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Geoffrey Hill

The Drama of Reason

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Alex Pestell

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.
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Chapter 1: Coleridge, Imagination and the Parenthetical

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CHAPTER 1

Coleridge, Imagination and the Parenthetical

‘“The Conscious Mind’s Intelligible Structure”: A Debate’ situates its reader amongst a series of rather abstract planes: the ‘primary objective world’, the ‘objectivity’ that it is the artist’s task to attain, and (borrowing from Newman), a ‘grammar of assent’ grounding diverse subjectivities.1 In the first of the encounters I will stage between Hill and his precursors, Samuel Taylor Coleridge will emerge as one of the key cartographers of this nebulous collection of objectivities. Like Coleridge, Hill sees art’s task to reconcile a fragmented manifold of objective facts: ‘To reconcile’, wrote Coleridge in a notebook entry, ‘therefore is truly the work of the Inspired! This is the true Atonement – i.e. to reconcile the struggles of the infinitely various Finite with the Permanent’.2 Hill’s essay ‘Poetry as “Menace” and “Atonement”’ describes Yeats’s description of ‘a poem com[ing] right with a click like a closing box’ as one which grasps Hill’s idea of atonement with a ‘beautiful finality’ (CCW 4). But it is exactly Coleridge’s confident invocation of ‘the Permanent’ which is lacking from Hill’s authorship, and this diffidence – which is never more self-aware than when Hill takes the measure of divinity – comes into productive conflict with Hill’s conviction that the technical perfection of a poem is a kind of atonement.

This crucial difference notwithstanding, Coleridge’s influence over Hill’s critical and poetic authorship is hard to overestimate. Nineteenth-century intellectual culture is second only to...

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