Alex Pestell’s book is a densely argued account of various strands of philosophical thought in Geoffrey Hill’s poetry and critical essays, and a valuable contribution to our understanding of one of the most intellectually challenging poets and critics of his generation. It is not a book for a first-time reader of Hill, nor, in most cases, for students, but rather for readers and scholars wishing to go deeper into the philosophical background of Hill’s writing, and to understand better the distinctive ways in which forms of philosophical argument find their way into, transform, and are transformed by, Hill’s highly distinctive poetic and prose styles. As signalled in his subtitle, Pestell frames his book in terms of Hill’s commitment to forms of dialogue, along with certain key concepts such as mimesis and objectivity. He seeks to clarify the nature, conditions and aims of the dialogic in Hill’s poetic language, beginning with ideas of reflexivity, division in the self, and dialogue with language as well as in language. The last of these is suggested by lines from Hill’s book-length poem The Triumph of Love (1998): ‘a language/to which I might speak and which/would rightly hear me’ (qtd p. 3). Pestell makes a strong case for the importance of philosophy to Hill’s work, while noting that Hill, in an interview, claims to have been ‘completely moved by philosophy only two times in my life: by Simone Weil … [and] F.H. Bradley’ (qtd p. 76). As Pestell implies, this is an odd remark for a writer whose essays show ‘an intimate acquaintance with the history of English philosophy’ (p. 77); in particular, as this book demonstrates, a deep immersion in Coleridgean Idealism. Perhaps Hill is distinguishing being ‘completely moved’ from a more detached understanding, but given the intensity of Hill’s engagement with thinkers such as Coleridge, T.H. Green, J.L. Austin and others, such a distinction would seem surprising. The book devotes considerable attention to Hill’s critical work, and its relationship to the poetry. Pestell makes an ambitious attempt to identify a ‘kernel’ (p. 9) of ‘Hill’s approach to criticism, objectivity and diagnosis’, defining that kernel in terms of ‘mimicry’, ‘mimesis’ or ‘direct quotation’ (all terms from Hill’s own essays), involving ‘the abdication of eloquence’ (p. 9). He is right, I believe, to identify this as a key element of Hill’s poetry and criticism. Hill’s most-discussed poem ‘September Song’, for example, evokes the cruelty of the Nazi regime by mimicking elements of its bureaucratic language. In poetry, the technique can lead to misunderstanding and controversy. Notoriously, Hill was accused by Tom Paulin in The London Review of Books of indulging in conservative nostalgia, whereas he claimed to be diagnosing such a condition; in effect by miming elements of its rhetoric with satirical intent. In his critical writing, the mimetic technique involves denseness of quotation and allusiveness of argument, resulting in essays which are highly impressive, fascinating at the level of detail, but difficult to grasp in totality. Where Hill as a critic deploys ‘mimicry’ and ‘direct quotation’ of other thinkers (rather than discursive analysis), the reader may be unable to make much sense of his argument without first reading his sources. Coleridge’s adoption and modification of German Idealist thought is a complex area, and Pestell makes an impressive job of charting paths for the reader though certain tensions in Coleridge’s thought, and the development of his ideas as these relate to Hill’s own thinking. For example, Pestell considers the view that Coleridge’s ‘ambivalent attitude towards the nature of truth’ is manifest in the differences between parts one and two of Biographia Literaria, as ‘the Schellingian hypothesis of aesthetic constructivism’ influencing the first part is displaced in the second part by his Christian belief in ‘the concept of a pre-existing reality ordaining experience’ (p. 69). This, Pestell argues, presages the way in which the poet’s later works seek to ‘find common ground between philosophy and religion’ (p. 69). Such concerns mean that sections of Pestell’s book move away from direct engagement with Hill’s work, but Pestell deftly returns to show the relevance of such material; suggesting, in the present example, that the fact that ‘so many of Hill’s citations from Coleridge are from … later works helps us to understand the Coleridgean background to Hill’s many poetic devices deploying light imagery in religious contexts. It is as if light blazes into vision at the moments when thought fails to cognize history and therefore seeks the more encompassing consolations of faith’ (p. 69). Pestell makes a good job of teasing out Hill’s use of Coleridge’s ideas in the former’s essay ‘Redeeming the Time’ (1972–1973), making some trenchant criticisms. He argues, for example, that Coleridge’s ‘notion of a “moral copula”—as fuzzy as it is here [in its original context in Coleridge’s work]—is almost completely incomprehensible when taken out of its context [in Hill’s essay]’ (p. 37). This decontextualization, Pestell suggests, is a consequence of the technique of combining ‘mimicry’ and ‘direct quotation’. The book includes some fine close reading of form and meaning, which is especially welcome with Hill’s often demanding poetry. Chapter 2 offers an extended interpretation of The Triumph of Love, drawing on another significant philosophical influence, Gillian Rose; Hill’s later elegy, ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’ is the subject of a section in Chapter 8. Pestell’s readings balance appreciation of the power of the poetry with a willingness to identify faults. For example, in Chapter 3 he is critical of Hill’s use of diacritics (marking caesura and stress) in another book-length poem, Speech! Speech! (2000). Pestell sees these as ‘sometimes chaotically obtrusive’ (p. 95) and as an abjuration of ‘musical variety’ (p. 93) symptomatic of ‘a prosody of despair’ (p. 90). Their use, he suggests, implies a loss of faith in both the reader and the power of verbal music, though one which recedes when musicality, ‘natural observation’ and ‘trust in a species of linguistic felicity’ (p. 96) reassert themselves. This leads him to an interesting general assertion about form in Hill’s later poetry: ‘It appears to be a formal principle in Hill’s text that form should interrupt its own apprehension of coherence in the sabotage of the kind of nuanced metres that characterized his earlier verse’ (p. 93). Pestell further relates Speech! Speech! to Williams Carlos Williams’ Paterson, showing plausible evidence for Hill’s knowledge of a letter by the American poet, quoted in the book of a PhD thesis which Hill himself supervised. The model which Hill has derived from Williams’ letter seems to involve a form of mimetic fallacy, in which modern poems ‘must show how we have struggled with [our poems] to measure and control them’ (Williams, qtd p. 94) by displaying formal signs of that struggle. Pestell sees the ‘scattered stress marks and truncated caesurae’ of Hill’s later poetry as a literal response to Williams’s ‘injunction’ (p. 94). Ultimately, though, for Pestell, the diacritical marks are symptomatic of Hill’s affinity with the later Coleridge: a view of the imagination as ‘a refuge rather than a transformative power’ (p. 100). The book is nicely produced and carefully edited, although the index seems inconsistent as regards inclusion of critics quoted within the text. The depth of underlying research and the strength of argument mean that those interested in Hill’s work are likely to return to this book and to engage with its ideas for a considerable time to come. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 26, 2017
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