The Magazine

'Truth and Metre'

A poet in touch with his critical faculties.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Collected Critical Writings

by Geoffrey Hill

edited by Kenneth Haynes

Oxford, 832 pp., $49.95

In 1891, Henry James reaffirmed his respect for criticism by stressing what he might have called its exiguity:

The critical sense is so far from frequent that it is absolutely rare, and the possession of the cluster of qualities that minister to it is one of the highest distinctions. It is a gift inestimably precious and beautiful; therefore, so far from thinking that it passes overmuch from hand to hand, one knows that one has only to stand by the counter an hour to see that business is done with baser coin. We have too many schoolmasters; yet not only do I not question in literature the high utility of criticism, but I should be tempted to say that the part it plays may be the supremely beneficent one when it proceeds from deep sources, from the efficient combination of experience and perception. In this light one sees the critic as the real helper of the artist, a torch-bearing outrider, the interpreter, the brother.

Into this exclusive club James would certainly have admitted the French critics who influenced him--Sainte-Beuve, Taine, Gautier, Daudet--but I suspect that he had English and American critics in mind when he spoke of his age having "too many schoolmasters." We are plagued with the same surplus, though our schoolmasters are infinitely duller. Nevertheless, we do have some proper critics still working: Ian Ker has written brilliantly about the writers of the Catholic Revival, and Michael Alexander recently wrote an excellent book on medievalism and the history of modern England. Another good critic who has been at work for over a quarter-century is the British poet Geoffrey Hill, whose learned criticism, like his poetry, revives something of the high seriousness of Modernism.

In this splendid collection of his critical writings, which brings together three previous books--The Lords of Limit (1984), The Enemy's Country (1991), and Style and Faith (2003)--as well as 13 uncollected pieces, Hill illustrates what James had in mind when he said that the good critic is "the helper of the artist." There are essays here on an extraordinary range of poets--from Shakespeare, Robert Southwell, Henry Vaughan, John Dryden, and Jonathan Swift to Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A.E. Housman, John Crowe Ransom, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Ivor Gurney, and Isaac Rosenberg. And each essay, in its way, examines what Hill refers to (in one of his recent poems) as "the pitiless wrench between truth and metre."

The help Hill supplies is a constant summons to intelligence, which echoes James's advice to the young woman who asked him what she needed to do to become a proper novelist: "Be someone on whom nothing is lost." Very little is lost on Hill. In his introduction to The Enemy's Country, he declares: "I follow MacDiarmid in desiring 'A learned poetry wholly free / From the brutal love of ignorance' and hold with John Berryman, that 'all artists who have ever survived were intellectuals--sometimes intellectuals also, but intellectuals.'" Whenever Hill is critical of a poet, it is because he somehow fails his intelligence test, though on the whole he is a generous grader.

The poet with whose later work Hill takes barbed exception is Eliot. After citing "the routine demands made, between 1940 and 1945, upon an author of Eliot's high reputation, for work of an appropriate public significance," he delivers the coup de grâce:

In the "Music of Poetry," though he says that the poet must, like the sculptor, be faithful to the material in which he works, Eliot's material is no longer primarily language but Christian Thought; or the People as he understands them. And how he understands people is still very much how he understood them in the pub scene of The Waste Land, only now, instead of saying, "Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said," they say, "that is how I should talk if I could talk poetry." This is not enhancement but impoverishment, and the language of Four Quartets also is language that has suffered impoverishment. Making it part of the Anglican Lectionary is not going to amend that radical absence.