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Shades of Authority

Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney

Stephen James
Volume: 50
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vjgpp
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  • Book Info
    Shades of Authority
    Book Description:

    What is the relationship between poetry and power? Should poetry be considered a mode of authority or an impotent medium? And why is it that the modern poets most commonly regarded as authoritative are precisely those whose works wrestle with a sense of artistic inadequacy? Such questions lie at the heart of this study, prompting fresh insights into three of the most important poets of recent decades: Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. Through attentive close reading and the tracing of dominant motifs in each writer’s works, James shows how their responsiveness to matters of political and cultural import lends weight to the idea of poetry as authoritative utterance, as a medium for speaking of and to the world in a persuasive, memorable manner. And yet, as James demonstrates, each poet is exercised by an awareness of his own cultural marginality, even by a sense of the limitations and liabilities of language itself.

    eISBN: 978-1-84631-404-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Notes on Citations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    The title of this book holds in tension a number of competing ideas. At its simplest, it indicates that various kinds of authority, according to differing shades of implication in the term, are considered in the works of Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. Yet it also offers metaphorical possibilities for describing the relationship between poetry and power: in one sense, it conveys the impression of these three writers as admonitory shades passing judgement, like Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’, upon matters of political or cultural control – with the attendant suggestion that their verse might be said to constitute a...

  7. Essays on Robert Lowell

    • The Burden of Power
      (pp. 9-28)

      It sometimes seems that Robert Lowell’s most vigorous advocates do his reputation more harm than good. ‘Lowell is the real thing, a giant of a poet […] a writer who restored poetry to its public role’, claimed Grey Gowrie in his review of theCollected Poems(2003) forThe Spectator.¹ Tom Paulin’sObserverreview also presented Lowell as a literary colossus, with its judgement that the ‘gigantic nature of his talent must be celebrated – he was fascinated by Napoleon and, like Napoleon, he remains heroic and magnificent’.² More exorbitant still was Michael Hofmann’s verdict on the poet’s achievement in...

    • The Poet and the Tyrant
      (pp. 29-45)

      Robert Lowell’s impulse to ‘pity the planet’ is curiously combined with an instinct to ‘pity the monsters’.¹ A litany of notorious despots (both historical and mythological) runs like a dark vein through his poetry. Alexander, Attila, Caligula, Clytemnestra, Hannibal, Hitler, Louis XVI, Mussolini, Napoleon, Richard III, Stalin, Timur: these and many other imperious individuals compel Lowell’s attention.² While he does not glamourize their violent exploits, his imaginative engagement with the thoughts and deeds of tyrannical personalities evinces a kind of appalled admiration, complicated at times by a degree of sympathy for their self-destructive tendencies. This is bound up with Lowell’s...

    • Violence and Idealism
      (pp. 46-62)

      Robert Lowell’s poems have harmful properties. Family members, fellow writers and historical and contemporary figures are exposed to unsparing and often unflattering scrutiny. However, nobody falls foul of such harsh measures more frequently or more severely than Lowell himself; the destructive impulse at work in the verse is always also a self-destructive one. This is illustrated most conspicuously in Lowell’s infamous transcription of recriminatory communications from his abandoned wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in the poems ofThe Dolphin:the intimate violations perpetrated in this volume injure the poet first and foremost. In terms of their style, too, his poems are liable...

  8. Essays on Geoffrey Hill

    • Authority and Eccentricity
      (pp. 65-81)

      A conception of poetry as public utterance, shaped with a regard for the public good, has repeatedly found expression in the writings of Geoffrey Hill. In his essay ‘The Eloquence of Sober Truth’, Hill has even hinted at a connection between the prerogatives of the individual citizen and the exercise of an individual poetic voice: ‘the question of polity’, he observes, ‘is, at its most basic level as also in the most elevated language of response, that of entitlement to speak, one’s right to claim authority, albeit as a private person contending in – and with – a public matter’...

    • Prevailing Tastes
      (pp. 82-105)

      In the 1802 version of his ‘Preface’ toLyrical BalladsWilliam Wordsworth remonstrated against ‘the language of men who speak of what they do not understand; who talk of Poetry as of a matter of amusement and idle pleasure; who will converse with us as gravely about atastefor Poetry, as they express it, as if it were a thing as indifferent as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry’.¹ For Geoffrey Hill, who cites these lines in his essay ‘Redeeming the Time’ (LL 95), the sentiment has lost none of its relevance. He is at one with...

    • A Conflict of Opposites
      (pp. 106-124)

      There is much in this description that accords with the ethos and perspectives of Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. Hill, however, is not the subject. Rather, these words were used by Randall Jarrell, in 1947, to summarize the concerns ofLord Weary’s Castle, the first full-length collection by Robert Lowell.¹ In characteristically vigorous and inventive terms, Jarrell outlined the struggles dramatized in the early poetry of Lowell, struggles that would in due course come to exercise Hill: the passage anticipates both Hill’s sense that poetic language is mired in, yet strives to escape, the deadening forces of ‘custom’, and his belief that...

  9. Essays on Seamus Heaney

    • The Sway of Language
      (pp. 127-145)

      In his essay ‘The Makings of a Music: Reflections on Wordsworth and Yeats’, Seamus Heaney considers Hazlitt’s account of a visit to Alfoxden in June 1798, when Wordsworth gave a spirited reading of ‘Peter Bell’. It was ‘the quality and sway of the poet’s speaking voice’ (P 64), as Heaney puts it, that moved Hazlitt to record his impressions of the event. The implications of the word ‘sway’ in this formulation are not entirely clear: does Heaney have in mind only the imposing authority of the poet’s performance or does he also mean to suggest that the delivery captured the...

    • Mutable Redress
      (pp. 146-166)

      The title of Heaney’s 1995 collection of Oxford lectures,The Redress of Poetry, sways ambiguously between two competing implications: on the one hand, it suggests that poetry has the potential to resolve inequities; on the other, it entertains the notion of the poem as the rightful recipient of redress. As soon becomes clear, what poetry needs to be redeemed from, to Heaney’s mind, is precisely the pressure conveyed in the first way of reading the title; at the heart of his book is a conflict between the seemingly irreconcilable imperatives to trust in poetry ‘as a mode of redress in...

    • Commanding Voices
      (pp. 167-192)

      ‘Finding a voice’, Heaney once wrote, ‘means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them’ (P43). Yet ‘the discovery of a way of writing that is natural and adequate to your sensibility’, he maintained, involves tuning in to other voices:

      In practice, […] you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system in such a way that your reaction will be, ‘Ah, I wish I had said that,...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 193-229)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 230-256)
  12. Index
    (pp. 257-266)