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The Age of Outrage

Savage Indignation and Petty Resentment in Geoffrey Hill’s Canaan, The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech!

Sauvage indignation et mesquines rancœurs dans Canaan, The Triumph of Love et Speech! Speech! De Geoffrey Hill
Thomas Day


Se fondant sur les trois recueils de poèmes publiés par Geoffrey Hill entre 1996 et 2000, ainsi que sur certaines des conférences qu’il a prononcées publiquement pendant cette période, cet article s’intéresse à la manière dont la colère, l’indignation et leurs variants émergent de modes satiriques directement inspirés de Jonathan Swift. Même si ces procedures poétiques ressemblent à ce qu’un critique a pu qualifier de corrélats objectifs de la colère et de la mélancolie de Hill, ce dernier souligne une grande part de subjectivité et la nécessité d’intégrer à l’œuvre des défauts personnels et autres blessures portées à son amour propre d’auteur. Au nombre des griefs exprimés par Hill, il faut également compter l’échec des critiques à percevoir les éléments comiques de sa posture. Mais le potentiel d’ambiguïté et de malentendus confère à son expression un « sens du péril linguistique » dont il déplore l’absence dans l’essentiel de la poésie contemporaine. Ces observations nous conduisent à conclure à la dimension rédemptrice de la rancœur du poète.

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  • 1 Swift’s epitaph, above his tomb in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, reads ‘Hic depositum est Corpus (...)

1‘Savage indignation’—Yeats’s Englishing of Swift’s Latin phrase saeva indignatio from his self-composed epitaph—1has been a fertile vein of poetry for Geoffrey Hill of late; that it has lacerated Hill’s heart in the way Swift said it had his, though, is open to question, since there are suggestions of the heat under the artist’s collar dissipating as he aloofly pares his fingernails. The phrase ‘savage indignation’ appears in quotation marks in the fourth movement of a poem entitled ‘Cycle’ from his 1996 collection Canaan (the book usually taken to usher in Hill’s later period):

Are we not moved by
indignation’ or whatever
dance with antlers
paces over and
                      over the same
(Hill 1996a, 39)

2The strangeness of this gloss derives from its dispassionate treatment of that most splenetic of the passions, indignation. There is a tone of ambivalence where we would expect fervent conviction: the question of whether we are or are not moved is left so open as to not even warrant a concluding question mark. True, couching the question in the negative tips the balance in favour of ‘Of course we are; how could we not be moved by an emotion as violent as indignation’, perhaps arousing the ire of the reader who suspects an insult to their intelligence into the bargain. But maybe these lines do momentarily dupe: might not the instinctive response to ‘Are we not moved’ be ‘we are not moved’? Indignation teeters over into a kind of teenage petulance with the abrupt line break after ‘or whatever’, which wrings its hands at the hard work of definition. Yet the jerky word and line distribution, also a characteristic of other poems in Canaan, isn’t altogether kneejerk; in fact, it seems less the effect of savage cutting than of a technical composure, of a poise and grace germane to this lyric’s central metaphor, dance. The final lines depict savage indignation as an antlered ranter endlessly harping on, ‘pac[ing] over and/ over the same/ ground’, but the highly charged emotion is matched by the measured motion, and paradoxical stillness, of the dance and of the poem. The critic Adam Kirsch has spoken of (in connection with Canaan) ‘objective correlatives of [Hill’s] choler and spleen’ (Kirsch 69), and this may be one instance where the rhetorical fire is apprehended through a prism of ice.

3Yet another poem earlier in Canaan, ‘To William Cobbett: In Absentia’, inhabits indignation at a lesser level of remove.

I say it is not faithless
to stand without faith, keeping open
vigil at the site.
Who shall endure? What force throws off
the verdict of each day’s
idle and taunting honours,
the lottery, the trade in grief,
the outrageous quittance, the shiftless
orders of fools?
I say let stand the entire
deposed authority
of vision just as it fell;
your righteous unjust and cordial anger,
your singular pitch where labour is spoken of,
your labour that brought to pass
reborn Commodity with uplifted hands
awed by its own predation. (Hill 1996a, 9)

4In spite of the title’s suggestion that the poet might be as much in absentia here as Cobbett, the opening words ‘I say’ testify embattled presence, setting the scene for the tub thumping and fist slamming declamation that follows. Hill decries the all-pervasive corruption and injustice he discerns in a society beholden to the ephemeral values of celebrity and commodity, calling for forces of resistance to the rottenness, and finding one such force in the historical example of Cobbett, who tirelessly agitated for the abolition of rotten boroughs and for an end to the poverty of farm labourers. The poem perhaps has something in common with Shakespeare’s sonnet 66 (‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’), a poem Hill often alludes to, in that the addressee is a pretext for a more generalised complaint about the state we are in, the capitalised ‘Commodity’ recalling the various personifications of abstract nouns in Shakespeare’s sonnet. It has something further in common with Swift. ‘In Swift’, Hill wrote in an essay entitled ‘Jonathan Swift: The Poetry of “Reaction”’ first published in 1968, ‘a sense of tradition and community is challenged by a strong feeling for the anarchic and the predatory’ (Hill 2008, 72). His reaching out to Cobbett, whose ‘cordial anger’ communicates this sense of community, across the divide of a century and a half is similarly challenged. The sober formality of the poem’s diction offsets the strength of feeling: the ‘Now rare’, ‘Now chiefly historical’ and ‘Chiefly figurative’ tags appended to the OED entries for ‘quittance’ serve to dull the urgency of the poem’s outrage, subordinating the present, the ‘Now’, to that which is in absentia; likewise the etymologically subtle ‘predation’—which in the context of ‘Commodity’ almost certainly takes in the third of the OED’s senses, ‘Business. The practice of aggressively forcing one’s competitor from the market by selling goods at uneconomically low prices’—seems a touch more taciturn, or at least less conversationally supple, than the final adjectival noun of Hill’s sentence on Swift, ‘predatory’. (The recourse we have to the OED here, as often with Hill’s poetry, reinforces the careful distinction Hill is drawing between Swift’s ‘sense of tradition and community’ and his ‘feeling for the anarchic and predatory’, where ‘sense’ and ‘feeling’ only masquerade as synonyms.) Hill’s feeling for the anarchic is anaesthetised by having disorder inhere in order, ‘orders of fools’. Anarchy in this instance would not be understood as the riot of the people but as the arbitrary arbiters of the ‘lottery’ of economic policy, the secular authorities who have ‘deposed authority/ of vision’. Since around 2007 Hill has gone over similar ground in his repeated tirades against the ‘anarchical plutocracy’ which he believes has displaced democracy in our times, taking the term ‘anarchical plutocracy’ from another nineteenth-century forebear, an 1883 lecture of William Morris’s. It is hardly terminology which effervesces with the threat of direct action, and may even smack of an academic politesse that is partly complicit in that which it would diagnose. But this is not to say that poetry and poetics make nothing happen, and, relatedly, Kirsch’s perception of ‘objective correlatives of his choler or spleen’ in Hill’s poetry seems potentially misleading. Indeed, as I hope to demonstrate, it is the quality of complicity in his writing and public speaking—the implication that he is part of the world he examines, is contaminated by it, even as he strikes the righteously indignant pose (the ‘uplifted hands’ that would prefer to remain unsullied)—which serves to affirm that words are forms of action. Hill’s speakers often do the things they speak of and out against: it is to the point, I would say, that the opening words of ‘To William Cobbett: In Absentia’ constitute what J. L. Austin termed a performative utterance.

5The Triumph of Love, the volume which followed Canaan in 1998, harks back to the rhetorical tradition of laus et vituperatio, praise and blame—functions often performed almost in the same breath in Hill’s writing, as in the oxymoronic description of Cobbett’s ‘righteous unjust’ anger. ‘Laus/ et vituperatio, the worst remembered, least understood, of the modes’ (12). Praise is bestowed upon, among others, the soldier and intellectual (and sometime member of Action Française) Georges Bernanos, ‘if only for having written la colère/ des imbéciles remplit le monde’ (70); though the suspicion there of inadequate contextual knowledge (‘if only for having written’) carves out a potential place for the ostensibly learned amongst the orders of fools that fill the world, especially those inclined to rage against foolishness—another example of the poet’s complicit or implicated (or ‘exemplary’) stance. The Triumph of Love’s vituperation is partly targeted at the post-war generations’ amnesia with regard to the sacrifices of their predecessors: ‘Ingratitude/ still gets to me, the unfairness/ and waste of survival; a nation/ with so many memorials and no memory’ (40), he says in section LXXVI. ‘[W]aste of survival’ is misanthropically indiscriminate: in condemning our callous response to the holocaust and its consequences Hill comes perilously close to wishing for another holocaust to mop up the lucky but undeserving survivors. Moreover, his sense of betrayed tradition and fractured community partly accounts for his solipsistic sensitivity: ‘Ingratitude/ still gets to me’. It is as if that rankling reaction is itself indicative of the sickness of the realm of public discourse in which it might have been healthily vented. The cool distance discerned in parts of Canaan has ceded to a much more hot-headed attitude; unjust anger is not counterbalanced by the cordiality attributed to Cobbett. Yet there are markedly contrary sentiments in the lines leading up to these:

At seven, even, I knew the much-vaunted
Battle was a dud. First it was a dud,
then a gallant write-off. Honour the young men
whose eager fate was to steer that droopy coque
against the Meuse bridgeheads. The Fairey
Swordfish had an ungainly frail strength,
cranking in at sea level, wheels whacked
by Channel spindrift.

6The speaker begins this section by affirming his seven year old self’s shrewdness in seeing the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939 and early 1940 for what it was, expressing a disappointment, even an annoyance, at this that bespeaks a bellicose enthusiasm not easily reconcilable with the miseries of war he would indignantly have us remember. The next sentence begins by honouring the allied casualties of the Battle of Sedan in May 1940, but it ends with a dissonant ‘droopy coque’ joke that is surely fated to be deemed in appallingly bad taste amidst the sombre, respectful atmosphere Hill himself has created in this section of the poem. Joking is often intended to lubricate social interaction, but Hill’s poem is more concerned to highlight the hostility that arises when jokes and/or poems are not received in the way they were intended.

7In bringing to account the quality of anger we find in The Triumph of Love, it may be helpful to refer to an essay by Donald Davie entitled ‘Art and Anger’, published in 1980. There, Davie distinguishes between anger, which he says ‘nourishes art; it makes for a clean discharge of emotional energy, articulately’, from other conditions often mistaken for anger, such as hatred, rancour and indignation. Hatred and rancour, he argues, ‘do not impel a person to discharge his feelings in act or in the poet’s act of speech . . . instead, they nurse themselves, stoke their own fires; they are inward-turning, self-regarding, and self nourishing’ and ‘essentially antiartistic’. He acknowledges the role indignation plays in satire, noting its outwardly aimed political purposes, but thinks indignation ‘even more than anger, liable to be confounded with the sterile emotions of rancor and hatred’ (56). The Triumph of Love addresses itself to these muddied distinctions, with a particular eye and ear to how an inward-turning anger bears on a supposedly inward-turning or ‘hermetic’ poetic that has often had its populist detractors. In an early section the poem takes on the voice or voices of Hill’s unreceptive audience, who attribute to the ‘Obstinate old man’ an anger at variance with Davie’s definition: inarticulate, improperly discharged, lacking in an objective correlative. ‘What is he saying;/ why is he still so angry?’, they ask. The answer (if it is the answer), ‘I cannot/ forgive myself’, is reported in the third person, as if the original utterance was out of earshot of some its auditors and is being relayed through Chinese whispers. The ‘we’ then chorus their immortality, before the poem cuts to a first person voice, the subject, attempting to recover his train of thought, or waking from a self-forgetful daydream: ‘Where was I?’ Finally, the audience cuts back in again, and irritated by their disconnection from the poet resort to verbal or possibly physical abuse: ‘Prick him!’ The poem repeatedly attempts to step outside of the self, thus to study it, to view oneself through the unsympathetic eyes of others a means of guarding against subjective bias. But the poem also acknowledges that, however guarded or ostensibly objective, to observe the self is still self-regarding. Accordingly section CIV begins by stressing the kicks to be had from kicking against the pricks:

Self-pleasured, as retching on a voided
stomach pleasures self. Savage indignations
plighted with self-disgust become one flesh.
Pasternak, for example: shestdesyat,
shestoy, they shout — give us the sixty-
sixth [sonnet, of Shakespeare]. You could say
that to yourself in the darkness before sleep
and perhaps be reconciled. Nothing true
is easy — is that true? Or, how true is it?
It must be worth something, some sacrifice. I
write for the dead; N., N., for the living
dead. No joke, though, self-defenestration. (53–4)

8The marriage metaphor applied to ‘Savage indignations’ is ironized by the masturbatory and masochistic overtones, which associate indignation with the self-nourishing kind of pseudo-anger Davie speaks of. Though the way in could ultimately be the way out, self-reflection and self-criticism pitched here as a kind of impersonal metadiscourse. And to what extent the proliferation of ‘self’s makes for a poetry of plural selves, personae who are other to the author, is a question I want to consider in due course.

9In the interview he gave to the Paris Review in 2000 Hill himself reflected on how and why Triumph of Love accommodates emotions which contaminate the ‘clean’ (Davie) anger of moral outrage:

I have come to see that the closest approximation of truth requires that the shortcomings of self shall be admitted into the most intimate textures of the work. You can at one and the same time firmly believe that your position on certain issues is right, and acknowledge that one’s feelings are far from pure: vanity and resentment at what one believes to be slights and oversight, and general indifference. (Phillips 284)

10Vanity and resentment do indeed jostle with outrage and indignation in the poem. There is a particularly perverse kind of vanity in the imagining of an aggrieved crowd baying for one’s blood, ordering fiendish forms of torture; the weighting of Hill’s sentence in the interview towards ‘oversight, and general indifference’ identifies the far more likely fate awaiting the contemporary poet, and even the ‘slights’ he speaks of the poet suffering are much slighter than metaphorical martyrdom. Resentment at the poetic fame liberally bestowed on others and largely denied to him is another of the shortcomings of self admitted into the poem. The writers N. and N. who are mentioned at the end of section CIV are the subjects of some sinister Schadenfreude earlier in the sequence. Hill depicts their slick celebrity as ‘smooth toiletry’, entertaining the thought of them being electrocuted by their malfunctioning ‘depilators’, which, he hopes, ‘may yet/ draw blood from bloodless Stockholm’ (39): ‘Stockholm’ is almost certainly a reference to their being Nobel Laureates, since a few sections later they are described as ‘Swedish millionaires’, albeit ‘worthless’ (45) ones. His policy of anonymising them seems vulnerable to dirt-dishing tittle tattle; perhaps knowingly so, for his description of one of them as ‘that Irish/ professor of rhetoric — forget his name’ (39) all but names ‘famous’ (as he is sometimes nicknamed) Seamus Heaney, the then Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard who had won the Nobel Prize three years earlier. ‘[R]hetoric’, rather than ‘poetry’, has the added bonus of delivering a slight of Hill’s own, one which is compounded by the suggestion that Heaney’s work is and will be eminently forgettable—‘forget his name’, heard as an imperative.

11In the Paris Review interview the interviewer, Carl Phillips, touched on the ‘comically bitter’ speaker of these moments in the poem, and Hill took this as a cue to cast himself as the least understood of the poet-comedians:

I’ve noticed that two or three of the harshest critics of The Triumph of Love seem not to notice what I might call a very strong element of autobiographical comedy, or even clownishness; they say that Hill claims for himself the status of a prophet, and nobody has a right to make such a claim in the late twentieth century, and that there is something disgusting in seeing a writer describe on the same level as the Shoah, The First and Second World Wars and his petty resentments. And all I can say is that no such claim is made by the author. The author is perfectly aware of the grotesque difference between his own resentments and the plight of millions, between the claims he makes for himself and the several holocausts of his age. (Phillips 284)

12To some extent this contradicts what he has said immediately before about being able to simultaneously believe your position on certain issues is right, and acknowledge that one’s feelings are far from pure; that may be true in theory at least, but that is not how it has turned out in practice. He insists here that the petty literary politics of The Triumph of Love are not to be confused with politics proper, claiming that the vanity and resentment we detect are a comic conceit set in bathetic juxtaposition to the poem’s terribly serious concerns. Yet the claim itself betrays traces of vanity and resentment which are not so easy to excuse. It has been said that ‘To refer to oneself in the third person, as politicians and footballers sometimes do, suggests a self-image both lordly and insecure, at odds with itself’ (Wheatley 24), and so it is here. Hill speaks of himself as ‘Hill’, as if his is a household name (unlike Heaney’s, which eludes even his peers in the poetic and academic community). Of course, he is ventriloquizing, in order to prick the pomposity of his cloth-eared critics, whom ineptly parse the poem’s personae. But the subsequent sentence suggests why such parsing is peculiarly difficult with Hill. ‘All I can say is that no such claim is made by the author’. The ‘I’ both is and isn’t ‘the author’; this is a self very much at odds with himself. Hill’s use of the third person aims to establish an objective distance from the bitterness given voice in the poem in order to emphasise its comic, ironic dimension, but ironically it gives an uncomically bitter edge to his self-justification. ‘The author is perfectly aware of the grotesque difference between his own resentments and the plight of millions’ imparts a lofty contempt, an urbane rather than a savage indignation, towards the misinterpretation of his work, which by this point in proceedings seems to have become a much wider phenomenon than two or three harsh critics. Hill has said that in the work of the First World War poet Ivor Gurney ‘disinterested indignation’ and ‘exemplary rage’ intermingle with ‘wounded literary amour-propre’, Gurney thus ‘remain[ing] unreconciled to the discovery that acclaim is not commensurate with achievement’ (Hill 2008, 431)—and there is a strong element in him that remains similarly unreconciled to this discovery. Yet again Swift seems the most apt comparison. Hill’s Heaney putdown is of a piece with ‘Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift’ and the maxim of Rouchefoucald’s which occasions that poem: ‘Dans l’adversité de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons quelque chose, qui ne nous deplaist pas’. As Swift does in respect of Pope, Gay and Arbuthnot, Hill ‘wish[es] his rivals all in hell’, ‘wish[ing] his laurels cropped’ (Swift 488)—literally so in light of the depilatory fantasies which do not displease him; Swift’s vanity and resentment at oversights (‘the medals were forgot’ [490]), also seem the stuff of Hill’s invective. And one wonders whether Hill has learned something from the author’s reference to himself in the third person that forms the central conceit of ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, which allows Swift to declare a critical distance from ‘Vain humankind’, whose ‘various follies’ are said to include ‘Self-love, ambition, envy, pride’, while still sharing in and showing himself subject to those follies. ‘Dr’ may even turn some of the scornful sentiment Hill directs at ‘that Irish/ professor of rhetoric’ upon the self.

  • 2 The lecture, entitled ‘How Not To Be A Hero’, was one of the series of Shakespeare Lectures at the (...)

13‘The Age of Outrage’ conference’s call for papers suggested that ‘Unlike resentment and bitterness, outrage and revolt suggest a . . . timeless posture’. If that is so, then the admixtures of outrage and resentment in Hill’s work could be said to configure the intersection of the timeless with time. I want to develop this suggestion by thinking about his relationship with the literary culture of our own time, with which his work is unapologetically out of joint: ‘I/ write for the dead; N., N. for the living dead’, he writes towards the end of Triumph CIV. Some of the most pungent Jeremiads of Hill’s latter years have had the debased conditions of contemporary literary culture in their sights, a good example being a lecture he gave in 2000 on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,2 in which he related the play to a modern predicament which sounds very much like his own: ‘I am continually amazed to discover’, he said, ‘how few professional critics of late twentieth century writing seem able to grasp the presence of polyphony in literary style. Polyphony generally speaking in the poetry and prose of our own time’. It is fair to assume that these amazed discoveries of Hill’s were not benignly wondrous; rather, they euphemize his stupefaction at the mass stupidity the contemporary poet comes up against—a similar sentiment to the zombie-like ‘living dead’ N. and N. write for. The subject of Hill’s lecture seems pertinent to the drama of its delivery: Hill plays Coriolanus, whose hierarchical blend of hubris and humility is inimical to the plebeians, the puppets of the opinion-mongering Tribunes. Later in the lecture he launches, in the name of humility, a tangibly contemptuous attack on collective opinion and some of its populist cognates. He speaks of:

an inert mass that Shakespeare and any other significant writer has to cope with . . . our expectation, our ‘taste’, our demand for ‘relevance’ and instant ‘accessibility’, our desire to smear our disgusting empathy over one or another character, instead of giving humble attention to the entirety of the play’s discourse.

14It is patently clear that he has no truck with demands for relevance and accessibility and the like, handling them between the tweezers of quotation marks, but Hill doesn’t count himself out of the ‘we’ whose ‘disgusting empathy’ he damns: his savage indignation is married to self-disgust as it is in The Triumph of Love. As I have suggested, there is never a moral high ground in Hill; but neither is there what he calls, adducing Whitman, a ‘mean, flat average’ (Hill 2008, 524). The artist who would hieratically rise above finds himself weighed down by the inert mass of public expectation.

  • 3 In his 1996 ‘Preface to the Penguin Edition’ of the one actual play he has written (or freely trans (...)
  • 4 Delivered at Boston University, and broadcast by Boston University: World of Ideas on the 14th of M (...)
  • 5 Hill’s indebtedness to Howerd, and to popular culture more generally, is fully explored by John Lyo (...)

15In another public address given the same year Hill cast this artistic struggle in different but related terms. He spoke of his effort to make polyphony (doing the poem in different voices—a poem’s discourse, thus conceived, closely akin to a play’s)3 out of what strikes his ear as cacophony: ‘In the broadest sense I can tell you what this cacophony is’, he went on, ‘it is the clamour of Opinion together with the hissing of my own animus’ (Hill 2000b, 73). We hear this cacophony in the reference to Pasternak in The Triumph of Love CIV, quoted in full above. As Hill explained during a poetry reading,4 Pasternak had translated the sixty-sixth sonnet of Shakespeare and it proved a great favourite with audiences at his poetry readings, who would shout ‘give us the sixty-sixth’. The hissing of Hill’s animus subsists in the sibilance of both the English, ‘give us the sixty-/ sixth [sonnet, of Shakespeare]’; and the Russian, ‘shestdesyat,/ shestoy, they shout’—their shouting evincing the clamour of opinion that goes together with, and collides with, animus. The popular demands of Pasternak’s audience also blend with the related demands of Hill’s (although Pasternak’s fans seem a highbrow lot by comparison with the present readers’ supposed ignorance), that bracketed editorial statement making a lumpen concession to their, or our, demands for relevance and accessibility by unpacking the allusion. The next sentence moves from clamour—a clamour which the acoustics of the verse also wish to shush (‘Shakespeare’, ‘shestdesyat’, ‘shestoy’, ‘shout’)—to a quieter-voiced utterance: ‘You could say/ that to yourself in the darkness before sleep/ and perhaps be reconciled.’ Perhaps that is to say that appeasing public taste would be against his every waking instinct, along the lines of ‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’. Yet whereas the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnet goes on to work himself up into a rage, rediscovering, line by line, the very energy to protest that the opening clause takes to be tailing off, the tailing off intoned by the diminuendo of Hill’s poem suggests that being reconciled is to weakly succumb to temptation (‘the darkness of sleep’ also hisses, like a satanic serpent)—the temptation, that is, to sell out, to give the public what they want (‘give us the sixty-/ sixth’). This sounds like the speaker at his most private, as if he is already in bed alone with his half-formed thoughts: the ‘You’ is a form of address to the self rather than to another or to others. But the conflation of ‘You’ and ‘I’ may connote a compromise that is very aware of others and of the pressure of public opinion, the poet caving in to the majority’s inability to grasp the presence of polyphony in contemporary poetry by beginning to exclude other voices and perspectives from the poem. His subsequent diffident reflections on the validity of difficulty (‘Nothing true/ is easy — is that true? Or, how true is it?) could be construed as a further concession to pressure, if difficulty is understood as a force of resistance to the demands for relevance and accessibility. Charles L. Griswold has observed that ‘A person in the grip of resentment often demands that the narrative be heard, and yearns that it be published, so to speak (resentment loves company)’ (Griswold 30), and this is a love which is in the nature of the hatred of N. and N. as expressed towards the end of the section. The ‘I’ who writes for the dead is positioned against the far right margin, and is further isolated by the preceding full stop, the syntax and lineation reflecting his marginalisation-cum-martyrdom (the latter brought to mind by the adjacent mention of ‘some sacrifice’). The line’s edge is also a ledge, as in a window, and the ‘I’ precariously positioned there is about to commit what the final sentence calls ‘self-defenestration’, the act of throwing oneself out of a window. But self-defenestration is not straightforwardly a synonym for self-sacrificial marginalisation here. That it is ‘No joke’ could attest an audience who do notice the strong element of autobiographical comedy or clownishness, and who are laughing at this technical pratfall; perhaps it is the poet who is not, taking himself rather seriously, trying to stop others laughing at him by shushing the clamorous uproar again. Or else the speaker is courting his audience, playing the grumpy censor in full knowledge that the appearance of not being in on the joke makes it all the funnier. Hill loves a crowd, and has insisted that popular culture has been as much an influence on his work as poetic tradition (Hill 2002a): he cited as one such influence the comedian Frankie Howerd, who was famous for his mock irritation with the audience’s inappropriate reactions (‘Shut Yer Face’, ‘Don’t laugh at her’ and ‘Titter ye not’ were among his favourite catchphrases).5 Then again, the final one-liner does not seem calculated to have them rolling in the aisles, and the polysyllabic mouthful ‘self-defenestration’ may imply that the danger of the speaker tripping over is real, a reminder of another of Hill’s bugbears: ‘the sense of peril, linguistic peril’ which seems to him ‘so absent from most contemporary poetry’ (Walford Davies and Marggraf Turley, 12).

16By way of conclusion, I want to consider another possible instance of resentment towards another famous contemporary who was awarded poetic honours which Hill has thus far been overlooked for: the former Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes. In this example resentment again inheres in comedy, and in comedy gone wrong: it’s from Speech! Speech!, the book which followed Triumph of Love in 2000. Outrage is arguably one of the dominant moods and modes of Speech! Speech!, and the poem draws attention to its adjective, ‘outrageous’, as, as Hill has put it, ‘one of the great words which lie directly on the active-passive divide’ (Hill 2008, 391): in other words, ‘outrageous’ can refer both to the agent of an outrageous act and to those on the receiving end ie. those who are outraged. This is section 17 of the poem, which is perhaps more outrageous, in both senses, than it seems at first:

That’s not WORKERS’ PLAYTIME. Trust Dad
to find the wrong wavelength. Trust Aunty Beeb
to screech like a tart. Trust the Old Man
to pawn his dentures. Trust Grandma to have to go.
Trust Ted-next-door to swear that his stuffed
parrot still talks. Trust Irish Jim
to call it a grand wake. Trust rich Uncle Tony
to drink from the saucer because we’re watching,
and because he’s rich. Trust Mad Bess
to queen it in purple. Trust your Mother
to notice who’s missing. Trust Sandy
MacPherson to blow us to Kingdom Come. (Hill 2000a, 9)

  • 6 Speaking of Hill’s sonnet sequence ‘Funeral Music’ in his 1968 collection King Log, Sean O’ Brien r (...)

17Hill’s savage indignation has been turned down to a suppressed simmer; there is an impotent resignation about the speaker’s tone, the hissing of his animus transformed by those repeated ‘Trust’s into a far tamer tutting, which may in fact convey, or purport to, an affection for the eccentricities of the British institutions and national treasures alluded to here: and again, the presence of popular culture (BBC radio) contributes to the tone of appeasement. Whereas Heaney’s name supposedly slips his mind in Triumph, Hill is on first name terms with Hughes, thinking of him as a surrogate family member.6 He is ‘Ted-next-door’, though, for another reason, one which again combines vanity with resentment. For it may be that Hill imagines himself having secured a place in the grave next door to Hughes, who is pushing up the daisies (Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot sketch is in play here) at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. That Hughes’s memorial at Poets’ Corner was not unveiled until 2011, eleven years after Speech! Speech!’s publication, needn’t render such a reading anachronistic since Hill is trading on the expectation that such an endorsement of Hughes’s status within the mainstream of English poetry would come his way sooner or later: and if the conceit is that this section is spoken from beyond the grave (it ends with mention of having been blown to Kingdom Come) then that would resonate with the ‘living dead’, the expectant public fawningly obliged by the reviled rival poets in The Triumph of Love. Despite the complacent, even somewhat reactionary feel of this poem, Hill is concerned to create, following Swift, a poetry of reaction which means to affront our expectation, our taste—the reference later in the poem to ‘tactics, passive aggressions, wound-up/ laughter from the claques’ (24) aptly describes the tactics here. ‘[F]or the intimate joke to bite’, Hill wrote in his essay on Swift, ‘it . . . needs the public contact, an edge of hard fact’ (73), and it is that same edge Hill is looking for. But this isn’t simply topical humour meant to resonate with the times; rather, the feeling is one of temporal dissonance. Dead Ted Hughes and his stuffed parrot must seem in rather bad taste when it is remembered that Hughes had died a mere two years before the publication, and therefore even closer to the writing, of Speech! Speech!; while ‘Irish Jim’ Joyce, in the subsequent line, is distant enough in time for a morbid pun to pass without so much as a raised eyebrow—although no more so, actually, than the droopy coques of the Second World War—the funeral baked meats furnish forth Hill’s joke about Hughes with unseemly haste. There are other suggestions that the comic timing is off: ‘screech like a tart’ and even ‘Irish’ were standard resources for joking and comedy not all that long ago, but now would be likely to grate on the politically correct consensus of today. There is something anachronistic about this section, which pertains, I would suggest, to the curious relationship Hill has with the mainstream of contemporary British poetry, in relation to which he stands as both a central and a marginal figure. And it seems highly appropriate that he should play an allusion to Monty Python, a subversive comedy which in time was assimilated to the mainstream, against a kind of comedy more reminiscent of Bernard Manning, a mainstream British comic in the 1970s and 1980s whose line in racist and sexist jokes would now seem embarrassing to most.

18Poetry is, as Hill says at the outset of his essay ‘Eros in F. H. Bradley and T. S. Eliot’, a ‘radical embarrassment’ (548). That is because the doctrine of impersonality is only a partial truth; the self, the personality, cannot be totally transcended or escaped from, and thus the self-abnegating will to humility will answer to the humiliation of the hubristic, ambitious, bitter and twisted seeker of poetic celebrity. Hill’s self-consciously marginalised status is not merely an avant-garde posture. His sense of being misunderstood and overlooked, and the fear of passing away unremembered that seems to motivate his wishing a short shelf life upon others—these are sources of genuine pain, these are his Coriolanus wounds. Yet they are not altogether unredeemable. Hill has written of Dante’s ‘generosity of imagination—many times at odds with anger and vindictiveness, many times transfiguring his own inequities’ (Hill 2002b, 330). However real Hill’s anger and vindictiveness can seem, it is the metaphorical aspect that ultimately makes it moral: channelling inequity into art is a means of checking it, of denying it an outlet in malicious action, of keeping it unreal—a similar thought prompts Bishop Butler to proclaim resentment ‘a generous movement of mind’ (149). Though the generosity of Hill’s statement also inheres in what is not transfigured, in its concession that some times anger and vindictiveness will get the better of the poet, even one as putatively ‘timeless’ as Dante.

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Butler, Joseph, “Upon Resentment”, Sermon VIII, The Works of Joseph Butler, vol. 2, ed. W. E. Gladstone, London: Clarendon Press, 1896, 136–149.

Davie, Donald, ‘Art and Anger’, Trying to Explain, Manchester: Carcanet, 1980, 52–56.

Griswold, Charles L., Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Hill, Geoffrey, Collected Poems, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Hill, Geoffrey, Canaan, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Preface to the Penguin Edition’, Brand, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996, vii–xi.

Hill, Geoffrey, The Triumph of Love, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

Hill, Geoffrey, Speech! Speech!, New York: Counterpoint, 2000.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Acceptance Speech for the T. S. Eliot Prize’, Image 28 (2000): 72–6.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘A Matter of Timing’, The Guardian (Review section) 21 September 2002: 31.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Between Politics and Eternity’, The Poet’s Dante, eds. Peter S. Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff, New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2002, 319–332.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Jonathan Swift: The Poetry of “Reaction”’, Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 71-87.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Translating Value: Marginal Observations on a Central Question’, Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 383–393.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Gurney’s “Hobby”’, Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 424–447.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Alienated Majesty: Gerard M. Hopkins’, Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 518–531.

Hill, Geoffrey, ‘Eros in F. H. Bradley and T. S. Eliot’, Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes, Oxford: OUP, 2008, 548–564.

Kirsch, Adam, The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, New York: Norton, 2008.

Lyon, John, ‘“What are you incinerating?”: Geoffrey Hill and popular culture’, English 54.209 (2005): 85–98.

O’ Brien, Sean, ‘Geoffrey Hill: The England Where Nobody Lives, The Deregulated Muse, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1998, 41–48.

Phillips, Carl, ‘Geoffrey Hill: The Art of Poetry LXXX’, Paris Review 42 (2000): 272–299.

Swift, Jonathan, The Complete Poems, ed. Pat Rogers, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Walford Davies, Damian and Richard Marggraf Turley, ‘Cambrian Readjustments: An Interview with Geoffrey Hill’, Poetry Wales 46.1 (2010): 10–13.

Wheathley, David, ‘Not letting go’, Times Literary Supplement 30 April 2010: 24.

Yeats, W. B., The Collected Poems, London: Macmillan, 1950.

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1 Swift’s epitaph, above his tomb in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, reads ‘Hic depositum est Corpus/ Jonathan Swift S.T.D./ Hujus ecclesiæ eathedralis Decani,/ Ubi sæva Indignatio/ Ulterius cor lacerare nequit,/ Abi, viator,/ Et imitare, si poteris,/ Strenuum pro virili libertatis vindicatorem’: in John Middleton Murray’s prose translation, ‘The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral Church, is buried here, where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more. Go, traveller, and imitate if you can one who strove his utmost to champion liberty’. Yeats’s rendering, ‘Swift’s Epitaph’, first appeared in The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933) (Yeats 277).

2 The lecture, entitled ‘How Not To Be A Hero’, was one of the series of Shakespeare Lectures at the Royal Festival Hall: it was delivered by Hill in June 2000 and broadcast on Radio 3 in October of the same year. A transcript was previously available on the BBC website.

3 In his 1996 ‘Preface to the Penguin Edition’ of the one actual play he has written (or freely translated), Ibsen’s Brand (originally published and performed in 1978), Hill entertains the idea of resentment and related feelings as a major motivation for the writer, citing Samuel Butler: ‘So much power has Malice above all the other Passions, to heighten Wit and Fancy, for Malice is Restles, and never finds ease until it has vented it self’; Ibsen: ‘While I was writing Brand I had standing on my desk an empty beer glass with a scorpion in it. From time to time the creature became sickly; then I used to throw a piece of soft fruit to it, which it would then furiously attack and empty its poison into; then again it grew well again. Is there not something similar to that about us poets?’; and Pound: ‘a great deal of literature is born of hate’, though he qualifies the last by calling it ‘a compelling half truth’ (Hill 1996b, ix). The character of Brand is of course one of literature’s great ranters.

4 Delivered at Boston University, and broadcast by Boston University: World of Ideas on the 14th of May, 2006. The reading is available as a podcast here:

5 Hill’s indebtedness to Howerd, and to popular culture more generally, is fully explored by John Lyon in his 2005 essay ‘“What are you incinerating?”: Geoffrey Hill and popular culture’.

6 Speaking of Hill’s sonnet sequence ‘Funeral Music’ in his 1968 collection King Log, Sean O’ Brien remarked that his address to Averroës as ‘old heathen’ had a ‘wincing familiarity . . . more appropriate to the kind of belle-lettristic hearty whose remote but button-holeable acquaintance would also include “Kit” Marlowe, “Will” Shakespeare and Good Queen Bess’ (45). This seems almost prescient of the familiar terms of address in this section of Speech! Speech! (cf. ‘Mad Bess’): perhaps Hill’s predilection for writing hostile critical opinion in to his poems may explain the coincidence.

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Thomas Day, « Savage Indignation and Petty Resentment in Geoffrey Hill’s Canaan, The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech! », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 45 | 2013, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2013, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.779

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Thomas Day

University of Central Lancashire
Thomas Day is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK. He has published many essays, articles and reviews, mostly on modern poetry, in Essays in Criticism, The Cambridge Quarterly, English, Paideuma, PN Review, the TLS and others.

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