Geoffrey Hill

The Drama of Reason

by Alex Pestell (Author)
Monographs XII, 246 Pages
Series: Modern Poetry, Volume 9


Geoffrey Hill (1932–2016) was often hailed as one of the most important – and one of the most difficult – poets of his lifetime. This book is a timely investigation into a writer whose work seems simultaneously to invite analysis and to refuse explanations of its sensuous, allusive language. It provides an introduction to Hill’s work for readers coming to it for the first time and offers an account of his poetics that will be of interest to his more experienced readers. Alongside many close readings of poems spanning Hill’s long and varied career, the author brings to light findings from the Geoffrey Hill Archive in Leeds and investigates the poet’s important critical writings. Hill’s often antagonistic engagement with the thought of other poets and philosophers supplies the book’s structure. Coleridge, Eliot, F. H. Bradley and Ezra Pound are engaged by Hill in a dramatic contest over what the author claims is his visionary aim for poetry: the realisation of the objective conditions of judgement. Above all, Hill is presented as a quintessentially modernist poet – at odds with modernity, and at the same time creating a language answerable to its rich, traumatic complexity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Geoffrey Hill and Soliloquy
  • Chapter 1: Coleridge, Imagination and the Parenthetical
  • Chapter 2: Coleridge’s Common Sense
  • Chapter 3: ‘Judgement’s gorge’: T. H. Green and Speech! Speech!
  • Chapter 4: F. H. Bradley and the ‘way of apprehension’
  • Chapter 5: Ezra Pound and Diagnosis
  • Chapter 6: Pound’s ‘epic blague’
  • Chapter 7: Vision, Commerce and Society
  • Chapter 8: Poetry and Value
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← viii | ix →


This book began as a doctoral thesis under the guidance of Keston Sutherland at the University of Sussex. His painstaking attention to my work ensured it found its way to completion: my deepest thanks go to Keston for his support and encouragement at Sussex and after. I am indebted as well to Peter Robinson, whose comments on the thesis as external examiner, as well as his advice and support afterwards, were invaluable. At Sussex I benefited from the conversation and collegiality of many students and members of faculty: in particular thanks are due to Christoforos Diakoulakis, Seda Ilter, Daniel Kane, Michael Kindellan, Angelos Koutsourakis, Peter Nicholls, Richard Parker and David Tucker. I am grateful to the staff of the Brotherton Collection in the Leeds University Library for their help in obtaining documents from the Geoffrey Hill Archive, and to Kenneth Haynes and Geoffrey Hill for granting permission to quote from them. Part of Chapter 7 has been published in a different form as ‘Vision, commerce and society in Geoffrey Hill’s early poetry’, Textual Practice 29/5 (2015); my thanks to its editor, Peter Boxall, and to the journal’s anonymous readers, whose reports initiated several revisions and clarifications. I am also indebted to the book’s commissioning editor, Christabel Scaife, and to the Modern Poetry series editors, David Ayers, David Herd and Jan Montefiore.

A book such as this seems to shun family attachments, but it couldn’t have been written without the support and companionship of Michaela and Jaki, of my brother, Ben, or of my parents, to whom it is dedicated. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


I have used the following abbreviations for references to works by Geoffrey Hill.

BHBroken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012, ed. Kenneth Haynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
CCWCollected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
CPCollected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985)
SSSpeech! Speech! (London: Penguin, 2001)
T1A Treatise of Civil Power (Thame: Clutag Press, 2005)
T2A Treatise of Civil Power (London: Penguin, 2007)

I have for the most part used Broken Hierarchies as the source text for Hill’s poems. When quoting from poem sequences, I include the poem number to make it easier to find in the original volumes. For example, ‘Speech! Speech! (60, BH 318)’ refers to Poem 60 on page 318 of Broken Hierarchies. Where a passage has not been retained in Broken Hierarchies I quote from the original volume. Material from the Geoffrey Hill Archive in the Brotherton Collection at Leeds University Library is given by class mark, with the title of the file in square brackets. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →

Introduction: Geoffrey Hill and Soliloquy

The cover of this book reproduces part of an emblem commissioned by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, for his treatise ‘Soliloquy: or, Advice to an Author’, and printed in the 1732 edition of his collected writings, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.1 The central panel of the emblem shows a large mirror ‘of the fashionable sort’ leaning ominously over a writing desk in a darkened room.2 On each side of this central panel a boy holding a hand-mirror stands against a sky in which three harpies are arranged in differing positions. On the left, the boy holds the mirror in front of him and looks into it; the harpies are making off into the distance ‘in confusion’. In the right panel, the boy stands against gathering storm clouds, ‘his head […] turn’d strongly away from [the mirror]’. As a consequence, the harpies hover over him menacingly, one of them bearing a crown and sceptre. Refusal to reflect upon yourself, the emblem implies, is tantamount to an abdication of sovereignty: control of your fate – or rather, of your thoughts, fancies and desires – passes to the vengeful whims of the harpies.

‘Soliloquy: or, Advice to an Author’ argues that reasoning cannot be perfected except by a kind of division of the self into two. Commenting on the notion of daemon in classical philosophy, Shaftesbury interprets it to mean

That we had each of us a Patient in our-self; that we were properly our own Subjects of Practice; and that we then became due Practitioners, when by virtue of an intimate ← 1 | 2 → Recess we cou’d discover a certain Duplicity of Soul, and divide our-selves into two Partys.3

By virtue of solitude, practised auditors are able to attend to ‘this Home-Dialect of SOLILOQUY’. This is not a faculty with which we are born: it is a skill that must be cultivated, refined by frequent practice.4 Without this ability or habit, we are beset by the harpies of irrational hopes, fears and ambitions. For Shaftesbury, the arts play a crucial role in the cultivation of this form of knowledge. ‘Go to the Poets’, he says, ‘and they will present you with many Instances’:

Nothing is more common with them, than this sort of SOLILOQUY. A Person […] comes alone upon the Stage; looks about him, to see if any body be near; then takes himself to task, without sparing himself in the least.5

Poetry is a kind of training ground for reason: a scene in which the poet ‘takes himself to task’. This scene is endemic to poetry: ‘Nothing is more common with them’.

A travesty of this scene is on display in Geoffrey Hill’s long poem The Triumph of Love, described by one reviewer, appropriately enough, as ‘a jagged soliloquy, full of muttering and shouts’.6 It is punctuated by frequent passages of self-arraignment:

Obnoxious chthonic old fart

(XXXIV, BH 249)

Shameless old man, bent on committing
more public nuisance.

(XXXVII, BH 249) ← 2 | 3 →

But while Hill certainly could be said to be taking himself to task in these excerpts, they are only a minor manifestation of the ‘Duplicity of Soul’ in Hill’s poetry. Not only are these interjections in The Triumph of Love and elsewhere almost pantomime in their crudity, there is also a crucial difference between Shaftesbury’s and Hill’s notions of soliloquy. What is missing from Hill’s poems is Shaftesbury’s confidence that self-knowledge inevitably awaits us when we return from our edifying retreat. For Shaftesbury, the self-dialogue is ‘the only way of composing Matters in our Breast, and establishing that Subordinacy, which alone cou’d make Us agree with our-selves, and be of a-piece within’.7 Such subordinacy of the substance of thought to the self may be a distant horizon in Hill’s work, but it is rarely spoken with anything but an anxious recognition that ‘composing Matters’ sometimes presents insuperable challenges. This diffidence is what makes Hill’s poems worth overhearing:

Even now, I tell myself, there is a language
to which I might speak and which
would rightly hear me;
responding with eloquence; in its turn,
negotiating sense without insult
given or injury taken.


XII, 246
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (April)
Geoffrey Hill Modernism Contemporary poetry
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XII, 246 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Alex Pestell (Author)

Alex Pestell completed his doctoral studies at the University of Sussex. His research interests include modernism, contemporary poetry, philosophy and the avant-garde.


Title: Geoffrey Hill
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