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The self demanding to be loved

March 16, 2015

I don’t know what to make of Geoffrey Hill. I hold his early work in high regard, but have never known quite what to do with what came after. Meanwhile, Hill himself doesn’t know quite what to do with what came before.

I’ve mentioned this already, with respect to the early poetry. I’ve recently begun making my way through his Collected Critical Writings, and something similar has taken place. I quite like the first essay, “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement'”; Hill, however, has apparently all but disowned it. Ah well. It still seems to me full of insight. Perhaps reading further in the collection will help me understand in what sense Hill disagrees.

But for now, here’s Hill on the peace that surpasseth understanding:

In certain contexts the expansive, outward gesture towards the condition of music is a helpless gesture of surrender, oddly analogous to that stylish aesthetic of despair, that desire for the ultimate integrity of silence, to which so much eloquence has been so frequently and indefagitably devoted.

On the poet as priest of the religion of art:

The major caveat which I would enter against a theological view of literature is that, too often, it is not theology at all, but merely a restatement of the neo-Symbolist mystique celebrating verbal mastery; an expansive gesture conveying the broad sense that Joyce’s Ulysses or Rilke’s Duino Elegies ‘must, in the spendor of its art, evoke astonishment at the sheer magnificence of its lordship over language.’ If an argument for the theological interpretation of literature is to be sustained, it needs other sustenance than this.

And, finally, in a kind of rewriting of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, on the self of the poet:

However much and however rightly we protest against the vanity of supposing it to be merely the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, poetic utterance is nonetheless an utterance of the self, the self demanding to be loved, demanding love in the form of recognition and ‘absolution’. The poet is perhaps the first to be dismayed by such a discovery and to seek the conversion of his ‘daemon’ to a belief in altruistic responsibility. But this dismay is as nothing compared to the shocking encounter with ’empirical guilt’, not as a manageable hypothesis, but as irredeemable error in the very substance and texture of one’s craft and pride. It is here that selfhood may be made at-one with itself. He may learn to live in his affliction, not with the cynical indifference of the reprobate but with the renewed sense of a vocation: that of necessarily bearing his peculiar unnecessary shame in a world growing ever more shameless.

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