Cliché as ‘Responsible speech’: Geoffrey Hill

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    Geoffrey Hill, who died on 20th June 2016, was a great poet, a major poet. To celebrate him, we have pulled from our archive an essay published in The London Magazine in 1964 by Christopher Ricks. I believe, and so do many others, that Christopher Ricks is our greatest living critic (companion would be a better word) of poetry in English. He is also a scholar and an editor. Faber & Faber published his and Jim McCue’s edition of T.S.

    Eliot’s poems in 2015. Hill never quite caught on with the general reading public in the way of John Betjeman, say, or Philip Larkin or Ted Hughes. He never belonged to the ‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed’ school. Although, like Ricks, he spent many years in the United States (both were on the faculty of Boston University, after our essay was written), his poems are grounded and local. This remains the case even when he tackles a wider field than the matter of Britain, as in King Log (1968) or The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983). He writes about the ‘middle kingdom’ of Britain. Mercian Hymns (1971) is an indicative collection. Like a French winemaker, his terroir is physical, historical and spiritual. He is an exemplar of Eliot’s phrase ‘the present moment of the past’. We need this badly as so many current upheavals in the world have identifiable historical analogues. History as event and history as evolving concept form the radioactive core of Hill’s poetry. This is why, beside poems that deal with ‘what happens to me and what I feel about it’, Hill’s work can seem complex and knotty. But it is beautiful and sensuous as well. He is an unignorable writer. 

    When I sought Christopher Ricks’ permission to republish his essay, he told me that quite recently he found a copy of The London Magazine in a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the very issue in which Alan Ross first published the essay. A flyleaf signature revealed it once belonged to Geoffrey Hill.

    Grey Gowrie


    Of all our present poets, Geoffrey Hill is the one who most persistently tackles the problem of what to do about dead language, clichés, the phrases which have gone sour, flat, or heartless on us. Of course there are good poets like Philip Larkin whose approach and style make it appropriate for them to take no notice. And again there is Donald Davie who, after providing the best modern criticism on the subject of dead metaphors, has now come to believe that the worst enemy just now is not such deadness but frantic liveliness, verbal fidgets, a high-pitched buzz of interference. Yet all the same the restoration of clichés is by no means a form of antiquarianism. Conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence are features of the linguistic as well as the social scene. Words and idioms are created and worked to death with a ruthless speed that would have shocked a nineteenth-century poet – the process resembles one of those eerie films which speed up a flower’s life from budding to withering. And the attempt to get the New English Dictionary up to date now recalls the doomed bustle of Tristram Shandy, falling further and further behind with its schedule because living is a brisker process than writing. If Eric Partridge were now compiling his Dictionary of Clichés, the result would have been a far fatter book. All of which means that we ought to take particular notice of a poet like Mr Hill who persists in his renovations with intelligence and passion. (And who writes some excellent poems meanwhile.) Anyone who thinks that there is still plenty of unspoilt language around, huge virgin forests, will find morbid any such dread of the dustbowl. The land-rich English used to be able to to laugh at the Dutch: ‘They with mad labour fish’d the land to shore.’ Now that ours really is a tight little island, the Dutch seem sane.

    One says ‘renovations’, because the poems in Hill’s For the Unfallen and Preghiere are very different from those that simply incorporate clichés in order to be matey. Like everyone since Wordsworth, Hill agrees that it is necessary for poetry to be in a vital relation with the living speech of its own time. But he has argued, quite rightly, that this is not at all the same as believing that poetry need be chatty or full of gnarled rusticities.

    It seems to be a modern scholastic fallacy that ‘living speech’ can be heard only in the smoke-room or in bed; in fact the clichés and equivocations of propaganda or of ‘public relations’ are also part of the living speech of a society.

    But the distinguishing characteristic of Hill’s poetry is that it uses cliché for the tragic rather than comic purposes. This is not to deny his strong vein of sardonic humour, which he shares with the writers he most admires: Ben Jonson (‘profound parody’), Isaac Rosenberg (‘macabre comedy’), Allen Tate (‘dry pun’) and Robert Lowell (‘the lampoonist’s art’). In his best poems there is a largeness of ambition at one with an amplitude of phrasing (lines which it is a pleasure to mouth) – qualities which are rare these days. Yet the largeness is saved from mere dignity by rising above cliché; he achieves truthfulness by not eschewing cliché. What fascinates him is the appalling gulf between the way we usually mutter such-and-such a phrase and the way we might use it if the doors of perception were cleansed. Take the end of his fine poem, ‘The Guardians’, which tells how the old gather the bodies of the young (to me, the setting recalls the shore aftere a hideous sea-battle in Lucan’s Pharsalia):

    There are silences. These, too, they endure:
    Soft comings-on, soft after-shocks of calm.
    Quietly they wade the disturbed shore;
    Gather the dead as the first dead scrape home.

    ‘Scrape home’ is a triumph. It is unforcedly literal, ‘scrape’ showing the  dead body as like a keel that runs ashore, and ‘home’ being nothing but the truth. And in the gap between such a way of scraping home and our usual application (just winning, just safe, gulping with relief) – in that gap is the appalling heartbreak of the poem, the gap between what we expect of life and what we get. Pathos with dignity – there are not many poets now writing who can so command the combination.

    But it would be as well to quote from Hill’s essay on Ben Jonson to show that such effects are not accidental.

    In Marvell, as in Jonson, the perspective requires the utterance of deliberate cliché, but cliché rinsed and restored to function as responsible speech….Jonson’s language is frequently ‘literary’ in the best sense of the term. That is, its method requires that certain words and phrases, by constant repetition in popular literary modes, shall have been reduced to easy, unquestioned connotations. These connotations are then disturbingly scrutinized. Pope’s ‘Oblig’d by hunger and request of friends’ requires for its effect the common formula of gentlemanly apologia, on the part of coy amateurs bringing out verse. It is ‘hunger’ that blasts the cliché into a new perspective.

    And if anyone still doubted that Hill’s words were apt to his practice, it would be necessary only to quote the extraordinary (and fascinating) notes which he provided for the revised edition of Kenneth Allott’s Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse.

    ‘A new perspective’ – that is, something to break through our unseeing blandness. As with Lowell, the accusation of tastelessness is not thought to matter very much; it is not supporting that one of Hill’s recent poems, ‘the humanist’, suddenly erupts with ‘(Tasteless! Tasteless!)’. So often have we seen St Sebastian pierced with arrows, that we cannot but be glazed to it, see it through glass. But not here:

    Naked, as if for swimming, the martyr
    Catches his death in a little flutter
    Of plain arrows. A grotesque situation,
    But priceless, and harmless to the nation.

    ‘Catches his death’ is certainly shockingly tasteless in its evocation of the common cold, but who could deny that it is altogether accurate as a description of Sebastian’s way of death? And if it first of all tells the truth, what is the objection to its being shocking? Added to which, ‘catches’ certainly doesn’t sneer at the martyr, since it implies his decisiveness, his skill, and his power to will what God wills. The key-word is, of course, ‘grotesque’ – a range of conflicting emotions which is at work again on ‘a little flutter’. Once more this is both literally accurate and desolatingly inadequate in its reduction of martyrdom to a petty thrill. (The rhyme martyr/flutter flaps with grim limpness.) The climax of these contrarieties is ‘priceless’ – is there any other epithet which we apply quite casually both to an invaluable work of art and to a preposterously comic situation? The woundingly comic effect here is achieved by a method resembling that which Hill pinpointed in Rosenberg’s poetry, ‘the skillful juxtaposing of elevated and banal diction’. Except that Hill outdoes this in skill, since we are given not juxtaposition but interpenetration: ‘catches his death’, like ‘scrape home’, is both elevated and banal. Hence the remarkable economy of Hill at his best. The ironic mode, as Yvor Winters has ruthlessly shown, is often a very wasteful one, since it spends words on doing something and then more words on undoing it. The simultaneous duplicity (in the best sense) of Hill’s poems is a very different matter.

    What lifts such effects above mere cleverness – though they are splendidly clever – is not only Hill’s compassion and sense of grandeur. As always with a true poet, the linguistic concerns are a corollary of a way of looking at life. His praise of Jonson for a ‘virtuous self-mistrust’ has to be related to a persistent sense of the dangers lurking in ideals. He himself has offered the gloss on one of his phrases: ‘Our God scatters corruption’ = ‘Our God puts corruption to flight’ or ‘Our God disseminates corruption’.’ His relationship to Christianity, as to all traditional systems and beliefs, is profoundly ambiguous, but not evasively or slyly so: ‘I want the poem to have this dubious end; because I feel dubious; and the whole business is dubious.’ Undoubtedly such a habit of mind, or obsession, has – like all habits of mind – its inevitable limitations. There are many things in life that are not dubious, and Hill’s temperament and mind are not suited to dealing with them. But he is still left with a gigantic field, and his own poetry (in the words he used of Lowell) is ‘persistent in its manipulation of religious metaphor’. George Herbert’s The Sacrifice is the greatest poem ever written in the mode which Hill most favours, and it seems to me a real tribute to Hill that one can mention Herbert with qualifications but without absurdity. Or look here, upon this passage:

    Who hath not…
    …let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
    Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
    To see scull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole.

    And on this:

    Before the scouring fires of trial-day
    Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,
    Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea
    Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

    Yes, Keats does come off best – with deceptive mildness he manages to make ‘work through…’ perform the task for which Hill has to call up ‘budge through…’ (fine though that is). But it is certainly something for

    Hill to have written lines that do not just curl up and die when juxtaposed with Keats. Not but what James Dickey was pitching it a bit high when he said of Hill’s ‘Genesis’, ‘I can think of no better compliment to pay Hill than to say I was all but persuaded that, were God a very talented young poet, the six days of the Creation might very well have been as the poem says they were’.

    Sometimes Hill can find his doubts glinting in a single word, as in the opening of ‘In Piam Memoriam’:

    Created purely from glass the saint stands,
    Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
    Like a conjurer about to begin,
    A righteous man begging of righteous men.

    ‘Purely’: merely? with purity? The word refuses to plump. ‘Gifted’: talented? with a present? If his hands are empty, then such a saint is a bit of a disappointment; but then a conjurer is all the better for starting with frankly empty hands. What the context does is to give back to the ‘conjuror’ some of the dignity which he had in the old days when religion felt in no position to mock at magic – a conjurer used to be a man who could conjure up spirits. Dignity, but seen with a cold eye; the saint in the stained-glass window is a dubious figure (we are made aware of the doubt that lurks in ‘stained’). He is ‘a feature for our regard’: for our respect? or because he is nice to look at? The dubiety makes for a poem of great economy and tolerance. I would prefer Hill as a man to be in one (dismissive) mind about the saint, but undeniably on this poetic occasion two minds are better than one.

    In ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, Hill has even been able to write a poem which says what can be said for those Germans who remained silent. The remarkable thing is that at the same time it says what must be said against them.

    Too near the ancient troughs of blood
    Innocence is no earthly weapon.

    Eloquence is saved from becoming oratory because of the way in which that second line teeters on the edge of a collapse into self-pitying despair: ‘Innocence is no earthly use’. But the (unspoken) cliché does offer a faint hope that innocence may be a heavenly weapon, or of heavenly use. Yet if the innocence of a German would not protect him, how much more must this have been true of a Jew?

    I have learned one thing: not to look down
    Too much upon the damned.

    ‘Look down’, with the uncertainty of ‘despise’ or ‘see from Heaven’ – and with a further uncertainty unfolding: is the reference to the traditional pastime of contemplating the tortures of the damned? Or are we speaking of a prudence at suffering? That way madness, or hardheartedness, lies. It is striking enough that Hill is able to write poems which say so much; what is even more striking is that the best of them are uncramped and unclogged, characterised indeed by an imaginative spaciousness.

    It is of the nature of literary achievement that it can never get shot of a problem. And a talent as fiercely unaccommodating as Hill’s does often leave a reader limping. His recent work seems to me too obdurately to have abandoned fluency in its determination to contract, to load every rift. The point seems virtually conceded when so young a poet publishes ‘Two Fragmentary Variations’ (five lines each) or ‘The Assisi Fragments’. (Which is not to deny Hill’s manner – see the uncollected ‘Locust Songs’, Stand V:2). The intricacy of syntax, or bullying of it, is becoming an entanglement, and the poems, though they still have force, no longer have so much momentum. ‘Anguish bloated by the replete scream’. Replete, but bloated. And yet Lowell too is a poet who is always finding himself in an impasse, and then extraordinarily breaking free. Hill is a very harsh judge of his earlier work, but it would be a disaster if he were to underestimate the sheer loveliness – and fluency – of the end of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ (1958):

    Love goes, carrying compassion
    To the rawly-difficult;
    His countenance, his hands’ motion,
    Serene even to a fault.

    ‘Even to a fault’ here blossoms wonderfully; it admits our doubts about an ideal of self-sacrificial love, and yet at the same time it offers an unforgettable sense of what true forgiveness is, ‘serene even to a fault’. Whenever one feels any impatience with Hill’s obscurity, or his massive withholding of judgement, or his simultaneous double-judgements, it would be as well to remember that at the very least his poems are, in both sense, ‘serene even to a fault’.