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This review is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

ACCOUNTABLE SURVIVOR GEOFFREY HILL, A Treatise of Civil Power (Penguin) £9.99

Geoffrey Hill's latest collection of poetry, A Treatise of Civil Power, is an improvement on an earlier model, a simultaneous refinement and expansion of a booklet of the same name which was published in 2005 by Clutag Press. That original chapbook (of which only four hundred were available) carried a hefty eponymous piece, consisting of forty-two strophes, which does not appear in the present volume. This has been broken up into various shorter individual poems in the new book, which contains also some twenty additional poems, some of which Hill has published in England and America since 2005.

It is a volume whose central metaphor might be that of currency. Hill explores the currency, the currentness, of idiom and idiolect, 'that could be idiot dialect but isn't' ('On Reading Milton and the English Revolution'). Hill's own idiolect occasionally meets and parts with contemporary parlance, as in the first lines of 'A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power', 'Could so have managed not to be flinging / down this challenge': lines of English which have absorbed a flouncy Americanism. As well as this there is the ever-present, George Steiner-inflected notion that words are like coins that become debased, even to the point of worthlessness; or, in Stéphane Mallarmé's formulation in 'Crise de Vers', they are like 'coins passed silently from hand to hand'. (In fact, Hill has become more sanguine on this point recently.) The notion of language as a state currency ...


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