The Magazine

'Truth and Metre'

A poet in touch with his critical faculties.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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.

Some readers might balk at this: surely a case can be made for Four Quartets, Eliot's long goodbye not only to his varied influences but to art itself. His revels had ended, and if the language in which he announced his farewell was tired, it was understandably so. Still, whatever claims can be made for the later poetry, it is difficult to deny that a good deal of Eliot's later criticism was marred by orotund superficiality, by what Hill calls "the ruminative, well-modulated voice of a man of letters." What gave Eliot's earlier criticism its zest was the satisfaction it drew from besieging the Georgian citadel. Once he became a citadel in his own right, he could only turn his guns on himself, which, in a late essay, he did to devastating effect:

Most men either cling to the experience of youth, so that their writing becomes an insincere mimicry of their earlier work, or they leave their passion behind, and write only from the head, with a hollow and wasted virtuosity. There is another and even worse temptation: that of becoming dignified, of becoming public figures with only a public existence--coat-racks hung with decorations and distinctions, doing, saying, and even thinking and feeling only what they believe the public expects of them.

Here, it might be said, Eliot was better at bashing Eliot than any of his critics.

Besides slack thinking, Hill castigates uncharitable feeling. Citing a passage from "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" by Matthew Arnold, he makes a point for which anyone saddled with an unfortunate surname will be grateful. Arnold had quoted a newspaper report in which a workhouse child named Wragg had been found murdered, which ended, "Wragg is in custody." The phrase offended Arnold "and rightly," says Hill, "because it speaks with the voice of the beadle, the complacent harshness of the

penal code lopping off "the superfluous Christian name," a process endorsed by the jubilant tribunes of the vox populi. However, the name Wragg itself strikes Arnold's sensitive ear as horribly vulgar; the critic who has warned against catch-words is caught by a word and, in an unguarded moment, righteous anger and unrighteous taste become compounded. The indignation of a just and compassionate man is degraded into a whinny of petty revulsion.

Hill is particularly good on Swift: "It is not altogether astonishing to find in Swift's poetic satire," he writes, "a certain amount of irritation at the spurious proscriptions of false delicacy. .  .  . [Yet] with many aspects of the consensus of taste Swift was undoubtedly able to agree, and it would be patronizing to suppose that he necessarily regarded himself as sacrificing original liberty on the altar of caste. .  .  . Swift's poetry gained more than it lost by his overall adherence to the major canons of his class."

This dispels the still-common view of Swift as a misanthropic exile repulsed by Yahoos. Elsewhere in the same superb essay, Hill remarks of the satirical Dean's raillery, which was not universally appreciated, especially by those who bore its brunt:

The casualty rate could, admittedly, have been higher; but the point would seem to be that, notwithstanding the precise distinction between fine raillery and coarse insult, mistakes were frequently made, even by .  .  . skilled practitioners. It may seem that infringements occurred through the necessity to turn in small tight circles of mutual exacerbation.

For so dazzlingly allusive a writer as Hill, it was perhaps inevitable that he should write about the most allusive of all writers, Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was the only book to get Samuel Johnson out of bed before noon. As in his essay on the poet Henry Vaughan, whom he commends for what he calls his "serene celebrations of indwelling .  .  . something within and withdrawn when all has been quantified and qualified," Hill finds much in Burton that sheds light on his own poetry, remarking in one passage how Burton "understands that sphere of action, which the Gospels and Epistles call 'this world,' to be 'Mundus foriosus,' the domain of stupefying monotony and purposeless energy."

This is similar to much in Hill country--for example, this from The Triumph of Love (1998), his long jeremiad against history and its fallen architects:

Admittedly at times this moral landscape

to my exasperated ear emit
s
archaic burrings like a small, high-fenced

electricity sub-station of uncertain age

in a field corner where the flies

gather and old horses shake their sides.

Hill also reveals something of his own poetic modus operandi when he says, "With Burton .  .  . the active declares itself in plain, even severe statements of faith .  .  . that stand out from the tragic-comic welter like inspirations of 'God's grammar.'" He quotes this from Burton: "We must live by faith not by feeling, 'tis the beginning of grace to wish for grace: we must expect and tarry."

Even when writing about other artists, Hill most illuminates the artist in himself. Perhaps one of the reasons why he has always cultivated a certain reticence in his poetry is that he is chary of the "plain, even severe statements of faith" to which he is otherwise drawn. As he says in one of his poems, "Things unspoken as spoken give us away."

The tidy will find Hill wayward: Tangents and divagations pull him hither and yon, especially in a wonderful piece on rhythm entitled "Redeeming the Time." He can never resist bypaths that promise sidelights on his subjects, and in this he resembles the greatest of all digressers, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who once remarked, "Of Parentheses I may be too fond--and will be on my guard in this respect--But I am certain that no work of empassioned and eloquent reasoning ever did or could subsist without them--They are the drama of Reason--& present the thought growing, instead of a mere Hortus siccus."

Hopkins is perhaps the most congenial of the poets Hill takes up, sharing as he does his fascination with rhythm, his close attention to words, and his impatience with the presumed lazy-mindedness of the common reader. In "A Postscript on Modernist Poetics," Hill quotes approvingly Hopkins's contention that "Plainly if it is possible to express a subtle and recondite thought on a subtle and recondite subject in a subtle and recondite way with great felicity and perfection .  .  . something must be sacrificed .  .  . and this may be the being at once, nay perhaps even being without explanation at all, intelligible."

But is this persuasive? Shakespeare and Dante never had any difficulty treating the subtle and recondite intelligibly. Hopkins, conscious that he was vulnerable on this score, was trying to let himself off the hook. Hill can rehearse this feeble pleading to try to excuse his own impenetrability, but it won't wash. Hopkins and Hill are good poets despite their unintelligibility, not because of it. Nevertheless, when the demands they make on their readers pay off, the results can be exhilarating. Hill shows how Hopkins's stubborn eccentricity carries the day in "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire":

Suddenly there bursts in an uncouth anacoluthon: "Enough! The Resurrection!" It is a great moment, one of the greatest grammatical moments in nineteenth-century English poetry. It has been criticized for arbitrariness, but arbitrariness is the making of it. The Resurrection is a kind of eschatological anacoluthon; no amount of standard grammar can anticipate or regularize that moment.

This is the sort of close, useful criticism of which Henry James would have approved. A good deal of disreputable acclaim has been lavished on Hill--he is touted by the likes of Harold Bloom and A.N. Wilson--but readers should not be put off by his admirers. For all his obscurity, Hill is worth reading, and the brilliance of this collection demonstrates why.

Edward Short is the author of a forthcoming book on John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.