Over the Hill and into the Wood


Geoffrey Hill: A Treatise of Civil Power
[Clutag Press, 2005]
Hugh Wood: Scenes from Comus
[BMG, available]
Geoffrey Hill: Scenes from Comus
[Penguin, 2005]


I have more than a passing interest in the fact that Geoffrey Hill is largely disowned by the British avant-garde. I remember being asked by avant-garde chums throughout 1999 what books I was reading, and replying that the only one that was really blowing my socks off was Geoffrey Hill's The Triumph of Love. The subject was dropped, an eyebrow raised. When I lectured last year on translation in modern poetry, and included Hill in my considerations, the avant-gardists present talked about all my examples not from Hill, everyone else only the examples by Hill. One of these latter noted that these days Hill is taking the mainstream reader uncomfortably beyond the pale, where they feel they know the barely glimpsed avant-garde roam. He is not welcomed in so doing by either those allegedly there, nor those who might by him be taken there. He is suffering the same insults the avant-gardists get, yet getting none of their solidarity.

In reviewing a new anthology of British poetry with at least some avant-gardists in it, John Wilkinson (not having kept up, not citing any poems by Hill) rated J.H. Prynne far above Hill about two years later in the Cambridge Review
for, as I recall, Hill having too much to do with what he was implying was a wholesale undigested Christian mythos. I'm not sure that Wilkinson has taken into account an essay in Poets in Writing from the 1990s by Allen Fisher. There, Fisher spells out calmly but with a touch of you-do-the-maths how frequently Prynne and others Fisher mentions employ the words "blood" and "light" as a sort of reverential given. (Fisher deftly implies there is nothing wrong with reverence, just notes the fixity, not necessarily fixation). Denise Riley writes obliquely of, it seems, Prynne's "drifitng tones of anglo-catholic we" (and one notes how much "we" is the person of Prynne's early work).

Fisher here seems to have the cooler sociological (I actually think it is a cooler methodological) eye. And much more than Fisher, Prynne is targetting an audience reader to get muzzy, and fussy, about superficial Christianity. The smallest mention cues into a wholesale reaction, and I'm not sure Prynne's or, say James Joyce's voice is either refining or radical out of love. Its rhythm, its foot-tapping, is more like the knee-tapping of a doctor checking reflexes. Certainly, there is scholarship. Prynne's secondary and ecumenical imbuing with texts of both Protestant and Roman Catholic worship places him particuarly with Joyce. By comparison, Joyce is flippant with his secondary and ecumenical imbuance of the Book of Common Prayer and Protestant worship.

From one point of view, early Prynne is like early Joyce in its apparent angry, satiric directness imbued with moments of rapture for a pure holiness. What is the language for rapture, and what was it, and what can it be now considering what it was?This can even be (tenuously) seen to be taking up a portion of what was happening generation by generation with translating The
Bible into English, particularly the Psalms, as Donald Davie has written. Translation can always strive for simplicity through awkward (as in the awkward squad) English. Then in Prynne and (or because of emulating) Joyce a turn takes place. Finnegans Wake comes to my mind again and again reading Prynne, and this seems approved, validated, by the promotion in the early 1990s of Richard Makin, who was promoted among Prynneans doing Wake-ish prose poems overtly allied to language practices of second-hand Prynne-isms. The later work of both Prynne and Joyce hides under greater diffuseness moments only of greater brutality, and within and under greater irreverence, and so it seems to go in latterday Cambridge. At least with Joyce and Prynne, one feels drawn into the more intimate emotion, and gratitude for the early work - fascination with the author of it - but this can only be stretched so far. In the end, an apparent radicalness with the question of the holy texts in the contemporary vulgar, in the late work of both men, goes beyond my pale, as a way to essay greater blaspheming.

But putting aside questions of the stylistic pale and picking up the blasphemic pale, I also want to address a straightforward subject-matter question about Geoffrey Hill's work. All readers only interested in Hill may perhaps want to have foregone my previous paragraphs and try to start here. Hill raises in the preface to Style and Faith
the question of self-editing. How does one recognize sin in one's own expression, including and especially one's most pious self-expression? I want to ask, for many, what someone like Hill does, in prayer, with the will to mischief sabotaging what must be felt, and owned full-throated in the presence of God, in earnest. The will to mischief can only make it harder to speak in earnest, but I am interested in what is felt.

Hill may be modelling an unspoken tendency, an unspoken battle with parody, among the would-be pious. For them his work may be then a (colourful) sermon in which he admits to something uncomfortable, that strikes a chord, so that we marshal our forces the stronger against it. If one feels moved to find it so, this raises many questions of what he seems to be doing and what he is doing. What of this   is as conscious, as willed, as so much else in his work seems to be?

In each of Hill's most recent books, there has been a basic theme, sometimes two, ghosting the whole, one that works a little like technical jokes in very formal music, Bach spelling his own name with the notes B-A-C-H (H being in German one of the notes), or quietly referencing a phrase by playing it very slowly, or transposed or doubled, or played with the stave upside down. The triumph of The Triumph of Love
is that the theme is love. The weakness of the other books is the theme is a clue: like Joyce basing each chapter of Ulysses on an organ of the body.

It may be a touching clue, fear of the doctrine of Election and hope we are all saved, in Orchards of Syon
, for example. (The fear that some children may not be elect runs again and again through Hill's new work, but in a way that feels a little like a rebellious teenager feeling he is taking on doctrine brilliantly when he comes off to all and sundry as merely scoring points out of inadequacy). Themes of togetherness and homage to his wife in the Truimph of Love get countered in Hill's last two books with a rather bitter feeling of being on one's own: this masquerades as being about one man facing God one to one with no-one in the way, but it feels gone wrong, and not dealing with what it says it does.

In Scenes from Comus
, I think Hill is seeing an invite in Hugh Wood's setting of Comus to parody and travesty Milton, to wry it. He has a fascination and a horror with how far Wood goes. The piece, available on a CD with a useful booklet, is a duet for man and woman with orchestration, rather talked-up as a tone poem. Yet the natural phenomena, dances and weather in the woods, are not there until you read that they are supposed to be. What is there is a contest between some instruments echoing the man's singing, some the woman's. It is strong in its settings for Comus, for male voice, and, on the recording, rather hard to follow as poetry when the woman warbles loudly. This feels part of the piece, an allusion to the athletic warbler of opera, the muscle mary admired for the voice's physique whose words are hard to follow. Or an allusion to that view (which I try to not share with Pound, master sometimes of the cheap shot.)

It is an interesting take. Comus
has a couplet ending on "light fantastic round" which I have liked ever since I was a teenager. It culminates a passage of couplets, a crescendo in the romantic mode of one rhythmic theme rhyming over and over. Here it is pulled about like pizza dough, dexterously, looping wonderfully, but still not Comus. Yet Wood brings off a wonderful view into a cat's cradle of under-rhythms within (and despite) Milton's composing, Most amazing of all, one can hear in his work how Milton might have considered phrases extant. In other words, a good phrase can make a work. One fits other filler phrases around it - with the intention of their being filler, anyway. They come not to be filler out of art. Any musician knows this, and Wood makes the case for Milton knowing this - many poets don't.

One hears Milton trying out a phrase that, played in prose, or in a drama, or in blank verse, would require quite other phrases around it. One hears compromises, tense difficult sublimations, as the phrase in Wood's setting tries to gets its own head. This is marvellous, and one can see why Hill might have liked this work ever since it achieved debut fame in the late 60s at the Proms. The piece has weaknesses for me: it is for a concert world in which a Boulez never said "burn down the opera houses", rather than a post-Boulez world that might have been body-snatched, that still might suddenly remake itself phoenix-like as the music plays inside it.

Moreover, morally, there is a sort of anti-chastity lewdness about Wood's piece that drives his desire to find hidden rhythms in Milton. Like me, Hill wonders whether the sometimes capricious and headstrong Milton might have been hit on the head of the nail by this approach (indeed, Hill has suggested, rather dodgily, that one artist can redeem another through showing us the prism of their variations on another's theme; as if that was what Milton was doing with Virgil; it is interesting to be troubled by what your influences are, but this smacks too much of a formula to look for, and not an awestruck mystery; it also allows Hill to play with a dastardly having-it-both-ways, a desire to have his work like after him spoken as if prayerfully, as if like the desire to be forgiven as an eternal soul.) Who knows? I find myself happy to drift away from Milton if prayerfulness directs me so to do. Hill's is a kind of enlightenment desire to write encyclopedia entries, into a faux-pious Big Tent, to have coverage.

The trouble with music, and the joy of it, is how it can make a phrase bubble up. Words to great text settings may look flat because they lack the bubbling (or typographers have not thought enough about how to set the text on the page). It particularly encourages parody, because it sticks as rhythm, as feel, rather than narrative. Hill has tried in Scenes from Comus
to blurt out (therapy gives a model for some of his new work, and one feels pathos if slack in that, the more he goes on, eg in his new limited edition pamphlet which he tries to make out as an exercise in flatness; one as ever gasps at his human voice, one who can follow some of the technique gets at the heart) that his mind is full of musical parody. The church uses music to make important venerating phrases stick in the mind and only rarely for penitential phrases. Hill is drawn to penitential phrasework, and dangerously also to sounding over a phrase to the point of mockery. Music has tipped him nearly over, I feel, now: it has set alight his obsession with swing-door line breaks, and Wood's music in Hill's mind has hamstrung his penitential, "doing a Wood" against its apparent bearing on penitential phrasing. This has, differently, hamstrung the poetry.

I posit the idea of the big drifting theme to a Hill book. One also at work in Scenes from Comus
recollects Hill's September Song from the sixties. Hill writes about a death camp victim of exactly the same birthday in the same year as Geoffrey Hill. Hugh Wood was born the same year as Hill, and only a little apart in weeks. There is something about the book, as Hill admits by calling it a 70th birthday tribute to Wood and in its opening pages, self-regarding. True, something about Wood's work with Comus has got Hill, and it is not unlike Hill to talk around the point (writing with scholarly titbittery about how Comus was actually staged) that has really got him, and something not about Hill might be it. I would however posit that it is Wood's own 70th birthday tribute to Hill - a setting of one 70's Hill sonnet across several voices - that is taking Hill all the more dangerously into the sabotages one can allow music to play on poetry. In many ways, he wants to talk about what his poetry means to him in Wood's setting, He often enough wants to read his lines back to us in his poetry, as it is.

What is to me most interesting and stark about Scenes from Comus
and Hill's new pamphlet, A Treatise of Civil Power, even more so, precisely that they are a little now like texts from music that fall flat slightly on the page. I feel some disjunction when I read critics who enjoy Scenes from Comus without doing as I do, keeping it and the CD of Wood's music simultaneously in mind. But then, as I started by saying, I feel that with Hill and his many admirers (few devotees) a lot of the time. This new pieces are written for performance, where earlier work is to me over-recited (it was helpful to hear Hill read once, but I would not want his recitation of any of it now ever again). The performance is for silent reading with a prescribed CD in the background.


           Ira Lightman 2005