Saturday 26 January 2019

Only Connect

I was walking yesterday in southwest Oxfordshire, around Langford – a flat, rather uneventful country of large arable fields and straight enclosure roads, but well furnished with picturesque stone-built villages and a wealth of interesting churches. Their interest is largely architectural and antiquarian (lots of Norman and even Saxon work), with little to excite a monument man like me. However, the graveyards were rich in moss-grown Baroque chest tombs, and the churches contained some beautifully lettered brass memorial plaques from the seventeenth century, and a number of good wall tablets. Of these the most impressive was in the north chapel of Broadwell church (above). This commemorates one George Huband, who died in 1668.
  As I read through the finely lettered epitaph, a name suddenly struck me. Huband rejoices in being 'immediatly descended from that ancient Family of the Hubands of Ipsly in Warwickshire'. Ipsly, Ipsley... Of course, the very place (now counted as being in Worcestershire – it's on the county boundary) where, in Church Lane, Geoffrey Hill was inspired to write three fine late poems.
  One of the pleasures of monument-bibbing is the finding of unexpected connections – usually between families or individuals – but here was something new: an obscure place name in an epitaph connecting across the centuries with our last great poet. Here's In Ipsley Church Lane 1

More than ever I see through painters’ eyes. 
The white hedge-parsleys pall, the soot is on them. 
Clogged thorn-blossom sticks, like burnt cauliflower, 
to the festered hedge-rim. More than I care to think 
I am as one coarsened by feckless grief. 
Storm cloud and sun together bring out the yellow of stone.
But that’s lyricism, as Father Guardini 
equably names it: autosuggestion, mania, 
working off a chagrin close to despair, 
ridden by jealousy of all self-healed 
in sexual love, each selving each, the gift 
of that necessity their elect choice.
Later, as in late autumn, there will be 
the mass-produced wax berries, and perhaps 
an unearthed wasps’ nest like a paper skull, 
where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine. 
Where the quick spider mummifies its dead 
rage shall move somnolent yet unappeased.


  1. It was that poem that got me into Ol' Geoff

  2. Dear Sir Ness, your ramblings have rather inspired me to leanr more about your old English churches and accuterments. Could you recommend a good starting book, eventually to be replaced by your own of course! Also I may read some of the Godfrey Hill you keep mentioning, although I hope he is not as despressing as so many of your modern English poets, and knows what a rhyme is! Did he not also write (a close lady friend points this out) A Red bird in a brown bag: The function and evolution of colorful plumage in the house finch. What a man!

  3. Alas Newman, that's another Geoffrey Hill.
    For an introductory book, you cld do worse than Roy Strong's A Little History of the English Country Church...

  4. Great poetic effect in “an unearthed wasp’s nest like a paper skull\ where fragile cauls of cobweb start to shine” (the sort of evocation Seamus Heaney excels at) but what on earth is the second stanza about? It seems like a private and inaccessible conversation or even a muttered soliloquy overheard and not understood on the tube and inserted at random. I guess there are there are those who are lucky enough to be in on the secret of what “ridden by jealousy of all self-healed\ in sexual love, each selving each, the gift\ of that necessity their elect choice.” means. Are we supposed to be mysteriously privy to the arcane workings of Hill’s brain or is it considered bad manners or an indecorous solecism to even ask such questions? These things must exist in a realm beyond my ken. Would love to hear it elucidated. I know who Guardini is. It is this kind of thing that makes me doubt Hill’s promised greatness and wonder if he wasn’t simply a little mad.

  5. Well you could regard that second stanza as a bitter, ill-tempered interjection (by one 'coarsened by feckless grief'). I wouldn't be without it myself, but the poem would still work, up to a point, if it wasn't there.

  6. So we just accept the ill-temper, rage and grief on spec with no idea about their origin, such unquestioned authority do Hill's emotions have? Isn't one of the functions of poetry to convey emotion? But if we haven't a clue as to what the emotion in question derives from and no idea as to how it leads to envy of those with sexual relationships (even though Hill was married) we can't feel it with him? What was the old buzzard keening about? A dead wife, a dead child, dead dog, the events of the 20th century, the nuclear arms race? It would be mannerly to drop us a hint but he feels no social compulsion to do so because, somehow, his emotions are events of such seismic significance that it doesn't matter. I suppose he feels it's enough that they are some kind of prophetic disturbance of the universe such is the importance he attaches to the vibrations of his soul. You can see that I make no secret of finding his poetry bizarre and confounding (after a hint of being very good) rather than pleasurable.