As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills Be laws. Again Swift and neat hand Notate the viols Flexures of styles Extravagant command Purposeful frills What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen These fantasies constrained by their own strings Narcissus then Crowns fantasy Feasts what feasts brings Imaginings Consort like winter sky Drawn from the wings. Jolt into the epilogue by your leave As into a mixed skirmish, a rout, Punched semibreve Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat. Because Metaphysic is what you will Marking time is not bearing time As Inevitable The pale sun's rime Until No sun No dying climb Statute's oxymoron Impassionate lost thistle-rhomb No intercept from zero friskly drawn.
The above is the third poem in Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Clavics’ sequence. I’ve tried very hard to format the above accurately but this hasn’t been a complete success- The line ‘Extravagant command’ should end after the line above and Consort…’ should end after ‘brings’ which is two lines above. ‘As inevitable’ should end after the line below it. There are thirty two poems in the sequence and they all have exactly the same shape.
I was one of those disappointed by ‘Oraclau’ because of the prevalence of lines that don’t work and the attempt to adhere to a rigid form. I was also less than impressed with the way in which Hill deals with Wales and Weshness.
‘Clavics’ arrived at the same time as my recent depressive episode and I was initially thrown by the uniform shape of the poems, some of which is achieved by letter and word spacing and by slight variations in font size. I then put ‘Clavics’ down and got on with being depressed.
Recently I fell across Lachlan Mackinnon’s review of ‘Clavics’ in The Independent. He ascribes the shapes of the poems to George Herbert indicating that the first section ‘looks like a modified version’ of ‘The Altar’ and that the second is a copy of ‘Easter wings’. Mackinnon goes on to describe the book as the ‘sheerest twaddle’ and ends by stating the Hill is wasting his own time and that of his readers.
I may be wrong but isn’t Mackinnon one of the critics directly addressed (abused) in ‘The Triumph of Love’? I only mention this because ‘sheerest twaddle’ manages to be both extreme and less than specific.
Some things can be said about ‘Clavics’ before we get to any consideration of quality. The first thing that can be said is that we are back in the 17th century and that this is ground that Hill knows very well indeed. The main focus of our attention is meant to be William Lawes, the musician and composer, brother of the less talented Henry who features fleetingly in ‘Comus’. The rest of Hill’s seventeenth century cast are also mostly present (the Vaughan twins, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Charles I etc) but there are also references to more contemporary concerns.
The tone is an odd mix of the comedic quips from ‘The Triumph of Love’ (which still aren’t funny and the later and more personal asides from ‘Comus’ and ‘Treatise’. In fact oddness seems to characterise the whole sequence. We have jokes that aren’t funny, elements of erudition that seem merely boastful and some very strange obscurities which feel quite ‘dark’.
I don’t really want to engage with Mackinnon as he’s had lots of attention already from this but his observation about shape is only partially feasible. ‘The Altar’ is unlikely to be the model for the first section because of the number of lines, line length and especially the variation in line length in the middle. As for ‘Easter wings’, the shape is exactly the same except for a gap between lines 5 and 6 and that my pdf of the first edition has the poem lying on its side so as to resemble a pair of wings, something Hill acknowledges in poem 20 referring to this shape as an ‘egg timer’.
There are some poems that ‘work’ really well and make a Geoffrey Hill kind of sense. The incidence of really naff lines is much less than in ‘Oraclau’ and I think I’m probably offended by some of the darker sentiments but that is likely to be Hill’s intention. This is odd because I’ve viewed his earlier attempts to shock as either childish or quaint.
The other point is that reading this sequence, for all its many faults, is a far more useful way of spending time than paying attention to any of what passes for mainstream English verse.
One of the more significant contemporary themes appears to be the atheist gang headed by Richard Dawkins who gets a couple of mentions. More intriguing is the first part of poem 26 which obliquely addresses the central theme of “Consilience” by E O Wilson. This purports to set out a way of unifying the many varieties of scientific thought, I read this some years ago and didn’t find it particularly persuasive but it also contains one of those extended rants against relativism which is also Dawkins’ underlying fear about religion. What Hill has to say about “Consilience” is more than usually enigmatic with a riff on ants, bees and butterflies. Wilson’s major research has focused on ants. The last section of the poem takes us back to Charles I, the Vaughan twins and William Lawes which seems to have nothing to do with the above debate until you get to the last line- “Talk of closure keeps open the matter.” which does.
I feel much more inclined to ‘bother’ with “Clavics” than I do with “Oraclau” even if it isn’t in the same league as some of the earlier work. At the end of the last poem Hill asks “Is it slight cant / Wishing to end well?” This stanza as a whole is oddly revealing and throws up further issues for attentive readers.
The first epigraph reads “CLAVICS: The science or alchemy of keys – OED 2012”. I think I might need to unpack that once I’ve spent more time with the collection as a whole. Coincidentally, Poem 28 contains a direct quote (“Ah my dear”) from Herbert’s “Love III” which I’ve written about recently.