Reasons to like Geoffrey Hill

I’ve started to re-read Hill and have given some consideration to Tom Day’s view that Hill wants his readers to like him but then despises us for doing so. This isn’t going to be a lengthy analysis of the man’s psychology but rather why we should feel some affection for Hill as well as admiration for the strength of his work.

I’d like to start with why I find myself feeling genuine affection for Hill. First of all, he’s very, very clever and I like cleverness, his views and mine coincide on a number of subjects, we’re both against the teaching of creative writing and dislike ‘confessional’ poetry especially when written by Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. We both like the work of Anselm Kiefer and the poetry of Paul Celan and we share a strong interest in the history of 16th and 17th century England. We’ve also had more than our fair share of mental health problems.

So, there’s a number of affinities and it is generally easier to like someone when you have some common ground.

I don’t share Hill’s faith but I do respect it as it is clearly something that’s very important to the way that he is in the world. I view his politics as absurd, so absurd in fact to be part of the man’s charm (if that’s the right noun).

I am of course envious of Hill’s skill as a poet but it’s what he chooses to do with that skill that makes him likeable to me. The re-reading just undertaken has been an interesting process, there’s more pomposity and, paradoxically, more self-laceration in the work if you try to look at the man through the poems rather than for meaning.

There’s a couple of lines from ‘The Triumph of Love’ that speak to me in a very personal way-

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

My family is one of those ‘places’ where grief has stood mute-howling since the Somme offensive and which was then intensified by deaths in the following generation during World War II. It takes a lot to express this stuff when it is very close to home. I appreciate that the rest of this particular part of the sequence is Hill at his little Englander worst but ‘mute-howling’ and ‘self grafted to unself’ are the mark of a compassionate man.

Prior to this re-reading, ‘Comus’ was my favourite because it seemed to contain a more personable poet and I always took great pleasure in reading it for the breadth of thought and the amount of self-deprecation. I also thought that ‘Without Title’ was the weakest collection because it struck me as self-indulgent- especially the ‘Pindarics’ and the very bad Hendrix poem.

Both of these views have now changed, ‘Comus’ has been replaced in my affections by ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ and I’m now more tolerant of the ‘Pindarics’ (the Hendrix poem is still very bad). I’ve also noticed that some of the earlier poems aren’t very good, ‘A Short History of the British in India’ from ‘Tenebrae’ now seems ineffectual and naff.
‘Without Title’ contains three poems on Ipsley Church Lane which are brilliant. I’m not normally keen on nature poetry but these three poems manage to address something in me- I find them almost therapeutic and have often stood in this lane in my head as a way of keeping my particular demons at bay.

Speaking of demons, I think it’s important to recognise that it isn’t easy being Geoffrey Hill, there’s the struggle with faith, the struggle with verse and the struggle with chronic depression amid bouts of OCD. There’s also the fact that Hill doesn’t think like the rest of us which can also be quite isolating. What’s likeable is that these struggles are never rammed down our throats, the nearest we get is the acknowledgement that poetry is a “sad and angry consolation”.

The full text of the Paris Review interview with Hill has now emerged from beyond its pay wall and this gives me another couple of reasons for liking Hill. There’s: “There is a kind of poetry—I think that the seventeenth-century English metaphysicals are the greatest example of this, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan—in which the language seems able to hover above itself in a kind of brooding, contemplative, self-rectifying way. It’s probably true of the very greatest writers. I think it’s true of Dante and Milton, and I think it is true of Wordsworth. It’s a quality that these poets possess supremely. The rest of us, even the very best of us, possess it to a lesser and differing degree, but I cannot conceive poetry of any enduring significance being brought into being without some sense of this double quality that language has when it is taken into the sensuous intelligence, and brought into formal life”. Which I love because of the image of language hovering above itself- articulating what I feel about Milton and Celan and pointing to my own fumbling and inarticulate aspirations as a poet.

One of the things that has always interested me about Hill is his interest in martyrs and martyrdom. In the interview he says: ” My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment”. What is striking is that he mentions likeability prior to suffering.

“In Memoriam: Gillian Rose” is a remarkably humane tribute to the life and work of a remarkable woman. It contains:

I did not blunder into your room with flowers.
Despite the correct moves, you would have wiped
in the championship finals of dislike.

He’s right but I can’t get the image of Hill as suitor (with flowers) out of my head- an image that manages to be both funny and touching.

The poem ends with:

I find love’s work a bleak ontology
to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.

‘Love’s Work’ is searing in its honesty and the way that it looks at the prospect of imminent death. Gillian Rose was one of this country’s leading intellects and was particularly effective in the demolition of cant. In writing this poem, Hill lets us see as much of himself as we’re ever likely to get.

So, is Hill likeable? I think that he probably is and I don’t think Day’s assertion that he wants us to like him in order to despise us for it holds water. The sea-change that occurred when Hill started to put more of himself into his work doesn’t mean that he’s still playing out the extent of his permanent damage. Does it?

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2 responses to “Reasons to like Geoffrey Hill

  1. John—allow me to say it—this is beautiful. Beautifully written and beautifully thought through.
    (And I’m not just saying so because I want you to like me.)
    Jim

    • Jim,
      I’ll allow you to say it and thank you. I wasn’t aiming for beauty but I was trying to articulate my emotional response to a particular poet rather than the work. Having written it I’ve also noticed that some poets arouse that kind of response in me whereas others don’t. Oddly I find a degree of personal warmth towards Pound that I don’t yet understand but I will write about it when I do. Others evoke a mixed response (Andrew Marvell, David Jones) and I haven’t worked that out either.
      Incidentally, I’ve liked you since you caused me to think again about Lowell.

      John

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