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This article is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

Prophet and Citizen: Fifty Years of Geoffrey Hill's For the Unfallen Alex Wylie

In the early 1950s, when Geoffrey Hill began writing the poems that would eventually make up For the Unfallen, two extremities of style vied for his attention, both of them implying roughly opposing positions on the issue of the self’s agency in and over language. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that these two conflicting styles, the New Romantic poetry of the 1940s (Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne, George Barker et al.) and the Movement (Donald Davie and Philip Larkin particularly) of the 1950s, represented a debate going on in the young poet’s mind: a debate with aesthetic, and political, consequences. Surrealism, ‘inspiration’, and neo-Romantic intensity are pitted, in Hill’s mind in the early ’50s, against Movement principles of diction, civility and resistance to emotional excess. This is to speak broadly, but it can certainly be argued that the two movements represent differing attitudes to the relationship of the self to language, inspiration - inspiritus, a breathing-in of divine air, afflatus - versus civility, a speech conditioned by its communal origin and purpose; surrealism versus realism, perhaps. Also speaking broadly, Neil Corcoran writes of this conflict of styles that ‘Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”, we might say, is to be replaced by Larkin’s “I Remember, I Remember”.’1 The poet-as-prophet and the poet-as-citizen pull against each other in For the Unfallen, creating the tense ambivalence of many of its best poems. Can the prophet be a citizen, and vice versa? Must the poet choose between being ruled by language, and ...

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