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World-building and mythopoeia

August 29, 2016

A friend recently brought to my attention this youtube video, a critique of what’s come to be known as “worldbuilding”. The basic problem with the practice:

Each [secondary world] has developed audiences that hunger for the author to fill in the margins, the gaps, the geography, the backstories, the histories; and, if the author won’t, they’ll do it themselves. […] The great science fiction and fantasy writer M. John Harrison once famously called worldbuilding “the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there.”

Well, what’s so wrong with that? The video pivots from this observation into what’s basically a post-modern attack on realism, whereby the text creates an illusion of reality and so relieves the reader of her knowledge that it’s mere words on a page. Supposedly, this leads to a more passive reading experience, and so encourages habits of reading that make people more susceptible to advertisements, propaganda, etc.

There’s something to this—but in what sense is the reading experience passive if the readers are so engaged that they’re willing to fill in the backstories themselves if the author won’t? That looks like engagement to me! Moreover, it’s communal engagement: people don’t just fill-in-the-blanks on the fold-out map in their copy of The Silmarillion; they share fan fiction and home-made props, they meet online or in person to discuss their theories. They even argue about their theories, and sometimes care greatly about their disagreements—though they’ll always set those disagreements aside when it’s time to look down on those who don’t care about the worldbuilding at all.


In other words: the fans of world-building are less like the targets of advertisements and propaganda, than like the purveyors of conspiracy theories. I was struck by this act of definition in an article about American UFO culture:

“Experiencers” is the preferred term here, since “abductee” doesn’t apply to people who’ve gone with aliens of their own free will, and “contactee” has positive-sounding connotations that actual abductees don’t like.

But why would abductees and contactees have anything to do with one another? If some people think aliens are out to get us, and others think aliens are out to save us, wouldn’t they be mortal enemies? Most worldbuilding-subculture words are kind of like this, “nerd” most of all: nerds may differ about what matters more than most people realize (in both senses of that phrase), but they all agree that something matters more than most people realize, and can find common cause in looking down on “most people”—forgetting, in some cases, that there might be hardly any overlap between the different groups of people they each look down on.

In theological terms, nerds and conspiracy theorists alike are predisposed towards asceticism, gnosticism, monotheism (one world to rule them all). Most people, on the other hand, if any “most people” are even left, are predisposed towards libertinism, universalism, polytheism.


Literary realism, according to the post-modern critique, creates a desire for reality that the realistic work can never fully satisfy, since reality is infinite and a book or movie is finite. Kind of like how Coca-Cola isn’t selling you a soda, it’s selling you a brand, and, drink as many coca-colas and you want, you’ll never quench your thirst for Coca-Cola(tm). I’m not sure I buy this for realistic fiction, but it’s definitely true for worldbuilding fiction, or at least a legitimate threat—secondary worlds can suck you in like a conspiracy theory, make you always hunger for more.

This happens because worldbuilding is, by definition, never finished. In a sense, Tolkien’s failure to publish The Silmarillion in his lifetime was necessary, not contingent. There might be bounds on the section entitled “Quenta Silmarillion,” “history of the silmarils,” but in writing the book now known as The Silmarillion Tolkien tried to encompass the entire legendarium, a task which had no natural endpoint, just a place at which he was forced to stop.

It’s not a question of passivity versus activity: the author can get sucked in just as easily as the reader; and the line between reader and author can easily be blurred. Rather, it’s a question of the telos of poetic activity: is it the perfection of the work itself, or the satisfaction of the hunger the thought of the work elicits? Insofar as authors take it to be the latter, their work can never be finished, for the hunger can never be satisfied. Insofar as they take it to be the former, it can be. This is the difference between building a world and telling a story. Stories end; worlds don’t. Even an apocalypse can’t fill in all the gaps.


Is it bad to build literary perpetual-desire-machines? From a theological point of view, it certainly seems suspect: it makes an idol of the secondary world. Only God should be an object of infinite desire. This suggests to me that authors should not take world-building as an end in itself; as Aristotle said of tragedy, stories are the imitation, not of a world, but of an action.

If I’m right here, then Tolkien’s theoretical justification for his work (offered at greatest length in “On Fairy-Stories”) is somewhat misguided. His argument involves an unjustified logical leap; what he calls the “power of image-making,” even when artistic excellence gives its creations “the inner consistency of reality,” need not produce “Secondary Worlds,” but only secondary images—that is, metaphors; and, in literary work, secondary actions—that is, metaphoric actions—that is, myths. A secondary world is not a necessary component of literary works, and is also a dangerous one, since it seems almost always to result in a temptation towards indulging the desire for world-building, which means indulging nostalgia. Any literary work that does attempt to build a secondary world must have a special reason for doing so, grounded in the myth it seeks to tell.

To see what such a reason might be, we must ask: of what reality does a secondary world, qua secondary world, offer an image? The answer is obvious, and Tolkien basically gives it to us: “At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art.” Secondary worlds are about the human desire to imitate God’s creative act—a desire perfectly natural, and also, in the eyes of traditional theology, exceedingly dangerous. No literary work should consciously embark on an act of cosmopoeia unless it does so to tell a story about this desire—unless it means to make an issue of its own artifactuality.

Burning burning burning burning

August 28, 2016

Today being the Feast of St. Augustine, I call to your attention the last lines of “The Fire Sermon,” part iii of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


In a way these lines, which allude (among other things) to Augustine’s Confessions, seem to demonstrate the opposite of the ethic of reading Augustine suggests in Confessions book IV, wherein the worst thing you can do is interrupt someone reading out loud because you want to linger on the sound of one particular word, at the expense of the sense of the entire sentence; I suggested in that post that Ambrose’s silent reading affects Augustine so powerfully because it suggests to him the possibility of uninterrupted sense-making.

The distinction I would draw here is perhaps over-subtle, but I think Eliot’s lines actually enact for us the opposite of the privileging of sound over sense that Augustine decries. Rather, by forcing us to read the repetition of the word “Burning,” it becomes not an aestheticized interruption, but an ascetic meditation. And by moving from the whole sentence “O Lord Thou pluckest me out” to the truncated repetition of “O Lord Thou pluckest,” Eliot anticipates the “backlooping” which we silent readers would have done anyway (“backlooping” being Walter J. Ong’s term for “glancing back over the text selectively,” an action possible only with the written word). The difference between backlooping and interrupted oral recitation is like that between memory and nostalgia. The former takes place as necessary for comprehension, the latter merely on a whim.

Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married

August 15, 2016

[First post of two, and a sequel of sorts to last year’s meditations on modern marriage. I might want to add some George Eliot (perhaps Silas Marner and Middlemarch?) to the syllabus offered in the last of those posts.]

In chapter 6 of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a conversation in the tavern takes a strange turn, and one not particularly relevant to the plot, though of great thematic significance:

Here Mr. Macey paused; he always gave his narrative in instalments, expecting to be questioned according to precedent.

“Aye, and a partic’lar thing happened, didn’t it, Mr. Macey, so as you were likely to remember that marriage?” said the landlord, in a congratulatory tone.

“I should think there did—a very partic’lar thing,” said Mr. Macey, nodding sideways. “For Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him, though he’d got a bit confused in his head, what wi’ age and wi’ taking a drop o’ summat warm when the service come of a cold morning. And young Mr. Lammeter, he’d have no way but he must be married in Janiwary, which, to be sure, ‘s a unreasonable time to be married in, for it isn’t like a christening or a burying, as you can’t help; and so Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him—but when he come to put the questions, he put ’em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?” says he, and then he says, “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?” says he. But the partic’larest thing of all is, as nobody took any notice on it but me, and they answered straight off “yes”, like as if it had been me saying “Amen” i’ the right place, without listening to what went before.”

“But you knew what was going on well enough, didn’t you, Mr. Macey? You were live enough, eh?” said the butcher.

“Lor bless you!” said Mr. Macey, pausing, and smiling in pity at the impotence of his hearer’s imagination—”why, I was all of a tremble: it was as if I’d been a coat pulled by the two tails, like; for I couldn’t stop the parson, I couldn’t take upon me to do that; and yet I said to myself, I says, “Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married, ’cause the words are contrairy?” and my head went working like a mill, for I was allays uncommon for turning things over and seeing all round ’em; and I says to myself, “Is’t the meanin’ or the words as makes folks fast i’ wedlock?” For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.” And I was worreted as if I’d got three bells to pull at once, when we went into the vestry, and they begun to sign their names. But where’s the use o’ talking?—you can’t think what goes on in a ‘cute man’s inside.”

“But you held in for all that, didn’t you, Mr. Macey?” said the landlord.

“Aye, I held in tight till I was by mysen wi’ Mr. Drumlow, and then I out wi’ everything, but respectful, as I allays did. And he made light on it, and he says, “Pooh, pooh, Macey, make yourself easy,” he says; “it’s neither the meaning nor the words—it’s the regester does it—that’s the glue.” So you see he settled it easy; for parsons and doctors know everything by heart, like, so as they aren’t worreted wi’ thinking what’s the rights and wrongs o’ things, as I’n been many and many’s the time. And sure enough the wedding turned out all right, on’y poor Mrs. Lammeter—that’s Miss Osgood as was—died afore the lasses was growed up; but for prosperity and everything respectable, there’s no family more looked on.”

Every one of Mr. Macey’s audience had heard this story many times, but it was listened to as if it had been a favourite tune, and at certain points the puffing of the pipes was momentarily suspended, that the listeners might give their whole minds to the expected words.

If Macey’s story raises questions about the efficacy of the sacraments, the gentle irony with which Eliot describes his telling of it expands the scope of the problem. What guarantees the validity of any significant action, given that there’s always a threat that it might not have been really meant—it might have been performed, as it were, by rote?

The “learned” solution, that any question of validity can be settled by the written record, is obviously no solution at all. The expanded scope makes that perfectly obvious: no record is kept of the occasions on which Mr. Macey and his audience enact the ritual of storytelling, but that does not mean the ritual did not take place. Moreover, even for significant actions of which there usually is a record, the absence or presence of a record guarantees nothing. Records can be erased, or lost, or forged, or misinterpreted. An appeal to the written record turns out to be no different, metaphysically speaking, than any other appeal to physical evidence. Just like the spoken word, the written word can be lost to the ravages of time, and it does not interpret itself. Who can now say whether Mr. Macey heard the erroneous vows correctly? And who can say whether vows being spoken wrong really makes a difference to what their vowing them accomplished?

But Mr. Macey is also right to reject the appeal to “the meanin’.” Not only is it the case, as he points out, that intentions do not always hit their mark, but—as philosophers like J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe would argue a century later—there’s no such thing as an “intention” floating free of the physical world. It would be, not just baseless, but nonsensical, to say that someone “intended” to be φ‘ing when they were neither φ‘ing nor doing something that could be described as failing to φ (whether due to accident, or mistake, or whatever). Knowledge of the couple’s intentions at the time of the wedding might help us determine whether they indeed wedded, but it cannot resolve the question entirely, and in any case such knowledge will just be a summary description of what the couple actually did, which is what we wanted to know in the first place.

Though George Eliot doesn’t suggest a plausible solution in the immediate vicinity of the story, I think Silas Marner as a whole does offer us a way out. At the climax of the book, one character pronounces, just prior to confessing their greatest sin, a hope basic to philosophy: “Everything comes to light, [Wife], sooner or later. When God Almighty wills it, our secrets are found out.” Instead of the passage of time obscuring the meaning of one’s actions, it reveals it. The “meaning” is indeed what matters, but this isn’t something that can be accessed through any inspection of the physical action itself, even if that action was the writing on a piece of paper of words whose meaning we think we know. Rather, the meaning is determined by the context, and the context cannot be limited in advance; it will become apparent either sooner, or later.

For example, much of the drama of Silas Marner revolves around another marriage than that Mr. Macey describes—in fact, one involving the daughter of that marriage—and the question of its validity. The presence or absence of a child is central to our judgment on that question, in complex ways I won’t go into here. And this is entirely appropriate. Whether a union is fruitful is the kind of evidence that by definition cannot be present at the time of marriage, but which can be crucial to determining whether the union was ever open to fecundity. Which matters, of course, because a marriage not open to life—for an Anglican, I think, as much as a Catholic—is no marriage at all.

Same flowers, same bees

August 1, 2016

I don’t read a lot of contemporary poetry, and what I do read I don’t often like, but I’m oddly fascinated by this Franz Wright prose-poem, called “Bees of Eleusis”:

Unless a grain of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it remains nothing but a grain of wheat.
—John 12:24

The ingredients gathered, a few small red tufts of the dream spoor per sheaf of Demeter’s blonde wheat, reaped in mourning, in silence, ground up with the pollen and mixed into white wine and honey. These stored forms of light taken under the ground. Taken by mouth. First those who by birth hold in secret the word; then placed on the tongues of the new ones, into whose ears it is meant to be whispered. Word murdered, forgotten so long ago, placed as a kiss on the lips of the soon-to-be-no-longer breathing who mean to enter death with open eyes, with mouths saying Death, what death? We have no word for it in our country where the bride of a brighter oblivion reigns. Not the purple-haired god but the child queen, the raped girl, come back from the dead hand in hand with the child she conceived there, returned in a resurrected virginity, wind through green wheat. Present-day site of a minor refinery in Christ. Although by the tenth generation already the children of light (“in their dark garments”) had trampled and smashed and generally raped the two thousand years of this precinct and its holy meal, intolerable mirror. Men who’d designed and bowed down to a law derived from the sayings of one who appeared here to say that the law is abolished, it is too late, all that is over with. Men who bungled their way through the next eighteen centuries before finally descending into the earth themselves, and what they found there they used, and we thank you for destroying the destroyers of the world. And here at the end this is as good as any other entrance to the underplace, journey of the fallen leaf back to the branch, to the bees of Eleusis among olive blossoms, untroubled among crimson wildflowers. Four thousand years later: same flowers, same bees.

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was an American poet. I like this Denis Johnson quote about him: “[his poems] are like tiny jewels shaped by blunt, ruined fingers–miraculous gifts.” Though I’m not entirely convinced it’s true.

X marks the spot

July 21, 2016

I’m speaking this weekend at a conference in York about David Jones and Irenaeus of Lyon. There’s quite a few passages from Irenaeus I’d like to discuss here in the near future (though we’ll see if I get around to it). Here’s one of the most interesting, from Against Heresies IV.xxvi (emphasis added), which I had hoped to mention in my talk, but could not fit in:

If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field, in this world (for “the field is the world”); but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables. Hence His human nature could not be understood, prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of Christ. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet: “Shut up the words, and seal the book even to the time of consummation, until many learn, and knowledge be completed. For at that time, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things.” But Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things.” For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition. And for this reason, indeed, when at this present time the law is read to the Jews, it is like a fable; for they do not possess the explanation of all things pertaining to the advent of the Son of God, which took place in human nature; but when it [the law] is read by the Christians, it is a treasure, hid indeed in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of men, and showing forth the wisdom of God and declaring His dispensations with regard to man, and forming the kingdom of Christ beforehand, and preaching by anticipation the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the man who loves God shall arrive at such excellency as even to see God, and hear His word, and from the hearing of His discourse be glorified to such an extent, that others cannot behold the glory of his countenance, as was said by Daniel: “Those who do understand, shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever.” Thus, then, I have shown it to be, if any one read the Scriptures. For thus it was that the Lord discoursed with the disciples after His resurrection from the dead, proving to them from the Scriptures themselves “that Christ must suffer, and enter into His glory, and that remission of sins should be preached in His name throughout all the world.” And the disciple will be perfected, and like the householder, “who brings forth from his treasure things new and old.”

The logic of this passage is complex. The basic claim is that, for some relation, call it “mapping,” it’s the case both that OT (the Old Testament) maps X (Christ), and that X maps OT. But how can this be? If mapping were an obviously symmetric relation like “resembling,” this wouldn’t even be worth noting, but this is far from obvious—it seems absurd. If I have a map to buried treasure, we wouldn’t usually say that the buried treasure is itself a map to my map.

But OT and X, Irenaeus thinks, are special. Once we know about X, we can recognize OT as mapping X; but without X, we cannot recognize this about OT, and so in a sense X maps OT as well. From a certain angle, this seems like an attempt to construct a form-based metaphysics that will evaide the anti-Platonic third man argument. What besides an additional map ensures that my map is indeed a map to the treasure? (Cf. Wittgenstein: What can tell me how to interpret a rule besides another rule?) Answer: the treasure itself.

Except, that isn’t quite right. Irenaeus thinks that both OT and X map each other only because both of them do not just exist, but mean. The OT is a collection of words; X is the Word. OT and X can map one another only because both have meaning, and their meanings inform one another. A map to buried treasure lacks this structure because only the map means; the treasure simply is. The treasure does have something to do with the map being a map to buried treasure, but it doesn’t map the map itself.

A can map B only if A has meaning. This does not, however, mean that, if A maps B and B maps A, they have the same meaning. The mapping relation is never symmetric. Rather, mapping, for Irenaeus, is a genus that includes, in addition to the normal mapping relation, where only the first term has meaning, two relations in which both terms have meaning: foreshadowing and fulfilling. These are reciprocals; if A foreshadows B, then B fulfills A. Though each implies the other, B has an ontological priority over A, in the way that the whole has priority over its parts.

Which is to say, basically, that Christ and the Old Testament stand in a relation of hermeneutic circularity. I wonder if this passage isn’t the first to make such a claim in the history of Western philosophy.

Below High’s lodge

July 11, 2016

Consider what3words. The concept is simple:

The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting. | what3words is a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3mx3m square, anywhere on the planet. | It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates. | Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

For example, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago—or at least, one 3mx3m square of it—is “below.highs.lodge”. Its address, meanwhile, is “1155 E 58th St, Chicago, IL 60637“. The former of these is, in theory, considerably easier to remember than the latter; it consists of just three words, compared to four words plus three arbitrary numbers, one of 2, one of 4, one of 5 digits.

On the other hand, the Oriental Institute’s postal address carries a great deal of information. 60637: the first three digits tell you the region (6=lower Midwest) and mail distribution center (06=the one in Chicago), while the last two designate a particular region in the city. Then we get some of that information again, the redundancy helping protect against errors: IL: we’re in Illinois; Chicago: we’re in the largest city bordering Lake Michigan. The first half of the address tells us even more. St: we’re on a street, not an avenue, so we’re on a road that runs east-west. 58th: we’re 58 blocks, give or take, south of downtown Chicago, right south of 57th St. and north of 59th St. E: we’re east of downtown Chicago; 1155: by about 23 blocks. If you understand ZIP codes and the city of Chicago, you can find the Oriental Institute on the basis of its address alone, without knowing here it is in advance.

The what3words for the Oriental Institute, meanwhile, tells us basically nothing. It’s easy to remember, but entirely devoid of information. In fact, it actively seeks to ensure that its addresses offer a form of anti-information:

The what3words algorithm actively shuffles similar-sounding 3 word combinations around the world to enable both human and automated intelligent error-checking (e.g. table.chair.lamp & table.chair.lamps are on different continents). | If you enter a 3 word address slightly incorrectly and the result is still a valid what3words result, the location will be so far away from your intended area that it will be immediately obvious to the person searching or an intelligent automated error-detection system.

That’s great, if you already know roughly where something is, and you’re trying to find your way there precisely; for example, if I’m in Chicago and want to go to the Oriental Institute, I’ll notice immediately if the address seems to be in Belgium instead. It seems less helpful for things like mailing addresses, unless it functions like a ZIP code with city and state adjacent, for error-correction. I don’t expect to ever see letters addressed to “below.highs.lodge” without any further information. After all, if there were a typo, it could wind up in Bangladesh, and there where would we be?

In other words, addresses in what3words are entirely parasitic upon linguistic structures—that’s what makes them memorable—while being entirely devoid of linguistic meaning. Despite the meaning of the words conveying zero information, we remember addresses like “below.highs.lodge” by telling a story about the phrase; perhaps we fancy the Oriental Institute to be located beneath a lodge built by Mr. High. It’s the most extreme form of mnemonics I’ve ever seen. So extreme, in fact, that it’s impossible for humans to use without computer assistance; what3words is useless without the massive database of correspondences between the 57 million w3w addresses and their respective LAT/LONG coordinates. Incidentally, the developers do intend to monetize the what3words technology.

There may be some practical benefits to what3words, but it’s worth noting that its universal adoption would tend to undermine the very thing it relies on. What what3words lacks that old-fashioned addresses have, I want to say, is the ability of language to convey not information, but knowledge about the structure of the world. Linguistic structures are memorable because they represent, in some hard-to-define sense, those worldly structures; if they didn’t, what3words addresses would sound just as much like gobbledygook as do LAT/LONG coordinates. Or, rather, would sound even more absurd; LAT/LONG coordinates at least convey information directly, even if in a hard-to-remember fashion, whereas what3words addresses are just absurd strings of three random words absent an entirely arbitrary set of 57 million correspondences.

In the end, my thoughts on what3words quite resemble those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge when asked about smaller-scale mnemonic systems:

The act of consciousness is indeed identical with time considered in its essence. I mean time per se, as contra-distinguished from our notion of time; for this is always blended with the idea of space, which, as the opposite of time, is therefore its measure. Nevertheless the accident of seeing two objects at the same moment, and the accident of seeing them in the same place are two distinct or distinguishable causes: and the true practical general law of association is this; that whatever makes certain parts of a total impression more vivid or distinct than the rest, will determine the mind to recall these in preference to others equally linked together by the common condition of contemporaneity, or (what I deem a more appropriate and philosophical term) of continuity. But the will itself by confining and intensifying the attention may arbitrarily give vividness or distinctness to any object whatsoever; and from hence we may deduce the uselessness, if not the absurdity, of certain recent schemes which promise an artificial memory, but which in reality can only produce a confusion and debasement of the fancy. Sound logic, as the habitual subordination of the individual to the species, and of the species to the genus; philosophical knowledge of facts under the relation of cause and effect; a cheerful and communicative temper disposing us to notice the similarities and contrasts of things, that we may be able to illustrate the one by the other; a quiet conscience; a condition free from anxieties; sound health, and above all (as far as relates to passive remembrance) a healthy digestion; these are the best, these are the only Arts of Memory.

Dona eis requiem aeternam

July 3, 2016

Geoffrey Hill died last Thursday, June 30th. Hill has in recent decades been called the “greatest living poet in the English language”; now he is one of the greatest dead ones.

I first read Hill’s poetry five years ago, then put him out of my mind until last March, when I read his Collected Critical Writings. They made a tremendous impact on my thinking about poetry, language, history, religion… not so much particular things he’s said, as his way of asking questions. Or rather, not asking specific questions, but sounding out various words and phrases. I also went back and looked again at his poetry; his earlier work now matters a great deal to me, though I’m still (as almost everyone seems to be) baffled by the more recent productions.

Even as I read a lot of Hill I was not thinking much at all about Hill the living human being. Then a few months ago I had a conversation with my advisor about Hill, whose office at B.U., it turned out, had been next to hers. When I mentioned how strange it sounded to hear first-hand anecdotes about someone who always seemed to me a “book person,” she exclaimed that, far from a “book person,” Hill was more alive than most people. He was full of life, full of moral and critical and poetic energy. After that conversation I tracked down the recordings of Hill’s lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry (you can find them here), and listened to them in early June. I came to share my advisor’s assessment: he sounds aged in those lectures, but not at all decrepit.

It’s strange to learn of Hill’s death just weeks after he most seemed to me alive.


I don’t think Hill would have appreciated the kind of sentimental outbursts one seens on the occasion of celebrity deaths. He loathed celebrity, including his own, and he loathed memorial kitsch. He was grotesquely fascinated by the Holocaust, by the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of responding to it without making it about our own feelings of horror. His elegy September Song explores the problem incisively:

September Song

born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.

Am I sad that Hill has died? A few months ago I said that his was one of the only celebrity deaths that would, hypothetically speaking, bother me. It does bother me as I predicted, but perhaps one ought not to make an elegy for oneself after all. Or at least, one should realize for whom the elegy is written—or else it won’t be true.


Everyone I’ve talked to who knows what they’re talking about has said that David Jones influenced Hill immensely. But HIll has written hardly a word about this supposed influence. A few months ago an acquaintance said that we’re all waiting for Hill to write an essay on Jones; now, I suppose, we’ll wait forever. Or perhaps in Hill’s papers somewhere there’s a draft of such an essay to be found, and it can be published posthumously. Time will tell.

They say Mercian Hymns is the most Jonesian of Hill’s books of poetry. It’s also among my favorites; a bizarre sequence of thirty prose-poems mingling the life of Offa, king of Mercia, with that of Hill himself. For example:

Mercian Hymns VII

Gasholders, russett among fields. Milldams, marlpools that
lay unstirring. Eel-swarms. Coagulations of frogs: once,
with branches and half-bricks, he battered a ditchful;
then sidled away from the stillness and silence.

Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the
day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and
irreplaceable, two inches of heavy snub silver. Ceolred let
it spin through a hole in the classroom-floorboards,
softly, into the rat-droppings and coins.

After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with
fright, down to the old quarries and flayed him. Then,
leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone,
in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion.


Hill was married to an Anglican priestess, and he wrote often about theology and theological poetry; but he does not seem quite to have brought himself to belief. Since today is the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, this Hill poem seems particularly appropriate:

Canticle for Good Friday

The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.

A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He
As yet unsearched, unscratched,

And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
His brain
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)

In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).


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