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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 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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