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This article is taken from PN Review 42, Volume 11 Number 4, March - April 1985.

Sleepless Presences: Geoffrey Hill's essays Martin Jarrett-Kerr

The title of this collection of Essays ('On Literature and Ideas') is taken from Auden's 'The Watchers' - those Sleepless Presences who lay in wait for us: sinister, but

We need your power still: use it that none,
O, from their tables break uncontrollably away
Lunging, insensible to injury . . .

They are there too in Hill's The Mystery of the Charity of Charles PĆ©guy, in which the world is no longer that of Jeanne d'Arc, but 'belongs to them,/The lords of limit and of contumely.' (no capitals, as in Auden). Ranging as it does from Southwell, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Swift, T.H. Green to John Crowe Ransom (with many others thrown in en route), is it a book? Or is it (like so many collected essays) a Refugee Camp for Fugitive Pieces? Unquestionably the former. First, because threading them all is Hill's flair for the associative citation - from sources as improbable as a 'knitting editor', a lute-song of 1605 by John Danyel, the Declaration of the Nottingham Branch of a Framework-makers Union (1812), to the report of a factory inspector (1836) on the names chosen for his daughters by a Rochdale weaver. Second, because all the poets or works or themes studied have something slightly eccentric and precarious about them. And third, and more important: in every essay there occurs some phrase, sequence of thought, illumination, in which word and action, the linguistic and the philosophical-theological, ...

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