Geoffrey Hill


List of sources of critical comment on Hill.

Epigraph to "Ovid in the Third Reich"

        non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.
(Amores, III.xiv)

She who can deny having sinned does not sin, and only the fault confessed makes her notorious.

(Thanks to Professor Rand Johnson.)


Extracts from an interview by John Haffenden
from Viewpoints   (London: Faber, 1981).

On a shopping trip to Birmingham, when I was about fifteen, my father bought me Oscar Williams's Little Treasure of Modem Verse  together with the Collected Poems  of A. E. Housman, and I carried the Williams antholgoy in my jacket pocket all over Worcestershire for several years until it disintegrated: I think there was probably a time when I knew every poem in that anthology by heart. . . .

[Q] Do you have strong feelings about the function of art and poetry, or do you feel that when we look to art for consolation, sublimation or transcendence we should remain sceptical about its value?

[A] What is wrong with accepting both parts of that proposition? To succeed totally in finding consolation in art would be to enter a prelapsarian kingdom. Father Chirstopher Devlin has a very fine phrase to define the themes of Hopkins's sermons -- "the lost kingdom of innocence and original justice", which is a lovely resonant phrase; and without in any way aligning myself hubristically with Hopkins, I would want to avail myself of Devlin's phrase, because I think there's a real sense in which every fine and moving poem bears witness to this lost kingdom of innocence and original justice. In handling the English language the poet makes an act of recognition that etymology is history. The history of the creation and the debasement of words is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and orignal justice.

If we can accept that image to any degree, then it seems to me that we can simultaneously accept the genuine possibility of consolation. After all, scepticism is a totally different thing from cycnicism. A society which provides such solid rewards for the vacuousness of the television personality is so centrally and orthodoxly cynical that scepticism belongs iwth poetry as a kind of marginal resistance to it. Therfore the oxymoronic nature of our world produces a resistant paradox, which is that the poem, which in itself may not contain a grain of scepticism, may nonetheless belong with certain kinds of constructive scepticism as one of the instruments of resistance to the drift of the age.

***

[Q] Can you describe how and why you came to write Mercian Hymns,  and why you chose to write the sequence in the form of prose poems?

[A] They're versets of rhythmical prose. The rhythm and cadence are far more of a pitched and tuned chant that I think one normally associates with the prose poem. I designed the appearance of the page in the form of versets. The reason they take the form they do is because at a very early stage the words and phrases begain to group themselves in this way. I did immediately see it as an extended sequence, and it did come quite quickly for me -- in three years, which is rapid by my standards. My second book, King Log,  was nine years in the making.

[Q] I'd like to quote the panegyric Harold Bloom wrote . . . "Mercian Hymns,  despite the limpidity of its individual sections, is the subtlest and most oblique of his works. It is not only hard to hold together, but there is some question as to what it is 'about", though the necessary answer is akin to The Prelude  again: Hill has at last no subject but his own complex subjectivity, and so the poem is 'about' himself, which turns out to be an exchange of gifts with the 'Muse of History'." Are those the terms in which you see the work?

[A] I think it is less solipsistic than that description suggests. I was not merely interested in the phenomenon of my own sensibility, I was genuinely interested in the phenomenon of King Offa and of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Mercia. My feeling for Offa and Mercia can scarcely be disentagnled from my mixed feelings for my own home country of Worcestershire. Since Offa seems to have been on the whole a rather hateful man who nonetheless created forms of government and coinage which compel one's admiration, this image of a tyrannical creator of order and beauty is, if you like, an objective correlative for the inevitable feelings of love and hate which any man or woman must feel for the patria.  The murderous brutality of Offa as a political animal seems again an objective correlative for the ambiguities of English history in general, as a means of trying to encompass and accommodate the early humiliations and fears of one's own childhood and also one's discovery of the tyrannical streak in oneself as a child. here again one is speaking of those characteristics which one holds in common with one's fellow beings.


Some bibliographical references for further exploration:


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