In the essential ‘Complicities’ collection Thomas Day has an essay on comedy and contexture in ‘Comus’. As a long standing reader/fan of this poem, I read the piece with interest and it has given me some cause to re-consider my reading. For those who aren’t familiar with Hill’s work, the response falls into three broad camps. The first camp levels the charge of wilful obscurity thereby denying Hill any poetic/creative status at all. The second camp acknowledges the brilliance of the early work but denigrates the later stuff which was written after Hill sought help for his mental health condition, these later poems are sneeringly referred to as the ‘Prozac stuff’. The third camp is of the view that Hill remains one of the most important poets writing in English. I am firmly in the third camp and came to that view by reading Comus before I read anything else.
One of Hill’s more endearing traits is that most of his jokes aren’t very funny but they have a level of self-deprecation that makes me smile. When I first read Comus I was struck by its confidence and exuberance and by the fact that Hill felt able to throw various aspects of himself into the poem without becoming mawkish or confessional. The first section is a brilliant collection of maxims which lead us gently into the performance of Milton’s Comus at Ludlow. These stanzas are not without humour, there’s a wonderful play on accountancy and righteousness which is funny but not in the music hall way that Day seems to be looking for.
Given his reputation for difficulty, it may surprise some to know that ‘The Triumph of Love’ also strives for laughs but in a much more self-conscious knowing way with Hill parodying the best efforts of stand-up comics. I don’t feel that this earlier attempt works as well as the bad jokes in Comus, probably because it reads as if Hill is being a little too clever for his own good.
The other thing to realise is that nobody should come to anything by Hill looking for laughs. Hill’s work challenges the attentive reader to think again about the world and to consider anew the power of the poetic voice. The jokes are very much a by-product. Whilst Day covers important aspects of the poem, he fails to situate the comedy in the context of the work and this is disappointing. The one comedic aspect that is ignored is the figure of Geoffrey Hill as randy old goat primarily lusting after the Sabrina character in the original Comus. I find this kind of self-deprecation amusing and can’t understand why Day should overlook it.
Day quotes extensively from the critical plaudits on the back of the paperback edition of Comus as if to demonstrate that Hill has won the recognition that he deserves and also that Hill finds this validation a bit difficult. Day also makes the claim that Comus is a gauntlet thrown down at the critic’s feet in defiance of the view that his later stuff isn’t very good. Whilst it is obvious that Hill does care about critical reception, I don’t think Comus is particularly defiant- I think it’s much more an homage to a particular poem and a meditation on the possibility of poetry in this weighted world. Being very open about your past (marriage, earlier poems, childhood) is surely not the best tactic when confronting your enemies.
I may be biased (I often am), but Comus stands alongside The Triumph of Love and Mercian Hymns as Hill’s finest work. A very strong case can be made for each but it is a credit to Hill that he has produced three very different but equally enduring pieces of work. He’ll never be a great comedian but he will always make me smile.