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Poem as Field, Canon as Crystal: Geoffrey Hill’s Historical Semantics

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The essay proposes methods for close reading poems and building poetic canons. Starting with the premise that the poetic artifact has in the age of empirico-historicism been reified by reduction to a series of facts, the essay suggests ways in which close reading can keep the poem alive—for instance, by treating clashing semantic fields within a poem as live energies. Some of the semantic forces brought to bear on poetic fields, however, will arrive from previous work done with words in past poems. By tracing these semantic legacies, the essay argues, lyric canons can be constructed: ones that hang together functionally, building meaning upon each other’s work. The proposed methods are applied to a demonstrative reading of Geoffrey Hill’s “To the (Supposed) Patron.”

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  1. 1.

    Oakeshott, Human Conduct, 3.

  2. 2.

    “Of the Standard of Taste” in Dissertations, 221, 210.

  3. 3.

    A word or line quoted for the first time in double quotes (“”) will in all subsequent mentions be marked in single quotes (‘’)—this is necessary for the close reading in section III, as words and phrases from the poem therein will be repeated many times.

  4. 4.

    Hill, Collected Critical Writings, 350.

  5. 5.

    It is characterized thus by Derek Attridge in the Introduction to this volume.

  6. 6.

    See Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

  7. 7.

    A similar argument is forwarded about the scientific pretensions of twentieth century historiography by Hayden White in “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”—history, he says, is but narrative stitched from a selection of facts from a neutral registry of data.

  8. 8.

    The tenets of Russian Formalism (OPOJAZ, especially) do not govern this view—for as regards the shifting boundaries between poetic form and the lived world, I frame no hypothesis: except to point out the impossibility that the theorems of Gödel proved, of finding within any formal system the proof of its consistency.

  9. 9.

    Bate, Burden of the Past, 3.

  10. 10.

    Bate, 31.

  11. 11.

    Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, 8.

  12. 12.

    Ricks, Allusion to the Poets, Section I.

  13. 13.

    Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, 16.

  14. 14.

    “Letter to Basil Bunting” in Pound, Letters, 277.

  15. 15.

    Eliot, Sacred Wood, 49–50.

  16. 16.

    Eliot, Classic, 24.

  17. 17.

    Unless, of course, one is partial to the Timaeus: and sees history itself as the moving image of some Eternity subsisting whole. But that is for another day.

  18. 18.

    See section III of Staten’s essay in this volume, ‘Is the Author Still Dead,’ for a fuller account of poetic techne.

  19. 19.

    Halliwell, Poetics, 49; Also see Staten, “The Origin,” 48–9.

  20. 20.

    Alluding to John Ciardi’s How does a Poem Mean? (1961).

  21. 21.

    Steiner, “Formalism,” 11.

  22. 22.

    Lévi-Strauss, “Signs,” 85.

  23. 23.

    Hill, “History as Poetry,” ll. 3–6 (King Log).

  24. 24.

    See chapter 4 of The Singularity of Literature for an analysis of the literary work as event.

  25. 25.

    W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” ll. 41 (Another Time).

  26. 26.

    Williams, Selected Essays, 287.

  27. 27.

    Stevens, Poetry, 404.

  28. 28.

    Attridge and Staten, Craft of Poetry, 8, 21, 22. Although “narrative” is only taken as foundational for the poem at hand—Dickinson’s “I Started Early”—it becomes clear from the ensuing exegesis that the poem’s main work is proprioceptive: to feel body in sea.

  29. 29.

    Culler, Theory of Lyric, 8.

  30. 30.

    Attridge and Staten, Craft of Poetry, 15.

  31. 31.

    How Milton thought poetry should be studied.

  32. 32.

    Davie, Articulate Energy, 36.

  33. 33.

    Fenollosa, “Chinese Written Character,” 44.

  34. 34.

    “Projective Verse” (1950) in Olson, Prose, 243.

  35. 35.

    “Equal, that is, to the Real Itself” (1958) in Olson, Prose, 123.

  36. 36.

    A sneak nod to Sidney’s Apology and to Attridge’s first book, whose work on meter is still of central importance to close reading.

  37. 37.

    As I hope in this essay to show that the reading body has been left out unjustly from our established close reading practices, I stand indebted to Olson’s writings on “Proprioception” (1962) (Prose, 181). Nevertheless, I proceed in this matter without a theory of the breath as origin of bodily hermeneutics.

  38. 38.

    From “Poetry as Menace and Atonement” (Hill, Collected Critical Writings, 34).

  39. 39.

    Recalling Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words.

  40. 40.

    Empson, Structure of Complex Words, 49.

  41. 41.

    Empson, 391.

  42. 42.

    “Common Weal, Common Woe” in Hill, Collected Critical Writings, 26579.

  43. 43.

    Hill, 274. From Paradise Regain’d (1671).

  44. 44.

    Hill, 277. From “The March in Virginia” (1866).

  45. 45.

    This seems the case in most Yeats poems.

  46. 46.

    Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, xix.

  47. 47.

    I use Austin’s terminology, somewhat loosely, to talk of the “forces” that speech-acts have beyond sense-and-reference (How to do things, 100); and use perlocution to compass the intended (in the present poem) and unintended (in the past poems) forces of words, when the Hebrew ‘davhar’—a word that is also an act, a bringing forward of something—will also do.

  48. 48.

    Kermode, Forms of Attention, 75. I thank Ronan McDonald for directing me to this brilliant work in his essay in this volume.

  49. 49.

    This poem is used with the kind permission of the literary estate of Sir Geoffrey Hill; all rights reserved. As the essay is a full reading of the poem, the use can also be considered fair in copyright terms.

  50. 50.

    The active voice reappears in the last sentence but not while the poem is describing him.

  51. 51.

    Viz.: the pun on ‘secured’ ensures that the ‘dreams’ cloistered in his imagination are simultaneously taking shape under his purview.

  52. 52.

    Hill, Unfallen, 48–53.

  53. 53.

    I have probably furnished more external material than is strictly necessary; but I have made much of sharing the “conditions of one’s understanding,” and so, having read the collection chronologically, have shared what was called up to me when reading the poem. “England in the 1950s,” however, is likely sufficient context, and saying much more severely risks diminishing the pitch of the poem with gross historical particularities.

  54. 54.

    As regards rhythm, see Llewelyn Morgan’s Musa Pedestra for an account of how metric tradition influences meaning in Roman lyric poetry.

  55. 55.

    Poetry should be “alive with sensuous intelligence” (Hill, Collected Critical Writings, 439).

  56. 56.

    There is a possibility of the rich man absorbing the gifts of Christ’s self-sacrifice like Marlowe’s Faustus drinking Christ’s blood from the firmament; but I haven’t here the space to countenance that possibility with my reading.

  57. 57.

    “Picture of a Nativity” in Hill, For the Unfallen.

  58. 58.

    I take the tropes of close reading I’ve tried to avoid—dramatic situation, speaking voice—as tied and giving rise to the “amygisme” which might approach the poem by picturing a pagan ritual or, worse yet, a ‘lewd noonday housed in cool places.’

  59. 59.

    Matthew 19:24.

  60. 60.

    Matthew 6:28.

  61. 61.

    Genesis 3:17 and 3:19.

  62. 62.

    From notes-section (Empson, Poems, 278).

  63. 63.

    Sonnet 94 is also perlocutive precursor to “Doctrinal Point.”

  64. 64.

    “They that have Power” in Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, 85–115.

  65. 65.

    Empson, 87.

  66. 66.

    Empson, 88.

  67. 67.

    “Love” here is not Christian. The jaded Agape of the early poems is now wholly animal Eros.

  68. 68.

    Empson, 97.

  69. 69.

    See Braden, Sixteenth-Century Poetry, 99.

  70. 70.

    Not yet in the Wycliffe, already in the King James.

  71. 71.

    Psalm 91:8.

  72. 72.

    The voyeurism was curtailed, somewhat, in the Hebrew original, wherein the elect behold “the shillumah (recompense) of the wicked;” here, the privilege is an ever-lasting lesson rather than entertainment.

  73. 73.

    Lines 69 and 280, both from Book 1 of Paradise Lost.

  74. 74.

    For the bobbing fish to ignite the lake, the powder must also signify gunpowder; but that equation is already latent in Paradise Lost.

  75. 75.

    With due apologies for ‘subsume onto’—I hope, however, it is clear why “divest” or “discharge” would not have done.

  76. 76.

    Morris, Signs of Change, 191. Hill, in a video interview with The Economist, says he thought he had invented the term “plutocratic anarchy” until he read “anarchical plutocracy” in Morris.

  77. 77.

    Chesterton, History of England, 92.

  78. 78.

    The connotation, here, of Arab oil, will I hope make up, somewhat, for my not dealing with the rich man’s ‘bronze agents’ that ‘drink desert sand.’

  79. 79.

    Schumpeter, Capitalism, 83.

  80. 80.

    “Three Baroque Meditations” in King Log.

  81. 81.

    There are other, less obvious ones I have omitted, and perhaps more obvious ones I have missed. Because it is the present poem that reveals past poems as perlocutive precursors, the expansion of the canon in this method takes place not only in the present but also in the past, where neglected poems like “Doctrinal Point” might be rendered to critical attention by future poets.

  82. 82.

    That such an endeavor in semantic tracing might direct the understanding of a poet reading another, and thereby influence, in some small way, the growth of the crystal, will be fortuitous, I think, to the immediate tasks of criticism.

  83. 83.

    I am quoting Rush Rhees, student and literary executor of Wittgenstein (Answers, 150).

  84. 84.

    Ransom, New Criticism, 79.

  85. 85.

    “To the (Supposed) Patron” was introduced to me many years ago by the polymath Hans Mathews. His vision of the poem has remained powerful in imagination. But to the extent possible, I have tried to render this reading through my own discoveries of its workings. Two crucial points, however, deserve mention: (1) he read line 4 (albeit with a different emphasis to mine) as an ‘assertion subtending concession’; and (2) he discovered Sonnet 94 and Paradise Lost as necessary precursors to the poem.


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Sridhar, A. (2021). Poem as Field, Canon as Crystal: Geoffrey Hill’s Historical Semantics. In: Sridhar, A., Hosseini, M.A., Attridge, D. (eds) The Work of Reading. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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