Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

In an effort to counter the liking-Prynne-means-that-you-can’t-like-Hill (and vice versa) syndrome I make sporadic attempts to identify similarities/affinities between the two. So far the primary one is admiration for the work of Paul Celan. I’ve recently come across another mutual affinity in Gillian Rose. Hill’s poem, ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ was published in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in 2007 and Prynne speaks about his friendship with Rose in his introduction to the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ which is on the Archive of the Now. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, the latest and strangest Prynne offering contains a reference to Rose’s ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ which is described as the philosophical version of her ‘Love’s Work’.

For those who don’t know, Rose was one of our brightest academics until her early death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1995. Up until the end of her life she wrote with enormous clarity and a fierce commitment to the ethical strengths of the European tradition which she saw as being undermined by the post structural and the post modern. ‘Love’s Work’ is a kind of autobiography which includes an account of her intellectual development and a brutally factual description of her battle with cancer. It is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I can say this because I was moved and this doesn’t occur very often.

Rose was also the finest writer of polemic that I have come across. Her demolition of Derrida’s ‘Of Spririt’ is a delightful example of how these things should be done- and I speak as one who is sympathetic to Derrida. I readily concede that ‘Of Spirit’ is probably his weakest work and that it’s a relatively (pun intended) easy target but the level of destruction wreaked is extreme, no prisoners are taken and it is a pleasure to watch an expert at work. She’s even better than Alistair Fowler in full flight. Incidentally, something very similar to the Rose position can be found occasionally in the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis but neither come close to Rose’s verbal ferocity and wit.

Hill’s poem is remarkable because it is clearly heartfelt and that it probaly reveals more about the poet than it does about Rose. The poem recognises that Rose would have responded negatively to his wooing and “wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike” which is very, very likely but he also has this:

5
Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry's
assumption of rule. Or its role
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt

6
unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
rewedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics
to Phocion's wife - who shall be nameless -
in Poussin's painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.
Not many would see that.

This might just be my perspective but isn’t the last phrase massively patronising? Isn’t it likely that Rose would have taken greater exception to being patronised by Geoffrey Hill than being wooed by him? The Poussin reference is an allusion to the first chapter of ‘Mourning Becomes the Law where Rose makes a case for the action of the wife’s servant in anxiously watching over her mistress as signalling an act of justice.

Moving on to Prynne, I have remarked before that we are assisted by the inclusion of a list of “reference cues” at the end of the poem yet neither John Skelton (two references to ‘Speke, Parrot) nor Rose are included. ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ is referred to with unusual clarity:

.......................................Look out for dread it's your
letter speciality, bunk of delirium day-trading. 'External causes
are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of
change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be.

This may or may not be helpful but the quote is from Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937 which is one of the listed reference cues. The ‘I saw’ motif that runs through the poem is likely to be an allusion to Middle English dream poems.

I do not want to get bogged down in the finer points of Marxist debate but would like to note that “not this one” refers to the quote which is part of a much broader thesis. It’s also useful to note how Rose explained her title:

Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power, and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am’. by contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own movable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred can complete its mourning. Completed mourning envisages the creative involvement of action in the configurations of power and law: it does not find itself unequivocally in a closed circuit which exclusively confers logic and power. In the title, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘Become entertains the gradual process involved, and the connotation of ‘suiting’ or ‘enhancing’ in the overcoming of mourning.

All of this seems eminently sensible and the correct response to the post-modern absence of substance and there is no doubting Rose’s sincerity in making her case. As with all of these arguments however I still get the impression that there’s too much protesting going on coupled with a failure to set forward a credible agenda. It’s also telling that the focus of most of this opprobrium is on Derrida whose long term influence may not be as great as either Foucault or Deleuze.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not convinced that philosophy is a fit and proper subject for poetry. I’ve since modified that position and am now of the view that only those poems that are exclusively philosophical are bad poems. For example, the Mutability Cantos at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ would be bad if they weren’t viewed as part of that magnificent epic. Hill’s poem is a poem about a philosopher rather than a philosophical poem and is therefore excluded. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ contains a wide range of elements, some of which relate to philosophy and one of the main themes (non-being) is more than a little philosophical but I’ll continue to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, another similarity even though Hill may also have been motivated by Rose’s ‘deathbed conversion’ to Christianity, both will have recognised a formidable talent regardless of ideological stance.

Incidentally, Simon Jarvis also acknowledges her support in his book on Adorno.

2 responses to “Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

  1. Should I read Dialectic of Nihilism or The Broken Middle?

    • The Broken Middle is my favourite because it’s beautifully written and avoids most of the ‘easy’ polemic which crops up in ‘Dialectic’. I also find myself agreeing with more of it because she isn’t jabbing me in the eye.

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