As it was John Milton's 400th birthday last week, I re-read some of his poetry, including 'Lycidas' and 'Comus'. This led me to Geoffrey Hill's 'Scenes from Comus' which I've had for some time, but not got round to reading. I've read Hill's poetry, on and off, since the days of 'Mercian Hymns'; the solidity and musicality of his language appeals to me, and if I took the trouble - particularly with the later works - of tracking down the Biblical, literary and other references, I'd probably get even more out of it.
The edition of 'Scenes from Comus' that I have comes with a front-cover endorsement from none other than Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (not sure what Milton would have thought if he'd been told that bishops were still around 350 years after he campaigned to get rid of them). It struck me that much of Hill's style may stem from the fact that - like the said Arch Bishop - he is a very clever, highly educated man, who nevertheless holds a belief-system, Anglican Christianity, which is difficult - some would say impossible - to justify in the face of current scientific knowledge. So Hill and Williams, in trying to avoid sounding like fundamentalists, are led into extreme subtlety and complexity. Indeed, a recent speech of the Archbishop's concerning Sharia Law was so subtle that it was misconstrued by almost everyone who heard it.
Not that there's anything wrong with subtlety and complexity, it's just that in Hill, it sometimes feels like it's being used to mask some umpleasant sentiments. So, in 'Scenes from Comus', where the speaker is talking of contemporary culture, we have lines like:
The voice of reason maddens with its fear
So becomes unreasonable? Or, it's maddening when reason is afraid? Or, more worryingly, reason is maddening because it's making people afraid? Hard to tell. Or:
The cunning is to swing it, be a hinge
of the unhinged time. At the very worst
gaping on all, missing what pillage finds;
at best a portal for the heirarchies.
The bit about being a hinge is just a Yeatsian superiority complex - everyone's unhinged except him and a select few of his friends. But 'portal for the heirarchies'! What on earth does that mean? It sounds impressive, mystical even (unless you're thinking of an internet portal), but... come off it Geoffrey! Are you saying that 'the best' would be some prophet - like yourself - dispensing wisdom from those higher in the hierarchy? Hardly a very subtle idea after all, though veiled in bardic tones.
But... I'll continue to read Hill - just as I read Pound - and enjoy passages like these:
The small oaks crest the ridge, the sun appears
cresting this instant; their topmost ranks take fire
and vaporize or find some other form
wherewith to be not of this world.
How can I tell you? - dawn after dawn,
immeasurable taking up of dross and dying.
To conclude, here's a slightly tongue-in-cheek review of Hill's "Speech! Speech!" which I wrote for Poetry Nottingham in 2002:
Geoffrey Hill's position in contemporary poetry can be compared to Milton, after the collapse of his ideals and the restoration of the monarchy, raging at the world around him. Hill is reviled by both the avant-garge and traditionalist camps, and for that reason alone, 'Speech! Speech!' ought to be read; that it will not be by many is due to the spectre of Difficulty. And there can't be anyone who would not find this poem difficult. A comparison with that other poet renowned for his opacity, J.H.Prynne, is instructive. Prynne's work cannot be deciphered by following up allusions and references or using scholarly resources. His technique is to resist this, and deliberately bewilder and disorientate his readers, thus (the theory goes) forcing them into a new accommodation with language. Hill is less elliptical than Prynne, more didactic (even, in this book, to the point of telling readers which syllables to stress, by accenting them), and ultimately more authoritarian. Hill's poetry is made difficult by the mass of learning applied to it, in the manner of Pound. But a reader who was diligent enough to do the research, could decipher most of it.
And what would the meaning be, after such explication? A not-too-subtle hint is that there are 120 stanzas:
As many As the days
that were | of SODOM
Leaving aside the worrying thought that a twentieth century intellectual might approve of the god of the Old Testament and what he did to the city of Sodom, the persona in these poems is that of the grand poet/scholar railing at those too ignorant or boorish to appreciate Beauty/Modern Poetry/Their Fallen Ways:
Erudition. Pain. Light.
Imagine it great unavoidable work;
although: heroic verse
a non-starter, says PEOPLE.
Hill's speech can be linguistically exciting, and there are even flashes of dark humour (the title alludes to our modern addiction to being centre-stage for our 15 minutes of fame). But he presents a mystical vision of England, drawing on Bunyan and Blake, that many will find disturbingly nationalistic. The main theme of the poem is the familiar high-modernist one;that the modern world is a mess; that the ignorant masses have usurped cultural life; that popular culture is worthless; that an enlightened few are struggling to maintain high standards against a flood of mediocrity. You may not agree with this, basically right wing, view. I don't. But, as ever with poetry, it's not what you say, it's how you say it.