A Treatise of Civil Power


A poet this good is a genus; a hydra-headed mob; a lord unto himself. Why late Hill is a genus can be explained thus —

  1. Genus = ‘genius’ without the ‘I’.
  2. Openly cribbing from Whitman, A Treatise of Civil Power ‘contains multitudes’.
  3. The term genus refers to the three scales in ancient Greek music.
  4. Genus crops up in Horace’s phrase genus irritabile vatum, which the OED cites as a reference to ‘the irritable or over-sensitive race or class of poets’ — a citation that is confirmed by Swift, in 1721, via his Letter to a Young Poet Those of your Profession have been call’d / Genus irritabile vatum

I will return to this later. For now, here are some facts.

A Treatise of Civil Power
is a revised and expanded version of a pamphlet released in 2005 with Andrew McNeillie’s Clutag Press. Hill’s 2005 pamphlet was built around a 42-stanza title poem ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’, ending CETERA DESUNT (‘the rest is missing’). The rest is not silence then, or history, but missing. Significantly, this title poem is missing from the 2007 book. Sections of it, individual or paired stanzas, have been dispersed into the new book as follows —

‘The Minor Prophets’ – copy of stanza XV
‘Citations I’ – copy of stanzas IX and XL
‘Citations II’ – copy of stanzas XXV and XXVII
‘Harmonia Sacra’ – indebted to stanza XXXVII
‘An Emblem’ – copy of stanza XIX
‘Before Senilia’ – copy of stanza XLII.

The title poem, in this sense, is not missing — but large sections are, and what remains of its sequence has been secreted into a genus of lyric poems. A bulky monolithic thing has been broken up into lots of fragmentary pieces — like a cluster bomb, or shrapnel from a grenade. This move from the single to the assembly, from solo to several, from one man to myriad, typifies late Hill’s procedural rhetoric.

There are many reasons why ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ should have been 42 stanzas. In the Cabbalistic tradition, God creates the universe with the number 42. In 2 Kings, God sends bears to maul 42 of the youths who laugh at Elisha for being bald (Hill is hairless too). In the Gutenberg Bible, there are 42 lines of text on each page. Likewise, the Torah is broken into columns, each of which has 42 lines. And, according to Revelation, the Beast will rule the world for 42 months; the two witnesses will prophesy for 42 months; and so on. The angle at which light reflects off water to create a rainbow is 42 degrees. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet sleeps for 42 hours. Etcetera — so on and so forth. Hill has also said in a radio interview that as a boy he could only remember the 6x table — so he thinks in multiples of 6. Also of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy makes 42 the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. But this is ephemera.

Whatever the reason, the title poem is replaced with the much shorter ‘A PRÉCIS OR MEMORANDUM OF CIVIL POWER’ which tags along the kind of crabbed thought and contemporary jargon it was expected to. For example; ‘Money’s not civil power in itself; / more the enforcer’. Any AS Level economics student could have explained this with the same economy. But this is the point A Treatise of Civil Power consists of many voices babbling with, or against, or in ignorance of, each other. In tandem with this, his other method of myriad-minded-ness is to cite the dead, and connect them in a sort-of academical fashion. (‘But that was Holbein’s way not Surrey’s whim…’)

And yet, Hill cites with a destructive improvisation:

Marcel describes,
an exultation
[in one’s] negative
. I aim to cite correctly
but admit licence when the words won’t match

with my own brief

Note the iambic pentameter in the second and fourth lines. When Hill quotes, he doesn’t just take liberties, he admits licence. But could we say he pleases himself, then? Somewhere in his constant recourse to the towering dead / With their nightingales and psalms, there is the nebulous sense that citation is a kind of stealing. Hill is a magpie, cherry-picking his Now That’s What I Call Quotes 42 and recontextualising them. He has said this before. For example, in The Triumph of Love:

Excuse me — excuse me — I did not
say the pain is lifting. I said the pain is in
the lifting. No — please — forget it.

Lifting as in heightening, but also as in stealing. Think shoplifting. A fashionable example of this usage is seen in R. Zimmerman’s
Subterranean Homesick Blues’: ‘Don't steal, don't lift / Twenty years of schoolin’ / And they put you on the day shift’. The first such usage the OED gives is that of Skelton: ‘Conuey it be crafte, lyft & lay asyde’. This is as fine an abstract of Hill’s prosody as any I have seen.

An epigraph from Skelton opens the book, saying Justice is dead, Truth is asleep, Right is gone away with Reason; that no-one will wake the first two, and that the second two ‘can not come agayne’. Thus; what’s left is theft. This sense of lifting as stealing is significant for ‘A PRÉCIS OR MEMORANDUM OF CIVIL POWER’:

I still can’t tell you what that power is.
The statute books
suffer us here and there to lift a voice.

Theft is a kind of rebellion, a get-out clause, a loophole for avoiding civil power; even the institutionally-sanctioned theft of allusion. The current statutes of contemporary opinion suffer intertextuality as a legitimate form of theft; or plagiarism, even. And Hill’s constant allusions to everyone from Rolf Harris to Jules Verne, to Skelton, to Wyatt and to Milton and to Holbein, even to himself (ie. his 2005 pamphlet with Clutag Press) manipulate the crowd of dead names into a kind of puppet-life. Hill creates a dramatic text or texture by importing, and reporting on, the whole crowded canon of Western Literature. Here is an example, picked almost at random, from ‘PARALLEL LIVES’:

Plutarch writes of being
overdrawn by the affections. Quiet mind,
in Wyatt’s English, is far from slumber
or waking lassitude.

This is quite a circumlocuting way of saying peace is not compliance. But, by its references, it appeals to a crowd-mentality, a crowded authority of Historical Names. Thus, the whole jumbled import of literary history is imported, and hotwired into a tragicomic drama. Yet this drama is tiring — of Hill, I mean. To be in a state, making a statement, about the state of civil power in the state of the UK, must be exhausting. E.g. these lines from ‘TO THE LORD PROTECTOR CROMWELL’:


Say I would beg


out of this hire-house of ceaseless allusion.


I want out from this mire, say, of bluish flame.

That hire-house sounds like whorehouse need not be dwelt on unduly. The initial imperative on ‘say’ is morphed neatly into a colloquial shrug at approximation the second time ‘say’ is used. The first time it means ‘tell them I would beg…’ the second time it means ‘I want out of this mire, for instance, of bluish flame’. Lines 3b and 4 are spoken by one voice, but line 5 is a new voice — or the first voice pastiching an idiom that it is not native to. Either way, something has shifted. This is what I mean by myriad-mindedness. It is a hyperbole to say this is a Theatrical Script to be read by a cast of characters. But it is equally partial, and equally unsatisfactory, to say the narrative voice is consistent; except for its inconsistency. The way it melds between antipodal registers, from lexis to lexis, and the swiftness of the mask-changing, creates the impression of multiplicity. Consider this example from stanza 14, the final stanza, of ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’:

Devastated is Estuary; devastation remains
waste and shock. This ending is not the end…

‘Waste and shock’ belong to a tabloid headline; the finicky OED-esque distinction that is made between Devastated and devastation is at odds with the gnomic abstractioning of ‘This ending is not the end’; and ‘Estuary’ is (of course) shorthand for ‘Estuary English’ or the Thames-dialect, recalling stanza XXXV of the (omitted) title poem of the 2005 pamphlet:

… and there are others —
lost mid-Thames Valley voices — devastated

The lost mid-Thames Valley voices are — indeed — lost in the new revisions. Let us pass over the pun on ‘state’ in devastated, and focus instead on how the quotidian voice, street slang and all, is allowed to secret itself amongst, and mock, the learning which surrounds it. A smishsmash of cultural imitations and parodies are patchworked together — collage is too easy a word. This is babble, as in Babel; the chaotic petty noises of what New Labour likes to call ‘Multicultural England’ juxtaposed — staged — subverted into a New Order. It is as if Holbein had painted The Ambassadors by gluing together scraps of glossy magazine job-adverts, headlines from the SUN, an old copy of Paradise Lost, a 1960s Playboy, and a remaindered Encyclopaedia Britannica. There is also a poem called ‘HOLBEIN’ that makes this point, albeit obliquely (‘Imagine Hercules had mated with the Hydra’). In this milieu is a willingness to work with conflict. ‘ON READING Milton and the English Revolution’:

Fix your own tail to the Jerusalem donkey.


Radiant urim; also the discreet
seraphic viscera. I say again it
can seem too much.

Radiant urim is a lowercase revision of Milton’s ‘radiant URIM’; Urim is light or revelation among other things. It is not the kind of allusion one would pick up in ‘the business of living’ (if one lives on Housing Project Hill, say). However, as before, the standard Hillish obscurity — or obliqueness — is mocked by the surrounding material. The habitual gestures towards erudition are framed with jeering and crass lampoons; like Victorian snuff being cut with cocaine.

But the book finishes — breaks off — with a degenerate, commanding resignation:

— Urge to unmake
all wrought finalities, become a babbler
in the crowd’s face.

What crowd is this? A Treatise performs a collapse into schizophrenia, with a sort-of bid for wider fame. Hill is neglected, he has no crowd: he has fit audience though few. I can explain his turn to many-voiced polyphony as an attempt to become his own crowd — to be his own admirers, and detractors — to stand for election in a Democracy of the Dead. But this is too glib an explanation. Something else is happening here. It is a turning away from the lyric and monologue — and turning towards what is almost a verse drama — or a kind of dialogue. This is the most significant characteristic of his late style, and A Treatise of Civil Power is no exception. It is exceptional, however. It contains multitudes, and finds multitudes elsewhere, such as here in ‘ON READING Blake: Prophet Against Empire’:

in Jerusalem, he could
contradict and contain multitudes (I’ve
cribbed Whitman, you stickler — short of a phrase).

It is strange how little mention Milton’s pamphlet A Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, from which Hill’s books take their name, gets. Given the sequence of references to books, this is odd. However, it is worth remembering Milton’s concluding paragraph:

in the scripture so copious and so plain we have all that can be properly called true strength and nerve; the rest would be but pomp and encumbrance. Pomp and ostentation of reading is admired among the vulgar, but doubtless, in matters of religion, he is learnedest who is plainest.

Hill’s book omits the second half of the title in Ecclesiastical Causes. It is not dealing, or at least not dealing directly, with what Milton calls ‘matters of religion’ — it deals with wordy worldly matters, with worldly goods in bad taste. The voices that Hill mimes and mimics are almost entirely pomp and encumbrance, pomp and ostentation. (‘Dublin drug-heads / and Drogheda won’t fit down or across.’) But Hill’s achievement is to demonstrate that in matters of civil power he is learnedest who is most elaborate, most complex, most conflicted. Not that this book is especially difficult, but that it is hydra-headed, inconsistent, in a state of something like civil war. Example:

Money is fertile
and genius falls by the way. It doesn’t —
but stays in its own room, growing confused

A poet this good is a genus; a hydra-headed mob; a lord unto himself. The first voice is contradicted by a second voice (‘It doesn’t…’). So Hill’s absolute statement includes the possibility it is wrong. And, therefore, to state it becomes an act of faith; not arrogance. In this way, Hill is escaping the surly sence of injur’d merit that marred pieces of his earlier work, and moving — albeit a bit tired, and crabby, barnacled with learning — toward the conflicted gracefulness of a man resigned.

1 comment:

  1. Shameless, State of Play, Geoffrey Hill reviews... is there no end to this man's talent.

    Excellent piece.