Saturday, 27 September 2008

Geoffrey Hill Reading

On Friday I heard the poet Geoffrey Hill read in the beautiful surroundings of Convocation House, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. It was a rich experience. Hill’s poetry, which I find by turns both stunning and incomprehensibly crabbed, is remarkable for the sheer impression of mental forcefulness which it conveys. The pressure of mighty thoughts, that kind of thing. It is rooted in the dense intellectualism of the private individual who writes about matters of state, the citizen-thinker, beholden to no one for his opinions. Therefore, it is no wonder that the influence of Milton is strong on Hill, both in titles (Scenes from Comus, A Treatise of Civil Power) and within individual poems.

He was a frail figure – dressed in black, and walking with a stick. He read both from his own work, and from Milton, quite magnificiently. His voice is a thing of wonder: patriarchal sublimity is very out of fashion these days, but it's a rich, sonorous baritone without a hint of over-actorly fruitiness. It's a voice made to read Milton, matching the latter's poetic voice in orotundity. In fact, I always imagine Milton (who, at Cambridge, was know as 'the Lady of Christ's' because of his waifish, feminine good looks) must have had rather a reedy physical voice.

It was splendid stuff, and I reproduce below one of Milton's satirical sonnets, which Hill read with such power. (This one is famously a caudate or 'tailed' sonnet - the standard fourteen lines, then a coda.)

On the New Forcers of Conscience
Under the Long Parliament

BECAUSE you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounc'd his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare you for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A.S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d'ye-call.
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventative shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succor our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.


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