Geoffrey Hill on Owen, Rosenberg and ‘Pity’

This post is a recommendation to take a look at the lectures that the late Geoffrey Hill gave when Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 2010 and 2015.You can find them at: https://www.english.ox.ac.uk/professor-sir-geoffrey-hill-lectures I don’t know how long they’ve been online, and this is probably old news to many people, but I’ve only just discovered the website, and am enjoying the lectures greatly.

A particularly stimulating one is ‘Mine angry and defrauded young a talk he gave in December 2014 about Wilfred Owen and war poetry.

A few years before that, when I lived near Oxford, I had heard him give a wide-ranging talk that argued ferociously with Owen: ‘The poetry had better not be in the pity – or it will not survive.’ I remember clearly his great white beard, his judgmental certainty and general air of an ancient prophet challenging our certainties as he delivered this verdict.

Geoffrey Hill

He develops the argument in the online Oxford lecture, once again taking issue with Owen’s Preface:

That preface. That preface. [….] That tragically unfortunate preface.

Hill finds ‘The Poetry is in the Pity’ a ’simple-minded’ slogan, and delivers the aphorism (which I think very true: ‘Where art is concerned one should never trust the sincere.’

He sees in the preface an ‘emorional and intellectual betrayal’ of Owen’d best poetry, and points out that elsewhere he was alert to the limitations of pity – in ‘Disabled’ for example:

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.

This pity makes the givers of it feel virtuous, but does little for the disabled soldier. Hill links this to the prevalent current attitude that ‘vicarious mourning as the most appropriate response to public malpractice’. (And when one looks at the amount of whinging that gets nominated for poetry prizes or finds its way onto the stages of subsidised theatres, one must admit he has a strong point.)

Above all, he gives us Isaac Rosenberg as a counter-example to Owen, citing ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ as a poem that looks clear-eyed at horrors and is quite clear of poeticisms.

Hill’s argument is political; he points out that ‘pity simultaneously a condition of empathy and a significant item in the armoury of social engineering.’ I think rightly.

Hill finds much to admire in Owen’s work, but finds him lacking when compared to others. He brings in tough-minded writers like Wyndham Lewis and the Blake of the Songs of Experience:

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor

Despite all his strong reservations, Hill does respect Owen, and dedicates his lecture to the great Owen scholar Jon Stallworthy, who had recently died. But he wants us to separate what is great in Owen from what is more conventional ( and the mixed nature of Owen’s poetry is not necessarily reprehensible: ‘the normal condition of writing at any sort of demanding pitch is that you cannot do it 100 % of the time’). And Hill was, of course, speaking during the Centenary period when Owen’s poetry was often sentimentalised horribly.

But listen to the lecture. And to the later one on the poets of the Second World War.

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