Give Me the Key

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by Geoffrey Hill
Hardcover, $29.95
Enitharmon Press, 2011

Now in his 80th year, Geoffrey Hill has followed the Yeats template for the septuagenarian poet: though he could easily rest his reputation on his work of thirty or even fifty years ago, Hill not only refuses the security of safe eminence, he courts controversy almost as an end in itself. Hill is, by any standard, an anomaly. He is regularly described as the “most important” or “best” English-language poet writing today, yet he has not founded a school of poetry nor even had a discernible impact on his younger peers. At once arch-conservative and extravagantly experimental, he is both a donnish professor and an irascible and willful outsider. He lacks a consistent American publisher, but his Collected Critical Writings was published to much acclaim by Oxford University Press in 2008 and his Collected Poetry will appear from the same unassailably respectable academic press in 2013.

Clavics, Hill’s formidable new book, seems easy to dismiss for at least three reasons. First, his syntax does not so much unfold as infold, like a snail that grows out its shell while shrinking into it: “Lawes makes his way in grinding the textures / Of harmony; so I think, here’s a mind / Would have vexed yours / With late unharpied bounty wrought to find.” The “Lawes” Hill refers to here is William Lawes, a minor Royalist composer who died defending Charles I’s hold on the throne at the Siege of Chester in 1645. This leads us to the second apparent reason to reject Hill’s book: it is the ne plus ultra of ethical and cultural hyper-conservatism, barely venturing beyond its preoccupation with mid-seventeenth century politics and culture. “I am conspired, thinking best of our selves; / Chronic self-willing that with Furor feints; / Justice devolves; / Conjures disjunction into printers’ founts.” These lines refer to the revolutionary whirlwind that ultimately led to the beheading of Charles I — here regicide is a marker not just of total social collapse, but of the metaphysical disintegration of the Platonic Form of Justice. The black wells that ink those poisonous pamphlets that called for the head of Charles I are a kind of demonic inverse of the “water of life” and “burning fountain” that in Biblical, Neoplatonic, and hermetic literature are often figures for God’s creative and restorative activity. A final apparent reason not to read this book is Hill’s frequent, incorrigible, and awkward crankiness: “bid me strut myself off a cliff;” “meritocrats are crap meteorites;” “grand antidote no substitute for bling;” “rigour of stock conservation you dunce;” “check the electric circuits, you booby,” etcetera. Hill reminds himself to “plug in a dissonance to make them wince,” and in such off-key moments he reminds us of the drunk uncle we worry will glare at our dinner guests.

How seriously are we to take this cartoonish harrumphery? Can we safely equate this speaker with Hill himself? The regicidal lines quoted above give us a clue: the self that says “I am conspired” is already self-consciously a fictive creation. That fact is the main conspiracy, even as Hill appears hypersensitive to any hint of the moral-political conspiracy swirling around him. A rather different meaning of those lines surfaces, then, as we search for the agency responsible for “conspired,” “thinking,” “self-willing” and “conjures.” Likewise, if the poem’s “I” is a self-consciously constructed character, what is to be made of the “you” that is so often invoked? Perhaps we in the audience are meant to consider whether we might be “conspired” ourselves.

The cover photo for Hill’s Selected Poems (Yale, 2009) looks remarkably like William Blake’s death mask, and one rewarding way to read Clavics is in light of Blake’s “Prophetic” poems, in which all external, historical events are simultaneously the inner, spiritual experiences of a speaker who intuits and fears that he and the socio-historical world may only be thoughts within another “larger” consciousness named Albion. In the case of Clavics, the sometimes hysterical rhetoric of the speaker, which is often clumsy and off-putting, might be evidence of an embattled, “conspired” speaker, sputtering to assert himself as he searches for his author.

This suggests a kind of esotericism — a mystical quest for the author of the self — that is also hinted at by the title of Hill’s book. Rosicrucian and Kabbalistic books of the seventeenth century often refer to the “key” or “clavis.” Clavis, or The Key is the title of a short but influential book by the mystic Jacob Boehme, and near the beginning of Lumen de Lumine(1651) — as we shall see in a moment, an important reference point for Hill — the English Rosicrucian Thomas Vaughan (twin brother of the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan) says “this Discourse is my last, and the only Clavis of my First.” The first line of Clavics reads,“Bring torch for Cabbalah brand new treatise:” if clavics is, as Hill playfully suggests in his sham OED reference, “the science or alchemy of keys,” perhaps the book can be read as a meta-commentary on the esoteric search for the “key” to the self. As in Yeats’s A Vision, this clavis would be the key to history as well — if in Clavics history and psychology are presented as one, then the esoteric key to the former must also open the latter.

This context only raises the challenge of reading the verse itself. Hill’s book consists of thirty-two numbered sections, each taking up one page, and each divided into two “concrete” poems that resemble those of George Herbert’s “The Altar” and “Easter-Wings,” respectively. This visual allusion is misleading, however — Hill’s verse has none of Herbert’s simplicity, nor sweetness of tone, that the models do. Here is a typical selection, the first part of Section 10:

Intuitive mathematics’ reason —
_______Be so of that Grace and bleed into it:
_______This phosphor-fruit
_______Void of season
              Lumen de Lumine
_______I intuit
_______That you do not.
By this much I mean only mystical
And eccentric, though with centrist leanings.
_______Is in part truth
_______Where part is all-
_______Overing foil:
_____Registered azimuth
_______With trade shinings.
Would I were pardoned the effluent virus
Pardoned that sick program of pregnant odes.
_______Near admirers
Cope with our begging Nescafé and rides.

The passage begins by invoking the ideal, Platonic world of “intuitive mathematics,” the same world in which “Justice” and Lawes’s music participate. The narrator addresses it directly, pleading with it to share in “Grace,” though “bleed into it” also suggests a kind of martyrdom or sacrifice. In the next unit, from “This phosphor-fruit” through “That you do not,” the speaker urges himself to examine luminous fruit beyond cycles of growth and decay, as described in the Lumen de Lumine of Thomas Vaughan — an ironic reference, perhaps, as Vaughan’s book is largely about the generation and primary substance of the created world. The last phrase, “that you do not,” is ambiguous, either an accusing reference to the reader or the speaker chastising himself, or likely both. The speaker’s references to himself as mystical and eccentric but “with centrist leanings” rounds out the “intuitive mathematics” that begins the section, highlighting how unusual is the speaker’s search, centrifugal and centripetal at once (again recalling Yeats), for the heart of truth.

The second half of the section removes us from the ideal world of phosphor-fruits and Platonic figures. We are now in the world of sophistries that depart from immortal truths by being partly of that truth: where trigonometry is bowed to create shipping routes for “trade shinings.” The speaker is all too much a part of this “sick” world of spectral “Nescafé” stimulation. Even his poetry, in contrast to the seasonless phosphor-fruit, participates in a pervasive, perversely virus-ridden pregnancy, each poem ripe to send contagion into language. This double-focus — poetry captive to the very diseases it would heal, unable to find the pure “keys” of Lawes’s heavenly music — helps to explain why Hill’s syntax unfolds as it does. Its difficulty is a symptom, record, dramatic enactment, and homeopathic response to the illness it describes.

As Christopher Ricks has recently shown, Hill’s poetry owes a huge debt to the footnote-laden, sometimes strident poetics of Pound and Eliot. In my view, readers will likely find Hill closer to the combination of mythopoeic reach, haughty contrition, and fractured urgency in Pound’s Pisan Cantos than to Eliot’s cool embrace of the via negativa in Four Quartets. It is a testament to the achievement of Hill’s late poetry that it can bear such comparisons. Hill is hermetic in every sense of the word: those who appreciate his Manichean, prophetic aesthetic will find in Clavics much of value, and many hard locks to pick.

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About Jeffrey Hipolito

Jeffrey Hipolito lives and teaches in Seattle, Washington. He earned his PhD. from the University of Washington in 2001, and his work has been published in The Oxford Companion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Journal of the History of Ideas, and European Romantic Review.