Tag Archives: comus

‘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.

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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.