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Fields of Force

Gabriel Roberts

Sir Geoffrey Hill
“Fields of Force”
Professor of Poetry Lectures
Examination Schools
27 November 2012

Last Tuesday, Geoffrey Hill, the Oxford Professor of Poetry, delivered the seventh of his statutory lectures. His argument, insofar as there was one, was that poetry needs to be forceful and that the current, bleak state of poetry arises from a lack of force. All good poetry, he argued, has a high-handedness about it and a sod-off quality. But as Hill was keen to emphasise, the lecture, like the others in the series, was not intended as a set of proposals about what poetry should do or be. Rather, the lectures are “agons” or “contortions”, public attempts to reach a final clarification of his views. Nor did Hill really argue for his conclusions. As on previous occasions, he proceeded by reading poems that were pertinent to his thesis, impressing upon his audience the force of poetry.

The first half of the lecture focused on Richard Eberhart’s 1947 poem ‘MYSTICISM HAS NOT THE PATIENCE TO WAIT FOR GOD’S REVELATION’, which fused together quotations from Alexander Dru’s translation of the journals of Søren Kierkegaard. The poem, as Hill read it, is a meditation on the possibility of thinking oneself out of a perceived choice between subjective self-wallowing and the pursuit of stale political objectives. At the same time, it seeks to perform this very act of thought by using Kierkegaard’s charged prose to create an elevated poetic register. Eberhart’s aim, Hill conjectured, was to achieve an objective relation to his own subjectivity. This, he suggested, with unusual directness, has been the task of poetry throughout most of the twentieth century and remains so now.

The lecture then opened out to consider Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, Pound’s Cantos, and Eliot’s ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, each of which exhibits force in a different way. The Eliot in particular shows the wide potential of elevated writing by using it to expose the clichés and double-entendres in the then-prevailing high register of Tennyson and his Edwardian imitators. All this proved a general maxim: that artists should make art as strong as the art they admire, but not like the art they admire.

The published version of Hill’s lectures (when it appears) will not convey the spectacle of Hill writhing his way through them. If the lectures succeed, he mused, it is as self-travesties, sales pitches for poetry by a man with no mind to sell poetry to anyone. The lecture was less openly mischievous than some of his previous offerings (such as when he compared himself to Hercules wrestling with the blooded cloak of Nessus and then chastised the audience for taking him seriously), but it contained most of his usual devices: sententious repetitions of key lines, complaints about the task required of him, and impish changes of tone. No one could accuse Professor Hill of clarity, and this lecture was no exception, but his position is slowly coming into shape. The next lecture should be well worth the wait.

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