The Drama of Reason
Chapter 8: Poetry and Value
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Poetry and Value
Hill’s 2008 Lady Margaret Lecture, ‘Milton as Muse’, contains a recantation on certain aspects of his 1983 essay ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’. He was, he says, ‘trying to make sense of J. L. Austin at the time, and obviously conspicuously failing’. The essay’s crucial defect, he goes on to say, is its relegation of private utterance to the domain of the ineffectual:
I said that poets are not legislators unless they happen to be so employed in government or law. […] Well, that was thirty six years ago, and now I recognize how mean and impoverished my rebuke was. Where I failed to do justice to the matter was in overlooking a deeply-embedded sense of the right […] of the private citizen to dispute in public matters – not merely that but the proper status of the private citizen within the utterances of the public domain.1
That final clause stresses the application of the ‘private citizen[’s]’ – or the poet’s – utterance with regards to the legal and political institutions of the state. Hill’s ‘failing’ in ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’ was to deny the possibility of such an application, in placing literary production in a noumenal sphere which, despite assisting a potential reorganization of the reader’s private priorities, cannot explicitly address itself to public priorities without catastrophic consequences. Only a kind of formalist blague offers the poem a conduit to its material determinants, and...
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