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“The Democracy of the Dead”

Gabriel Roberts

Sir Geoffrey Hill
‘Poetry and “the Democracy of the Dead”‘
Professor of Poetry Lectures

Examination Schools
3rd December 2013

Anyone who attended Geoffrey Hill’s latest lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry in the hope that he would now be clarifying his position would have left dissatisfied. The main themes of the lectures were evident—the political nature of poetry and the different connections of poets to their pasts—but the performance as a whole was difficult to follow.

Hill’s title was taken from G.K. Chesterton, who argued in his book Orthodoxy that tradition “is the democracy of the dead” which “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” The democracy of the dead is, Hill said, a force field in which poetry operates, a situation which he found encapsulated in Ezra Pound’s description of iron filings arranged by the lines of force extending from a magnet as “the rose in the steel dust”. But he seemed divided about the merits of this view. He criticised T.S. Eliot’s 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia (later collected in After Strange Gods (1934)) as an attempt to establish an autocracy of the dead by re-establishing a native Christian culture which Eliot believed to be under threat. Hill related this to his previous comments on the Southern American agrarian poets.

He also described a struggle with alternative traditions in Ford Madox Ford’s When Blood is their Argument (1915), which attempted to distinguish German culture from Prussian kultur in the period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the Unification of Germany in the 1870s. Hill described Ford’s work as “a technical exercise in high sentiment” and lauded a similar quality in Wilfred’s Owen’s ‘Insensibility’ (which he began the lecture by reading in full) and ‘Spring Offensive’, rather than in the arguably more famous poems ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, and ‘Strange Meeting’. Owen’s sentimentalism, he suggested, was redolent of English literature before the influence of Eliot’s early criticism, with its emphasis on impersonality. This put him in mind of “the massive truculent English of John Dryden” and the early eighteenth-century ballad-opera song ‘Sally in the Alley’, which Hill entertained the audience by singing. The lecture ended with a quotation from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “it is the field of force of a word which is decisive”, although it was unclear whether Hill thought that Wittgenstein’s ideas supported his argument or whether he merely liked the turn of phrase.

The Oxford English Faculty has now updated its podcasts of the lectures, although the lectures from the 6 March and 8 May 2012 have been lost due to technical problems and the podcast of the latest lecture is yet to appear. The availability of the lectures online has no doubt contributed to the large number of responses in poetry blogs and in reviews like this one. But despite much praise for Hill as a speaker, there has been a lack of serious engagement with his ideas, a consequence which must surely be attributed to the extreme opacity of his style. Though Hill confidently gestures back to his previous lectures and forwards to the further unveiling of his ideas, this does nothing to dispel the sense of perplexity which inveterately assails the listener. There’s clarity yesterday, clarity tomorrow, but never clarity today.

If Hill’s lectures are eventually published, like those of Seamus Heaney, James Fenton, and Paul Muldoon, then this will no doubt allow his followers study his ideas in more detail. But until then, there is the danger that Hill’s description of himself as a “holy fool” will ring too true. Though the Oxford literati may feel edified by the augustly contrarian Hill, they may not leave his lectures questioning the beliefs which they brought with them into the lecture hall. This is not to impugn the lectures as performances, nor to underestimate Hill’s capacity to upset critical assumptions by arguing for the continuing importance of a high modernist voice in poetry. But unless he begins to state his views more clearly, it is difficult to see how the lectures will exert any critical force on the people to whom they are principally addressed.

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