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“Legal Fiction” & Legal Fiction

Gabriel Roberts

Sir Geoffrey Hill
“Legal Fiction” and Legal Fiction
Professor of Poetry Lectures

Examination Schools
5 March 2013

For the eighth of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill continued his meditation on the public responsibilities of the art form. The title, ‘”Legal Fiction” and Legal Fiction’, was a nod to his earlier distinction between ‘dispensing, with justice’ and ‘dispensing with justice’ and introduced the poem at the centre of the lecture: William Empson’s ‘Legal Fiction’. Hill also continued his musings on his professorial status, this time styling himself as ‘a holy fool’ surviving political upheavals by feigning insanity. Such self-descriptions could be taken as merely ludic, but are made in earnest. Hill is disturbed by the current state of poetry and the lectures are an attempt to improve it.

Hill proposed that the English language is now undergoing a crisis as drastic as that which occurred in 1534-35 as a result of the Act of Supremacy. The Act, which made Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England, was followed by legislation which ‘made words treason’, so that the spoken disavowal of the king’s supremacy was punishable with death. Something similar is happening now, Hill suggested, although he neglected to explain the nature of the crisis. From this, he moved to consider the reflection of three sixteenth century writers—Philip Sidney, Robert Southwell, and Edmund Campion—on the distinction between true justice and the justice which is dispensed by the law. He picked out two words for attention: ‘deem’, meaning both ‘to judge’ and ‘to judge maliciously or on false evidence’; and ‘cavil’, the usual term used in the sixteenth century to mean wrangling, chicanery, and injustice. His point—although Hill’s points are never very discernible—was that poetry fulfils its public duty by marking the difference between deeming and judging, and that it fails in that duty by deeming and cavilling.

In the second half of the lecture, Hill progressed to Empson’s ‘Legal Fiction’. The poem reflects on the legal maxim ‘Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos’ (‘To whomsoever the soil belongs that also is his to the heights of the sky and to the depths of the earth’) and uses it to discover absurdities in property law and Christianity cosmology. The maxim, Empson suggests, gives a landowner rights over a cone of space, stretching from the centre of the earth to the most distant galaxy. These rights, he judges, ‘stretch over and above your claim’ and ensure that ‘you own land in heaven and hell […] where all owners meet’. Hill, following a recent essay by Marcus Waithe, argued the poem merely cavilled, taking the legal maxim to its logical, rather than its practical, extent and interpreting coelom and inferos, meaning sky and earth, to mean heaven and hell. Even a great minor poet like Empson, Hill seemed to conclude, could fail in his public duties.

But to summarise the argument of Hill’s lecture is itself an injustice. The lectures above all are performances, aimed as much at entertaining, moving, and stirring the audience into thought, as prosecuting arguments. Hill’s performance as a lecturer combines oracular declarations, mordant self-pity, and unsettling comedy—none of which a review can convey. The lecture, to paraphrase Hill’s quotation of Wallace Stevens, “is the cry of the occasion, / Part of the res itself and not about it”.

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