Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words
Oxford University Press, 2014 | pp. 204. | $99.00 £60.00
By ALAN WALL.
For if words are not THINGS, they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined and humanized.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
HOW WORD-OBSESSED should a poet be? We can watch George Herbert shaping a lark out of the length of his lines in ‘Easter Wings’, a form reprised by Geoffrey Hill in Clavics. We can see John Donne in ‘A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day’ ensuring that ‘The whole world’s sap is sunk’ is the most shrunken line of the stanza in terms of its syllable count, and that ‘sap’ and ‘sunk’ utter their monosyllabic desolation through the copula. Gerard Manley Hopkins finds a new way of welding words together, at least in part through his intense scrutiny of Old English lexicology and prosody. For a while it seemed that E. E. Cummings was doing something entirely new, but that was an illusion: he was not so much word-obsessed as typewriter-obsessed. What once seemed new now seems merely novel, and novelty withers swiftly on the vine. Then there was Paul Celan, whose neologisms and portmanteau inventions were shaped out of the most serious obsessions any poet might have. This is news that stays news.
The Shakespeare of the Sonnets was one of the most word-obsessed poets ever to have walked amongst us. When he writes ‘Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate/That time will come and take my love away’ we have to look hard to see what he saw and heard in the words. If you take the word ‘mate’ and ram ‘ruin’ through it, you will end up anagrammatically with ‘ruminate’. What is expressed is enacted in the diction. What is being said is inseparable from the exact lexis and syntax of its saying.
Geoffrey Hill’s poetic career has been mediated through his engagement with the dictionary. And that dictionary is first and foremost the OED. There is no greater dictionary in the world, and its making constitutes one of the great intellectual events of the twentieth century, though it started life in the nineteenth. There had never been anything like this before. Now the language itself has become the documented labyrinth of its own manifold meanings. Now history can be traced uttering itself thus and thus in one mutating word after another. The thought of a poet writing in English who would not grow excited turning the pages of the OED, or clicking on the electronic version, is so dismal that one wishes such a personage an even smaller readership than modern poets normally manage to acquire.
The anti-self to our word-blind, purblind poet is undoubtedly Geoffrey Hill. His verse uses lexicography and philology as heuristic principles. Where Robert Graves leapt out of the window after Laura Riding (even if he did go down a storey first), one suspects it would require the defenestration of Hill’s beloved bound set of the OED to elicit any such voluntary lapsus from him. The White Goddess, being no better than she should be, might have had a slightly harder time of it, had she been strutting her stuff in Worcestershire. With A. E. Housman to the left of her, and Geoffrey Hill to the right, she would have received some very old-fashioned looks indeed; chilly gazes from fellows not so easily beguiled. And acerbity is a necessary part of our theme. Acerbity is integral to Hill’s achievements in both verse and prose. Sentimentality is anathema. There are no flies on this fellow. The constable’s son is nothing if not forensic. Every emotion is likely to be treated as the scene of a crime, past, present, or to come.
EVERYONE KNOWS HOW awful William McGonagall is, but it is seldom pointed out why. His rhyming is a low addiction, to which the natural word-order is always sacrificed. He has no ear for cliché, and therefore cliché takes complete command. But there is something else. He is unrelentingly bien-pensant. By the time he has finished lamenting the loss of ninety lives in the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879, one is almost hoping for even more hideous fatalities, if only to add some acid piquancy to so much unrelenting gush. It is a relief to turn from such well-meaning palavers to these lines in Beckett’s Malone Dies: ‘Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell and in the execrable generations to come an honoured name.’ Dante, after all, devotes a third of his masterpiece to a close observation of those damned in perpetuity. At one point Virgil feels obliged to rebuke him for his inordinate empathy. To relate so feelingly to those condemned to ceaseless suffering might be seen as a rebuke to the grand order of things; that cosmos instituted and maintained by divine power.
How exact can language be? What is the relationship between writing and expressible truth? If one question is rooted at the centre of any serious poetic endeavour, it is surely this. Paul Celan (a figure of considerable importance to Hill) probes the words he is using to such an extent that molecular lexemes break up or re-form. We see this in the wonderful innovation atemwende, or breath-turn. If this is playfulness, the game is one of the greatest gravity. And that last word ushers us in to the nature of our problem, which begins in the seventeenth century: the relationship between language, as employed in verse, and language employed in science. Gravity can be expressed in an equation derived by Isaac Newton. It is also, by metaphoric extension, a term denoting how weighty our intellectual seriousness might be deemed to be. And so we have Hill in Scenes from Comus:
Milton meant civil war
and civil detractions, and the sway of power,
the pull of power, its pondus, its gravity.
In Leviathan Hobbes described geometry as the only genuine science, and he praised the fact that there ‘men begin at settling the significations of their words’. This is evidently a state of affairs greatly to be desired. Aubrey tells us that Hobbes was forty before he ever peered into Euclid. Then he became obsessed. ‘I have heard Mr. Hobbes say that he was wont to draw lines on his thigh and on the sheetes, abed, and also multiply and divide.’ What evidently delighted Hobbes about geometry was its lack of what Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society called ‘this vicious abundance of phrase’. It was a great preoccupation of the time. Could language utter truth without catachresis, deviation, superfluity or decoration? Swift shows us the two extremes adumbrated by language theory: the philosophers in Lagado who carry a bag of objects on their back, so they can indicate the precise item signified without any imprecision of lexis, and the endless metaphoric multiplications and plurabilities to which we are treated in A Tale of a Tub. This was the same question Wittgenstein was asking himself in the Tractatus, and it is a question Hill’s verse never sallies far away from. Take his justly famous ‘September Song’, and the three middle lines:
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
The parenthetical aside might be soliloquising. If there is any truth to be had here, it seems to say, it is personal. Goebbels reckoned that the greater the number of fatalities, the further we travelled from tragedy towards statistics, and the less it really meant. A public address might be considerably more suspect, as was Brooke’s elegy for the nation – composed before his experience of any actual deaths — in ‘The Soldier’, and yet we must question this parenthesis too. If Hill has made an elegy for himself, then why publish it? And would its truth be affected either way? The poem does feel ‘overheard’, and that is part of its distinction. Its tact and recalcitrance achieve precisely the right tone. Anything louder, anything that was more of a broadcast, would feel less sincere, more noisily ‘caring’. And if we recall the etymology of ‘broadcast’ as originally signifying the most promiscuous manner of casting seed, then we could say that Brooke’s sonnet was overseeded. And the precision of language here is an aspect of that tact and recalcitrance, which reveal the poetic intelligence at work.
BUT WE MUST ask once more, because it is central to Hill’s endeavours, as it was central to Celan’s: how precise can language be? How far can it express anything ‘that is the case’? Let us use a crude example. Here is a sentence which seems at first sight unproblematical: ‘I observe the electron and change its state and position.’ As Niels Bohr told us, time after time, we are suspended in language. And so we are, but the suspension here starts to become viscous. Things soon get sticky. Every word of our sentence begs questions that the formulation of the sentence cannot by itself resolve. The I that is observing here is not merely the human eye and mind but a vast machinery, a machinery far more complex than that which any amateur scientist could afford to assemble, unless you are rich enough to build your own CERN. Observe feels passive, unobtrusive, as in ‘I observe the moon’. But here the act of observation requires the directing of energy towards the subatomic subject. Observation in this instance is both aggressive and transformative. The definite article that follows is, according to David Bohm, an illicit transfer of categories from the macrocosmic to the microcosmic. We talk of the electron as if it were an apple, but Bohm says that the use of nouns here to describe elementary particles is misleading: verbs would be better in indicating the matter at hand, since nominal enclosure misrepresents the fleeting identity.
An electron is in a perpetual state of movement and dynamic relationship. Stop the movement or the relationship and you cease to have that particular electron. The conjunction and, given the syntagmatic axis of communication along which syntax inevitably orients itself, implies sequence, chronology, succession. But by the time we arrive at the word and, the crucial change has already taken place, because the next word change took place at the precise instant of observation, back at the beginning of the sentence. And would like to represent itself as an equals sign, but it is altogether too late for that. So the following possessive pronoun its is now referring to an electron which is no longer the electron being observed at the beginning of the sentence. It is no longer what or where it was when we got started. If it has jumped from the ground state to an excited state above, then the ‘object’ to be observed has in effect become a different ‘object’ through the act of observation; ‘it’ has changed ‘its’ state and position. It is no longer there. And we invoke Heisenberg to remind ourselves that the knowledge of the particle’s velocity and the knowledge of its position are in an inverse relation, one to another. We might also note in passing that the word electron takes us back to the Greek word for amber; that using the word jump is a personification which attributes motivation to an elementary particle; that ‘ground state’ and ‘excited state’ mingle a topographic model with an emotional one. We are suspended in language, involved in etymology, rhetoric, metaphor, and anthropomorphism. So how precise is it possible to be here? How exact can language ever be? Grammar here amounts to fallenness. This is Hill’s line anyway, and he argues in The Orchards of Syon that the angels are free from grammar:
I mean they’re beyond grammar that reminds
us of our fall, and of hanging out there.
Well, angelological linguistics, prelapsarian or not, can be a tricky business, as even Hill would presumably concede. Studying the Enochian language decoded by Dr John Dee, after the nightly skrying of Edward Kelley, does not necessarily get us much further.
Our short seemingly unproblematical sentence has turned out to be full of actually unendurable problems. Were things ever thus? Owen Barfield reckoned that our primal language was a vast porosity of borders, a metaphoric prairie in which we were free to roam. It is a beguiling notion, but one that is impossible to prove. In any case, I would like to argue that it is Hill’s awareness of this density of difficulty in language as both expression and representation that makes him such a formidable literary figure. His understanding that, to use Yeats’s phrase, ‘difficulty is our plough’ makes him not merely exemplary but exhilarating too, for those prepared to make the textual journey, which presumably includes any who have read thus far in this review. We must make everything as simple as possible, Einstein remarked, but no simpler. Hill remarks in one of his essays how he constantly registers ‘how recalcitrant, how obstructive, this material is.’ The material is language and the more the density of this medium is felt as a specific gravity, the more likely the writer is to exhibit the wished-for intelligence in his writing. The more effortless the movement through language, the stupider the finished text is likely to be. Such stupidity can be effortlessly disguised by irony, snug in its own oil-slick of surface cleverness.
A POEM FROM Hill’s first book hinges on a single word. The word is pinnacle, and Hill has detected in it a Janus face of double possibility, since it can refer both to natural forms and architecture.
I will consider the outnumbering dead:
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now, should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locusts’ covering tide.
Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone
Among the raftered galleries of bone.
By the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.
Human beings and seeds; all flesh is grass. More of the dead figures stand shadily behind us than the living ones who currently stand beside us. And once more we observe that lack of sentimentality (not sentiment) which characterises all his work, with the possible exception of some of the poems in Tenebrae. But the clinching word, the word which locks the separate perceptions together, is ‘pinnacled’. It is a curious word, bringing together in its original Latin the wing and the peak.
‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’ So wrote Wittgenstein, and Hill seems to be saying something remarkably similar, particularly in the later work. Words and phrases are interrogated; their precise meaning demanded of them. The poet here is an inquisitor, the etymological researcher into the besmirched history of lexis. And right at the beginning of his career as a poet, the corn here is pinnacled, as was Camelot. And both fall into the earth, among the raftered galleries of bone. Jesus declared that the temple, to whose pinnacle Satan so breezily lifted him, would be pulled down but would rise again. So the pinnacled temple was both the grand edifice in Jerusalem, and also his body. And Merlin is of course an intelligence detachable from the social and historical circumstances in which we usually know him; he is transcendent. He is also, one might note, unsentimental. Things are thus and thus. It is the poet’s duty to transcribe them accurately, and as Hill writes elsewhere: ‘In a successful poem a particular word may instantaneously perform what it desiderates.’ Such a word is pinnacled in ‘Merlin’.
Wittgenstein believed that the best philosophy could hope for was accurate description, and the movement in science known in the 1890s as ‘descriptionism’ espoused the same notion. All science could do, claimed its main advocates Ernst Mach and Karl Pearson, was to describe the phenomena, with the most finely calibrated descriptive technique. Nothing could ever be explained. The only answer to the question, ‘Why is it thus?’ is, in effect, ‘Because it is.’ Newton, we might recall, insisted ‘Hypotheses non fingo’ – I don’t hypothesise. I try to describe the way things are; it wasn’t me who brought all this about, after all.
NOW THIS IS the intellectual world into which the intellectually alert poet finds himself thrown. What is to be done? There is no escape to be had from thinking, despite Yeats in his wilder moments sometimes thinking there might be. In some of his poems Hill the lexicographer is indistinguishable from Hill the poet. The words of our language carry our history, like tiny freighted vehicles, each one revealing or hiding its own monographic narrative. So we have this, for example:
Strophe after strophe
ever more catastrophic. Did I say
strophe? I meant salvo, sorry.
Here the jostling lexemes of the verse are effectively involved in a punch-up.
How can we put this? Every poem is a figure, and the ground against which that figure stands is the contemporary usage of the language. Poetry insists that its figure is to be distinguished from its immediate linguistic environs, its surrounding ground, by certain defining characteristics: lines shaped by the eye and ear of the poet, not merely by the typographic conventions of the printed page. Lineation is a species of punctuation, and T. S. Eliot insisted that, whatever else poetry is, it is always a form of punctuation. We see this in Eliot’s own practice at its best:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
No poetry was ever better punctuated than this, where the lineation has rid itself of all supernumerary marks. The reading eye is addressed directly and with modernist economy. Here the figure clearly distinguishes itself from the ground. The elliptical compression of poetry consumes the vernacular energy that swirls around it, only to re-issue that language as a defamiliarized usage, making it new, figuring such new-fangledness as shaped verse. And an inevitable part of that underlying lexical ground is cliché, or something that is slightly different: iterative vernacular vigour.
Between rancour and cliché the serious writer must somehow find his way. Is there another major figure in the arts so devoted to the use and demolition of cliché as Hill, unless it be Bob Dylan? The latter says of the woman in ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ that ‘I helped her out of a jam, I guess/But I used a little too much force.’ And out of the coffin of the cliché steps a meaning, as if night had settled once more on Count Dracula’s domicile. Both Dylan and Hill hack away at the ossified rock of cliché, confident there must still be a redeeming fossil in there somewhere. There always is. Both these artists understand in their different forms that cliché is unavoidable; it is implicit in the medium. It is no good closing your eyes and looking pained. Instead then, hunt for the perception that got the cliché going in the first place, so that you might re-translate it into present usage. Make it new, antique or exhausted as it may seem. Some irony may be needed, for a little added piquancy, but never imagine irony gets you off the hook. And mirrors are useful for turning things around. We did our first learning, it seems, through mirror neurons. We learn how to write through parody and pastiche. Some of the finest religious poetry is by way of sacred parody, in which the Almighty is addressed as the beloved. With all the attendant problems such an address implies.
AND SO HILL has Saint Sebastian ‘catching his death’. Here the cliché stumbles over itself, and is astonished to discover how much power it appears to have retained. In the more recent ‘Ars’, a memorial poem for Ken Smith, Hill writes: ‘Not everything’s a joke, but we’ve been had.’ Can one really call this cliché? The vernacular reiterates itself, certainly, but the repetition should not be called cliché unless it has lost all its original natural vigour. Here its taughtness and tartness feel precisely right. In the same way, Dylan in a recent song sang ‘Something’s out of whack.’ If the available phrase is the most potent one, then use it. And Hill is determined to stay tuned in to the language around him. He recently gave us ‘tittagram’ and ‘recite-a-thon’, neither of which has yet made it into the OED. The word ‘demobbed’ had only just made it into the OED two years before when it found itself included in The Waste Land, as a result of Pound’s ear for the language of the street, rather than Eliot’s. It was E.P.’s suggested addition on the typescript.
The poet must be attuned to the language uttered around him, but he must not succumb to its mores. A key word in Hill’s intellectual armoury is ‘resistance’. Hill regards postmodernism as a collapse of the necessary resistance of the artist, where modernism in its exemplary forms represented that resistance incarnate. In the breezy ironic whimsicalities of so much postmodernism, Hill sees a craven populism dressed up in the gladrags of cultural fashion. Modernism was hard; it never forgot that ‘difficulty is our plough’. The greatest tribute to the common reader, according to Hill, is the offer of serious difficulty encountered on the page. Not the snapshot slickness embodied in words like ‘tittagram’ and ‘recite-a-thon’. So what is the difference between a modernist approach to the present and the past, and its postmodernist counterparts?
The modernists encountered the past, not in order to recapitulate it, but to make it new. This meant that they were actually more obsessed with the past than their predecessors. They were wrestling more agonistically with what had been inherited and had to be transmuted. The Cantos begins with Homer, The Waste Land begins with Chaucer. But the central modernist perception is this: present language and our existing forms are only possible because of our prior language and prior forms, but we live now, with this language in its current state of use. Simple reiteration or pastiche will not do. So the present language of our verse must demonstrate its awareness of the tradition, but it must extend it at the same time.
IF THERE IS a central allusion in Mercian Hymns it is not so much historic as stylistic. We could trace it back to Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius. There Pound went in for a species of braiding, interleaving the linguistic usage of the present with the materia of the distant past. The effect is a defamiliarization, a frisson as we register the dissonance between then and now, while still focussing with all due attention on then. The obverse of present usage is backed by the reverse of historic allusion, but there is only ever one coin, and that is the text being created. It is a technique of anti-pastiche, a refusal of the historicist fancy-dress party that any ‘historical work’ can too easily become. Pound’s central understanding was that the work, whatever its subject, must be contemporary; the language must be heard to be living now. Even in his ‘The Seafarer’, which is the nearest he ever got to straight transcription, he somehow finds an echo of the pulse of a modern rhythm in the old lines.
Now when Basil Bunting had a copy of Pound’s Sextus put into his hands in 1919 by Nina Hamnett, he could see immediately that nothing would ever be the same again. And it never was. First, he became Villon transported to a contemporary French prison cell. And then he was writing Briggflatts, constantly holding before himself the braiding of letters and creatures in the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and on every page of his own poem he braided present usage, present vocabulary and authentic contemporaray rhythm with the historical data of an Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Thus did he make it new, as Pound had commanded. And Hill achieves a similar effect in the Hymns. His braiding of Offa’s ceremonial court and the doings of contemporary car salesmen from the Midlands forms its own interleaving pattern. But it never evaporates into postmodernist whimsy, which all too often pleads irony as alibi. Irony as a substitute for all other modes or beliefs. Irony as guarantor of an acceptable shallowness; the universal corrosive.
THERE ALSO LURKS behind Pound’s Sextus the loopiness of the crib, and the kind of language it can elicit from the unwary. Housman had been on to this before in his ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’:
Chorus: O suitably attired in leather boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Yes, quite. Which is another way of saying, there is no such thing as a literal translation, because different languages have different ways of functioning. You can transliterate a word, but if you do it with sentences, they will rapidly become ridiculous.
So what is it that the modern poem, with the seriousness of the modernist achievement behind it, seeks to achieve? Perhaps one of the best ways to think about what a poem does is to use Gerard Manley Hopkin’s word ‘inscape’. Inscape is spiritual constellation. It can only be achieved by the vigorous and unsentimental ordering of form within the medium of materials to be disposed. In a poem those materials are words, syntax, rhythm and rhyme. Though we might also bear in mind Pound’s three poetic functions in The ABC of Reading: logopeia, phanopeia and melopeia. Or lexis, imagery and musical effect.
WHAT HOPKINS MEANS by inscape can be related to what Wittgenstein meant when he said that anything could represent anything else as long as they held between them a shared form. A vinyl record can represent a symphony if the variegated depth of its grooves corresponds to the set of sounds that constitutes the opus; the same is true of a musical score, or of the diagrammatic relationship between a map and a landscape. And the same was true, as far as Wittgenstein was concerned, whenever a sentence exhibited its structural and logical cohesion satisfactorily. It thereby uttered a truth about the nature of things. It showed the nature of ‘everything that is the case’. Its logical form was an expression of the way in which things are disposed thus and thus: the standard model of possible meanings.
The nature of the form here is all-important. For example, Hopkins criticised a painting by Holman Hunt thus: ‘It has no inscape of composition whatsoever.’ Here the ‘realism’ of the picture had become what Brancusi marvellously called ‘a confusion of familiarities’. Realism as a technique is a surface affair; it reproduces superficial detail; it merely conveys the actual, as a conveyor-belt transports the fashioned items from here to there. What is needed is to convert the actual into the real, or to so cleanse those Blakean doors of perception that the real shines through the actual, illuminating form from within. Then we have inscape; the necessary constellation of perceptions.
This confusion of a certain type of realism with inscape is what elicited Paul Celan’s lifelong rage against the mode of writing Northrop Frye once called ‘the low-mimetic’. Hill has carried on the railing. The notion that the accumulation of detail (usually, the more sordid the better) somehow conveys the nature of reality is one of the more fatuous notions of our time, together with the related fatuity that art is indistinguishable from self-expression. The reason Walter Benjamin was so fascinated by Surrealism was that he believed its new constellation was truer, in a sense more realistic, than other modes of art on offer at the time. The new constellation had to include the content of dreams, those commando raids on the city’s daily order instigated by the units of the Unconscious during the night. To exclude such data in the age of Freud was to be unrealistic about artistic requirements. Realism of the old sort could look like an intellectually unsatisfactory exclusivism; a hollow reiteration. Or pastiche by another name. Adrian Leverkűhn in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus is prepared to sell his soul to the devil in order to avoid the most dreaded cultural fate: the ceaseless repetition of existing contents in existing forms. The notion that art is no more than a pantomime of repeat performances.
SO WHAT ARE we to write about, if difficulty is our plough? In 1853, Matthew Arnold wrote the Introduction to his Collected Poems. He explained there why he had left out Empedocles on Etna, published the previous year. He had done so because he had come to feel that the suffering in that dramatic poem found ‘no vent in action’. In 1936, when Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, he alluded to Arnold’s Introduction, in explaining why he had omitted the poetry of Wilfred Owen – then as now a great favourite – on the grounds that too much of it was concerned with passive suffering. It would doubtless have come as news to many members of the British Expeditionary Force that their prime experience on the Western Front had been one of passive suffering, but it is a pity that Arnold’s Introduction has now become notorious only for this particular exclusion. Arnold makes some very telling comparisons between the poetry of his time and that of the ancients. He finds that the undoubted linguistic genius of, for example, Keats, cannot compensate for certain fundamental flaws of dramatic presentation. He argues that when Keats writes ‘Isabella’, his dramatization of that tale is not a patch on the original in Boccaccio. He is arguing, in effect, that the writing of his contemporaries tends to forfeit the historical in favour of the emotional; the dramatic in favour of the pyrotechnics of linguistic inventiveness; characterisation in favour of the shallowly spectacular. All he had to say then is surely worth repeating now.
The modernists in effect heeded Arnold’s injunctions, though he was one of the last authorities they would usually have invoked. The Waste Land is a public poem, in which Tiresias has forgotten nothing of antiquity. The Cantos is structured by ancient patternings. And so is Ulysses, where Homeric characterizations and plots find their corollary in the goings-on of contemporary Dublin. They offer a form. Plot is crucial to them all. And plot means subject-matter, just as subject-matter means choice of subject. Hill has been criticised by his detractors for being altogether too grand. What this means, in effect, is that he chooses big themes, and harps upon them. What the detractors disparage is precisely what his supporters praise. He has refused to be distracted by the trivialities of our age, and the low-mimetic prattle that so frequently accompanies them. All those piss-takes; so many cleverdick routines. How we chortled. The tittagram would not be long in coming. Soon enough we might find ourselves forming a chorus in the recite-a-thon. Not everything’s a joke though, is it? Hill insists on that. And we’ve certainly been had. Write about what you know, the writing students are enjoined. And thus is the whole point of the endeavour instantly lost. Writing is a cognitive activity: it is a way of getting to know, not a mere mechanical exposition of what we found out earlier, and shall now copy out in time for the workshop.
In his passionate and haunting poem ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’, Hill demonstrates how personal one can be in verse without needing to go into the ‘confessional mode’. In one sense the poem is a compressed review of three books by Rose, who died young, but achieved much nonetheless. The books are: Mourning Becomes the Law, Love’s Work and Paradiso. He is returning upon her through her books, but then she returned upon herself through her books too, so the circularity is a blessed one. The first of these titles exhibits the kind of unapologetic difficulty Hill applauds. The second two constitute a self-elegy. That’s a selfie in words with no protective whimsy to act as exoskeleton. ‘Love’s work’ Hill finds ‘a bleak ontology’, but he goes on to say at the finishing-line: ‘it may be all we have’.
IN 1989, THE second complete edition of the OED was published in twenty volumes. Hill was sent his reviewer’s copies from the Clarendon Press, via the TLS, and proceeded instantly to complain. The complaint was fascinating and entirely characteristic. But let us wind back a little.
The first fascicle of this vast enterprise (A-ANT) was published in 1884, and the first completed edition appeared in 1928, to be followed in 1933 by the Supplement. A further four-volume supplement was published in its entirety in 1986, under the editorship of Robert Burchfield. And then in 1989 came the second complete edition. Since then the whole text has been digitalised and put online. The lengthy business effectively started back in 1857 with a paper delivered to the Philological Society entitled On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries. That had been given by Richard Chevenix Trench, one-time Dean of Westminster and subsequently Archbishop of Dublin. Trench, who receives a whole chapter to himself in Matthew Sperling’s excellent Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words, was a popular lexicographer. He published books with titles like On the Study of Words, which are as readable and engaging today as they were when first published. His fastidious lexical hunting and parsing makes him a progenitor of that word-hungry poet, Geoffrey Hill. To garble, he points out in his Select Glossary, was once ‘to sift or cleanse corn from any dust or rubbish which may have become mingled with it.’ It was, in other words, to separate the good from the bad. How times change, not always for the better. Our garbling has become garbled.
Sperling’s book is a brilliant, sprightly text, which is a delight to read. It is an account of the entanglement of Hill’s work with etymology and lexicography; so entangled are they, so dialectically intertwined, that I would say they are inextricable. Trench cheerfully swiped Emerson’s phrase ‘fossil poetry’ to describe the way history encodes and engrafts itself on to and into language. Hill is always aware of the fossilized meanings which etymology uncovers. One can only do such work with the aid of the dictionary, of course. No one writer, however vastly learned, could manage all this work for himself. This is why Hill ended his OED review with a magisterial flourish: ‘Most of what one wants to know, including much that it hurts to know, about the English language is held within these twenty volumes. To brood over them and in them is to be finally persuaded that sematology is a theological dimension: the use of language is inseparable from the “terrible aboriginal calamity” in which, according to Newman, the human race is implicated.’ That aboriginal calamity is another name for Original Sin. And sematology was a word much used by the early OED editors. We would now normally say semiotics, if with a particular linguistic bent.
And so in a sense Sperling’s book brings us back to where we started. The linguistic turn at the start of the twentieth century was an acknowledgment of the inescapability of language. The most witless error possible is to imagine that language simply translates our thought into constellations of linguistic signs. The point is that we can only think in the first place through these signs. We are shaped by them as much as we come to shape them in our turn. We are named before we can speak. We find our being and identity through language. Language is as much the medium through which our thought has life, as air is the medium through which we breathe. The dictionary is not merely there to explain unknown words; it is there to make possible the exploration of the illimitable linguistic dimension we call our thought. It is a vast field of battles fought and negotiations concluded. Hill would immediately point out how the word negotiate, in its Latin origins, involves us etymologically in the cancellation of leisure. In one sense the OED is, collectively speaking, our greatest work.
So what was the specific nature of Hill’s grouse about the OED, after he had unpacked his free copies? He was unhappy about the editors’ gloss on the word ‘disremembering’. He felt that Gerard Manley Hopkins’ usage, in his poem ‘Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves’, offered a widening of the meaning which had not been supplied in the dictionary’s pages. In the Hopkins poem, the meaning is not a casual forgetting, but the dismemberment of memory itself. And that makes a difference.
Cantankerous, contrary, never less than passionate. In a poetic age profiled by postmodernist tricksters and oleaginous courtiers heading for their gongs, we are certainly lucky to have him.
Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in January. A collection of his essays has now been published by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint.