Acceptable Words: Essays on the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill has said that some great poetry 'recognises that words fail us'. These essays explore Hill's struggle over fifty years with the recalcitrance of language. This book seeks to show how all his work is marked by the quest for the right pitch of utterance whether it is sorrowing, angry, satiric or erotic. It shows how Hill's words are never lightly 'acceptable' but an ethical act, how he seeks out words he can stand by - words that are 'getting it right'.
This book is the most comprehensive and up-to-date critical work on Geoffrey Hill so far, covering all his work up to ‘Scenes from Comus’ (2005), as well as some poems yet to appear in book form. It aims to contribute something to the understanding of his poetry among those who have followed it for many years and students and other readers encountering this major poet for the first time.
powerful emblem of suffering, the central fact of human existence, and shows the difficulty, even impossibility, of seeing this through the representation. The last poem of the sequence is a working of a sonnet by Lope de Vega ‘Qué tengo yo que mi amistad procuras?’,8 the last lines of which are: So many nights the angel of my house has fed such urgent comfort through a dream, whispered ‘your lord is coming, he is close’ that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time bathed in pure tones of
particularly the tortuousness of desire – ‘Our love is what we love to have’ (4) – and the ecstasies of wounding and self-wounding, do not achieve a proportioned resolution. Rather their re-iteration is almost spat out with a punched clarity that even so cannot escape contradiction and self-contradiction: This is the ash-pit of the lily-fire, this is the questioning at the long tables, this is true marriage of the self-in-self, this is a raging solitude of desire, this is the chorus of obscene
substantially from the beginning: ‘Knowing the dead, and how some are disposed’ (‘Two Formal Elegies’, For the Unfallen, 1959; CP pp. 30–1). Elegy, Requiem, ‘In Memory’, ‘The Death of’, ‘Ode on the Loss of’, ‘Funeral Music’ appear in titles of the earlier work to announce a compulsion towards commemoration of and respect for the past, and especially for the unfinished lives dismissed by the machinery of human history. Poems in For the Unfallen are notably appalled at the indifference of non-human
verbal effect is combined with popularising plainness. In his Paris Review interview of 2000 Hill claims ‘that tyranny requires simplification’ and adduces the German scholar Theodore Haecker who argues, with specific reference to the Nazis, that one of the things the tyrant most cunningly engineers is the gross over-simplification of language, because propaganda requires that the minds of the collective respond primitively to slogans of incitement. And any complexity of language, any
might appear obfuscatory, obnoxious even, it is not difficult to see how its lineaments are translated into secular terms. Contingency and choice, ‘wilfulness and determination’ (CXXXIX), are the crux of all ethical, and thus political questions. Confronting bloody questions we stand before judgement and are in need of mercy. Judgement implies truth – ‘verdictive accuracy’. Verdicts can be delivered only in language. In his discussion of J. L. Austin in ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’ (LL pp. 138-59),