Criticism from a writer’s pen

by
08 July 2008

Here’s excellent and lively talk, but not enough reasoning, A. O. J. Cockshut finds

Geoffrey Hill: Collected critical writings
Kenneth Haynes, editor

A SPECIAL interest attaches to a volume of criticism written by one of the best living poets. Critics such as I, who have never written a line of poetry, recall that many of our best critics have also been leading poets.

But we remember also that the prose writings of Coleridge, Arnold, or T. S. Eliot have different aims from those of their poems, and therefore different vocabularies and rhythms. Especially they differ in the progression of thought. The connection of images in, say, The Waste Land does not resemble the links of reasoned argument found in Tradition and the Individual Talent.

Hill’s prose seems too similar to his poetry in its allusiveness, its connections, as much emotional as rational, and in being content with assertion’s taking the place of reasoned argument.

Many examples could be given; there is space only for one. On page 556, he speaks of “the deepening failure of Eliot, both as a poet and critic, to focus his powers. I attribute his increasing inability — and it begins fairly early, in the late 1920s — to contemplate the heavy cost of being, of becoming, radically, irretrievably, alienated.”

This seems to me untrue; it is, at any rate, paradoxical and surprising. We await the development of an argument in its support. But we find to our surprise that the next paragraph is about F. H. Bradley, who certainly cannot be blamed; and nothing that follows throws a light on the issue.

Another kind of difficulty in reading arises from the volume’s arrangement. There are five sections, “The Lords of Limit”, “The Enemy’s Country”, “Style and Faith”, “Inventions of Value”, and “Alienated Majesty”. The first three are reprints of volumes published in 1984, 1991, and 2003. Then come volumes that incorporate lecture series as well as published reviews. In fact, most of the sections read like lectures delivered in informal, conversational style, with witty asides and afterthoughts — Hill is always talking as much as writing.

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The best method of reading, then, is to treat the author as a first-rate conversationalist, well read, well informed, and entitled to his paradoxes, surprises, and changes of mood when someone else interjects.

He returns often to special favourites — Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, and F. H. Bradley. The essay on Housman is especially interesting in its patient analysis of the hidden content, and of the changing impressions of generations of readers as standards of reticence altered.

The conversational tone means that often one would like to shut the book and confront the author in the flesh, to argue, illustrate, or disagree. As in a good evening’s conversation, there are blind alleys, assertions that no one challenges, sudden veering from one topic to another. Only a highly intelligent and well-informed person could have produced such a collection. But some readers will be left wishing for greater lucidity, and will hanker after a style that follows the argument where it leads — to the end.

Professor Cockshut is Emeritus Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford.

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