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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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: