Acceptable words

Acceptable words: Essays on the poetry of Geoffrey Hill

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Acceptable words
    Book Description:

    Geoffrey Hill has said that some great poetry 'recognises that words fail us'. These essays explore Hill's struggle over fifty years with the recalcitrance of language. This book seeks to show how all his work is marked by the quest for the right pitch of utterance whether it is sorrowing, angry, satiric or erotic. It shows how Hill's words are never lightly 'acceptable' but an ethical act, how he seeks out words he can stand by - words that are 'getting it right'. This book is the most comprehensive and up-to-date critical work on Geoffrey Hill so far, covering all his work up to ‘Scenes from Comus’ (2005), as well as some poems yet to appear in book form. It aims to contribute something to the understanding of his poetry among those who have followed it for many years and students and other readers encountering this major poet for the first time.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-396-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 ‘Acceptable words’
    (pp. 1-17)

    The first wonder of poetry lies in the immediate effects of language. How words are drawn from the myriad, their particular sounds heard and then associated by rhythm, and sometimes their visual appearance, constitutes the primary pleasure and amazement of verse. However great the repayments of re-reading and research might be, the experience of sensing the extraordinary in this dimension of language persists. It is the quality which led Milton in his pamphletOf Educationto identify poetry as ‘more simple sensuous and passionate’ than logic and rhetoric, not to exalt it above the philosophical arts but to insist upon...

  6. 2 ‘The speechless dead’: King Log (1968)
    (pp. 18-26)

    The battle at Shiloh Church, fought over two days in April 1862, ended with the slaughter accomplished of thirteen thousand Federal soldiers and ten thousand Confederates. It was the greatest battle fought on the American continent up to that date. A chromolithograph, reproduced in Bruce Catton’sThe Penguin Book of the American Civil War,¹ shows the two sides fighting it out at point- blank range amid a wilderness of carnage. The impression is of a holocaust so locking the combatants that none will move without the achievement of total destruction, their own as well as their enemies’. Behind the ranks...

  7. 3 Poet, lover, liar: ‘Lachrimae’ (1975)
    (pp. 27-34)

    Robert Southwell (1561–95), Catholic martyr and poet from whose work Geoffrey Hill takes his epigraph for his 1975 sonnet sequence ‘Lachrimae or Seven tears figured in seven passionate Pavans’ (Tenebrae, 1978;CPpp. 145–51) wrote in his posthumous workSt Peter’s Complaint(1595) of what he saw as his contemporaries’ abuse of their poetic talents: ‘a poet, a lover and a liar are by many reckoned but three things with one signification’. That the identification of poetry and feigning was nearly a commonplace in Elizabethan literary culture might be gauged by its reiteration by the rather less spiritually...

  8. 4 ‘Our love is what we love to have’: Tenebrae (1978)
    (pp. 35-43)

    Geoffrey Hill’s poems have often presented us with a series of scenes, livid tableaux, ‘spectacles’: the Jews in Europe, the Battle of Towton, the endurances of some poets, Boethius in his cell, the nailer’s darg, real and fancied martyrdoms like those of his Sebastians. If his vision of the world were to be put in symbolic terms then the character of the Romanesque style as described by Henri Focillon might provide an analogy:

    Romanesque art had perceived [all created things] only through a mesh of ornament and in a monstrous disguise. It had combined man with beast and beast with...

  9. 5 Things and words: The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)
    (pp. 44-57)

    After the long, shifting account of Charles Péguy in Hill’s poem, what are we to take from him? What sense is to be made, for what will he, who ‘commends us to nothing’, serve? The concluding moment of the poem is when we expect summary, a considered gesture, at least the ceremony of closure even though it might resemble stiffened custom and a bellowing ‘with hoarse dignity into the wind’. Hill’s tone, directed at his own contemplation as well as that of the reader, concedes little. ‘Take that for example!’ mingles defiance, the clean blow, with surly dismissal.

    But take...

  10. 6 History as poetry: ‘Churchill’s Funeral’ and ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ (Canaan, 1996)
    (pp. 58-71)

    The epigraph Geoffrey Hill uses for the first poem in his sequence ‘Churchill’s Funeral’ is from Edward Elgar’s note on the ‘Cockaigne’ overture and contains the phrase ‘knowing well the history’. It is apparent that Hill’s poetry has always known history very well indeed. Historical figures and events have featured substantially from the beginning: ‘Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed’ (‘Two Formal Elegies’,For the Unfallen, 1959;CPpp. 30–1). Elegy, Requiem, ‘In Memory’, ‘The Death of’, ‘Ode on the Loss of’, ‘Funeral Music’ appear in titles of the earlier work to announce a compulsion towards commemoration...

  11. 7 The Triumph of Love (1998)
    (pp. 72-94)

    There are many themes inThe Triumph of Love– those the poet ‘has buzzed, droned, / round a half-dozen topics (fewer surely?) / for almost fifty years’ – but in my reading the poem is dominated by Hill’s effort to grapple with, to honour and in some sense to do justice by all these unlived and unliveable lives – ‘the brute mass and detail of the world’ (LXX). Given the title, this effort might be expected to seek to discover whether the meanings gathered around the term ‘Love’ can be pitted against this world, is there a sense in...

  12. 8 ‘Beauty is difficult’: Speech! Speech! (2000)
    (pp. 95-107)

    In a seminar discussion following a performance of Alban Berg, I recall a member of the Lindsay String Quartet saying that, unlike all that had gone before, modern music ‘is allowed to be ugly’.

    ‘Beauty’ might indeed be said to be a problem for many twentieth-century artists. In his essay on Ezra Pound’s ‘Envoi (1919)’ inThe Enemy’s CountryGeoffrey Hill quotes Pound’s assertion ‘Beauty is difficult’ (ECp. 96), a quotation from the first of the ‘Pisan Cantos’, LXXIV:

    Beloved the hours βροδοδάκτυλοϛ as against the half-light of the window with the sea beyond making horizon

    le contre-jour the...

  13. 9 ‘Here and there I pull a flower’: The Orchards of Syon (2002)
    (pp. 108-123)

    The Orchards of Syoncompletes a tentative trilogy begun withThe Triumph of Loveand continued withSpeech! Speech!‘Tentative’ because all three-part sequences are bound to refer to the model of Dante’sLa Divina Commedia, as, I shall show, Hill’s can be seen to do, and that is a model haunted by hubris. Hill’scommediais fraught with the anxiety, anger, doubt, self-doubt and self-flagellation that besets Dante, and is similarly bold in its historical and referential reach. But part of its comedy lies in parody and self-mockery, a recurrent wariness of pretension and the pratfall: ‘La vida es...

  14. 10 ‘In wintry solstice like the shorten’d light’: Scenes from Comus (2005)
    (pp. 124-135)

    This is the first stanza of John Milton’s ‘The Passion’, a poem he probably began and abandoned in 1630 (Complete Shorter Poemsp. 119).¹ The penultimate line, as ‘In Wintry solstice like the shorten’d light’, recurs in Geoffrey Hill’sScenes from Comus, including in the very last lines of the work. The whole three-part sequence is timed close to this solstice, poised on the edge of ‘dark and long out-living night’: ‘over your / left shoulder or mine | absolute night comes / high-stalking after us’ (2.80).² Milton’s lines also point to another major preoccupation of Hill’s poem, music. As...

  15. 11 Afterword: ‘“I have not finished”’
    (pp. 136-137)

    In this closing passage of ‘Discourse: For Stanley Rosen’¹ I want to dwell on the penultimate line: ‘its bleak littoral swept by bursts of sunlight’. The littoral has held a powerful place in Geoffrey Hill’s poetic imagination right from the beginning. The seashore and tracts between water and land appear recurrently inFor the Unfallen. In ‘Genesis’ the speaker sees ‘The osprey plunge with triggered claw, / Feathering blood along the shore’. It is bleak too in ‘Requiem for the Plantaganet Kings’ where ‘the sea / Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.’ In ‘The Guardians’ the old ‘wade the disturbed...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 138-143)
  17. Select bibliography
    (pp. 144-148)
  18. Index
    (pp. 149-155)