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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 7: Vision, Commerce and Society

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← 180 | 181 →

CHAPTER 7

Vision, Commerce and Society

It is difficult to read Hill’s comment that ‘[Pound] comes perilously close to being thought to endorse the “blitheness”, etc. that Rittenhouse associated with the Cavalier lyric’ (see last chapter) without recalling the spat that occupied the letters pages of the London Review of Books for a few months between April 1985 and February 1986. It began with Tom Paulin’s review of Peter Robinson’s collection Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work, in which Paulin mounted an attack on Hill’s ‘conservative imagination’, his ‘monotonously iambic’ prosody and his ‘grisly historical voyeurism’, arguing that these aesthetic features emerged from a ‘shabby and reactionary’ worldview in thrall to a belief ‘in the magical transcendence of art’.1 Hill has many times ‘come perilously close to being thought to endorse’ an archaism that could indict him as holding a ‘shabby and reactionary’ attitude, and not only by hostile critics – Anthony Thwaite’s description of Hill as a ‘runic visionary’, to cite just one example, is not meant as derogatory.2 Hill’s reading of Pound suggests a counter-argument to this conception of his work. We have seen that for Hill the canorous verse of ‘“Envoi (1919)”’, rather than constituting an uncritical endorsement of the prevailing literary ← 181 | 182 → fashions of Pound’s environment, could be read as a species of blague, a ruse that is distinguished from the derisive ironies of Homage to Sextus Propertius, but that nonetheless defies the accepted canons of taste...

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