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Masques and masking: Geoffrey Hill's Scenes from Comus


The supposed existence of the canon, with all the connotations of tradition and authority it entails, is inscribed in the very titles of Hill's recent books. The Triumph of Love (1999) takes its name from the first of Petrarch's Trionfi, while The Orchards of Syon (2002) echoes Catherine of Siena's devotional text The Orcherd of Syon. Scenes from Comus (2005) adds another layer to the palimpsest, taking its title from Hugh Wood's symphonic piece, which is itself inspired by Milton's Ludlow masque. In giving his poem this title, Hill summons not only the vast body of Milton's poetry and prose, but also a musical work which itself takes its title from another work: a mise en abţme which reflects his poem's significance as a commentary on the successive layers or masks by which tradition and authority operate. Hill, on the surface, ropes in Milton to ratify his own argument, sometimes letting phrases stand at the head of a stanza as if they were scraps of scripture to be commented upon:

Not in these noises — Milton. A troubled sea
of noises and hoarse disputes, is also him.
Even short arctic days have a long twilight

as I have time to observe. Gloam lies pulsing
at the sea-skyline, where the Hood blew up
surging at full speed, a kind of wake

over the sudden mass grave foul with cordite,
gradually settling. Milton meant civil war
and civil detractions, and the sway of power,

the pull of power, its pondus, its gravity.
The quote is explicitly attributed to Milton, attesting to its authenticity, and arrogating the poet's authority to the themes that unite the poem as a whole: the brevity of winter light, the remembrance of the dead, the inertia and influence of temporal power and, by implication, of language. If, according to patristic theory, an excerpt from the Bible can stand for the entire book, for the Logos, perhaps in this instance the citations from Milton's prose works An Apology for Smectymnuus and The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty contain in abbreviated form the contexture of Milton's thought. Both quotations are, in their original contexts, embedded in discussions in which the Platonic ideal is harshly contrasted with the 'noises' of conflicting political discourses, and in which the necessity of obeying the dictates of one's own conscience in the presence of such noises is ruefully acknowledged. If Hill were less scrupulous, one might say that the citations from Milton that head the stanza claim the authority of the tradition in support of Hill's arguments, and thus implicitly place Hill's work in that tradition. But, perhaps having learnt a lesson from Pound, Hill is less complacent than that.

In what is by now a familiar manoeuvre, Hill's considered use of words, always carefully weighed to incorporate a self-reflexiveness, comments on his own argument even as it propounds it. Authority, in this passage and in the poem as a whole, is a deeply problematic, self-inwoven conundrum, with the masque as its ambivalent emblem. As a seemingly innocuous entertainment, the genre, with its root in masks and masking, is also fertile ground for more subversive gestures. The masque is, ostensibly, a bauble in the hands of those who are in a position of power; as Hill writes, masques are 'booked' to 'present a tidy challenge, less to the maker / than to the persons in the entertainment, / young noble clones safely beset by clowns.' But the political and moral struggles enacted in the structure of the masque complicate its status as the congenial fašade of the wealthy and powerful; in other words, we read in its ambiguities the conflicting forces inherent to the foundations of power - the masque both veils and reveals these foundations. So, here there are two examples of mediation: that of power through the form of the masque, and that of tradition through quotation.

This mediation is part and parcel of Hill's constant preoccupation with rhetoric and its power. His commitment to poetry as a craft is accompanied by an immanent critique of that commitment. In his work, the technical accomplishment necessary to make the modernist autonomous object, the finished, self-sufficient poem, both creates this object and criticizes the motives behind the impulse to create such an object. But his criticism of the modernist impulse towards autonomy is not made from some Archimedean, morally pristine vantage point: he recognises that, as someone who has a professed stake in the poet's craft, he is as vulnerable as anyone to the seductive power of rhetoric. A trope he constantly returns to in his essays is that of the poet finding himself amidst the contingencies of a particular situation, of being situated, and thus in a particular way circumscribed or limited. It is for this reason that he finds it necessary to quote with such frequency in his essays, and, by extension, in his poetry: in his engagement with his circumstances, the incorporation of those circumstances into his text is the responsible way to proceed.

Hill, then, in the stanza quoted above, incorporates the quotes from Milton in the full knowledge that his relationship with tradition is not a comfortable one. The citations from Milton serve to differentiate the two poets' circumstances: Milton, though he would like the leisure to reflect at length on his argument, is forced by the pressure of the times to extemporise, while Hill, as he admits with the phrase 'as I have time to observe', has no such limitations. Past and present are implicitly fused: the light on the horizon is both the present-day twilight and the shelled Hood's conflagration. The wake of the ship becomes the light that hovers ceremoniously over the location of the 'mass grave'. Such events have a tendency to settle in the collective mind, like the fire settling down, or the evening light fading. There is a certain masking, a sensuousness at work in the imagery of the exploded Hood, where the scene of devastation becomes, to reiterate Hill's description of the masque, 'safely beset', its fire glossed as the sensuous 'gloam pulsing'. Hill has time to refine his phrases until they delectably gloss a mass grave, just as the sea now covers the wreck of the Hood: Milton's sea is rather 'a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes', the pondus (glossed by the OED as 'power to influence or bias; moral force') of power. While, in the traditional masque, a poet puts his skills to work to flatter and conceal the workings of power, Hill self-consciously employs his gifts to gratify the reader's senses with images of devastation and violence, and makes us aware of the mediating capabilities of language. The quotations at the head of the stanza, far from authorising the lines that follow with the weight of the tradition from which they're drawn, instead take their place in an argument about that very weight, the pondus that is written into the masque as a genre, as into the allusive poem.

© Signals 2005