Tag Archives: comus

Geoffrey Hill’s final statement and the dead wife.

2019 saw the publication of Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, a sequence that Hill intended to be published after his death and which, according to the blurb, contains “a riot of similes about the poetic art” and its inherent strangeness. This, we are told, is also intended as a ‘summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry” and there are many things here to ponder. As I’ve said elsewhere, these represent an improvement on the five Day Books which Hill published towards the end of his life, which is a relief. The overall tone feels like a return to The Triumph of Love and Comus but I’m not sure that the content is up to the same standard.

The similes are many and vary from the profound to the crude. In fact they are so numerous that this reader has felt a little overwhelmed by the onslaught, some may feel that several are gratuitous.

I’ll probably reproduce all the similes on a later post but now I want to concentrate on just the first four in one poem because they ‘speak’ to me personally and are representative of the better work in the sequence. This is Poem 142;

Ordered reappearance of ideas from chaos: motto-phrase from poeisis of my declared period but not since

Poem as ‘dome of many coloured glass’ caught in mid-explosion on slow-motion film.

Barely in memory a ceremonial and normal life that can contain grief for a dead wife.

Imagination, at such and such a putsch, a form of conservative agitation. In an unjust nation. Freitod its safest ambition.

This is not a creed. Nor is it quite yet an autopsy on public need.

When ingenuity is suppressed let it not be disordinately released or we shall all be gassed by a watercolourist of scant ability and poor taste.

Delete and substitute:

‘For the first time in our history, love for the Fuhrer has become a legal term’.

And not even this will discredit our mystery before the highest democratic posthumous consistory, our wounds shallow, our tears glistery.

Poem as compact design, supreme nadir in the trap of a drain. Poem as dwarfed and distorted mimeo, disseminating in rhyme the murderous bibles as if they were Berlin or Warsaw or Moscow bus timetables.

Had Britain ‘gone under’ in that dire frame I would, a decade later, have become a Home Fires collaborator, I shouldn’t wonder; but through fear rather than greed.

(Please note that the lineation above is not the same as it appears in print, the lines are longer and the subsequent lines after the first of each statement are indented. My only excuse is that I haven’t kept up with the WordPress use of the <pre> tag. Will try harder.)

My personal interest in the above is that three years ago my wife died after a reasonably sudden and unexpected illness and this event caused me to become disenchanted with poetry because, like many things, it seemed quite trivial in the greater scheme of things. I was thus a bit disturbed to see ‘grief for a dead wife’ as part of this particular piece because it seems quite blunt and incongruent with the rest of what’s being said.

Hill was born in 1932 in the West Midlands and his late childhood and early adolescence was overshadowed by the Second World War and especially German bombing raids. This has remained a primary focal point throughout Hill’s work and figures prominently in Baluch. Amongst other concerns, there’s an abiding interest in Christian martyrs and in the workings of Grace.

In the brilliant Triumph of Love Hill defines poetry as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ which I thought was both accurate and lyrically strong. None of the definitions here, for me, are able to match that strength.

This ordered re-appearance throws up a few questions. It is true that some of us write in order to work out what it is we’re thinking because our thoughts and other mental processes seem tangled and incoherent. I’m not however sure that what we’re after in this is an ordering but more a kind of winnowing so that what’s left is what matters- whether or not it makes an orderly pattern.

I like motto-phrase as being more accurate than either slogan or maxim and i can see how this would apply to various schools and types of poetry. I think I’m correct in saying that Hill’s main period of academic / critical interest was the first half of the seventeenth century with forays into later periods. It may be that this is his ‘declared’ period but this is only a semi-educated guess. I’ve always found ‘poeisis’ to be a tricky term because it looks and sounds elitist and because it covers too many areas of endeavour to be useful. Most of Hill’s usage of obscure or ‘difficult’ vocabulary can be justified because that particular word adds precision whereas poeisis, in this instance doesn’t. The limitation of this to a particular period (‘not since’) seems at odds with the more universal business of poetry making that Hill seems to be after.

The multi coloured dome is apparently from Byron’s Adonais, this seems to be the relevant bit-

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

It would therefore appear that the poem in this instance is a kind of frame by frame record of the moment of death, when life is destroyed or shattered rather than ‘just’ coming to an end. I think that the poem is exceptionally good at memorialising the dead but I’m less convinced that it is itself at all like this shattered dome. I’m prepared to accept that the use of Byron’s poem to say something about poetry may indicate that there are further subtleties that may be going on here but I’m not sufficiently intrigued to attend to these here.

It’s not immediately apparent what the next sentence refers to, If we think about a putsch as an act intended to take control of something rather than an insurrection or a coup d’etat then it could be said that a poem is a way of ruling the poet’s emotions. I’m taking ‘such and such’ to have it’s colloquial meaning and to have been used because of the rhyme.

The next observation throws up a number of questions for me:

  • Why is ‘barely’ used in this way?
  • What is meant by ‘ceremonial’?
  • Is this dead wife a generic or particular figure?

It turns out that the first adjective opens up some ambiguity that I didn’t initially recognise. The OED reminds me that there is “Openly, without disguise or concealment, clearly, plainly” in addition to “Only just; hence, not quite, hardly, scarcely, with difficulty”.

Which would seem to give both something scarcely remembered but those memories that remain being clear. this makes sense to me, I have only a hazy memory of my early childhood, for example, but there are some events and experiences that remain very clear indeed.

Hill was a committed High Anglican Christian and his second wife became an Anglican priest. Church services at that end of the spectrum are also filled with liturgical rites and rituals that are referred to as ceremonies. He was also knighted and elected Chair of Poetry at Oxford University, both of which are freighted with the ceremonial.

If this is particular, I’m not entirely sure that any individual life can be said to be ‘normal’, any of my friends would be considered as normal people but none of them hace had lives that conform to any kind of norm. This may however be a minor quibble on my part.

Hill married twice and his second wife, Alice Goodman, is still alive so this may refer to his first, Nancy Whittaker although I don’t know whether or not she predeceased him. In terms of poetry making, the only direct reference that I’m aware of is this from Comus:

That the antimasque is what saves us
challenge by challenge. Still I anticipate.
I did not anticipate the marriage

that I destroyed. It was not then the fashion.

Having given this some thought, after my original startlement, the containment of grief seems a bit anomalous. Obviously I can only speak of mine and my family’s recent experience but grief is a very slippery and periodically persistent thing that doesn’t seem able to be contained. Some elegies speak eloquently of some aspects of individual grief but I think it’s unlikely that they contain all of it for a ‘dead wife’ or otherwise.

I’ll take ‘imagination’ in its broadest and most everyday sense but, rather than a coup d’etat, I’ll take the secondary definition of ‘putsch’ given as “a sudden or forceful attempt to take control of an organization, business, etc.; a sudden vigorous effort, a concerted drive or campaign”. A conservative agitation seems to be a contradiction in terms unless we think of people who agitate in order to keep something, the obvious recent example being the more vocal activites of Brexit supporters in the UK,

It’s fairly evident that some imagination is needed in the business of poetry making but a bit less clear how it can also said to be such an agitation. I’m also a bit suspicious that ‘such and such’ is only there because of the rhyme. ‘In an unjust nation’ isn’t a sentence, which is odd for Hill. The next few lines leads me to assume that the nation in question is pre-war Germany and that this putsch may, after all, be Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. We now come to annoying foreign words. The interweb tells me that freitod is German for suicide. I can think of no good reason in this instance why the English noun shouldn’t be used. To throw in a term that most ‘ordinary’ readers won’t know just puts them off and smacks of elitism and deliberate obfuscation. It may be here that Hill intends to point out the threat to the creative spirit that the totalitarian state poses. The last sentence would seem to argue that remaining silent is the safest response that a poet or artist can make when living under such a regime.

The next line seems like a bit of a retreat. The four similes are set out in the way that you would set out a statement of beliefs. If it isn’t a creed then why should Hill set them out in such a manner and express them in such a rigorous way. The second sentence is intended to be more telling (‘quite yet’) and less transparent. Has this public need died? Is there no longer such a thing as societal privation? Has the need been made public, ie placed in the public domain? Is it instead a need that is felt by members of the public. Or is it both and why is it dead?

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown that Hill’s singular voice and critical acumen stayed with him to the end and that this particular poem contains many elements that we should all give consideration to. I intend to follow this with some thoughts on Hill and Germany.


‘Scenes from Comus’ on Arduity.

About two years ago I started (launched would be too grand a verb) the Arduity site with the aim of helping readers to engage with poetry that is thought to be difficult. At the same time I applied for Arts Council funding which wasn’t forthcoming. For a year or so I added bits in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion and then left it alone. To my surprise it continues to attract between 100 and 200 user sessions per day and people still say encouraging things about it.

In an attempt to get a bit more structure into my life, I’ve decided to overhaul arduity and to move it more in the direction of poets and their work but with the same objective of encouraging ‘lay’ readers to pay attention to this material.

Apart from tidying up some of the navigation and a few of the very many typos, I’ve spent most of today writing about ‘Comus’ because the Geoffrey Hill section is a bit thin and doesn’t contain any direct examples of the work. Then there is the fact that I really like writing about this particular sequence as it’s the one that converted me to his work.

After much internal deliberation I’ve also mentioned on the Hill index page that the last three books might not be very good but, for the moment, I haven’t spelled out how utterly dismal ‘Oraclau’ actually is.

Having now read what I’ve written on ‘Comus’, which I still think of as one of the clearer sequences, I’m now beginning to dither. Two years ago I had a typical user in mind, a keen reader of poetry with a reasonable level of intelligence who is nevertheless deterred from this work because of its density, word use and allusions and by the critical chatter that surrounds it. This had been my experience and it took a very positive review of ‘Comus’ by Nicholas Lezard to attempt to tackle this kind of stuff. So, the tone was to be one of positive encouragement together with an overview of the tricks of the late modern trade.

Having now re-read some of the initial content, I’ve decided that most of it is more didactic and patronising than intended and that it lacks personal enthusiasm and tends to glide over some of the very real obstacles to access.

Starting with enthusiasm, I’ve tried with this blog to find different ways to do avid pleasure and admiration. Sometimes this ‘works’ and on other occasions it falls flat on its face but my point is that I do try to communicate the pleasure/provocation/incitement that I get from some of this material on Bebrowed whereas I haven’t with Arduity. With regard to obstacles, I’ve just written something that indicates that the reader may benefit from some baseline knowledge of-

  • Wyatt and Surrey;
  • Boethius and Fortune and/or Providence;
  • the relationship between Andrew Marvell and John Milton;
  • the red Tories of the 1820s
  • Hopkins’ improvisations on ‘self’, ‘inscape’ and ‘selving’
  • the meaning and usage of ‘couvade’

My dithering stems from not knowing how my intended user would respond to this kind of exposition. I did some self-censoring in that I haven’t done chapter and verse on ‘selving’, I’ve omitted almost completely the workings of grace and have merely mentioned Hill’s promotion of poetry as memorialisation. I tell myself that this isn’t being too dishonest and explication of some of the above does at least let users know what they might be in for.

However, there is this lingering doubt that a line has been crossed and that (again) I’m writing for myself rather than for the user and that I haven’t injected enough enthusiasm to counteract the density of the references/tone/theme. This is even harder to judge. I have been known to opine that anyone who doesn’t like a certain poem is obviously devoid of a soul and have resorted, on occasion, to quite florid hyperbole but there are very few times when I’ve said what I needed to say. Those that do come to mind have tended to be more personal and immediate rather than considered and/or mannered. For example, I’m reasonably happy about my writing about Keston Sutherland, Amy De’Ath, Sarah Kelly and Andrew Marvell but I don’t think I’ve been as spontaneous as I should about Paul Celan, Vanessa Place and Timothy Thornton.

For once, this isn’t an imaginary problem. Tomorrow I intend to write a couple of thousand words on ‘The Triumph of Love’ and I’ll enjoy this because it’s a wonderful piece of work that is also completely bonkers in term of tone and rationale. I do want to emphasise this level of eccentricity but also let users know that they will need to deal with the workings of Grace, the nature of purgatory and the Bradwardine problem. To do otherwise would be fundamentally dishonest. I’m also tempted to liven things up by including some psychopathology with regard to class background and childhood but this would only be to create a quite spurious frisson.

There is also the fact that I think it is one of the very best things to be written in the last forty years yet I don’t agree with either its centrasl ‘point’ which seems stupidly naive or its level of self-admiration. How do I include these concerns without going into enormous detail about arguments that are quite preipheral to my enjoyement of the work?

In conclusion, any thoughts on the above would be most welcome as would any views on the direction that Arduity should now take, bearing in mind that this has been about presenting an alternative to the academy rather than a supplement to it.

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?

Geoffrey Hill and comedy

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.