest part (in terms of technical efficiency and beauty) relates to his mind descending into a ‘galaxy of denial’. The other thing to note is that it is ‘our’ fall as if we are still unredeemed by the life and death of Christ but that’s more of a theological query rather than a personal one.

Whilst there is certainly anxiety here, it still seems to relate mostly to the present struggle rather than what lies in wait for the soul so. I’m now going to make a very big guess. Hill isn’t getting any younger and with old age (at least in the case of my parents) there seems to be an increasing awareness of mortality and a desire to make sense of the life that’s been lived in the light of that mortality and I think that this might be what’s going on with Hill, that he’s imposing this anxiety on his work in retrospect from his current position.

Of course the work is part of ‘Christian discourse’ whether he likes it or not and the essays also consciously make a series of contributions to that discourse. Whether Hill likes it or not, he writes as a Christian (as well as a ‘hierarchical Tory) and there is an audience to whom he speaks about God.

I’ll finish this with an update on the ‘anarchical plutocracy’ that Hill refers to. I’ve stolen this Hill quote from the eminently perceptive Don Share’s blog

<p?"Until very recently I thought that I had invented the term plutocratic anarchy, but it appears to have originated with William Morris… Morris’s term, to be precise, is “anarchical Plutocracy”. Anarchical Plutocracy destroys memory and dissipates attention; it is the enemy of everything that is summoned before us in Bishop Butler’s great pronouncement of 1729; “Everything is what it is, and not another thing”. Bad poetry, bad art, also dissipate the sense of things at once exactly and numinously understood. Great poetry is an act of unfailing attention; its frequently cited “music” must so be understood."

Butler features prominently in one of the later essays and I think the above may be an attempt to distance himself from the Morris speech which is the sort of nonsense spouted in the name of progressive politics by privileged rich boys down the ages. Here’s the last paragraph:

“Art is long and life is short; let us at least do something before we die. We seek perfection, but can find no perfect means to bring it about; let it be enough for us if we can unite with those whose aims are right, and their means honest and feasible. I tell you if we wait for perfection in association in these days of combat we shall die before we can do anything. Help us now, you whom the fortune of your birth has helped to make wise and refined; and as you help us in our work-a-day business toward the success of the cause, instil into us your superior wisdom, your superior refinement, and you in your turn may be helped by the courage and hope of those who are not so completely wise and refined. Remember we have but one weapon against that terrible organization of selfishness which we attack, and that weapon is Union. Yes, and it should be obvious union, which we can be conscious of as we mix with others who are hostile or indifferent to the cause; organized brotherhood is that which must break the spell of anarchical Plutocracy. One man with an idea in his head is in danger of being considered a madman; two men with the same idea in common may be foolish, but can hardly be mad; ten men sharing an idea begin to act, a hundred draw attention as fanatics, a thousand and society begins to tremble, a hundred thousand and there is war abroad, and the cause has victories tangible and real; and why only a hundred thousand? You and I who agree together, it is we who have to answer that question.”

The full text of the speech is available here. Anybody who can be bothered to wade through all of it will see that the Morris ‘position’ is a long way from anything espoused by Hill whose thoughts on the central role of attention are absolutely correct- whatever we may think of his faith and his politics.

Both @The Triumph of Love’ and ‘The Orchards of Syon’ are available from Abebooks.

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