Tag Archives: god and grace

Prynne week: J H Prynne on George Herbert’s Love [III]

Today I’m going to turn away from the harrying of the poetry and pay serious attention to the prose. Prior to the publication of Prynne’s tome on the above (in 2011) I was completely in the dark about the strength of Herbert’s work and the place it seems to occupy in the God-related debates of the time.

I’d previously read Prynne’s equally lengthy work on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper which didn’t encourage me to read more of the Romantics but did suggest a new way of reading poems. Given that the book is 87 pages in length, I’m not going to attempt a précis but pay attention to one aspect of Love [III]:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                 Gulitie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
                 From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                 If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
                 Love said,  You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                 I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                 Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
                 Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                 Me deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
                 So I did sit and eat.

This seems a fairly straightforward exposition of how the “grace” might ‘work’. Those familiar with the first half of the seventeenth century will know that this was the most controversial subject of the day which split the Protestant faith into a bewildering plethora of competing factions. One of the main causes of controversy was the increasing popularity of Arminius, a Dutch theologian, who held that recognition of and repentance for past sin could be a way of gaining salvation. As a gross simplification, this might be seen as a ‘half-way’ position between the teachings of Calvin and the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Prynne gives much space to the place of the poem in this debate which seems (to me) to be closest to the Arminian ‘position’.

I want to pay attention to what Prynne has to say about the first line of the third verse, he starts with ‘truth’ and remarks that “notable is the way in which the admission of truth is brought forward as a countering concession in argument, when what is at stake is the divine agency of God’s own constant fidelity”. He goes on to quote from John’s First Letter: “…….it is the spirit that beareth witness, because the spirit is trueth”. This is followed by three extracts from Donne, Savnorola and Toshell expounding on the nature of God’s truth and how it is indivisible from His mercy.

Some might think that this is too small a detail to spend much time over but ‘truth’ has always been a term that is loaded with significance and this was very much the case in the second decade of the 17th century when the poem was written. From my perspective, as one who has some problems with the notion of truth as Truth, it is as well to be reminded that the truth was considered to be part of the spiritual rather than the imperial realm and that it was most impertinent to suggest otherwise.

The discussion moves to “Truth Lord” which Prynne takes to be the guest’s acknowledgement of ‘weak’ humanity’s distance from God. We are also presented with this dilemma described by George Downame in 1631 “And if we acknowledge him to be our Lord, we must be carefull to do his will, otherwise in vaine do we call him soe”. I’m not so sure that the word placed here carries that much significance but I accept that it might carry more than an echo of The Lord’s Supper, Prynne describes this as an “implicit presence” which seems accurate given the guest/meal metaphor that frames and structures the poem.

So, hopefully the above demonstrates the kind of detail and consideration that Prynne is prepared to give each part of the poem. As with anything so densely argued as this, over reading can occur but the overall impression here is a respectful and careful attention that is given to the text. I’d like to contrast this favourably with other current criticism which is (usually) badly written and overladen with underlying themes that simply aren’t there. In this instance I think our critic is correct to give weight to the theological context but should perhaps have wondered what these two words are doing in this particular place. It is possible as reading them both forward and back, that is to confirm Love as the creator of sight but also to add some kind of veracity to them being harmed by sin. I know that this might further complicates this but it strikes me that someone as technically adept as Herbert could be, in effect, making two points as one. Of course I readily acknowledge that Prynne is a much more astute reader than I will ever be, indeed I wouldn’t have considered any of this without his gentle prodding.

Even with the above quibble, I am staggered by the brilliance of the final sentence on Truth Lord: “These are august shadows to the ostensible debating tone in the poem’s polite cross-talk; the social idiom of speech intonation unmistakably implicated with fundamentals of belief”. Sentences like this demonstrate just how far in front of the rest of us Prynne is. Needless to say, I’ll be throwing ‘august shadows’ and to be ‘unmistably implicated’ into as many sentences and conversations as possible in the coming months.

Now we come to the importance of words and their various meanings. Mar, it is pointed out, apparently had a much ‘firmer meaning than it does in contemporary use: to impair fatally, to destroy or to cosign into irretrievable ruination. In the interests of readerly research, I’ve looked at the OED and these do appear but there is another definition that might be more pertinent: “To damage (a material thing) so as to render useless”. This works for me because of the place it seems to occupy in the poem. It’s also a bit odd that Prynne doesn’t provide this definition as well.

Further examples are provided of the use of ‘mar’ with prominence given to a sermon given in 1609 by Lancelot Andrewes on the way in which God sent Christ to redeem mankind: ‘He should not have sent Him made: but as he was, neither made nor created, but like Himselfe, in His own estate, as was meet for the SON OF GOD , to be sent. To make Him any thing, is to send Him Marred and no better’. Now, I’m not disputing the erudition deployed here nor am I doubting the point of placing the verb in a contemporary god-related context but I’m having a little trouble seeing how God’s putative marring of Christ has a lot to do with the guest’s eyesight.

There’s another paragraph, the gist of which is that the guest is confessing his responsibility for the ‘spiritual damage’ that he has caused but is blocked from repentance (and hence salvation) by his insistence on condemning and punishing himself.

Time for a personal interjection: one of the many reasons that this poem appeals to me is that I’m a bipolar depressive with a fairly ropey psychology and I can identify with the kind of self-negation that the guest is expressing here, especially shame, perceived wrongdoing and a complete denial of self-worth. What I find hard to get my brain around is the view that this state equates with not being ‘saved’ by God, even though I don’t dispute the technical skill involved in expressing so many things with such compressed precision.

Returning to the poem, Prynne gives a full account of the nature of religious shame and provides this explication from Thomas Wilson’s wonderful A Christian Dictionary:

Trouble and perturbation of minde and Conscience, being greeved and cast down at the remembrance of sinne against God … This is shame of Conscience, which in wicked men is an euill affection, and part of the torment of Hell: but in the godly it is a good affection a signe and fruite of their repentance.

This may we be evidence of a rapidly vertiginous descent into peculiarity but I cannot express how much I love rummaging through and plundering this tome. The above is a good example of its unequivocal no-nonsense approach to what many thought of as hopelessly complex terms. We should have more of these now- and I speak as one who is over-fond of complication.

I’d have left it at that and felt quite pleased with myself but our critic takes things a couple of steps further pointing out that here there are two meanings:

  • the objective and public shamefulness of the guest’s acts and omissions and;
  • the inward sense of shame and contrition that these acts and omissions give rise to in him.

I’m not sure that there’s a clear difference here even though Wilson points to it. As a shame regular, from the inside there is always an awareness of both even if the first is fictive. For example, I feel deep shame, inwardly and outwardly, about (as I see it) succumbing to my condition> I’m sure that the above good/bad dividing line has its god-related appeal but from the inside the problem is that they are both intertwined and feed into each other. End of second interjection.

Prynne follows his double meaning up with the ‘mistake’ of the guest in his assumption that he is inevitably condemned but that ‘Love knows better’.

So, is this the kind of attentive reading that we should all apply? What might this tell us about the ‘way’ to read the later Prynne? I consider myself to be an attentive reader, I like to think that I’m careful and thoughtful in my reading but I’m not sure that I’d want to be this relentlessly forensic although I acknowledge that I might be tempted to be this forensic but by giving a bit more weight to the poem as poem- those of us who are not fans of theological debate in the early 17thy century may feel overwhelmed by the amount of context. I do however think it’s a good thing to be extremely concerned with words in all their various glories and must try to apply this concern to more contemporary material other than Hill and Prynne. The insights this material give to Prynne’s poetry are many and varied, there’s the interest in the nature of faith, in the ambiguities and contradictions therein and about social and political context. Most of all though I think there’s a clear indication of approach to the poem with a capital P and that must be useful for those of us who want to get a little closer to the poems.

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Geoffrey Hill’s soul and ‘anarchical Plutocracy’

I know these two don’t really go together but I’ve discovered a bit more about one and I want to think out loud about the other.

The other is the thorny issue of the soul of Geoffrey Hill which the great man tells us has caused him lifelong anxiety in terms of its fate. He also informs us that all of his writing relates in some way to this anxiety. The obvious response to this would be “No it doesn’t” and then to move on but this would mean not looking deeper into this soul business and that would be a mistake.

If I’d been asked, prior to watching the Economist clip, I’d have said that Hill’s work is primarily about struggle and the wrestling that he does with faith, the dead, the landscape and politics and that it is the dynamics of this struggle that cry out from the work.

I’m resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to glide into counselling mode but I do need to point out that a struggle with faith always precedes anxieties about the soul. In order to recognise the existence of your soul and believe that it lives on after your death you need to have resolved a large part of your struggle with God. I must emphasise that I’m only having an educated stab in the dark here because I don’t share Hill’s faith.

I can say with much more certainty that I wouldn’t read poetry if I felt was mostly ‘about’ the poet’s concern for the fate of his soul. So, I’ve been looking on the work to try and separate out the struggle with faith from any specific soul-related concerns. I started with ‘The Triumph of Love’ (which is always a joy) and looked at the Bradwardine reference and then recognised that poems 38-45 might be worth having another think about. I then came to ‘The Orchards of Syon” (which is much less of a joy) which does seem to have a much greater focus on Dante in particular and the afterlife in general.

Before preceding any further with this purported anxiety, there is the abiding interest in and predilection for memorialising martyrs and others that Hill considers to have died well. One of the themes in Christian theology is the link between martyrdom and a place in heaven. When asked about this interest, Hill has spoken of his admiration for these individuals and explained that these are people that he would have liked to have known.

He’s also said that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorialising, a memorising of the dead as much as, or even more than, expressions of ‘solidarity with the poor and the oppressed'”. This would seem to indicate a need to bear witness to the lives of others and maybe a hope that such actions will go some way to safeguarding their souls.

Turning now to the operatically magnificent ‘Triumph of Love’. In the interest of brevity, I’m going to rely on the following poems to think further about this particular anxiety:

                   XXXIX

Rancorous, narcissistic old sod - what
makes him go on? We thought, hoped rather
he might be dead. Too bad.So how
much more does he have of injury time?

XL

Ford wordly, read worldly; for in equity, inequity;
for religious read religiose; for distinction
detestation. Take accessible to mean
acceptable, accommodating, openly servile.
Is that right, Missis, or is that right? I don't
care what I say do I?

XLI

For iconic priesthood, read worldly picque and ambition.
Change insightfully caring to pruriently intrusive.
Delete chastened and humbled. Insert Humiliated.
Interpret slain in the spirit as browbeaten to exhaustion.
For hardness of heart, read costly dislike of cant.

XLII

Excuse me - excuse me - I did not
say the pain is lifting, I said the pain is in
the lifting. No - please - forget it.

XLIII

This is quite dreadful - he's become obsessed.
There you go, there you go - narrow it down to obsession!

I like to think of this as remarkably and utterly frank which is what makes it so powerful. There are many things in the above but I’m particular fond of the Max Miller vignette and that Hill uses the second part of the quote without italics. There’s also the forthright assertion ‘against’ accessible poetry which is probably more honest than the various explanations that he’s given in interview. In this context, I think we need to note that the ‘framing’ is about mortality and the struggle (pain) involved in being Geoffrey Hill. I don’t, however, detect any kind of anxiety about his soul and would have thought that this is the part of ‘Triumph of Love where it is most likely to occur.

I said before that I don’t like ‘The Orchards of Syon’ because of the homage to Hopkins and the misguided musings on Celan and Ingeborg Bachman. I’ve also been suspicious of the extent of name-dropping and what feels like a touch of self-importance. Having re-read the sequence, I may now need to re-assess what’s going on and try and see where it ‘fits’ in my current understanding of the work as a whole.

The whole sequence does seem permeated with matters eschatological with much use of Dante, Revelations and the Day of Judgement but I’m not sure whether this extract amounts to an anxiety about the soul:

LVIII

La vida es sueno and about time;
about hanging in there, about my self,
my mins as it is, to be remembered,
regarding timegraphs: these I understand
as the nongrammatical speech of angels.
I mean they're beyond grammar that reminds
us of our fall and the hanging out there.
My mind, as I know it, I still discover
in this one-off temerity, archnidous
abseiling into a pit, the pit a void,
a black hole, a galaxy in denial.
Life is a dream. I pitch
and check, balanced against hazard,
self-sustained, credulous; well on the way
to be hit by accident a coup de grace.
Intolerable stress on will and shall,
recovery of sprung rhythms, if not rhythm;
test of creation almost to destruction-
that's a good line; it can survive me.
In denial not my words, I'm moving
blindly, all feelers out. Cosmic flare wind
tilts the earth's axis, then returns us
with our ears singing, our eyes rolled back,
mute, Atlantean.

Having now typed this out, and thus taking care with the punctuation, this is better and more confessional than I thought. I’m even prepared to look fondly on the concern about posthumous reputation (‘can’ survive him rather than ‘may’ or ‘might’ but at some remove from ‘will’) and of the reference to Hopkins. The strongest part (in terms of technical efficiency and beauty) relates to his mind descending into a ‘galaxy of denial’. The other thing to note is that it is ‘our’ fall as if we are still unredeemed by the life and death of Christ but that’s more of a theological query rather than a personal one.

Whilst there is certainly anxiety here, it still seems to relate mostly to the present struggle rather than what lies in wait for the soul so. I’m now going to make a very big guess. Hill isn’t getting any younger and with old age (at least in the case of my parents) there seems to be an increasing awareness of mortality and a desire to make sense of the life that’s been lived in the light of that mortality and I think that this might be what’s going on with Hill, that he’s imposing this anxiety on his work in retrospect from his current position.

Of course the work is part of ‘Christian discourse’ whether he likes it or not and the essays also consciously make a series of contributions to that discourse. Whether Hill likes it or not, he writes as a Christian (as well as a ‘hierarchical Tory) and there is an audience to whom he speaks about God.

I’ll finish this with an update on the ‘anarchical plutocracy’ that Hill refers to. I’ve stolen this Hill quote from the eminently perceptive Don Share’s blog

<p?"Until very recently I thought that I had invented the term plutocratic anarchy, but it appears to have originated with William Morris… Morris’s term, to be precise, is “anarchical Plutocracy”. Anarchical Plutocracy destroys memory and dissipates attention; it is the enemy of everything that is summoned before us in Bishop Butler’s great pronouncement of 1729; “Everything is what it is, and not another thing”. Bad poetry, bad art, also dissipate the sense of things at once exactly and numinously understood. Great poetry is an act of unfailing attention; its frequently cited “music” must so be understood."

Butler features prominently in one of the later essays and I think the above may be an attempt to distance himself from the Morris speech which is the sort of nonsense spouted in the name of progressive politics by privileged rich boys down the ages. Here’s the last paragraph:

“Art is long and life is short; let us at least do something before we die. We seek perfection, but can find no perfect means to bring it about; let it be enough for us if we can unite with those whose aims are right, and their means honest and feasible. I tell you if we wait for perfection in association in these days of combat we shall die before we can do anything. Help us now, you whom the fortune of your birth has helped to make wise and refined; and as you help us in our work-a-day business toward the success of the cause, instil into us your superior wisdom, your superior refinement, and you in your turn may be helped by the courage and hope of those who are not so completely wise and refined. Remember we have but one weapon against that terrible organization of selfishness which we attack, and that weapon is Union. Yes, and it should be obvious union, which we can be conscious of as we mix with others who are hostile or indifferent to the cause; organized brotherhood is that which must break the spell of anarchical Plutocracy. One man with an idea in his head is in danger of being considered a madman; two men with the same idea in common may be foolish, but can hardly be mad; ten men sharing an idea begin to act, a hundred draw attention as fanatics, a thousand and society begins to tremble, a hundred thousand and there is war abroad, and the cause has victories tangible and real; and why only a hundred thousand? You and I who agree together, it is we who have to answer that question.”

The full text of the speech is available here. Anybody who can be bothered to wade through all of it will see that the Morris ‘position’ is a long way from anything espoused by Hill whose thoughts on the central role of attention are absolutely correct- whatever we may think of his faith and his politics.

Both @The Triumph of Love’ and ‘The Orchards of Syon’ are available from Abebooks.

Geoffrey Hill, Clavics and dissonance

I’ve been re-reading Clavics and there’s a couple of conceits that I don’t quite ‘get’. I’m more understanding of the pattern that’s adhered to because Helen Wilcox tells me that this was reasonably common in the 17th century which looms large in the sequence. I’m also more on board with the rhymes and the half-rhymes although I still think that this kind of constraint doesn’t do Hill any favours and I remain relieved that the sequence isn’t anywhere near as naff as ‘Oraclau’.
The stumbling blocks that I have relate to what Hill says about dissonance and the nature of that dissonance together with the varying shades of his persona that Hill portrays. With regard to ‘dissonance’, I’m not at all sure why Hill should justify the inclusion of dissonant lines or phrases by his intention to make his readers ‘wince’. The OED has three definitions of this term:
1. an inharmonious or harsh sound or combination of sounds;
2. (specifically with regard to music) A combination of tones causing beats (cf. beat n.1 8), and thus producing a harsh effect; also, a note which in combination with others produces this effect;
3. Want of concord or harmony (between things); disagreement, incongruity.
These are the first two lines from Poem 11:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.

As I’ve said before, there are a few wince-inducing lines in this sequence, although nowhere near as many as in ‘Oraclau’, and some of these may be deliberately plugged in. I’ll get to these in a moment but the question does have to be asked as to why you would want to be so inept in the first place. I think I’ve recognised and forgiven many of Hill’s foibles in the past but this does seem as if he wants the best of both worlds- the self indulgence to include lazy lines and the arrogance to claim that this is deliberate as if this makes everything okay.

Perhaps I’m missing some really sophisticated and esoteric point but I don’t understand why you would want to do this. I’ve given some consideration to what Keston Sutherland has written about Wordsworth and ‘wrong’ poetry but I don’t think that this is what Hill has in mind because, unlike Wordsworth, his dissonances don’t even function enough to make sense. I’ll give two examples, the first is from Poem 10:

Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes.
Near admirers
Cope with our begging Nescafe and rides.

This is the end of Poem 7;

            You say
Well then
Haul Irony
Upon its rack; refrain
Clavics archaic iron key:
Splash blessings on dead in Afghanistan.

(This is the closest that WordPress lets me get to the pattern as it appears on the page).

Even if the first of these is saying anything (who are these admirers and why do they have to ‘cope’ these requests? etc) then ‘rides’ isn’t a very good word to end on because the softness of the vowel sound tends to drift off. The other odd thing is that I think of ‘ride’ in this sense as being used on the other side of the Atlantic whereas we would usually use ‘lifts’ but perhaps that isn’t naff/inept/dissonant for Hill who would not doubt argue that there is a half-rhyme with ‘odes’.

Moving on to ‘Afghanistan’, this comes at the end of a moving piece on the theme of memorialisation which Hill sees as being a central function of the poetry making business. He does these things very well without becoming either jingoistic or cringingly sentimental and up until the last line things move along quite properly but, to my mind, the dissonance created by the last word fundamentally undermines what has gone before. He might find this amusing (he does know how to end poems properly, he’s spent the last 50+ years ending poems properly)- it isn’t the constraint of the format that is getting in the way because most of the time this is managed reasonably. Perhaps there’s something deep and profound going on that has passed me by but after several attentive readings I get the impression that this is lazy self-indulgence on a grand scale (again).

The Hill persona that’s thrown into Clavics lacks some of the ‘bite’ of previous works. He is unusually gentle on Robert Lowell’s ‘The Dolphin’ which he has previously held up as the antithesis of what poetry should be about. This is an enormous disappointment to those of us who share this view and would expect some scathing polemic. The same can be said for the slightish dig at Dawkins and the gentle refutation of E O Wlison and the notion of consilience which he prefaces by acknowledging that he doesn’t ‘have the science’. He doesn’t have the economics either but that hasn’t stopped him ranting (appropriately) about the more dismal aspects of high finance. I confess that I come to Hill to some extent in expectation of bad-tempered and ill-judged polemic and am disappointed with this mellowing. It is however reassuring to note that the jokes are as bad as ever and that he is still trying to educate us.

Hill has spent the last fifteen years telling us how difficult he finds this poetry making business and this is underlined here although there’s more frequent reference to his age and a sense of his career drawing to a close which doesn’t come across as either self=pitying or unduly sentimental.

I may be wrong but the more pronounced emphasis on mysticism (“By which I mean only mystical / and eccentric though with centrist leanings.”) which is in a similar vein to Sean Bonney’s line about hanging around with Trots. I also get the impression that he wants to tell us about the 17th century for itself but also as a way of telling us about God. Geoffrey Hill continues to do God and the workings of grace very well indeed and again there seems to be a less pointed attitude when God is being done.

All of which is saying that Hill might be mellowing and also taking a bit more pleasure in his poetry making, I just wish he’d edit himself a bit more.

One final thought- I seem to be reading more of the books that Hill reads, this is not intentional but should I be worried?