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A Deep Dynastic Wound

Gabriel Roberts

Sir Geoffrey Hill
A Deep Dynastic Wound
Professor of Poetry Lectures

Examination Schools
30 April 2013

Geoffrey Hill’s most recent lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry (the ninth of an eventual fifteen lectures) continued his defence of high modernism, this time addressing the subject of inheritance. The title, ‘A Deep Dynastic Wound’, was taken from the poem ‘Dead Boy’ by the early twentieth-century American poet John Crowe Ransom. The poem describes how the death of a boy in Virginia destroys his family’s hopes for the continuation of their bloodline and can be read as an elegy for the American South, ravaged in Ransom’s eyes both by defeat in the Civil War and by subsequent industrialisation. For Hill, it provided a vehicle for his central point: that poets should (or perhaps cannot but) think of themselves in dynastic terms, as claiming or declaiming the work of their literary forebears.

Hill’s discussion of dynastic thinking ranged far and wide. It included Milton’s comment on the verse of Paradise Lost, in which he rejects the English tradition of rhyming poetry and places himself instead in the (unrhymed) lineage of Homer and Virgil. Hill then described how Andrew Marvell faced a similar dynastic choice in writing ‘On Mr Milton’s Paradise Lost’, in which he imitated features of Milton’s poetry, but refashioned them into rhyming couplets. Then, after a skip through John Donne, John Wesley, and Isaac Watts, the lecture reached its climax in a reading of Robert Lowell’s ‘For the Union Dead’ and its response to the ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’ by Lowell’s literary mentor Allen Tate. Much as Dryden had been torn between technical respect for Milton and fear that his poetry would belittle its lofty subject, Lowell had wrestled to oppose Tate’s view of the confederacy, whilst retaining his respect for Tate’s poetry. Likewise Tate, in his introduction to Lowell’s Land of Unlikeness (1944), depicted Lowell as his dynastic heir, whilst recognizing that Lowell’s loyalties, as the son of a great New England family, were different from his own.

One advantage of dynastic thinking, Hill reflected, is that it slakes a poet’s thirst for self-expression. Great poets often search for particular rhythms and structures of images, rather than craving to exhibit themselves or communicate a thought or idea. Because they have a sense of their worth, they have no shame in taking from their ancestors. To illustrate the point, Hill cited Dylan Thomas’ poetic sketches, in which Thomas’ experimentation with images and forms are far more interesting than his derivative Freudian hypothesizing. Something similar, Hill suggested, can be found in the work of Robert Graves, in his fusion of craft and trauma, techne and crisis.

From form and content, Hill progressed to ethics and aesthetics. Here he argued that because the structure and sound of poetry matter as much as the ideas which it conveys, it is possible to appreciate poems which one finds ethically suspect. He described how William Empson’s ‘Legal Fiction’ (which Hill discussed in his lecture in March) had moved him as a young man, even though his own perspective as the son of a rural police officer was quite different from Empson’s as a member of the land-owning classes. More strongly, he argued, we can appreciate the works of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, despite their sympathies with the American Confederacy, and, at the most extreme, we can acknowledge Ezra Pound’s poetic genius, despite his work as a propagandist for fascism. Such contradictions, Hill concluded, are irresolvable.

The lecture as a whole was less focused than Hill’s earlier installments, depending less on close reading and flitting even more unpredictably between poets and poems. At the same time, Hill’s meaning floated more on the surface, rather than being carried by thematic undercurrents or bobbed by his misdirecting wit. The clarity was welcome, but the lecture was more like a set of proposals than the agon which Hill described in November. Moreover, although there was clear similarity between Hill’s dynastic wound and the thoughts of T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom about tradition and influence, its exact degree was hard to determine. It remained unclear at the end of the lecture whether Hill sought merely to revise the ideas of his forebears or whether his notion of dynasty was intended as a more innovative contribution to the understanding of literary inheritance. Hill’s position will hopefully become more definite as his lectures approach their conclusion.

Gabriel Roberts is reading for a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.