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Geoffrey Hill
A Treatise of Civil Power
Clutag (2005), £20.00
ISBN 0954727533


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    David Chaloner


'… with men … who when they have like good sumpters laid ye down their hors load of citations and feathers at your dore…' [Reason of Church-Government]

Milton's A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes is, in contrast to some of his earlier tracts, a comparatively austere piece. There is a distinct absence of citations from historians of the church, patristic commentaries, and 'heathen' philosophers and poets: all that remains is Milton's voice, and his biblical allusions. His concern was to 'shew', with as much simplicity as possible, 'that it is not lawfull for any power on earth to compell in matters of Religion'. Which begs the question, why has Hill taken this title for his obstreperous, highly allusive pamphlet?

A critic once complained of Hill's recent work that it read less like poetry than like a serious of cryptic crossword clues. To be sure, Hill's utterances have been markedly gnomic in recent years, his stanzas often mere containers for his telegrammatic curt sententiae, preventing any simple construction of an argument in favour of establishing a series of allusive resonances that seem to seep through the hermetic phrases. The nightmare-scenario of such critics is wittily realised in 'To the Lord Protector Cromwell', the second poem in this pamphlet: it is a sequence of four sonnets, each line of which forms a separate, numbered stanza, so that the poem as a whole resembles a set of crossword clues, 'Below Times standard (old style)'. Indeed Hill's poetics of late is one of inconclusive clue-giving: one things always points to something else. This holds even for the titles of his recent works, and indeed for the titles of the individual poems in this pamphlet. Four of the eight poems are named after a seemingly heterogeneous group of books from Hill's library, each title prefixed by 'ON READING …' So we have 'ON READING Milton and the English Revolution', 'ON READING Hazlitt: Lectures on the English Comic Writers', and so on. In Hill's recent poetry, it might seem, there really is no hors texte.

'… Priests, who besides the Magistrates their colleagues had the Oracle of Urim to consult with.' [Reason of Church-Government]

Urim was the stone that, according to the hermeticist Fludd, acted as an intermediary between God and the temporal world. Aaron's jewels marked out the elect: with the demise of the priesthood, with liberty of conscience, though, anarchy threatened. Milton's Biblicism provided a bulwark against such anarchy; yet he arrogated to himself the liberty to decide on theological matters for himself. How to define the dividing line between those good Christians who deserved this liberty, and those who abused it as license? Anarchy haunts Hill's work too, perforating the surfaces of his poems again and again in imagined interruptions, headlines, catcalls, and his recourse is, as is Milton's, textual.

'…it were a folly to commit any thing elaborately compos'd to the carelesse and interrupted listening of these tumultuous times.' [Reason of Church-Government]

'A poem,' according to Yeats, 'comes right with a click like a closing box', a phrase Hill quoted with cautious approval in his 1977 lecture 'Poetry as "Menace" and "Atonement"'. The strange, fragmented subjectivity Eliot ingested from his study of T. H. Bradley coincided uncomfortably with a desire to establish poetry as an autonomous object, a fractured form somehow resisting the fracturing impulses of the contemporary. Hill's conversation with Modernism has its own faultlines, but it's clear that the recent work bears fewer marks of the protracted labour so evident in the poems up to The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983).

Money forms part of the fabric of daily discourse from which the writer takes his language: in 'ON READING Burke on Empire, Liberty, and Reform' Hill quotes approvingly from one of Burke's speeches to the House of Commons, and praises its 'redemptive value': but this speech is itself concerned with the minutiae of international taxation, Burke's reckoning of trade accounts being woven into its 'partial, impartial, unassailable' texture. A poem can't claim autonomy from external socio-political pressures; as Hill writes: 'Money is fertile / and genius falls by the way' ('ON READING Blake: Prophet Against Empire'). The need for autonomy reflects a Utopian impulse that conflicts with Hill's vision of a socially-embedded art: in A Treatise, he admits the influence of 'civil power', of society as a determinant of meanings and values, into the realm of the poem.

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