Geoffrey Hill

I read Geoffrey Hill’s collected poetry, in a collection issued around 1990, when I was away in the Middle East. I ordered some of his prose, specifically ‘Style and Faith’, after a few weeks of being away, and it was delivered to my BFPO address. I found myself reading the book on the second day of my R&R, while waiting at the Magistrates Court in Wrexham, having been summoned about a motoring offence (it was a paperwork error on insurance documentation).

Back then, I found Hill’s prose difficult to understand. I have taken the book up again, and finished it this time. Coincidentally, I have been in court again, in Chester, and have been reading it while preparing to go there.

I felt, appearing in court back then and now, and mulling over that very difficult book of prose essays, like something or somebody of no importance who is being thrown about by some monstrous, slow, laborious, indifferent, human-meat-grinder. Hill wants to tell you, and wants to quarrel about, our condition, as those who suffer original sin, and I, with regret, assent; and I agree that we do live in the aftermath of an aboriginal calamity. Or, as he describes the doctrine of original sin (quoting from some obscure and barely acknowledged source, wilfully): that we are condemned to

‘[T]he imperfection which marks all human effort, especially where it aims to avoid it’ (Hill, Style and Faith, 136).

But Hill does not say, directly, what is really in his mind, at any time in his post-1990 poetry, or in these essays. I mean, not in a straightforward way; he explicitly states that he despises simplification, accessibility, and words which express concepts or ideas. I gave up reading the book of essays in 2007, because it was simply too difficult to follow the sense; or, the effort needed did not seem worth what was promised. I read it through to the end recently.

But I would prefer to get to the point. I can afford to say what he does not say. Hill is interested in how words should be used in such a way that they are of and from the divine Word. And the way in which we write, or in which the English tradition at its highest points, expresses itself, is such that the Word or the Logos, assumes a written form. This is why, a man’s faith derives from his mind; and his mind derives, when it is at its most intense and real pitch and height, from the Word which created the world.

An individual’s style of writing is intrinsically an expression of the intensity and clarity of his faith. If a writer compromises or becomes shy of saying how the relationship to God actually is, then he is effectively dishonest. And, the writing loses its force or its edge.

Theology, political dispute, or poetry should address itself to the reader with the aim of telling the truth, and in sober honesty. Words are the means by which the particular author works out his relationship to God, or, because we have at least half a mind to believe in grace and the Spirit, words and our mind are sometimes God’s own mind. English, having a translation of the Bible at its roots, is a holy language in which we can discuss these matters, knowing that our language can carry this burden.

My little essay is not a book review of Hill’s ‘Style and Faith’. I wish to make a handful of points about Geoffrey Hill, and the condition of the poet, even the Christian poet, at the beginning of this century. Hill died only a few years ago, and was said to have been (by A.N. Wilson) ‘… probably the best writer alive, in verse or in prose’.

Style and Faith, as a collection, surveys the past five hundred years of writing in the English faith by its most intellectually powerful people. This, in less than 160 pages. The essays are dense, allusive, and make no concessions. They appear to be in need of an editor, if teaching and instruction had been Hill’s intention. But he is not interested in teaching. The prose reads like his poetry: elaborating on his vast reading and intimate acquaintance with Tyndale, Burton, Hooker, Donne, Hobbes, Clarendon, the Wesleys, and then TS Eliot, the essays are concerned with the history of the Anglican church. I myself am not so well read in these matters, and I find myself in the presence of a man who has meditated and read in the history of England and its Church – and who was battling and half-resigned to defeat.

We read of these matters when considering the Oxford English Dictionary, new editions of Tyndale’s bible, and recent scholarship concerned with English history and belief. He points out that the OED has aimed at refining and making exact definitions (irrespective of how words were used by specific individual masters of the language); the Tyndale Bible is made ‘accessible’ and the spelling made modern; the recent scholarship, being carried out by people without faith, fails to see the reason and the mode in which these canonical English political and religious texts were written.

Effectively, language becomes merely an ambiguous, lightweight exchange where words are not honestly given, because the language has become impersonal and unlinked from the faith or whole being of today's people. It has become a set of ‘arbitrary signs’ meant to represent pre-existing concepts which inhabit the mind as ‘memes’ are said to inhabit the mind.

The problems which have beset the English language, and which coincide with the loss of faith in England, were there at the origin of the Church. A dismissive attitude toward the mob, the crowd, the mass of people; an unwillingness to communicate with the ‘public’. To let writing be among an elite only. And, with the Wesleys and their epoch, an attempt to revive the Church, in the age of industrialisation and democracy, by making ‘religion’ a matter of personal emotion, the story of each person’s search for truth and salvation – ultimately ending in the slow collapse of rites and a general ‘church’. This has left us with isolated, grumpy individuals – angry and out of place in the general communal spaces of the country and, an institution whose rites mean nothing.

Hill’s writing sounds as if it were composed in solitude, on a desktop computer, by a hermit. I finally took to Hill, and began to be able to follow his argument, when I imagined (falsely, as it turns out), that these essays were personal works composed by a kind of desert Father. I imagined that they were unpublishable, and not meant for publication, because this era is not fit for serious consideration of Faith at this kind of intensity of meditation and style. But, I was wrong in this belief, because Hill was widely acclaimed, and his essays were published mostly in the Times Literary Supplement, so his obscure and difficult writing was intended to be read widely. Which begs the question: why is it so unapologetically and wilfully difficult? Is this the fitting style by which to revive the English tradition of common worship?

Hill doesn’t say what he means, outright. He gestures at it. You can see what he is interested in by the quotations he makes, but the remarks on the quotations are themselves oblique and evasive. The quotations and his reading are directly concerned with the bedrock facts of religious belief, but Hill does not himself weigh in and tell us what he is for or against. For instance, this quotation from William Law, Works IV:

‘To proceed; if you was to use yourself (as far as you can) to pray always in the same place… if any little room, (or if that cannot be) if any particular part of a room was thus used, this kind of consecration of it, as a place holy unto God, would have an effect upon your mind, and dispose you to such tempers, as would very much assist your devotion.’

Or, from Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, again, significantly on praying

‘You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.’

Eliot is the most significant among the recent who have worked with language and brought it to its highest pitch. Who brought language to its most intense form, regarding a criticism of the post-Christian world. Hill explains that in his early work, Eliot provoked the reader by speaking directly, attacking the reader for his spiritual apathy. Later in life, Eliot became subject to pious applause, and backed away from his early aggression, concentrating on getting the right ‘tone’ when speaking of faith and the proper spiritual comportment required of us. Hill, I suppose, thought of himself as having never left behind him that pitched voice of telling truth without compromise, having avoided ‘selling out’ (surely not actually a choice), and retaining the pitch, the anger, when it was right.

Note that, Hill takes Eliot to task for not expressing his faith in a harsh enough, Christian enough, way – which is a hard and probably true criticism.

But it is not even clear that Hill is Christian, or what he believes. His problem is that problem of Clarendon, and those who debated with Hobbes, when they asserted the principles of the High Church against Hobbes’s mere natural virtue, and his use of reason to figure out how to be good , as if ‘doing good’ were the aim of the Church’s activity.

And, in the same way, Hill refuses to appeal to the masses of people. And, in a further development on those of the seventeenth century, Hill lives in an age where there is no elite with whom to debate, either. There are no masses, nor an elite, to whom to write or with whom to speak. Nor does Hill get involved in the ‘enthusiasm’ and subjective and vapid evangelicalism which is so common in revivals of Christianity.

He is a man in a relationship to God where such a relation simply is not common anymore. And his style, as a result, is a superior and defiant arrogance. He worked on an idiom with which to speak of faith, and the result is so obscure and private (purposely so) as to be verging on useless and indecipherable. His periods or sentences are frequently syntactically broken; his short asides are characteristic of bitterness and irony, more than of fairness and honesty. References to external texts are impromptu; the reader finds himself struggling to balance several undeveloped and weighty ideas in his mind within the space of a single period. The style is, I suggest, a bit less clever than it tries to be. In the service of the English language and its divine history though it is.

Let us not speak of the pros and cons of the belief in God. As ever, the truth of the Gospels and the reality of the existence of God is 50/50 for any one who has been blessed with the moment of decision, where the questions should be weighed carefully, and a choice made. And yet, despite the odds being even, society as a whole is verging on complete atheism. A problem in faith and language is at the root of this.

On the essay concerning Henry Vaughan, Hill meditates on how the English language’s accidental features, its rhymes, may have made Vaughan’s faith what it was. Your language determines what you will believe. There is no relationship to God outside language.

Where concepts supervene on and take over from words, then faith is dead. A conceptual language is one of ideology, and ideology is the death of thinking and discussion and meditation. I mean, the problems of faith are worked out with thinking, reading, talking – in English, while a concept makes thinking redundant, and words for any bodiless concept are just ‘arbitrary signs’ which we use to pin onto the pre-existing concept. You can’t ‘think’ with concepts; they are post-linguistic.

Faith and God were never easy to understand or to express; there is the Book of Common Prayer, and the texts of the Church; but the repetition of the Creed, or the determination to continue practicing the liturgy of the Church regardless of what is going on in our historical period, is not going to improve things here. From the start, the Church in this country was involved in dispute, wrangling, thought, and invention; and this is also its future.

Ours is a situation where, disinterest in God is widespread because of technology, huge numbers of meaningless people, industrialisation of life, computerisation of language. How should one build the language so that it is obviously also the divine Logos, so as to speak words which show faith, in this era?

It is a matter of working out exactly what you mean to say to others about God, and working out in what way that thing should be said. What to say, and how to say it are the same question.

And it is a labour to get the right words to tell the truth, and at the same time make them convincing to the reader. To convince the reader means actually thinking things through. And, if we are going to be talking about God, then this means thinking through what your faith is.

I think that we recite the Creed and say: 'This is my faith', at the end of the way. But making our way to that end involves actual hard thinking, and study, and work, like that of Hill and Eliot, and the work to 'purify the dialect of the tribe' and all that.

The words should derive from the Logos, from a point of communion with God’s mind, which God has given to us. Because, if you are talking as a Christian, then you must be a Christian; which means: you have given up your own will so that your will is actually the will of God. And this is what Hill was getting at, when objected to the depletion of language into some kind of tool, or something which should be easy to use, and friendly. Words, actually, give meaning, and are the constituent parts of faith.

I mean, how do you tell the truth, and be heard, when you live in the society of the human-meat-grinder? Where everything aims to be accessible, easy, friendly, and yet where you don’t actually matter or mean anything?

Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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