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Geoffrey Hill

The Drama of Reason


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 2: Coleridge’s Common Sense


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Coleridge’s Common Sense

In this chapter I remain with Coleridge and The Triumph of Love, to consider the concept of ‘common sense’, or sensus communis, as a foundation for Hill’s attempts to ‘attain objectivity’. Shaftesbury, who to my mind is the unacknowledged legislator of Coleridge’s and Hill’s Keatsian demand that philosophy’s axioms be proved upon our pulses, has an essay titled ‘Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour’, in which the antiphonal voice plays a large role:

Vicissitude is a mighty Law of Discourse, and mightily long’d for by Mankind. In matter of Reason, more is done in a minute or two, by way of Question and Reply, than by a continu’d Discourse of whole Hours.1

Shaftesbury’s argument is in part with Hobbes: rather than reason being a sovereign faculty prescribing the interactions of individuals, it ought to be conceived of as emerging from these interactions. This does not mean, he emphasizes, that sensus communis entails a uniformity of opinion; rather it is a recognition of the shared interests and sentiments of human beings. In summarizing, he says that the commentators he has cited

make this Common Sense of the Poet […] to signify Sense of Publick Weal, and of the Common Interest; Love of the Community or Society, natural Affection, Humanity, Obligingness, or that sort of Civility which rises from a just Sense of the common Rights of Mankind, and...

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