The Confounded Praise of Emmy the Great

I want to say that Emmy the Great is good, and how. This won’t be light work. To praise her usefully, I think, you have to describe her with enough accuracy that you’re forthcoming even about her faults; this may give rise to an air of hostility. Let me then vouch for my intentions, and run my own risks with opinion, by reproducing a poem of mine that took a song of the Great’s as impetus and model:

To a theme of Emmy the Great’s

Not until the fax is handled, never.
A hollow retch. I want the regions fixed.
Death, death is a giant.
Now the damn windscreen, de-ice it fully?
Fortyish. Fuckit: time time.
Not the greenest of tombs
whereas I will degrade (degrade and soon).

Ring the wife I have folders of it.
Nothing can dent my mood, or birdsong.
Hurry cretin. Noise-cancelling for you
they are virtually speakers – what’s that siren racket?
Then I am old –
Arulpra-, Arulpragasam. For it is cold
on the riprap and I could have let him be.

This superb work furnishes me with an occasion to write about ‘MIA’ [beware the crappy transcriptions] per se and in particular about a certain perplexing quality of the Great’s music it exemplifies. ‘MIA’ is by any measure an unplaceable song. What reads, in the literalist light of the album booklet, like the crass and careless abandonment of sense for sound is redeemed somehow in the cadences of singing, and by the intricacy they bring out: ‘brake’ repeats the vowel in ‘rain’, but can someone really forget how to brake? Would anyone hold her hands (plural) against the face of the driver of a car? What but a round in the back of the head could have ‘sprayed’ the driver’s face ‘Across the radio as it played’? There is something dreamed up, inauthentic and casual about that—the captious reader will insist.
            There’s good sense in these cavils but they are cavils, and subject as such to cavilling comeuppances. Perhaps the Great would have done better to have put ‘snow’, but braking in the rain does indeed take skills that a driver of brief experience, spooked and just released from the ill-timed fondling of a passenger, might forget. You can, barely plausibly, deprive ‘sprayed’ of its passive force and render it into a participial adjective with half the connotation of ‘spread’. Perhaps the irremediable hash made of ‘lives through the blow’, with its preparatory complement ‘but yo’, counts against this reading, but the point is brought: there’s more here than dismissal can do right by.
            ‘MIA’ is both uncharacteristic and characteristic of its singer-writer, and most trivially uncharacteristic in that it’s one of her best things. Because of its boy-girl set-up you expect it to mount the Great’s workhorse of a hobby-horse, the topic of Relationships. But it doesn’t. The humming girl wonders later on, ‘Who’s going to cancel my date?’ This ‘two’ aren’t a couple.
            That line is suggestive also of what is characteristic about the song. ‘MIA’ is the depiction of a fatal crash that renounces explicitness as impotent, and prefers to suggest. Being oblique, it lets the listener infer what’s told from what’s shown. More than oblique, though, it is indeterminate and doesn’t allow us finally to be sure that it puts what is characteristic in it to use to conjure a new effect or that this effect just ensues from the collision of a characteristic quality with new matter. I mean: ‘Who’s going to cancel my date?’, like ‘I always liked this singer’ and like the song’s impassive slump of an ending,* is an instance of the flatness that crops up in all her songs and often dictates their terms, but in the story that ‘MIA’ imparts to us they are mimetic of shock. It’s the outstanding merit of the song. Even ‘but yo’ might be thought to simulate a shaken chumminess that hopes to restrain horror but can’t.

I’ve submitted that to say she is good we have to say what Emmy the Great is like. That flat or neutral quality for which ‘I always liked this singer’ can stand is predominant in her songs in tone and substance. But to describe it is not as easy as to say the words. It is manifested differently in the self-made circumstance of each song. It itself is a manifestation of a generational tone, that of the generation (it had everything it needed and nothing at stake) of which my millennial contemporaries are the final ebb: the numbed ‘postmodern’ irony which Anderson distils and Wallace pitted himself against. Variously through its applications, this flatness can vitiate or enrich the Great’s conceits; I will engage its shortcomings below, but now I want to turn to its organising influence in the songs on that variety of conceit called character.
To hold off the circularity that lours over this question (flatness is characteristic of her characters?), I need to approach the greater, never decisively approachable question of autobiography. There is a lot of Emma-Lee Moss in Emmy the Great. Interviews have her identifying the pseudonym as a nickname from school—it began as a ‘rap name’—or an email address from university, and glossing it not in terms of, say, Alexander the Great’s agnomen, but of the jaded flatness I just brought up: ‘Emmy the … great’. Other names in the songs appear to be from life. But—even if for a few readers the criticism is in the guessing—the extent to which Emmy is Emma-Lee is unknowable. ‘Extent’, in fact, isn’t the word for the shifting overlap we’d want to comprehend. Cursory listens had left me presuming the addressee of ‘On the Museum Island’ was male until an interview showed her a close friend, without explaining the monied father and the Princess-of-Wales machinery [update: this is it]. That song recalls something of the setting of ‘Two Steps Forward’, the best off the Edward E.P. and one that prompted me to reconsider ‘First Love’, since both seemed to be discrepant reflections on the singer’s first fuck. As I’d thought the ‘love’ that ‘ran out’ between the singer’s legs and made ‘puddles on the floor’ was blood too, I’d taken the chorus line ‘And the sky was so much bluer!’ as evidence of the exhilaration of a rite of passage dispensed with. Analogous to that, if you read ‘MIA’ in a misgiving mood, certain slipshod phrases look like artefacts of storytelling. In a footnote to ‘Dylan’, however, Moss is nonchalant in educating us: ‘This is a diss on the guy I went to school with …’
Emmy the Great more than once alludes to Eliot. We wouldn’t say of him, while easily conceding the justice of the lemma ‘dramatic monologue’, that his Prufrock is only a character insomuch as he isn’t autobiographical. The self, in a narrow definition, is the matter of necessarily first resort, and in a broad conception the only matter there is. So the Great’s characters—not poses, not masks—are best characterised as different ways to be, evoked and invoked, tried out and discarded variously yet inconsistently from a range quite trivially conterminous with her self; all refracting less trivially her characteristic flatness (which must of course inhabit something to find expression), and all inherently concerned with an inherent fact about the self which presents the selves: her femininity.
What are these characters—not discrete but which we can tell apart? The Great’s two principals are the ingenue (guileless, gawky, coy sometimes) and the mercurial tease; but manifest now and then is a quality of frankness, liable to lead to frank tenderness, which is neither naive nor calculating. The first two represent ways to be a girl or woman. Indeed her ‘ingenue’ often sounds like the affectionate resurrection of a self sloughed off, attended by a shift in vocal manner producing a girlish tone that reminds me of Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (cf ‘Edward come and sit with me’ at the beginning of ‘Bad Things Coming…’ and ‘But I thought’ about two minutes in to ‘Secret Circus’). The ingenue character is unstable from the first because it is not ingenuous to act. The Great handles it with strategic grace, and in her songs it assumes the role of a favourite refuge from which to promulgate criticism that gains pungency in virtue of the character’s freedom to feign, at her uninvested remove, bemusement or pitying surprise.† The Great’s attraction to such devices of distancing is apparent as well in her fondness for quotation, and of placing quotations in the foreground of a song—a number of those on First Love use a quotation of some brand in the chorus. But the machinations required to manage the act themselves ordain its fall, because it’s in the nature of our machinations to breed over time, becoming higher- and higher-maintenance, so that the selfconsciousness they compel compels a self-abasement that betrays the ingenue’s willingness to pay costs in the service of her interests, and returns her to sexual play. It’s a besetting paradox: if a girl’s progress hinges on deniability—if she is expected to alert or seduce men while censoring all suggestion of knowingness won from experience—one competent way to proceed is to seem incompetent: to orchestrate inadvertency. What, then, is to be her fate on success, when her incompetence is made known and she is seen tacitly to have allowed that competence is something to stifle?
This drab quandary must account in part for the Great’s reliance on the second ‘principal’ character, into which the ingenue blurs at the point when her guilelessness begins to look self-possessed. This character is the Great’s flirt, for whom the best word is ‘mercurial’, but who is what used to be called ‘cute’, ‘pert’, ‘saucy’, ‘importunate’; she might more formally be ‘goading’, ‘insolent’, ‘provocative’. Most of these words drag behind them a retinue of implications about power. I want to argue that that’s the point, and isn’t inauspicious. The mercurial character is more stable in performance because its performed condition, if not bandied about, does not jeopardise but characterises it. The Great in this character deploys spite to cast a feinting gambit which pre-emptively fixes her on the losing or defeated side of an ‘insubordination game’. If in so doing she invites dominance she defines it too, and takes a punt at controlling her fate: when this character raises the possibility of submission (‘make me’), she may become seductive, but her seduction is a crafted thing, rather self-determined and artful than lawless like the will of the female body in men’s perception. She cannot be judged ingratiating because she cleaves in behaviour to the premise of two idiosyncratically desiring counterparts, whereas to be found to behave with an ingratiating eye to one’s peers is the seminal peril of ingénuité, whose operating premise is moral elevation. A feminism that refused this character’s power the status of power would debase itself in unwitting obeisance to masculine terms: this power is taken with but contains the conventional power of masculinity, to which it is hardly a challenge to adopt its terms—both because they rig the game, persuading the woman to forgo the opportunities her recognition of feminine power would free up, and because they get power wrong. With this equipment, it’s open to you to answer the cynic who asserts that the Great’s character-playing is an elaborate way to dissemble ordinary lust by observing that their cynical vision of it is founded in masculine feeling: there’s no fair reason why the songs’ erotic force shouldn’t earn them all the more legitimacy.
            The Great’s quality of frankness is distinguishable from her tease and her ingenue together in its dissociation from contrivance, but it serves both. In ‘Edward Is Dedward’ a mercurial character, in a way that anticipates ‘MIA’’s miming shock to enforce by omission the gravity of a death, sets in relief by occluding it a naked acknowledgement of sadness. Her ingenue co-opts this quality when, before her reserve has been impugned, she is unimpressible and unshockable. But it is expressed more interestingly in isolation from these characters, in three applications (since I’m counting)—in the frank tenderness and solicitude of which the breathy cracking of ‘Well I’ in ‘Well I wouldn’t leave, would I, / Till I saw you again in the light?’ from ‘The Easter Parade’ 2 is emblematic but which in a habitual excess deteriorates into soppiness; in that untitillated disinhibition—free of febrile expectations or of the ostentation of self-exposure—serving all the songs but visible clearest in bodily, indeed obstetric, contexts; and in the presence of religion. The Great’s unabashed and underwhelmed nature would, you’d think, work brilliantly for secularism with religion (in dialogue or duel); and so often enough it proves. But if her characteristic flatness issues in, by turns, the ingenue’s blunt unsophistication, the flirt’s caprices of prodding spite and of disavowal and the frank singer’s boredom with taboo, such indifference is shown to be partial in contact with religion, where its narcissistic failings deaden it to lapses of flippancy.

When I was listening again to the Great’s songs for this post I jotted in my notebook, ‘All about love—though not all all about love.’ And somewhat like people they are. ‘The Woods’, to which I was introduced by another fan, entertains and employs but isn’t mastered by love. Anticipating the protagonists of ‘The Easter Parade’, the singer and her consort stumble upon a congregation, which inspires the chorused words (I’ve no text to punctuate by):

The stars are not our conscience
They are just another light in our eyes
They are just another light keeping us blind.

There is Emmy the Great, deflatingly frank, and faithless. This singer’s secularism or atheism is important to her and (along with secularism tout court) important to me. Accordingly her songs are haunted by the notion of a dreamless ‘sleepe of death’ which secularism conducts us to. The Great is impermanent. But—in ‘The Woods’—‘I know that I will find you [her consort …] / In the morning at the end of my life’:

I keep the thought that when I die
They will carry me and lay me by your side
And in amongst the dirt
At last our roads again will merge.

I dither about this and find it indeterminate, like ‘MIA’. Is it its purpose to substitute a feeble hope for what the secularism it declares must spirit away, or does it reiterate the injustice done to belief’s relinquishment by that inane chorus in mooting a surrogate just as half-arsed?
            It is the Great’s method to apply the imagery that science—in particular, astronomy and anthropology—has coined or made available to self-reflexive ends. Too often when she undertakes this it strikes one with the flavour of expediency alone: it is her narcissism that permits her to treat the astonishments of science as useful things to rope in for prettification. Let me propose that there are matters of fact which one ought to baulk at articulating with matter-of-factness, not least because matter-of-factness in broaching matters of fact like these will revert in the mean listener to teacherliness and superciliousness and mild spitefulness—that is to the patronage of derision. The matter-of-fact is bad at accommodating shock: properly grasped, these matters are always shocking; they repel wisdom and rebuff knowingness. I’m surprised that I exist. My surprise that I exist is when I’m caught offguard. I’m not sure we can be—or sure we should aspire to be—conversant with the facts that shock.§
            To refine the point: I have felt in my encounter with her songs that the Great’s plying of the secular occasion to narcissistic ends has the effect that her puncturing tartness diffuses through the secularism she conceives, so she is tartly secular as well as secularly tart. Though I take exception to it, for this I’m in her debt. Her seditious lyrics seem to have induced me to surprise a hunger in myself ‘to be more serious’, and to gravitate with it not to church ground but to church manners. It seems I want her to be religious about irreligion. I miss in her secularism the ecclesiastic hush, the tremor and trepidation of ceremony which is a form of romance. It’s open to Emmy the Great to put this argument in answer to my criticism. A friend and follower of science, she might argue, should be well acquainted with its tendency to disappoint our common sense and notion-making. ‘In some way, where falsification is disappointing, the attitude of science is disappointment. I motion that into art.’ Where this reply (with which I’m in honest sympathy) falters is very much where it leaves unsaid the fact that not to be—not to be able to be—at ease with disappointments of science’s creation is our human lot. By that recognition the Great’s lapse is unmasked as one of moral practice. In an arena of bucklings-under-strain and teeterings-on-the-edge, the outsider is obliged to tread gingerly. A moral secularism should not be tart but patient and should bear foremost in mind a felt conception of its own corollaries—harsh enough as they are to have most of us gliding hounded into the arms of mendacious authority. Regrettably moreover the Great’s existential flippancy has the side effect of lending credence to the impression that secularists are secular out of a failure of imaginative feeling: that they don’t experience all the terror of the predicament of living antecedent to faith’s lurch from adulthood’s foreboding intelligence. I hope that I am not understood to be petitioning Emmy the Great to suffer. Instead, I am bodying forth an intuition that the main thing about the secular facts is to feel them and to know them in feeling. There surely should be space in secularism for the disappointment of scientific learning, but its mundanity is only mundane in the light or shadow of our unapprenticed silliness, under which we still walk and may for the rest of Holocene time. Secularism implies its own hierarchy of emotions among which the negative awe of the astronomical context of earth is pre-eminent. Secular man is unstill. The dichotomy I’ve gone a way to catching at work in the music of Emmy the Great contrasts her reflexive complacency about subordinating secular figures to the piques and whims of amorous procedure with that elementary tension.
            This is the end of ‘The Easter Parade Part II’, curter sequel of the Great’s best song to furnish itself with secular iconography:

And if the winds have turned today,
It’s because it’s inevitable.             
Everyone knows
That the wind has to blow.

It peters out or shrugs in the usual style. The drift of this song is tenderly to perform inducements to comfort and to shore its recipient up. In this endeavour it takes from its conceptual habitat the spooky information of secularism to compose in large part its metaphorical architecture. But I think it falls short of the coup it’s appointed to follow. The song ‘The Easter Parade’, with the chanted refrains ‘But there’s no, there’s no hope’ and ‘There’s no such thing as ghosts’, enacts an involving vacillation between a tone of stoic (but compassionate) assurance and intimations of the mordancy of the tease—for whom ‘There’s no such thing…’ would be an occasion for contrariness that cost nothing—and intimations of a reading that would perceive the Sunday schoolchildren’s belief as a thing resented. In these lines, Id hazard, the singer is not jeering:

            And there is a light that hits the sky,
                And then it is midnight again.
                And there is my mother, my father,
                And you, and we are all impermanent.

The rhythm works on the record—where you can make out, if you want, a tutting emphasis on the terminal plosive (‘impermanent’) which bears the self-congratulatory force of a ‘so there!’ But I don’t: for me, the first two lines belong with Emmy the Great’s finest, because they do with secularism what I want art to do, communicating inexplicably the right shade of shock, unspoken but said with disappointed truthfulness. But I think it’s indeterminate, which is why it’s good. Of this triumph, ‘It’s because it’s inevitable’ etc is an undeserving heir. Those lines’ exploitation of the secular resources is inadequate to the extent that it is trite, because if the resources’ function feels token, and the singer’s recourse to them automatic like a prayer knocked together on the brink of luck, their action has not been earned by cognitive diligence and in the circumstances they are misused
            A friend of mine has some relevant words, and I quote from memory:

We do not know the grief of what we do
In our storm’s eye
Of selfishness. In our absolute calm.

I said that to say Emmy the Great was good I would have to describe her and said that to say she was good wouldn’t be light work. You may have noticed me slightly throwing up clouds of approximately-related words in this attempt to catch her essence alive. But I’ll venture now the word that does it is disillusion. Disillusion has been the inheritance of the last century’s best intellectual work and can be a terminus or an origin. When the Great’s enlistment of secular disillusion for songwriting purposes invests it with a substantive rationale in the songs she renders it an origin; when it’s evident she is disillusioned at her private convenience and her disillusion is alienated calmly from—so indisposed to register—the gallows camaraderie of men and women at midday, it negates itself and lapses there. Because secularism matters—about this the Great and I agree, though I’m uncertain how far hers is not the excitable antitheism of a defector from domestic faith—I don’t want to welcome any secularism whose motto is: ‘Together, we execrate others’ solidarity. We are alert and deaf to God’s pealing whine!’

Lest after that there is hostility in the air I want to affirm that I’m a fan, bewitched on and off; the Secret Circus EP and ‘The Easter Parade’, as well as various arresting lines distributed through the work, are things I passionately like. I haven’t had the wherewithal to discuss all the technical details in her lyrics that are well-achieved and worthwhile (such as the ways she makes lyrics mimetic by playing off their sung rhythm against features of the accompaniment)—or indeed to chide her for her easy assonances. I want to affirm also that I don’t present a Key to All Emmys the Great, only a version of her songs inflected by me, or of myself inflected by her songs, so that the flat disillusion I notice everywhere in her secularism; in admirable lines like ‘Every time that I think of you / Have to go to the toilet’ from ‘The Hypnotist’s Son’ (which I love) and even the sulkily beckoning cover to First Love which superimposes a small heart on the site of the singer’s womb (in line with her track three: ‘I put my hand across my gut / I plan to feed it with a heart’); in the horny indignation of one character and the provisionally-indulged outspokenness of another—this is subject to the freest scepticism about my competence to reckon with her justly. I confess to difficulties with a few songs, which seem private. ‘Secret Circus’ is electrically written but my state-of-the-art guess about what it’s about—this preceded by a run of half-measures encompassing an abortion, religion again, a spry valediction—is that, springing an arbitrary trap, it asks whomever it’s intended for, Do you like me enough to follow me here and believe me in this, which is a lie? I imagine there’s a strain of privacy intrinsic to its structure which came about in a sequence that proceeded from making emotion over into words to failing to scrutinise uncompromisingly enough the reasons and intentions one had in that: such a process may cast out intractable emotions by displacing then containing them in written objects, but the work that results tends not to be very usable separately from its original burden of dispersing emotion, since any manifold art will prescribe implacable stolidity of technique. It’s fortunate, then, that more often than not when the Great is private she isn’t irreducibly so. Instead in ways I have described she cultivates a luminous indeterminacy that’s fertile in proportion as it sanctions poetry, which can be ambiguous which is something better. And it isn’t heartening to recognise that all the graceless toils and doublings-back of this post have been to say that Emmy the Great is good because I don’t know why. 

* These drily understated endings are a tic of hers. My favourite is, ‘It’s so weird how time goes on’, from ‘Canopies and Drapes’ (the thrust of which is to parody an era of seduction gone)profounder than it first seems, because it is weird. ‘Secret Circus’ also concludes inconclusively.
† I wrote a tweet that called upon a precursor of this observation—‘EmmytG does “tart contemptuous leavetaking (+ ironic reluctance)” like she’s not managing to settle a score with her debt to Dylan’—and it occurred to me that mine was the very sort of response an ingenue’s caution, or a tease’s spite, was tuned to extract. It’s acidulous like an ingenue should never be, since it cedes ironic distance . A journalist quotes Moss: ‘Someone will offend me and I’ll just sigh, but then months later I write a horrible song that then goes on the radio – the only reason I started writing songs is because I can’t say anything to people’s face.’ For the debt to Dylan, listen eg to how she enunciates the phrase ‘nihilism’s for boys’ in ‘The Hypnotist’s Son’.
‡ Cf ‘City Song’: ‘And what will you look like when you’re old? / What will you do if I don’t know you?’ Both songs look unnerved to an opaque, ungovernable future. I would say this was a momentarily humbled acknowledgement of the tolls of contingency.
§ I’d prefer that such facts should be accessible typically for what my favourite prophet Geoffrey Hill falls just shy of naming ‘instants of recognition’, whose imminent extinction is compelled by their emerging at all.


Hill’s A Treatise of Civil Power: Two editions

Apologies for the messy formatting: I and Blogger don’t get on. Here’s a somewhat neater version.

Whitman thought of making a book: The Leaves of Grass which he, ah—course calling it, when he called himself ‘spontaneous warbler’, I mean it [?] was the least of—those of you who know that wonderful New York Library facsimile of the 19, of the 1861/’62 edition of his poems which he used as a kind of working notebook to redo the poems, which they’ve reproduced even down the little slivers of paper he tucked in, you know, will see how little of a spontaneous warbler he was; he was the most dogged of craftsmen. (Hill 2007 [a], 55.16–58)[i]

In 2005 Geoffrey Hill published his eleventh poetry book, which he has called ‘a largish booklet’ (Hill 2006 [a], track 31), in an edition of 400 copies with Clutag Press—a small publisher started in 2000 by poet, OUP literature editor and friend of Hill Andrew McNeillie—in whose series of ‘poetry pamphlets’, dating from 2004/5, A Treatise of Civil Power (power on the title page) came either first or third after John Fuller’s The Solitary Life and Seamus Heaney’s A Shiver (McNeillie, ‘Poetry Pamphlets’ and ‘About Clutag Press’). This unpaginated ‘booklet’ consists of eight poems, none of which had been published before the booklet appeared in February 2005. Of these eight, six were republished under the same titles (with minor typographic differences) in Penguin’s mid-2007 book A Treatise of Civil Power. One, ‘ON READING Hazlitt: Lectures on the English Comic Writers’, has not been republished to my knowledge.
The 2005 booklet’s eponymous long poem (it comprises 42 stanzas and ends with the phrase, ‘CETERA DESUNT’) presents the most interesting critical and textual case. In an arrangement which Paul Abbott has tabulated, eight of its stanzas reappear in the 2007 book:

‘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 Senility’ – copy of stanza XLII.

That is, Hill took single stanzas and pairs of stanzas from the long poem of 2005, and recycled them as lyrics appearing on separate pages and under their own titles in the 2007 Penguin book. (I note that Abbott’s ‘copy of’ and ‘indebted to’ are inaccurate; the ways in which they are inaccurate will be discussed above.) One further complication is that, in the approximately two years which elapsed between the publication of the Clutag booklet and the Penguin book, Hill published (as well as his twelfth original collection, Without Title, in 2006) some poems from both, and some that appear only in the 2007 book, in magazines. These are as follows:

‘After Reading Children of Albion (1969)’, ‘Holbein’, ‘Integer Vitae’, ‘Masques’, ‘Parallel Lives’, ‘A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power’, Poetry 188.2 (May 2006)
‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’, Poetry 189.2 (December 2006)
 ‘G.F. Handel, Opus 6’, ‘Johannes Brahms, Opus 2’, ‘On Reading Crowds and Power’, ‘On Reading The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall’, ‘The Peacock at Alderton’, Poetry 189.5 (March 2007)
‘The Peacock at Alderton’, TLS (June 15 2007)
‘Holbein’, TLS (June 22 2007)
‘Before Senility’, TLS (July 6 2007)
‘Before Senility’, ‘Citations I’, The New Criterion 26.4 (December 2007).

Incidentally these are the poems, published in American magazines, which I have not been able to see (note that six of these were published after the Penguin book):

‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose,’ Harper's Magazine (February 2007)
‘An Emblem’, ‘Lyric Fragment’, ‘Nachwort’, Harper's Magazine (December 2007)
 ‘Coda’, The New Criterion 26.4 (December 2007).

My information for these lists is from the two Hill bibliographies available online, at Sylvia Paul’s website and Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s blog. Finally, the translation (of Anne Hébert’s ‘Les Offensés’) published as ‘The Oath’ in the Penguin A Treatise appeared as ‘Song Contest’ in Houghton Mifflin’s 1994 New & Collected Poems, and before that in Agenda (15.4, winter 1977–8[ii]) as ‘Homo Homini Lupus’.
Both editions of A Treatise of Civil Power, and Without Title, the collection that divides them in Hill’s bibliography, continue a phase of his career, beginning with Canaan (1996), that could with justification be called ‘late’:

[…] probably in the last few years I’ve begun to look at it a bit like that, but I mean my whole, er, the whole impetus and, er, movement of my writing has changed so much in the last twenty years; I used to bring a book out painfully about every ten years—my early books were separated by about ten. (Hill 2007 [a], 54.35–59)

In the London Review Bookshop recording this closely precedes the passage I have quoted as epigraph, and is in partial answer to a question about whether Hill thinks of his ‘life’s work’ as a ‘single work’. Tim Kendall picks up on the theme:

‘Nachwort’, the short afterword to Geoffrey Hill's new collection A Treatise of Civil Power, explains the difference between its author’s early and late styles as the result of dwindling ‘patience’: the poet who once impelled ‘the stubborn line, / the line that is that quickens to delay’ is now hurried by the urge to ‘unmake / all wrought finalities’ and become ‘a babbler / in the crowd’s face’. Babblers are nothing if not prolific. (Kendall, 1)

So Hill, born 1932, is restless before death. Unless impatience can be a wrought finality (I am not sure), though, this restless character is precisely why it is a mistake to clay together these seven or eight books after The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. As Robert Macfarlane (241) writes, ‘Considered together, these books possess not so much a late style as late styles: the intense pentecostal forms of the first epoch give way to a prosodic restlessness.’ One could just as well classify them as either ‘late’ or ‘post-late’, with ‘late’ starting its transition at The Orchards of Syon (2002) and finishing in Scenes From Comus (2005): but still this is inadequate, because A Treatise is not simply comparable to Scenes From Comus and Without Title, and about half of it was published in the same year as Scenes. Wherein the importance of A Treatise: for since we have two editions of the same book, and Hill elsewhere in that answer from which I have already quoted does say, ‘I think I still think in terms of making books, not necessarily just sort of throwing off an individual poem’, it is possible as at no time until the scholarly graft is done with whatever manuscripts Hill preserves to compare full work to full work—to track revisions in context of a book. The opportunity is not quite unique in terms of the whole career, given the versions from Canaan that appeared in the 1994 New & Collected and the many contributions to magazines (principal among which is Péguy in the TLS) made since the poet’s time at Bromsgrove  High School, and ignoring the critical prose; but in terms of the ‘late’ career it is. With this judgement as impetus I have performed a collation of the Clutag with the Penguin book, and of those magazine poems which I could locate with their ‘official’ versions. The differences I found go from single punctuation marks to full stanzas (‘Coda’, for example’, shrinks between books from eight to six), and some are so trivial as to be indices perhaps of a house style (the hyphen in ‘cross-section’): in response to the sceptical question, ‘How much and in nature what can the differences tell us?’ I refer the reader back to my epigraph and forward to this survey.

See all as miracle, a natural graft,
as mistletoe ravelling the winter boughs
with nests that shine. And some recensions
better than thát I should hope. (Hill 2006 [b], 209)

Comparisons build tautologies yet again. (Hill 2006 [c], 62)

In the 2005 issue of Stand that memorialised Ken Smith, Hill published ‘Of Carnal Policy’, a poem of two sections that would in 2006 become the ‘Ars’ of Without Title. The changes evident could fall into two broad categories: very simply, small and large. In the second stanza a few words are swapped about:

Don’t lay destructive charge if you’ve been booked
for exhibition.
To confess mayhem plead ornate regard.
Ciceronian conclusions, iron resolve. (Hill 2005 [a], 9)

Don’t lay destructive charge if you were booked
for exhibition.
To confess mayhem plead ornate regard.
Ciceronian conclusions, fixed resolve. (Hill 2006 [c], 62)

The reason for ‘you were booked’ seems clear: the tense agrees better with ‘Don’t lay’. And perhaps ‘fixed’, its alternative sense of ‘rigged’ unbalancing the cliché, mocks more sharply than straight ‘iron’ (I assume of course that ‘iron’ is not here an imperative verb like ‘plead’). In any case the changes are minor such that critical comment may very swiftly devolve into entrail-reading. When evidence is little, interpretation is large—as Shakespeare’s biographies prove. Revisions of this kind make a thin source for criticism.
But following that stanza we have:

Name paradox inertia’s coup de foudre,
its echo-pôt to belch
fundamental language.

Delete be bold for an anomaly –
Carthage her well rubbed wounds.
Not everything’s a joke but we’ve been had. (Hill 2005 [a], 9)

Style paradox inertia’s mobile face
for the duration. It has been thought
expedient to have us curse and weep
with the same countenance as one inspired.

Delete delenda est – exemplary
Carthage her rubbed-in wounds.
Not everything’s a joke but we’ve been had. (Hill 2006 [c], 62)

First I should admit that I don’t know what ‘echo-pôt’ means; neither does the OED. (It is probably French like ‘coup de foudre’.) Second, it’s immediately clear that alterations like these offer more to criticism than, say, ‘iron’ to ‘fixed’ can. Hill’s changes to ‘Delete […] wounds’ bespeak a conscious tightening up: ‘rubbed-in’ remakes the allusion to the Roman army’s salting Carthage’s fields in the image of the cliché ‘to rub salt in the wound’ (whose contracted form is ‘to rub it in’) and in the negative of the classroom verb ‘to rub out’; ‘Delete be bold for an anomaly’ is unwontedly simplistic (or ambiguous in a wheezy cruciverbal way), and rather seems clumsily to lose hold of its meaning than tensely to suspend it—a case for Hill of what ‘Zürich, Zum Storchen’ by Paul Celan (178) calls ‘der Trübung durch Helles’. This tightening enables us to link with greater certainty to ‘Ars’, previously ‘Of Carnal Policy’, the following remark from the 2005 recording:

That’s really my ars poetica—‘and of our covenants with language / contra tyrannos [quoting ‘The Argument of the Masque’ 1, Hill 2005 (b), 3]’—that anybody who writes seriously is entering into a covenant with language ‘contra tyrannos’, against the tyrants. (Hill 2007 [a], 8.54–9.10)

That substitute line ‘Delete delenda est – exemplary’ is curious for another reason. Not only does ‘exemplary’ almost replace ‘anomaly’ in sound, the whole line reprises ‘echo-pôt to belch / fundamental’ with its vowel riff ‘delenda est – exemplary’.[iii] And it is the changes to the first stanza here that may represent my second broad category. The lines about paradox, not merely honed, are rethought. Specifically, ‘Name’ becoming ‘Style’ and ‘coup de foudre’ ‘mobile face / for the duration’, they are weakened, or made subtler. With ‘It has been thought’ the point is rounded to example, producing a rich source for criticism, for which entrail-reading remains a risk but which in virtue of the changes’ variety gives fuller scope both for interpretation and for its falsification by sceptics.
Now the assemblage of evidence. It will necessarily take a lot of space. These are the revisions, discovered by comparison, that I took to be ‘rich’ sources:[iv] in ‘On Reading Milton and the English Revolution’, ‘England / can do without most of us. For us / now language is master’ has become ‘[…] For us / also language is a part-broken league’ and ‘Sibylline interdict spells blunder— resign! / Seraphs prophesy strange wealth to the finder [of, presumably, regret’s “target”]’, ‘[…] blunder – resign! – / though resignation itself proclaims the finder.’ ‘This not quite knowing what the earth requires: / earthiness, or our ethereal rapine’ from poem IX of the 42-stanza ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ becomes, in ‘Citations I’, ‘[…] requires: / earthiness, earthliness, or things ethereal;’. In the second stanza of ‘Citations I’, ‘No working transition — I’d assay to claim / the poem as at once cruder and finer. / Semiotics carry their own weight’ from ‘Treatise’ XL appears later as, ‘No decent modicum, agreed. I’d claim / the actual is at once cruder and finer, / without fuss carrying its own weight.’ Then in ‘Citations II’, ‘I’d argue in turn that atrophy’s not the word / but that invention reinvents itself / every so often in the way of death’ from XXV becomes ‘I’d swear myself blind atrophy’s not the word […] in the line of death’, and,

Or if not why not? Is writing nothing
but self-indemnity for what is refused it?
Yes, to be blunt; the unending tug between
syntax and sentiment — I can hardly bear this.
For yes read possibly […]

from XXVII becomes, ‘[…] not: call writing […] for what is denied it? / Yes, to be blunt, the pitiless wrench between / truth and metre, though you can scarcely hear this.’ XLII’s ‘I show you the ownerless, serene, eighteenth- / century tombstones set about like ashlar; / I give you the great, storm-severed head / of a sunflower […]’ becomes in ‘Before Senility’, ‘to measure the ownerless, worn, eighteenth- / century tombstones realigned like ashlar; / encompass the stark storm-severed head / of a sunflower […]’. ‘[T]he incumbent sonorities / let us hear them passing’ in ‘Johannes Brahms, Opus 6’ as published by Poetry becomes ‘the incumbent sonorities / let us rehearse their passing’. And in ‘The Peacock at Alderton’, one of the few poems of which I’ve seen three dissimilar versions (in Poetry and the TLS as well as the Penguin book), it’s possible to track the evolution of the phrase, ‘his lambent cloak stark as a warlock’s cape,’ (Poetry, March 2007) to ‘his fulgent cloak stark as a warlock’s cape’ (TLS, June 2007) and lastly to, ‘his fulgent cloak a gathering of the dark’.
I have left out only the two most significant examples of sustained revision: that of ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’, which is simply or not so simply one of the withdrawal of 36 stanzas, and that of ‘Coda’. ‘Coda’ appears in 2007 more substantially revised than any poem in the Treatise set.[v] The revisions are so comprehensive I have to present them on a separate page. But they align well enough with the nature of those listed below, which manifests itself, I think, as a contest between two registers—or better a to-and-fro on the continuum sliding from prophecy to conversation; taut and loose. The Clutag Treatise being a small edition addresses the reader differently, and its re-presented form in the Penguin book is suggestive of self-censorship. Take a single changed word from ‘Citations II’, ‘refused’ becoming ‘denied’: the words are close in sense but a distinction can be made. Refusal carries stronger implication of agency than denial. It’s as though in the first line writing asks and is rebuffed, and in the second writing subsists within rebuff’s given perimeter. In many instances the 2005 wording seems more honest and personally immediate, but less careful. Watch how that line from ‘A Peacock’ becomes in stages more crafted and poetical; how ‘I give you’ and ‘I show you’ become ‘to measure’ and ‘encompass the stark’ (‘Before Senility’), both of which actions it seems are performed by an ‘Intermezzo of sorts’, something that might also be a ‘figment / of gratitude and reconciliation […]’; how in ‘Citations I’ the blunt ‘ethereal rapine’ is sweetened to ‘earthliness, or things ethereal’; how the plain ‘way’ becomes a pun, ‘line’ (‘Citations II’); how the self-accusing, exhausted ‘sentiment — I can hardly bear this’ on revision sounds disquisitional and perhaps dismissive (as: ‘oh, you can’t hear it’); how ‘This is about as basic as you get, / the verse, I mean’ is in the 2007 ‘Coda’, ‘This is as formal as a curse or cry, / the verse, I mean’, ‘my bare threnos’ the depersonalised ‘some hammered threnos’ and ‘wicked’ merely ‘damn-fool’. Indeed, witness in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ the refinement or repudiation of a discursive, self-mocking, contradictory, doubting, embattled and great poem, which becomes, for the ‘crowd’s face’, a string of rather introverted lyrics.[vi] That last, always already unsatisfied ‘Urge’ of which ‘Nachwort’ speaks is clearly as symbolic as the poem’s position in the book: what ‘finality’ is better ‘wrought’ than the bottom of a final page?
            At a conference this summer in Oxford, during an interview with Rowan Williams, Hill railed for minutes against the internet, for its ‘velocity’ and—though I did attend I quote from another’s notes—the destruction of criticism that entails.[vii] This is the fogeyish side of Hill that is transmuted in the poems in monologic dramas of uncertainty and weakness (‘I know that sounds / a damn-fool thing to say’ is amongst else a confession) and by self-attentive language. Ed Reiss asked Hill whether he saw grounds for optimism. His answer was, ‘Yes! Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury and I am writing better than ever.’ This, I venture, is Hill’s fogeyish and puckish side that believes contemporary England to be ‘more and more of an authoritarian plutocratic anarchy’ (Hill 2007 [a], 2.09–13)—which three descriptions lose plausibility as the eye moves right.[viii] This ‘puckish’ Hill once commenced a speech with: ‘This [Western Thought] is the kind of topic I would prefer to approach somewhat obliquely—to get in a glancing blow and be away before it can hit back. But I lack the élan of youth’ (2000, 72); who once fulfilled a request for the summation, at a valedictory dinner, of a life in poetry with the words: ‘Poetry makes or breaks. I am a broken man’ (Christopher Ricks, conversation).
            But is it ‘puckish’? Or is it sincere and yet aware of the irrelevance of that, saying so with tragic irony? Do we hear in the concessive quietude of the sentences that Hill of ‘I fear to wander in unbroken darkness’, that plainspoken Hill of 

Except in thís one craft he [ie Hill] shows himself
open to a fault, shaken by others’ weeping;
duty’s memorialist ǀ for the known-unknown
servants of Empire – for such unburied:
the spirit’s gift upheld, impenetrable,
the bone-cage speared by lilies of the veldt. (Hill 2006 [b], 220)

It’s a heroic story: shaken poet, duty’s memorialist, the spirit’s gift and the bone-cage. Do we not furthermore see in this movement something of the Treatises’ shifting registers? For instance as ‘the poem’ becomes ‘the actual’ in ‘Citations 1’, as ‘Say then I saw how much is emptiness’ becomes ‘End that I saw how much is gift-entailed’ in ‘Coda’, so ‘himself / open to a fault’ becomes ‘duty’s memorialist’ and upholds ‘the spirit’s gift’ penetrated-unpenetrated by flowers. At the Keble conference Hill said in a calmer moment that F. H. Bradley’s word ‘somehow’ (meditated at length in ‘Word Value in F. H. Bradley and T. S. Eliot’) signals the epiphanic final moment of a poem: ‘a great poem is an annunciation or epiphany.’ I’d stress that an epiphany has to come from somewhere. If in poetry you want to generate epiphanies, you have to stage the prior darkness and doubt, to begin with the unlit and empty proscenium. A figurative ‘showing’ needs a figurative blindness. Thus the rallying from ‘Inconstant even in this the dead / heart of the matter: laughter ǀ no joy’ (this poem’s first lines) to ‘the spirit’s gift upheld, impenetrable [we can imagine “somehow” here]’, from misgiving to hope and doubt to faith, manifests itself stylistically in the difference between plain ‘emptiness’ and the oblique ‘gift-entailed’, or between language as ‘master’ and just that or as ‘part-broken league’. Between

If it’s a fact of shaping, of getting shipshape,         
this will barely hold. Call it coda or something.
Fix history to it. I can always say
I want my bought time with her, her being Clio;
cashing in a Welsh iron-puddler’s portion, his
penny a week insurance cum burial fund,
so I can splurge hurt in a few pages
of cherished but maladjusted mourning jokes.


If it’s the brunt of years and luck turned savage
this is our last call, difficult coda
to the facility, the bane of speech,
a taint of richesse in the haggard seasons,
withdrawing a Welsh iron-puddler’s portion, his
penny a week insurance cum burial fund,
cashing in pain itself, stark induration,
something saved for, brought home, stuck on the mantel […]

I hope the distinction is audible. Perhaps the first stanza sounds ‘drafty’, and what I have discussed is merely an artefact of the writing process. The writer himself has said, however, that he is ‘trying to write with a kind of ecstatic commonplaceness’ (Hill 2007 [a], 9.27–31). I suggest that the commonplace and the ‘ecstatic’ are what we see in tension in Hill’s revisions and whose tension we see producing Hill’s epiphanies. The 2005 A Treatise constituted after The Orchards of Syon a subtle exploratory move toward the commonplace that was genuinely new. Even if the end is always epiphany, I would argue the Clutag booklet provided the sorts of epiphanies that rely on a large proportion in the poem of commonplace language (the pieces on reading are good examples, but the long ‘A Treatise’ is the central one), and demand less of the ecstasy we find and may relish in ‘a sunflower blazing in mire of hail’[ix] or ‘songs of reft joy upon another planet’ or ‘what proclaimed him was the wake of Troy’. My survey has indicated to me that the textual revisions setting apart the Clutag and the Penguin Treatises amount to an omission to reassert this move at the commonplace. Hill excerpted many ecstasies from ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ for the 2007 book and replaced the stanzas he discarded with a poem, ‘A Précis or Memorandum of Civil Power’, that recalls the compacted ne plus ultra of Canaan, albeit with phrases of disjointed conversation. Such reversions to ecstasy, which I interpret as losses of nerve, are a reminder that beneath or even undergirding Hill’s profound self-reinvention is only a continuity of dogged craftsmanship, of craftsmanship to a fault:
For the unfallen – the firstborn, or wise
Councillor – prepared vistas extend
As far as harvest; and idyllic death
Where fish at dawn ignite the powdery lake. (Hill 2006 [b], 22)

These, the last lines of ‘To the (Supposed) Patron’, the last poem of Hill’s first book, swell epiphanic in cadence but mine themselves with checks: ‘vistas’ are ‘prepared’ and ‘death’ is ‘idyllic’ so that ‘ignite’ is ominous and gorgeous at once. In the language common death is made idyllic and vistas made common. It is a self-snuffing epiphany, even to its elliptical grammar (‘For the unfallen […] idyllic death [extends] / Where fish […]’). In the late career the components are distilled out rather than blended in phrasal shots, so progression (‘shaken […] upheld’) can be more basically formal, though it reveals the same will. I am aware that my brief post has achieved little beyond hypothesis and speculation: more work for instance would be required to establish the textual point, while I have argued the variants are rich sources to demonstrate more fully that Hill’s alterations are not writerly housekeeping, routine tinkering or tarting up. Indeed it’s possible my allegation of a loss of nerve is mistaken too, for Hill may well have concluded that a 42-stanza long poem was not the best venue for the commonplace. I could not refute you if you claimed the Treatise set was a move toward the commonplace—was another, softer transition (think how obliquely Scenes handled autobiography)—but that between ’05 and ’07 Hill changed his mind about how to do it. (And on a bathetic note, from a  friend I have heard a rumour that Hill cut up 2005’s ‘A Treatise’ at his wife’s behest.) One oughtn’t forget that a reader’s uncertainty can be symptomatic of a poet’s indecision. But the governing propositions about Hill’s affinity (in terms of technique) for the epiphanic seesaw and about its significance for the later poetry I am as confident of as I am confident I catch Hill’s prosodic signature in John Dryden’s ‘Oh for a commodious / Drabb betwixt ’em!’ (Troilus and Cressida III. i[x]), in Mitch Cohen’s translation (Hofmann, 180) of Jürgen Theobaldy’s ‘My Young Life’ (my italics):

Below wind-down gradually the songs
of the working class, the red flags
disappear in the crowd, and
the union leaders look at their watches.    

and in James Schuyler’s (Ford, 180; note the late-Hillish imperatives)

            […] the cue ball
Carom and the struck ball pocketed. Skill. And still the untutored
Rain comes down. Open the door. Press your face into the
Wet April chill: a life mask.             

That is I am confident on grounds that are intrinsically hard to make explicit. Explication in its literal sense is the academic mode. Perhaps if you have heard the signature of Hill in these quotations you will have consented as well to my speculations below. About the poor decision to chop ‘A Treatise’ into confetti and featherlight lyrics I doubt scholars will in future be certain. And there is so much scholarly work to be done! The land is wild with neglect. Apt scholarship—the bibliographical and textual drudgery—is what is wanted for the coming period of Hill studies. If I must take my leave it is because I cannot take part; because mine is the species of inquiry that hears and wants to define what is so Miltonic, beyond the fact of iambs, about the sensation of this prose and how its Miltonism is like and not like how the quoted lines are like Hill:

Satan having compast the Earth, with meditated guile returns as a mist by Night into Paradise, […] Adam consents not, alledging the danger, lest that Enemy, of whom they were forewarn’d, should attempt her found alone: (Milton, 216)

2008 (rev. 2010)

[i]  In-text references keyed to bibliography by author; by author and date if more than one item by one author has been cited; by author, date and letter if more than one item published by one author in one year has been cited.
[ii] My only source for this reference is E. M. Knottenbelt’s bibliography in Passionate Intelligence (1990), which frequently proved inaccurate when I used it for my dissertation.
[iii]  This could well be mistaken: my Latin is nonexistent.
[iv] Among which, I accept, are a few examples that stand incongruously with my argument.
[v] As noted below, I have not seen the version published after the Penguin book with The New Criterion
[vi] One recalls C. S. Lewis’s (2) remark: ‘Of the continuity of a long narrative poem, the subordination of the line to the paragraph and the paragraph to the Book and even of the Book to the whole, of the grand sweeping effects that take a quarter of an hour to develop themselves, [the lyric reader] has had no conception.’
[vii] Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec’s notes, which I copy and paste from Facebook, read: ‘RW: What about time, the time to read and understand and make criticism? // GH: Velocity is increasing exponentially and will destroy memory. Computer technology is a velocity thing: a plethora of information speedily applied will destroy criticism.’
[viii] In 2008 this seemed clever. I don’t now perceive the implausibility of the first two (on which the third is a quibble).
[ix] ‘Before Senility’ apprehends its own epiphanic workings in ‘to’ here (and I cut heavily): ‘In plainer style, or sweeter, some figment […] to measure […]; encompass […] a sunflower blazing’. As a whole it may be a better analysis than I offer. The commonplace is to encompass the ecstatic.
[x] According to the edition I found it in. The internet edition I link to has II. iii.