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Geoffrey Hill and Difficulty

"Let's take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most "intellectual" piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?"

This is Hill in an interview with The Paris Review in 2000. There's nothing wrong with this argument except that it doesn't justify the deliberate obscuring of meaning that sometimes occurs. If we accept that the world is complex and difficult to understand (which we do) then is difficult poetry simply compounding this problem? Incidentally, most people don't find life that difficult and find themselves fairly straightforward- does difficult poetry have nothing to say to them?

Whilst it is true that Geoffrey Hill makes demands on his readers, making sense of the poetry is not too arduous for those who are prepared to follow his train of thought. Hill's reputation for difficulty lies on the fact that his train of thought lies well outside what most of us are accustomed to.

There are many obscure references within Hill's poetry but nearly all of these can be followed up via the web. The problem lies much more in the idiosyncratic ways in which Hill displays his interests. He is a deeply religious man and has described himself as a 'hierachical Tory", whilst this mix may not have been out of place in 1820 his belief and political views put him in a small minority today.

The other problem with reading Hill is his tendency to carry complex ideas over several lines which requires more concentration than we're currently accustomed to. Tne first part of 'A Precis or Memorandum of Civil Power' contains these lines:

True way is homeless but the better gods
go with the house. Cogito a bare
threshold
as G Marcel sagely declares,
of what's valid.
Come round to the idea, even so
belated, and knock. Echo the answer
in spare strophes that yield almost nothing
to the knowledge
outside them raw with late wisdom.
Quattore pour la fin du temps not Gide's
doctrine of the moment which passes
as verity
in veritable suffusion. Grace
appears hardly spontaneous in that sense;
and in no sense whatsoever of the mere
veto or grab
of reality in our self-desires
as in a telling run of worldly luck
eminently worthy of these maimed lives.

Passages like this set the reader a number of tasks. First of all there's the knowledge issue, we need to know who G Marcel is and what he said about reason and we need to know what Gide's 'doctrine of the moment' was. A quick dig around the net and G Marcel is revealed as Gabriel Marcel, a French Christian existentialist, who had a lot to say about the inadequacy of reason and was highly critical of what he saw as our overly 'scientific' view of existence. Gide's doctrine comes from 'Fruits of the Earth' (an early novel) and states that we should concentrate on each moment as it occurs. In order to appreciate the 'veritable suffusion' tag, the reader will need to read the novel (which isn't very long).

Towards the end of the poem, Olivier Messaien is revealed as the composer of 'Quattore' so there isn't much work to do there unless you want to try and work out why the contrast between this and Gide is made.

The workings of grace are a key feature throughout Hill's work and the last part of this extract appears to be a rejection of Gide ('the mere / veto or grab / of reality in our self desires') but it is the sustained thought that is difficult, we are expected to hold in our head's both Gide's doctrine (which isn't described) and Hill's response to it. This is also compounded by the ambiguity at the end- whose 'maimed lives' is Hill referring to? We're also meant to pick up the quiet homage to Hopkins in 'self-desires' but this would require more than a little familiarity with the rest of Hill's output.

Hill expects his readers to find out about the things that he alludes to and these allusions are often fairly straightforward although they do entail a degree of work (which Hill expects us to undertake). It is in the extended statements that the real difficulty lies- why 'veto' as well as 'grab'? Why is a run of worldy luck decribed as telling? Given that Hill is rarely gratuitous with his words, these are things that the reader will need to consider.