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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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Introduction: Geoffrey Hill and Soliloquy

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The cover of this book reproduces part of an emblem commissioned by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, for his treatise ‘Soliloquy: or, Advice to an Author’, and printed in the 1732 edition of his collected writings, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times.1 The central panel of the emblem shows a large mirror ‘of the fashionable sort’ leaning ominously over a writing desk in a darkened room.2 On each side of this central panel a boy holding a hand-mirror stands against a sky in which three harpies are arranged in differing positions. On the left, the boy holds the mirror in front of him and looks into it; the harpies are making off into the distance ‘in confusion’. In the right panel, the boy stands against gathering storm clouds, ‘his head […] turn’d strongly away from [the mirror]’. As a consequence, the harpies hover over him menacingly, one of them bearing a crown and sceptre. Refusal to reflect upon yourself, the emblem implies, is tantamount to an abdication of sovereignty: control of your fate – or rather, of your thoughts, fancies and desires – passes to the vengeful whims of the harpies.

‘Soliloquy: or, Advice to an Author’ argues that reasoning cannot be perfected except by a kind of division of the self into two. Commenting on the notion of daemon in classical philosophy, Shaftesbury interprets it to mean

That we had each of us a Patient in our-self; that we were properly our...

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