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Geoffrey Hill: Reading 'Scenes from Comus'

The title refers to John Milton's earlyish poem 'A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle' which is about the victory of chastity over Bacchanalian excess. Hill's poem is dedicated to the composer Hugh Wood who set 'Comus' to music in the early sixties. The original work was a collaboration between Milton and the composer, Henry Lawes and first performed in 1624. It is an investigation of the nature of chastity and our defences against temptation

Hill's sequence has three parts-

1. The Argument of the Masque;

2. Courtly Masquing Dance.

3. A Descrption of the Antimasque.

The Argument of the Masque

The first part consists of twenty poems and each of these has three three-line stanzas followed by a single line at the end. The first poem ostensibly announces its theme:

Of the personality as a mask;
of character as self-founded, self-founding
and of the sacredness of the person.

Of licence and exorbitance of scheme
and fidelity; of custom and want of custom;
of disimulation; of envy

and detraction. Of bare preservation,
of obligation to mutual love;
and of our covenants with language

contra tyrranos.

Think we should start with 'mask' which I'm taking to mean a device used to disguise or to present some thing/one as other than they really are. We need to contrast this with the masque which was a " A form of courtly dramatic entertainment, often richly symbolic, in which music and dancing played a substantial part, costumes and stage machinery tended to be elaborate..."- another kind of disguising. In the original, the villain presents himself as trustworthy and virtuous in order to gain his victim's trust. the repeated use of 'self' in the second line seems reasonably straightforward and it is possible to read it as such but this particular word is a recurring key in Hill's work and is borrowed from notions of 'selving' and 'inscape' first coined by Gerald Manley Hopkins who is the poet that Hill most admires.

This is a good example of how 'difficult' poems can have (at least) two levels of meaning. The opening verse can be seen as a declaration of intent to explore the nature of personality and character especially with regard to the 'sacred'. Another reading would point to Hill's essays on Hopkins and his own variation on selving as a process and the ways in which this is linked to the creation of the personality-shielding mask.

The italicised text would appear to add emphasis to two of Hill's abiding points, especially the second. His earlier The Triumph of Love examines how things managed to carry on after WWII and comes to the conclusion that this has been achieved by the actions of love- in a spiritual and religious sense. The mutuality is about God's love for us and our love for him (mostly).

The rest of the poem nods towards other abiding concerns. Hill is nostalgic for an England that never was and this traditional view does lead him to get quite cross about the 'want of custom' and 'envy and detraction' both of which he sees as components of our current malaise. This custom problem may require some further thought- is this the bagful of social rites and cultural tics that are said by some to form the bedrock of our national character? Or is custom here meant to be read as 'habit' as in 'custom and practice', indicating doing things as they've been done in the past without a set of formal rules? Or does he mean both? I'l go for the latter because both seem to fit with Hill's ongoing crtique of public life in the present. The other potential complication is 'want', I'm taking this as a noun as in a lack or absence of which makes absolute sense in this context but the choice of 'want' also implies something that is desired or (even) yearned for. Neither 'lack' nor 'absence' have this same connotation.

Of course I may be overeading but, in my defence, Hill's work seems to require this kind of attention in order to understand what he might be saying.

The purpose of an introductory poem is to draw the reader in, to whet the appetite and this cleverly provides a bold statement of intent without going into too much detail.

I think I also need to point out that Hill normally uses italics to denote quotations although those used here are too short for me to identify. He also takes care with what he needs to say, there aren't many poets who would use the loaded term 'covenant' to express our raltionship to language. There is also more than a little bit of pretension in the last line and this is (probably) because the English (against power / tyranny) sounds a bit 'flat'.

The first half of this section contains a number of maxims, poem 5 is probably the clearest example:

Add that we're unaccountably | held to account;
that we cannot make our short days add up
to the sum demanded. Add, that accountancy

is a chartered profession, like surveying;
that rectitude is a grand directive;
that righteousness has no known charter

and is not, generally speaking, in demand.
That there are immoderate measures in plenty;
that plenty is a term of moderation;

that moderation is used by some to excess.

I like this because it's reasonably straightforward and because it shows enormous confidence in composisition- it takes much nerve to add 'generally speaking' in the third verse and the serious 'point' of the poem is framed by finely crafted wordplay. Incidentally, Hill occasionally used | to indicate how the line should be read but these have been removed from Scenes as it appears in Hill's collected, Broken Hierarchies.

We are meant to think about the various meanings of 'righteousness' and 'rectitude' and the differences between the two and why the former should be contrasted with the chartered professions. It is reasonable to assume that the calling to account refers to the fate of our souls either after death or at the Last Judgement and that the moral worth implied by these two adjectives might play a part. Holding individuals to account in this instance would involve a survey or review of how their life has been spent.

If he is talking here about personal salvation then the statement about our inability to meet the 'sum demanded' is quite bleak, it doesn't say that those without rectitude or righteousness can't meet this demand- the 'we' seems to imply the whole of humanity. It's not something that's required or wanted or desired but demanded and (again) Hill probably wants us to think about all 12 main definitions of the verb that are included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hill has said in an interview with the Economist that, at heart, his work is centred on and motivated by his anxiety about the fate of his soul- the above is an anxiety of this angst laid bare. The moderation/plenty repeat needs some thought and what follows is both tentative and provisional. In politics in the UK the main parties all attempt to capture the middle ground and to appear even more moderate (bland) than their opponents. Very few politicians would want to be described as being immoderate or extremist as polls tell them that this is the road to electoral death. So plenty of Moderates, the claims to moderation are used over and over again and we've had successive governments introducing increasingly repressive measures to counter imaginary threats and the discontent of the underclass.

Courtly Masquing Dances

Ths middle section consists of 80 short poems of between seven and nine lines in length. This is poem 8:

I doubt Marvell bought out | Milton's fouled life.
But bring on music, sonorous, releasing.
What we have becomes their reticence.
Within the radius of a storm's hollow
like honey in a tree. Bayed Milton reticent?
Or that wit-bibber from Hull? I say self-being
goes the last word with both, that it goes proud
in its own passion - mystical couvade
with sensual dying, sensuous rebirth.

Before I proceed, it's as well to point out that there were accents above the 'a' in 'have' and the 'o' in 'both' in the origianl but these too have vanished in the Collected..

This is a bit more complex and requires some knowledge of Milton's life and his relationship with Andrew Marvell. Both men worked together as tranlators for the government during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. After the Restoration in 1660 Marvell was instrumental in obtaining Milton's release from prison- he had been arrested because he had written in support of the execution of Charles I. Marvell also penned the verse introduction to 'Paradise Lost' which is Milton's major achievement and the finest poem in English.

By way of some context, the is what the DNB has to say about the events of 1660:

The restoration of Charles II was proclaimed on 8 May 1660, and Milton went into hiding at the house of an unidentified friend in Bartholomew Close (West Smithfield). On 16 June an order for Milton's arrest was issued, and on 13 August a proclamation ordering books by Milton to be called in for burning was published; on 27 August copies of his books were duly burnt by the public executioner at the Old Bailey. Milton's life hung in the balance until 29 August, when the Act of Free and General Pardon, Indemnity and Oblivion was given the royal assent; Milton was not named as an exception to the general pardon, so he escaped the death penalty, while none the less remaining liable to arrest and assassination. Milton emerged from hiding and took a house in Holborn (in the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields), where he lived until the autumn, when he was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. On 15 December he was ordered to be released from the Tower and to pay the cost of his imprisonment, which was set at 150 pounds. Milton had been pardoned, but no copy of the pardon has survived (even though two copies survived long enough to be entered into indexes in the Public Record Office), so the precise reason for his release is not known. One effect of the Restoration had been the collapse of the Excise Office, which took with it Milton's savings of 2000 pounds. He emerged from prison in financial difficulty, and promptly protested against what he saw as the excessive fee for his imprisonment. On 17 December Andrew Marvell raised the matter in parliament, which referred it to the committee of privileges; the eventual outcome is not known. On his release from prison Milton moved to a house on Jewin Street, where he lived until about 1669.

So, this reticence probably reflects the need for these two to refrain from their political views which (after 1660) would have got them into serious trouble. 'Sensual dying' may well refer to Milton's blindness and 'sensuous rebirth' to the fact that Paradise Lost was written when he could no longer see. There may be other reasons for describing Milton's life as fouled or bayed- he was a widower and his relationship with his daughters was extremely difficult but both of these do seem rather extreme unless Hill is refering to another aspect or using the words according to their secondary or archaic meanings.....

As a further example of double-meaning, 'bayed' can mean to be both surrounded (by the walls of the Tower and by the majority of the populous who reckoned that the Restoration was a good thing) and to be damned- this was certainly the attitude of the state towards those who had endorsed and supported the execution of Charles I.

'Selving' also makes an appearance in the shape of 'self-being' which is presented as a major virtue and a positive response to two very turbulent lives. Marvell was born in Hull and became its MP so I'm assuming that he is the 'wit-bibber'- given that a 'bibber' is someone who drinks alcohol frequently, I'm assuming that this refers to the sharpness of Marvell's satire as shown in some of his verse.

'Couvade' is typically obscure, the OED has- "A term applied by some writers to the 'man-childbed' attributed to some non-literate peoples, and extended to comprehend a series of customs according to which, on the birth of a child, the father performs acts or simulates states natural or proper to the mother, or abstains for a time from certain foods or actions, as if he were physically affected by the birth" which would almost make more 'sense' of the last two lines. A careful reading may also lead the reader to note a concern with judgement- 'the last word' and 'its own passion'.

Here is not the place to undertake a more detailed reading but I hope I've done enough with this to show both the quality of the work and the demands that it might place on the attentive reader.

On a less demanding note, I'v said elswhere that Hill is our finest poet of the English landscape and poem 22 is an excellent example:


     Sharpened, sharpening, the swift's wings
     track and loop back clear skeins
     through vanished arches.
     See in what ways the river
     lies padded - no, dashed - with light.
     Show whether the imaged clouds
     are litanies or escorts.

I don't think anyone can deny the strength and lyrical beauty of the above even though a closer reading reveals a complexity that isn't immediately apparent: what are these arches answhy have they vanished? If we're to take 'skein' to mean a "flight of wild fowl" as well some thread or yarn then do we need to read 'clear' as a verb? If 'imaged' indicates 'imagined' and to 'represent by emblem or metaphor' then how can clouds represent a litany?

A description of the Antimasque.

This is probably the most oblique section in the sequence, it consists of tweny poems which each have four three-line stanzas. References are made to poets and poems and 'King Lear' is frequently reffered to. Poem 13 drops more names than most:

     Joy is the full sun and the half-shadow.
     Twelve sounds unbalanced, no doubt of that-
     blasted city fathers! But imbalance

     is everywhere. In the techtonic plates 
     ripping Iceland apart, to cite you basics.
     I'm no Fortuna-type, though, much as I love

     Boethius. And irony has its limits.
     If this were judged Senecan I'd be honoured.
     Surrey's bitter proud jousting, his straight-up

     elegy for Wyatt, I can find strength in,
     ironic or not. Not | all other things
     being equal. They aren't and never will be.

(There are acute accents over the 'o' in 'not' and the 'a' in 'aren't, again these have been removed from the Collected as has the vertical line).

Here we are expected to know who Boethius was and what he had to say about Fortune, we're also expected to know about Seneca's reputation as a literary stylist and the identities of and relationship between Surrey and Wyatt together with their respective places in English Literature and Hill's view that the work of both was directly 'tied' to the chaotic politics of the time (the reign of Henry VIII) . We're also supposed to recognise Hill's long standing view that a major function of poetry is to memorialise the dead. There's also the self-comparison dressed up with faux modesty and again the concern with judgement that runs through 'Comus'. Iceland is mentioned elsewhere because (I'm guessing) Hill used it as an occasional stopping-off point on his flights to and from Boston where he was teaching, much is also made in other poems of the religious lyrics of Hallgrimur Petursson. Given that the previous poem mentions Jacvob Epstein's work on Coventry Cathedral, I'm also guessing that the 'blasted city fathers' is a kind of nod towards the bombing that the city experienced in World War II and which is also mentioned at greater length in 'The Triumph of Love'.

Hill's politics can only be described as deeply odd, he seems to identify with the 'Red Tories' of the early nineteenth century and has referred to himself as a 'hierarchical Tory' The last line is a reiteration (amongst other things) of that perspective.

I hope this has given a reasonable overview of the sequence which remains one of my favourites. I've tried to demonstrate the overall quality without skimming over the challenges that work of this kind presents. I first read it in 2005 and have read it many times since, on each occasion I've found new details to ponder on and additional delights to smile at.