The Book of the Week: Geoffrey Hill: Collected Critical Writings

David-Antoine Williams on a poet's restless mind

March 20, 2008

This edition of Geoffrey Hill's critical writings reprints two prose collections already published in this country, The Lords of Limit (1984) and The Enemy's Country (1991), along with the collection published abroad as Style and Faith (2003), and two sets of lectures and essays grouped together in this volume as "Inventions of Value" and "Alienated Majesty".

The list of Hill's subjects is long and broad. He is most frequently, and perhaps most deeply, involved with the poets, philosophers and theologians of the English Reformation and Commonwealth, but there are also essays on 19th and 20th-century poets, philosophers with literary interests, and other kinds of writers in whom Hill finds a reflection of his main preoccupations: literature as a civic utterance, the problem of intrinsic value and the meaning of original sin.

Hill's criticism is unlike any other. Most of the better criticism by poets in recent times has tended towards one of two aims: to explicate the artistic merit of a poet, usually via exemplary works; or to argue for a particular critical method, discursively or implicitly by example.

To some extent, Hill's prose does both of these things, yet neither is his primary objective. He is interested in "words, contextures, and circumstances", as he explains in the note to The Enemy's Country. When he takes an author or poet for his subject, one quickly becomes convinced that he has read not only all of that writer's work in prose and verse, but all that the poet read, or in some cases should have read.

This depth and breadth of reading, which is never showy or incidental, allows Hill to assess not only artistic achievement but also the contribution of the author to an intellectual tradition. The upshot of most of Hill's criticism is nothing less than an appraisal of an author's significance to his age (seldom her age, as Hill writes little on female authors) and to ours. Taken as a whole, the critical works make up a rich and rigorous philosophy of literature, supremely well nourished by a vast range of poetic, political, metaphysical and theological writings of the past 500 years. This is why Hill may have written the most important collection of poet's prose to appear in his lifetime. Anyone who cares about literature will want to understand his reasons for caring about it.

There is more Geoffrey Hill than Kenneth Haynes in this curious editorial note: "While inclusion of an essay or lecture ... even in revised form, does not necessarily indicate that Hill wholly approves of it, nor exclusion that he wholly disapproves of it, that is nonetheless the general tendency." It is a strange sort of disclaimer, one that must have the early essay "Poetry as 'Menace' and 'Atonement'" (1977) foremost in mind. Hill may have been stung by a few disapproving responses to that piece; he is known to dislike it now. It is among the most heavily edited essays here. One might wish that Hill had adopted the detachment that T. S. Eliot professed towards his prose and left it alone, but if some redaction and one assertive but noncommittal disclaimer is the price of its inclusion here, it is well worth paying, because for all its faults, "Poetry as 'Menace' and 'Atonement'" is indispensable. The reflection begun there not only becomes a major thematic preoccupation of Hill's poetry; it also abides restlessly at the centre of his criticism.

This is because, for Hill, the etymological reverberation of "atonement" (from "at-one-ment") captures the central problem of imaginative writing, which is the inveterate inadequacy of language to its subject. The rift between the word and the world is one for which the writer is continuously failing to atone, even as he labours to make his art at one with its subject. In Hill's later prose this problem is developed in different directions and with different vocabulary: "at-one-ment" gives over to "equation", "reconciliation", "accord", "justice", "uniting". In "Alienated Majesty", the breach these terms seek to repair is reinterpreted as a field of unconsummated potential created by a word or unfinished phrase. If this "unbounded yearning" is essentially generative, it also comes up hard against its limits. In an important essay on "Language, Suffering, and Silence" (1999), Hill thinks deeply about the capacity of literature to respond adequately to facts of human misery. It is characteristic of Hill's integrity that, while not refusing the possibility of just witness, he remains sincerely, if disconsolately, sceptical.

Haynes has done substantial and creditable work in assembling this edition. He has had to be both bold and attentive. Among other sharp spots, he corrects an error that survived both the Andre Deutsch (London) and Oxford University Press (New York) editions of The Lords of Limit (there, on page 10, "affect" was subbed for "effect", a "howler" in an essay anxious about the difficulty of atoning for such slips).

However, it is a pity that Haynes preserves the idiosyncratic citation style used by Hill in previous collections. This was hard enough to manage in those slenderer tomes; the new book, with its 169 pages of endnotes, is just too massive to be flipping around in. Conforming to a conventional footnote style would have been a welcome modernisation. The index is an uncommonly sensitive and nuanced thing (it includes "howlers"). It will be an invaluable guide through this imposing, rewarding book.

THE AUTHOR

Widely considered one of the most important poets of his generation, Geoffrey Hill has had a literary career spanning six decades.

He came to prominence while studying at Keble College, Oxford, after the American poet Donald Hall invited him to submit his poetry to the Fantasy Poets series. He graduated with a first and went into academia when a family tradition of joining the police force was closed to him because of deafness in one ear, the result of a childhood illness.

Hill taught at the University of Leeds for more than 20 years, before being appointed lecturer in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

It was there that his mental health problems became public, with a peer noting that he was "walking round Cambridge as if he'd been raped by God". It was not until he moved to Boston University that he was able finally to seek treatment for his debilitating depression.

Hill's aesthetic has proved to be controversial owing to the use of violent language, but he maintains that the controversy he creates is unintentional: "I don't ... write poems to be polemical; I write to create a being of beautiful energy."

Geoffrey Hill: Collected Critical Writings

Edited by Kenneth Haynes
Oxford University Press
816pp
£25.00
ISBN 9780199208470
Published 13 March 2008

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