Wednesday 27 January 2010

Geoffrey Hill - Restful?!

For Ronald Firbank, a man of few coherent words, the highest praise he could give a work of art or literature was to describe it as 'very restful'. Now we live in a time where the great assertive cliche about art - used to defend new art and retrospectively to boost older art - is that it is the opposite of restful, that it shakes you up and disturbs you. Clearly this is not definitive, any more than 'very restful' is, but I wonder if we shouldn't be standing up for the restful quality of much of the best art. Think Bach, think Matisse, think Wallace Stevens. Think Geoffrey Hill? Surely not - but the reason I'm writing this is that, in the midst of my current difficulties, I'm settling down at the end of the day in a thoroughly restful way with Hill's The Triumph of Love, a few stanzas of which has me, to my surprise, in a state of mental repose just right for entering the realm of sleep (no, scoffers, he is not actually sending me to sleep). This is odd, as Hill is a notoriously obscure and rebarbative poet, and The Triumph of Love has been described as 'a raw exposed nerve of a work', 'hectoring, philosophical, bitter', 'exacting, academic, unbending' and more in the same vein. It is, after all, the poem in which Hill forces himself to tell us what a poem 'ought to be' - 'a sad and angry consolation'. On the other hand, Elaine Feinstein, describes The Triumph of Love as 'an extraordinarily lucid and often luminous poem' - and that is more like how it strikes me. Not lucid in the sense of easily (or, in some places, at all) understood, but in the sense of at least seeming to carry forward an argument, a process, with a kind of stately clarity of purpose, whatever the bitter and angry notes. Perhaps, in the end, it is simply the conformation of words - the flow of those mighty measures, the epic sweep - that I feel as restful, as they wash over me in my drowsy state...

'So what is faith if it is not
inescapable endurance? Unrevisited, the ferns
are breast-high, head-high, the days
lustrous, with their hinterlands of thunder.
Light is this instant, far-seeing
into itself, its own
signature on things that recognize
salvation. I
am an old man, a child, the horizon
is Traherne’s country.'

That is lucid and luminous enough, surely (and beautiful). Restful? Maybe that's only me, and only this week...


  1. I had what sounds like a very similar experience when I was doing far too much work in a City job. I found Derek Walcott's 'Omeros' offered immediate but intense distraction, which is what you want when you're frazzled and short of time. It drew a very vivid line between work and sleep.

    Hope your life gets back to normal soon!

  2. That's it - the very vivid line between. Thanks Gaw!

  3. 'Traherne's country' being the glory of creation and religion, heaven and that kind of thing?

  4. And specifically Herefordshire. Traherne was a wonderful noticer of and glorier in the natural world.

  5. Emily Dickinson said real poetry blows the top of your head off. However, that can be restful and soothing - if what you want is to have your head blown off, then it can come as a desired consummation.

    Hill's my boy, a real poet (Walcott too).

  6. My father liked Hill, I must try him; and I once did a whole project on Walcott's Omeros, so it's great to hear I'm not the only admirer ;-) When I was frazzled I read Gerard Manly Hopkins - also not considered 'restful', but one needs so little of it to transcend the frazzledness.

  7. At least half of the poem is masterly. But the sentence from 'Light' to 'salvation' is typical of late Hill's theologico-academical slang. I just don't trust it. It's either blindness or a lie.