Thursday, July 2, 2020

Strangeness and Power: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill

Strangeness and Power: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill
Edited by Andrew Michael Roberts. 

The common response to the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, acknowledged by the contributors and editor of this volume, is that Hill’s poetry is ‘Difficult’. Most readers, encountering his poems for the first time, would admit to their ‘strangeness’, though many might question their ‘power’. 

The blurb  claims that Hill was ‘by common consent one of the finest poets in the English language in the second half of the twentieth century and early years of the 21st’. ‘Common Consent’ erases his many critics and detractors but flags the writers’ assumption in this volume that whatever they write that might suggest the opposite, Hill was a great and important poet.  

What characterizes this volume of essays is this odd paradox: the authors acknowledge the problems readers face. Several of them lay out a detailed explanation of why readers might not be impressed or convinced by aspects of the poetry. At the same time, this does nothing to shake their faith that he was a great or an important poet. In presenting the ‘case against’, they do such a good job that the assumption of his greatness seems ever more fragile.   

In any general collection of essays on a single author there should be a core of essays of interest to any reader of Hill’s poetry, and then a few for those with more specialised interests. This book meets that criteria successfully.

In the first Category,  Martin Dodsworth takes on Hill’s difficulty; Alex Pestell discusses Hill’s  engagement with Philosophy; Mathew Sperling chronicles Hill’s relationship with his publisher and Stephen James writes on Hill’s later poetry.

Of the more specialised studies, the aptly named Tom Jones takes on Hill and the eighteenth century  while Steven Mathews explores the relationship to Eliot and Jones.  

There are other ‘specialised essays’ on Hill’s relationship to Denise Riiey and J.H. Prynne, his affinities with ‘Radical landscape Poetry’ and studies by Natalie Pollard and Samira Nadkarni of ‘Materiality and design’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ respectively.   

It’s a fine spread of essays.

Before I read this collection, I would have counted myself amongst the admirers of Hill’s work. That admiration is qualified by my inability to see the value of the Day Books, but up to the publication of Clavics, he was the only living poet whose publications I bought as they appeared. The essays I read left me far less certain about Hill’s achievement.  

For example, Martin Dodsworth tackles the problem of Hill’s difficulty. This is an honest attempt to confront the problem most readers face. With the (probably unknown) ghost of C. S. Lewis looking over his shoulder[1]  he identifies three aspects of Hill’s difficulty for the reader: allusiveness, indefiniteness of relation, and ambiguity, pointing out there are others. 
Choosing a poem to anchor his discussion of allusion he does a masterly unravelling of allusion, but demonstrates convincingly that even when the allusions are explored and explained, the poem doesn’t become any more clear than it was two pages earlier when it was quoted. 

As Dodsworth’s essay unfolds, his scholarly explanations seem increasingly at odds with a different response. Compare the first two sentences of this summing up of the first part of the essay with the third sentence. The first two sound like a Professor performing a poetry reading. 
‘The reader follows the poet in searching for meaning within the language of the poem and within the world to which language is a mode of access. In this search, bafflement signifies failure, but also a kind of success, that of a sustained attempt at truthful utterance. Some readers however, may with reason, find this success difficult to accept.’ P185

The status of these unidentified readers, and their justifiable reluctance to accept the value of the poems, is acknowledged but brushed aside.

What is perhaps disturbing about this essay, which runs from p174-202,  is that having presented such a convincing ‘case against’ the value of the ‘difficulty’ he discusses,   Dodsworth does not balance the argument. Instead he writes:

At one or two points, this essay had suggested a resistant response to one aspect or another or the poems, and sometimes to a poet whose sense of the poetic invitation is often absent and (implicitly) to a nascent expository tradition that has too much of the inert about it. But it would be wrong to conclude without acknowledging that Geoffrey Hill has a place amongst the greatest of our poets……I should like to conclude with a list of some of the poems and volumes for which I am most grateful…….These are justification for Hill’s difficulties.[2]

If ‘At one or two points’ is understatement, then in terms of an essay collapsing into itself, this ending is a positively stellar implosion. After all the careful exposition, the justification of the difficulty, promised at the end of the first paragraph of the essay, is a list of the writer’s favourite poems.  

The best essay in some ways is Mathew Sperling’s short discussion of Hill’s relationships with his publisher. It doesn’t do him any favours either, he obviously had a very high opinion of himself from the start, but it does open an interesting window on Hill’s attitudes to his own work and reputation.

I bought this book specifically for Steven Mathew’s Essay ‘Felt Unities’, on Hill Eliot and Jones.  Jones has 1 entry in the index to Hill’s collected critical writings, in which Hills lists Rosenberg, Gurney and Jones as ‘three of the finest poets of that war’. While Rosenberg and Gurney get a full essay each in the CCWs, there is nothing else about Jones.  I was intrigued by this. 

I’m not in any position to critique Professor Mathew’s argument, and I’m sure I’ll be reading this essay for some time, but it did send me back to reread Mercian Hymns. Having recently been stuck in quarantine rereading ‘The Anathemata’, the result of rereading Mercian Hymns was surprisingly unpleasant. Beside Jones, Hill suddenly seemed lightweight and self-regarding.

I was startled the first time I wrote those last two sentences because they were so unexpected. 

For all the ponderous seriousness of Mercian Hymns: ‘Then is now’, but so what? Against Jones’ intent, scope, and subtlety, reading Hill’s work is increasingly an exercise in over hearing someone talking to himself, and my presence as reader becomes increasingly redundant, except to applaud another performance.

This was not what I had expected.

It made me think of several of his critical essays, where I have the feeling that G. Hill is wrestling with the problems of communication while working out his thoughts on the topic. Which is what a first draft can often be. I wish, perhaps naively,  that he’d finished the wrestling match and discovered what he’d been trying to say in the draft, and then written a final copy which was as close to what he wanted to say as he could get. Too often it’s like listening to a medieval historian writing about the difficulty of accessing a manuscript and the difficulty of reading it, without ever getting to the point of saying what she learnt from the manuscript she had been struggling to find.

What also hangs over this collection is the vexed problem of the Author Function. Would these critics give so much time to an anonymous poet if he or she produced poems which can be so easily and thoroughly criticised on so many counts? The answer is obviously no. The evidence goes one way, but the conclusion, which was also the starting point, remains unaltered: Hill is a great/important/ fine poet. But no one takes on the task of explaining what was so great/important/fine about his work.

If a good book of critical essays should send you back to the subject of the collection and see him or her or it in a new light, this one is highly successful. 

It also raises some fascinating general issues, not least the whole problem of obscurity, intentional or otherwise.  Which would lead back to C. S. Lewis. 

[1] In his Conclusions (chapter vi) to ‘Williams and the Arthuriad’ in ‘Arthurian Torso’ (1948), a piece known to David Jones. Lewis’s ‘Conclusions’ is fine example of a critic trying to explain why he thinks a poet is good while mapping out different types of ‘obscurity in modern poetry’.    
[2] The body of the essay is followed by two dated post scripts, postscript 2017 and post postscript 2019 respectively. One wonders what professor Dodsworth would think of a student who treated essay writing as live performance and didn’t simply rewrite the first draft to bring it in to balance and focus. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

An Introduction to David Jones.

A Dominican talks about his interest in David Jones. It's a neat, short introduction which I think benefits from the Catholic perspective. And i finally know how to pronounce The Anathemata.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Art in a time of Disaster. David Jones and The Anathemata.

Hotel Quarantine in WA, followed by a week of being stranded there, was an unpleasant lesson in how helpless the individual really is when the men and women in suits are making up the rules and indifferent to the welfare of the individuals in their care.  

So confronted by the suits and their ability to enforce rules which aren't laws, what price poetry or any other art? Forget protest, the suits are deaf. Common sense and logic are invalids on life support, so your protest poem or song is a sparrow's fart in a thunder storm. 

I've been rereading David Jones, and his work offers one possible answer. In his excellent study, 'The Song of Deeds' (p.19) Neil Corcoran writes of Jones:

'The Anathemata' manifests a pessimism informed and transformed by a resilient refusal to capitulate.

But this resilient pessimism is the result of his sense that if man ‘at best can suffer the circumstances of his nativity and tradition’, he nevertheless ‘can, must and does’ make a song about it.

 It is this joy of making a song about it, a song of deeds, that most often restrains David Jones’ work from Elegy and lament. Such joy is not vague, ‘romantic’ subjectivism but a belief that the artist partakes through his ‘making’ in that gratuitous creation that sustains the world in being.  

or to put it another way, to make something beautiful in a time of breaking is a very human act of defiance. 

The key term is making. The 'Modernist' and 'Post-modernist' claim that since the world is broken, art should be too, might have seemed a natural response to some in the traumatic aftermath of the first world war. But the jellyfish school of poetry, that simply goes with the tide, pretending coherence is unavailable or undesirable, is as out of date as Pope's certainties and the inevitability of his ordered heroic couplets. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

An extra ordinary moment in Lawman's Brut: Vortimer meets Saint Germanus

Vortimer is the eldest son of Vortigern. He has a very small part in the Legendary History. After Vortigern marries Rowena and begins to show favouritism to both Hengist’s people and his religion, the Britons rebel. They choose Vortimer as their leader. As is usual in the Brut no reason is given for the decision, and no evidence is provided prior to the election of his character or actions.  However, he immediately demonstrates his abilities by defeating Hengist. He offers a bounty of twelve silver shillings per Saxon head. When Hengist has been driven out after four battles, and Vortigern has fled, Vortimer asks for help from Rome to re-establish the church. This is the context of St Germanus’ visit. 

When the saint arrives Vortimer makes a speech to greet him. The speech is not in Wace. He begins by introducing himself. In the standard way of the Brut this means naming his father, which gives him the opportunity to twice say Vortigern has been led astray by the German woman. Vortimer then boasts of his victories over Hengist. And there’s not much that’s startling about anything in this until the speech suddenly shifts gears and becomes extra-ordinary. It’s one of the minor eruptions in the Brut  which are easy to miss.

& we scullen an londe; luuiæn ure Drihten.      
Godes folc ur((o))frien; & freond-liche hit halden.      
wurðen mils liðe; wið þa lond-tilien.  
churichen we scullen hæhȝen; & hæðene-scipe hatien. 
Habbe alc god mon; his rihte ȝif Godd hit an.    
& ælc þrel & ælc wælh; wurðe iuroeid.    
& here ich bi-teche eou an hond; al freo ælc chiric-lond. 
& ich for-ȝiue ælchere widewe; hire lauerdes quide.  
& þus we scullen an ure daȝen; aniðeri Hengestes laȝen.    
& hine & his hæðene-scipe; þæ he hider brohte.      7408-7417

(source is the superb ‘Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse”;view=fulltext)

‘& ælc þrel & ælc wælh; wurðe iuroeid.’  And free every slave and thrall? The promise to free people is absent from Cotton Otho. I’d like to consult the various translations to see what has been made of these lines, but that will have to wait.  

Slavery was an integral part of both Classical and Old English society. It came to an end in England with the Norman conquest and the development of new ways of tying people to the land. Here is a fictional king with a dream of freedom, who cares for all of his people. And is willing to enter into some sort of contractual arrangement with the Church as institution. 

The Brut rarely admits the non-heroic poor. Kings and their retinues are the focus of the story. But not only are the non-Heroic being admitted, they are being promised freedom and the implication is that this is the Christian thing to do. Widows too are being forgiven their husband’s debts. Laȝamon's ideal kings are ruthless war lords, and Vortimer is no exception. But here is something that looks like an attempt to imagine a Christian society. 

Nothing comes of this because Vortimer is about to die, a victim of English Literature’s first wicked step mother. Here in Quarantine, a long way from my books, I can’t check this, but I wonder how many of Laȝamon's King’s share such an ideal? I’m reasonably sure that the answer to that is very few or none. I don’t remember anything similar in Arthur’s reign.

In the Prologue to the Brut, Laȝamon is identified as a priest. This explicit identification has exercised its own gravitational pull on scholars, sometimes in a detrimental way. But whatever you know about ‘Author Functions’ and the danger of succumbing to them, it’s so very tempting to see this insertion as our Priest’s attempt to imagine what an ideal Christian King would do: Not only would he trash his enemies; he would establish a contractual relationship with the Church; he would look after widows; he would care for the poorest and least powerful of his people. 

It would also be tempting to then go one step further and read this as the author’s reaction to the church’s ongoing problems with the Angevins…particularly with Henry II and John, with some of the clauses of Magna Carta echoing around to confuse things.

Did the garbled story of the historical Germanus, which I’ve been tracking here, give him an opportunity to suggest what a genuinely, radical Christian King might do? Did he put his own ideals into Vortimer’s mouth? 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Legendary History of Britain: St Germanus of Auxerre and how the process worked

If we think of medieval writers as first and foremost, writers, facing writing problems, and dealing with their problems within the framework of their understanding of narrative, the results can be illuminating. Rather than looking at theories of practice, one can observe practice at work. 

From Gildas to Bede to Nennius, from Nennius to Geoffrey to Wace, from Wace to Laȝamon, the Legendary History can be imagined as a Work in Development, with successive writers shaping the material. It’s not the same as successive versions of history, with each one getting closer to ‘the truth’. It’s a developing narrative where what controls the development is how the writers understood the art of storytelling. 

While Saint Germanus of Auxerre plays a very brief role in Vortigern’s story, the incident illustrates how The Legendary History worked as a process. It also suggests something positive about Laȝamon as story teller.

First the history, the problem and the process, then the result, because one of the more startling moments in Vortigern’s story, or in the whole of Laȝamon's Brut,  occurs when Vortigern’s son, Vortimer, meets with the Saint and delivers a speech that is probably Lawman’s invention. 

Who was Saint Germanus of Auxerre?

St Gemanus of Auxerre is an historical character. He’s as real as anyone can be in the fifth century. There’s more evidence for his existence than there is for Vortigern, Hengist or Arthur (which isn’t saying much). One commentator even extends that list to include Saint Patrick#. 

He visited Britain, from Gaul, in the early fifth century to combat the Pelagian heresy, possibly twice, at the request of the British church. While there he did not meet anyone called Vortigern, but he did lead a British force to victory over a mixed army of Picts and Saxons. Modern historians debate the reality of a second visit, and contest the plausibility of the ‘Alleluia Victory’, but the majority accept the historical reality of the Saint. His life was written in the late fifth century, and there are independent chronicle references to his visit, placing the first one in or around 429. He died on the continent before 450.

A writing problem.

Imagine you’re writing The Legendary History. Germanus presents you with three problems.  
1)    The purpose of the visits 
2)    The timing of the visits
3)    The visits are too well known to ignore.

1)    The purpose of the visit was simple: to combat the Pelagian heresy. There is no suggestion that the visitors were also asked to combat Paganism, or back sliding Christians. And there is no mention of any King. 
2)    The problem of timing is equally simple. Germanus visited in 429. According to Bede’s calculations, the Saxons (Hengist and Horsa) don’t arrive until 449/450.  
3)    In his note on this incident in Laȝamon, Madden pointed out that Geoffrey of Monmouth simply couldn’t leave such a famous figure out of the narrative. Bede tells the story of the visit at length, in his History of the English Church and People. It takes him five chapters (17-21) in book one.  Vortigern is nothing more than a name, Arthur isn't even that. 

Germanus later appeared in Nennius (though ‘Nennius’ may have got his saints confused). He tries to convert and redeem an incestuous Vortigern and failing, prays him to death. 
By this point Germanus’s story had already slid into the world of folk tales. His miracles have become less Bede’s muted proof of the saint’s holiness and more the extravagant actions of a powerful magician. 

Germanus, therefore is a fine example of what happens when you try to reconcile the legendary history with Bede, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle let alone with ‘history as we define it. Quite often, you can’t.

But if you take up the challenge to incorporate this incident into the narrative, then you have to try to make it meaningful within the narrative.

The process.

Madden may have been right, and Geoffrey may have felt that Germanus had to be in the story. But Geoffrey’s treatment is almost dismissive. And his placing of the incident doesn’t make a lot of sense.

He knew why Germanus had come to the country. ‘It was in this time [Vortigern has just married Rowena] that St Germanus, the Bishop of of Auxerre came, and Lupus Bishop of Troyes, with him, to preach the world of God to the Britons; for their Christian faith had been corrupted not only by the pagans but also by the Pelagian heresy, the poison of which had affected them for many a long day. However, the religion of the true faith was restored to them by the preaching of these saintly men. This they made clear almost daily by frequent miracles, for through their agency God performed many wonders which Gildas has described with great literary skill in his treatise.’ P160 

The throw away reference to ‘Gildas’ (he means the text we ascribe to Nennius) might be sarcastic as the miracles in the Historia Brutonum are exaggerated. But Just as Geoffrey has removed the incest motif in Vortigern’s story, he has left out the Saint’s dramatic role in Vortigern’s end. If Geoffrey knew the Britons had asked for help he doesn’t mention it. The incident is pointless in this version. It’s wedged between the wedding of Vortigern to Rowenna and evidence of Hengist’s growing influence over Vortigern.  It could be cut out and the story would not be affected.

But the narrative is already exerting its pull. There’s nothing in Bede, or the life of Saint Germanus, about combating paganism. The theological enemy is heresy. But If St Germanus arrived after Hengist, and if Hengist was corrupting the Britons, then it’s logical that the saint would need to do something about that. It’s also logical, in narrative terms to get rid of the saint as the divine killer of Vortigern. For Geoffrey’s narrative, it’s necessary for Aurelieus to kill Vortigern. And the incest motif can be dropped as well. 

The Variant version of the Historia, which is probably Wace’s source, moves the story to later in the narrative, after Vortimer has defeated Hengist and become King. And this might suggest the Variant is later than the Vulgate rather than earlier. If Geoffrey, for all his narrative sense, moved the incident earlier he was having a bad day.

Perhaps the Vulgate’s writer could not understand why Geoffrey had a holy man sorting out the church under such an unholy King.  But the move makes narrative sense. Having got rid of Hengist, his legacy has to be erased. 

The Variant is just as confused as to what the Saint was doing. In this version, the saints (plural) have come to stamp out ‘the Arian or Pelagian heresy’ as well as the impact of Hengist.    

Either Wace doesn’t understand Geoffrey’s reference to Pelagius, or the Variant’s ‘Arianism and Pelagianism’; he thought it uninteresting, or it just seemed out of place. Germanus is sent by ‘Saint Romain ‘ (Sainz Romainz) which looks like a dramatic misreading of ‘the roman pope’. Religion is restored and the people returned to the faith. However, even though the faith is restored, ‘Hear what devilry was perpetuated’.

Lawman must have picked up on the potential significance of the episode for his portrayal of Vortimer. He will expand it in a surprising way (see next post) giving the episode a significance it does not have in his sources. 

The initial narrative problem is one of chronology and it is simply ignored. It is impossible to   reconcile Bede and Geoffrey, and since Wace is committed to following Geoffrey, or the Variant, or both, he didn’t need to waste time in the attempt. 

It’s easy to forget a medieval author had very limited access to information. It wasn’t possible to ‘evaluate the sources’ as a modern student learns to do. Once the incident becomes embedded in the story, the process begins which sees the incident changing as the writers make it fit into the narrative and answer the question:  Why are you telling us this?  

For Laȝamon's answer, see next post. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Review of A Presentment of Englishry in 'The Long Poem Magazine

A review of A Presentment of Englishry in The Long Poem Magazine! And a postive and complimentary one as well. Brintonntment-of-englishry/

My thanks to Linda Black the editor and Ian Brinton the reviewer for giving it time and space.
A Presentment of Englishry can be bought from online book sellers. More details and samples at