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This report is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Sir Geoffrey Hill Rowan Williams
The following sermon was delivered at the funeral of Sir Geoffrey Hill at the Chapel of Emmanuel College, Cambridge on 25 July 2016.


VERY WELL, you shall redirect the pain –
May already have worked this – towards paean.
      Nothing bereaves
      Precisely; yet
      Lost springs of loves
      Turn things about
      Upon the stiff axis
      Geared by bow staves      [Clavics 25, p.    35]

‘A trimmed rod of wood’, says the definition, ‘to be made into a bow.’ Loss is ‘imprecise’, nothing serious, grievous, in our humanity allows us the satisfaction of being exact, wrapping it all up. What we do with bereavement is to find words that ‘turn things about’, labouring at a vehicle where the tension and slowness are in fact building towards an arrow flight.

So today, sitting with our ‘imprecise’ grief, the loss we can’t turn into anything finished and impressive, we listen to Geoffrey’s words, in one context after another, burrowing, shouldering, worrying their way towards some redirection of pain. He had characteristically austere things to say about the self-delusions of poets. In a notable essay on ‘Language, Suffering, Silence’ (Collected Critical Writings, pp. 394–406) he conducts several swordfights simultaneously (it is one of the exhausting and exhilarating features of his best critical writing that you have to remember in pretty well every sentence just how many people he is arguing with) – with Arnold, Auden, Milosz, Yeats, all to do with what poetry is meant to do or be in the face of the violation of humanity – or, to paraphrase the question, though still in Geoffrey’s own terms, what is the nature of ‘ethical’ poetry. It is not enough to think of poetry being ‘vented’ in action; it is not enough to make ironic noises about poetry making nothing happen; not enough to reduce it to the moment of privileged intensity that somehow escapes the wheel of history. It is true that poetry is not ‘about’ passive endurance; just as true that it is not ‘about’ inspiring readers to political action, even political violence. And this magisterial clearing of the path leaves one observation standing: Hopkins’s comment in a letter to Robert Bridges that the way to respond to suffering is almsgiving, most particularly a resolution to give up buying books for a period and devote the money to the needy. So much for literary eloquence about silence and suffering...

The essay asks for a theology of language. If grace occurs in poetry – ‘the abrupt, unlooked-for semantic recognition understood as corresponding to an act of mercy or grace’ – we have to see how and why it is simultaneously ‘a shock of ethical recognition’. But for that shock to occur, we have to find our way beyond the surface noise of emotion and propaganda and sentimentality. He gently rebukes the great theologian Austin Farrer in another essay (ibid., p.572) for writing – in a discussion Geoffrey otherwise admires – about ‘human existence clamouring for expression’. Clamour is exactly not what brings the ethical into focus. And simply chattering about pain, in prose or poetry, corrupts us, takes our attention away from the imperative of  justice – a word that has to be weighted both within and beyond aesthetics. As the essay on suffering and silence concludes, aesthetics is a good, but does not save: the weight of the world’s stresses has to be carried by means other than poetry alone. Arnold’s activism, Auden’s irony – both are inadequate. Poetry is a real good, and not the only one. It is an aspect of the hunger for justice. It must do justice in its wording and do what it can to carry stresses that are not only its business. And, as he suggests almost casually, one of the most significant ways in which poetry does this is by memorialising the dead. Geoffrey’s readers will recognise at once the centrality of this to his own practice: if poetry cannot be either propagandist or exquisite, one thing it is singularly equipped for is doing justice to the past of words and speakers, giving voice in a multitude of ways to that always-present cloud of witness, about whose fate in one sense we can do nothing, yet whose life and voice is in some way in our hands. Writing for the fallen and the unfallen alike, you might say, writing for the dead so as to write for the survivors who may not even know what they have survived. Ethical poetry comes slowly into focus as a practice that embodies witness, standing consistently in a place where something is, however intermittently, clear, and refusing those versions of it that are slanted by transient feeling, ‘agendas’ of one kind or another, functionalist reduction or aesthetic over-ambition. The dead won’t reward you; so you can write about them without twisting yourself around the politics of a relationship, and simply work for their voice.

And, needless to say, this witnessing entails bearing witness to your own imperfection of witness, your own seductions and dramatisations. Geoffrey’s late collections, certainly from Speech! Speech! onwards, are characterised by savagely ludic self-chastisement: some of it a pre-emptive strike against the hapless reader or the snide critic, sometimes a rueful fingering over the near-flawless lyric voice of his earlier work, sometimes simply a caricature of the grumpy old man persona – all worked through with comprehensively unmerciful clarity. One of his own most persistent themes, from that wonderful inaugural lecture in Leeds in 1977, is how we ‘word’ repentance, particularly in the face of that moment where the unmoral is suddenly caught up in the moral – where, in the language he uses later, the simultaneity of semantic and ethical recognition is inescapable; when doing justice in words is transparently bound up with doing justice to what there is in every sense (including what there is, uncomfortably, unreconciledly, inside the poet).

Geoffrey believed that the Christian narrative of guilt (true not self-dramatising guilt, the weight of the stresses born out of one’s own failure), of the clarification of our being by grace, of the continuous tension between love and betrayal and of the inexhaustible resource of patience underpinning all things was a narrative that was worth committing to, and it is this that gives us our words today for redirecting pain towards paean, turning things, making our bereavement a little more precise – that is, doing justice to where we find ourselves. We are here because we have all sensed something of our judgement in Geoffrey’s words, in poetry and prose: we have been called to account, brought to justice as the old phrase has it. We can read the later collections, that extraordinary last flowering of energy and technical brilliance, feeling sometimes that what he says ‘chides us beyond all bearing’ (Odi Barbare xlix, p.57) – sets an impossible level of compression, needling challenge, ruthless scrutiny of every syllable, ruthless dismantling of settled and accessible meanings. But these poems are not an aberration: they are fraught with that stress of looking for justice and so inviting judgement on any or all of us who work in words. And they are as much as ever a territory in which grace, ethical and semantic recognition, springs into life again and again.

I have ridden out one cosmos already,
Manner of speaking. The metaphysical
End of desire is always to be real;
The word and world well-met and going steady.

If this is not possible, trick is to renew
Batteries of arcane matter: fatalism
For one; the labyrinth or chasm
Of language. Tedium can be made to glow.

Comes real at last only renunciation.
I am before that, inadequately tired;
What has been taken remains unrestored.
Each word excruciate in its computation.

Command I spit upon clay to obtain merit –
For what remains to us in the great set
Book of the People that is not escheat? –
Who once could beget love but could not bear it.
[Al tempo de’ tremuoti, 928–9]

Poetry like all speech ends in renunciation; the great set book contains nothing that is not bound to revert to another’s ownership. What we say is an attempt to open eyes, as Christ did with the clay and spittle laid on the blind man’s eyes; but can we bear what is uncovered? Doing justice is a dangerous enterprise, dangerous for our fragile selves, wounding us and those we love when we cannot bear the weight we have loosed and allowed to slip onto our backs. Geoffrey knew all this, and if his knowing was often angry, that anger was not the final motor of the poetry: not something ‘clamouring for expression’ but the deeper knowledge of what the subterranean shifting of ‘lost loves’ and half-lost guilts might bring to birth – or not, of course, because successful ‘voicing’ is not granted automatically to anyone.

But he has brought something to birth for all of us, by that grace he celebrated, something inescapably ethical in a way given to few poets of our age. Here we are to try and echo both the turning of things about in words and the renunciation he spelled out for us. Our bereavement has various levels of imprecision; Geoffrey’s family will have a different sort of precision in their grieving, and they will have words for it that the rest us can’t share. But in this liturgy we prepare ourselves for the stiff axis of the death and resurrection of Christ to stand steady as we wind our tensions around it and pray for freedom like the arrow’s flight, for Geoffrey and for all of us.

This report is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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