Reading Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings feels a lot like what it might to step into a graduate seminar in 19th and 20th century poetry without having taken the prerequisite courses, or completed the required reading.
It will not be immediately understood by “a common well-educated, thoughtful man of ordinary talents;” or, for that matter, by anyone of extraordinary intelligence who hasn’t read with great care at least some of the works of, among others, T.H. Green, F.H. Bradley, Samuel Coleridge, William Wordsworth, W.B.Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and John Crowe Ransom.
The volume is filled with references and brief quotes which tee up the complex thoughts of renowned philosophers, literary scholars, and poet / critics, so that Hill can knock them around. And this he does wonderfully well in a collection of bracingly argumentative essays that scrap with almost everything and everyone they touch: T.S. Eliot is crass, alienated, and unfocused; John Crowe Ransom does not make points “at all well”; British poet Laurence Binyon’s “critical imagination is lacking.”
Hill tussles with, contradicts, and explores all species of idea: poetic versus real-world justice; complicity, revelation, and the poet’s involvement with language; creative response to “triumphs that trap, and defeats that liberate.” They’re typically opposed, worried, torn apart, and left, at the end of their chapters, to hang out on clever, often puzzling concluding lines. Consider these two pronouncements on Ransom and Pound:
[John] Ransom’s sorry wit can be distinctly inferior to his grasp of infelicity. He has been led, like Eliot, genuinely to mistake compromise for communication.
Integrity so circumscribed, [in Ezra Pound’s poem “Envoi (1919),”] relapses into the merely sincere; and beauty — against the grain of the argument — remains “a brief gasp between one cliché and another.”
There’s a jumpy, jazzy quality too to these essays. They remind me of Marshall McLuhan’s writing. McLuhan eschewed clear, linear prose for the “grotesque,” an approach that, in principal, expresses truths by throwing together collections of symbols, leaving it up to the “beholder” to make the connections; truths that would otherwise take much longer to express verbally; where the reader participates as co-author.
Difficult, sometimes incongruous, chords, hard to reach, concluding without fanfare on perplexing, edgy, sometimes irritating, often beautiful, notes: this is what characterizes Hill’s writing. He plucks, ties, unites and conjectures in ways that “embody the positive virtue of negative statements,” and serve as “a calculated trap for mediation.”
The works of those mentioned above are brought to bear on each other as complex philosophical positions to be questioned and explored. The results, taut with negative capability, are dazzling—blinding at times, captivating at others. For example, in his essays on modernist poetics, Eliot, and F.H. Bradley, Hill refers with some frequency to the latter’s idea of “judgment within the judgment.” Not once in fifty odd pages does he give us more than a sniff of what Bradley was on to. We must turn to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for some explanation:
Bradley thought all judgments to be defective in that representation can proceed only on the basis of separating in thought what is not separate in reality: when, for example, we say “These apples are hard and sour,” we not only implicitly abstract the apples from their container but detach the hardness and sourness from each other and abstract them from the apples themselves. A perfect truth, one completely faithful to reality, would thus have to be one which did not abstract from reality at all; and this means that it would have to be identical with the whole of reality and accordingly no longer even a judgment. The final truth about reality is, on Bradley’s view, quite literally and in principle inexpressible. Eventually, it is this mystical conclusion which explains his forceful rejection of Hegel’s panlogism; contrary to Hegel’s view in the Science of Logic, Reality is not a system of interrelated logical categories, but transcends thought altogether.
Reality itself admits of degrees, says Bradley, a phenomenon being the less real the more it is just a fragmentary aspect of the whole. Bradley, the encyclopedia tells us,
stands in Western philosophy as a permanent and unsettling challenge to the capacity of discursive thought to display the world without distortion; unsettling because it arises, not from the imposition of an external standard which could be rejected as arbitrary or inappropriate, but from the demand that our mechanisms of representation meet the standards they themselves implicitly set.
Contrast this with Hill’s analysis of Eliot:
“To get within the judgement the condition of the judgement” is, so far as I can be said to understand it, the basic essential of all true criticism. And not only criticism. Each true poem is required to bear within it the condition of the judgement that inspired it. Because I see Eliot as the crucial poet and critic of the last century, it is for me a major issue that he increasingly neglected the turn of Bradley’s conditional (“would involve”), substituting instead the simple “this” of feeling.
Hill follows this by explaining, “Eliot’s language itself is a congealed nebulosity;” I can’t think of a more apt description of his own. Bradley’s is just one of a river of complex thoughts that Hill treats, which buffet the reader, this reader at any rate, into a kind of perplexed exhilaration, a state I suspect Hill does wish upon his audience.
This is a difficult book; the breadth of reference, while impressive (175 of the 750 pages are comprised of notes), is at times overwhelming and confusing; always, however, Hill’s musings are thought provoking. The prose is rich and the ideas, though densely packed, are aerated with frequently impressive phrases. In describing Laura Riding and Robert Grave’s championing of John Crowe Ransom against the “demands and prejudices of the plain reader who does not want a critical attitude, but rather poetical feelings of simple pleasure or pain,” Hill gives us this felicitous take: “nothing has been said in the intervening years to make one wish these words unsaid.” Suggesting that the timbre of the terms “plain prose” and “plain saying,” are different, Hill starts off his investigations with: “If we stir the soil about the roots of either of these locutions we unearth 17th century shards.” In seeking the mot justeto describe how Ezra Pound was found to be “of unsound mind” by a Washington District Court sanity hearing jury, Hill tells us that the verdict was “poetic justice”, payback for Pound’s fancying that a poets’ “judicial sentences” are, in “mysterious actuality,” legislative or executive acts, when of course, in the real-world they are nothing of the sort.
Much like watching Shakespeare, it takes an act or two before the language no longer obstructs understanding, and the pleasure of engagement takes over. What William Pritchett once wrote of poet Robert Lowell, I think applies in part to Hill:
He liked… to produce “sloppier and more intuitive” criticism. This was his way of reminding us that he was first a poet, only secondly a critic.
Hill’s essays are less sloppy than contrived, written more for stimulation than for ready comprehension. Just as Coleridge directed his remarks at the learned class, the “clerisy,” in hopes they would become his fellow laborers, so Hill presents us with essays that require attention and considerable work. Less pedagogical than they are actively intellectual, these essays invite the engagement of those who are learned, but beg contextualization for those who are not. As such, the book on its own will stimulate the “clerisy;” only with a wise interlocutor however, will it benefit the heathens.
Nigel Beale is a freelance writer / broadcaster whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian Online, The Globe and Mail,and others. In his role as host of The Biblio File radio program, he has interviewed many of the world's most admired authors, plus publishers, booksellers, editors, book collectors, librarians, conservators, illustrators, and others connected with the book. He blogs on books at www.nigelbeale.com.