Duplicities of Meaning: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill

Introduction: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill and its Themes

Few poets can have been so obviously gifted, and Geoffrey Hill enjoyed an exceptionally successful career as poet, literary critic and academic. He was born of working class parents in 1932, won a scholarship to Oxford, and then went on to hold increasingly prestigious academic appointments until retiring as Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University. His first book of poems, For the Unfallen, hailed as one of the most outstanding collections of the decade, was followed, (as so often an author’s first novel can be), by despairing silence, but eventually, some nine years later, came the equally impressive King Log. Mercian Hymns, Tenebrae and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy followed. With those arduously-composed poems behind him, there appeared a flood of publications, now in free verse form but often difficult to follow. His isolated position notwithstanding, Hill was knighted for services to literature in 2012, and from 2010 to 2015 served as Oxford Professor of Poetry. {1}

In reality, of course, there had always been difficulties, some arising from the stress of maintaining so high a standard, {2} but more from Hill’s doubts over words themselves: their truth, their meaning, their authority  —  in short, what's entailed in using them responsibly, both today and in the past. {3}

The early work was a late High Modernism, {4} more accomplished (and sometimes more mannered)  than that of Eliot or Lowell, where Hill displayed a mastery of traditional techniques: rhyme, tight stanza forms, arresting images and exact phrasing. To readers who cared for English verse, the poems were a delight, but it was a delight tempered by difficult subject matter and complicated syntax. As with Pound, looking up the references didn't always help. There were still gaps in the meaning, doubts over what the poems were really saying, and questions over the ‘unearned magnificence’ of the language. Though this famed 'difficulty' also served, Hill argued, to liberate words from facile or coercive approximations of current meaning, and to display honesty of doubt in avoiding closure and/or punning on words with contradictory associations, the difficulty also distanced the reader. To emphasize the deceptive nature of history, or our understanding of it, Hill often meditated on violent episodes of the political or religious past, where his poems highlighted the conflict between religious freedom and authority, between illicit and sanctified power, beauty and brute pain  — these themes in turn being represented in the poems by oppositions of novelty to custom, and of originating poetic impulse to confining form. Yet where was the poet's heart in all this? And why were the commonplaces of the historical record, something every student of history understands, continually so emphasized with oxymoron and contradictory puns? {5}

The later work was looser, flatter, more playful, esoteric in allusion and diction, often fragmentary, arbitrary and evading simple meaning: the difficulties remained or even increased, but the lines had lost much of their former magnificence.

Early Poetry

In For the Unfallen (1959) and the sonnet sequence of King Log (1968), the poems were not plentiful, but were distinctively his, {6} quite unlike the UK poetry of the time, which A. Alvarez stigmatized as genteel and parochial. Unlike the Movement poets, Hill was much drawn to ethical dilemmas and to themes of language, responsibility and authority. {3} In detail the poems could be rather knotted in meaning, and ferociously expressed, {5} but were always redeemed by beauty of language. Indeed the poems were notable for four aspects: their savage and resonating imagery, an emphatic phrasing that was new to British poetry, extensive use of ‘white space’ (i.e. silences which added their own patterning to the verse), and a complicated syntax.

Graphic Imagery

Each of the personifications is fierce but apt on reflection in Funeral Music: {7}

Psalteries whine through the empyrean. Fire
Flares in the pit, ghosting upon stone
Creatures of such rampant state, vacuous
Ceremony of possession, restless
Habitation, no man’s dwelling-place.

Psalteries whine through the empyrean. Fire / Flares in the pit, ghosting upon stone. But the imagery could be also simple, mundane and exact. In Memory of Jane Fraser: {8}

She kept the siege. And every day
We watched her brooding over death
Like a strong bird above its prey.
The room filled with the kettle’s breath.

Damp curtains glued against the pane
Sealed time away. Her body froze
As if to freeze us all, and chain
Creation to a stunned repose.


The gift of phrasing developed rapidly. In Genesis, {9} the first in his Selected Poems, the rhythm is mellifluously smooth, perhaps mockingly so in the third line:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

But content is much more spelt out with the interrupted and weighted rhythms of Funeral Music: {7}

Knowing the dead, and how some were disposed:
Subdued under rubble, water, in sand graves .

Beyond the grim pun on ‘disposed’, and the muscular, knotted articulation of sense, there is also an exquisite phrasing, with long pauses after ‘dead’, ‘some’, ‘disposed, ‘rubble’, ‘water’ and ‘graves’. The same skill is evident in: {7}

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood

White Space

That phrasing continued into the syllables themselves: the metre was adjusted to reinforce the sense. Note how the words are picked over in the knowing cliché of this third line of September Song, {10} like a horse stepping over difficult ground:

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

Complicated Syntax

Themes in Hill's poems were not always developed logically, and in Funeral Music, (3) {7} for example, there were several voices, {11} difficult to untangle entirely, but perhaps as tagged below:

They bespoke doomsday and they meant it by
God, a their curved metal rimming the low ridge.
But few appearances are like this. b Once
Every five hundred years a comet’s
Over-riding stillness might reveal men
In such array, livid and featureless,
With England crouched beastwise beneath it all. c
‘Oh, that old northern business …’ d A field
After battle utters its own sound
Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth. e
Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable
Mole emerge, f blindly we lie down, blindly
Among carnage the most delicate souls
Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’. g

Mercian Hymns

Mercian Hymns was a new departure for Hill: an extended prose poem that combined boyhood memories, social history and aspects of the Saxon king Offa’s both constructive and tyrannical reign. {12-14} Unlike, say French (Claudel, St. John Perse), prose poems are difficult in English, and Hill’s poem lacks rhythmic unity, and show a style teetering between the over-emphatic descriptive (clash, inflamed, festers, stinking) and the dry academic (telluric cultures):

It is autumn. Chestnut boughs clash their inflamed leaves. The garden festers for attention: telluric cultures enriched with shards, corms, nodules, the sunk solids of gravity. I have raked up a golden and stinking blaze. (Hymn XII)


In Tenebrae Hill returned to his earlier occupations with strict form and artifice, but now exploring the dimensions of profane and transcendental experience, in love and in the more mundane matters of history. The volume marks the turning point of Hill’s powers, from their zenith {15} to their waning into the more prosaic poetry of his later years. The best poems still see that scrupulous attention to craft:

They slew by night
upon the road
Medina's pride
Olmedo's flower

shadows warned him
not to go
not to go
along the road, {16}

but the themes and stanza forms are now more varied. Hill’s line are highly effective when compressed:{17}

Requite this angel whose
flushed and thirsting face
stoops to the sacrifice
out of which it arose.
This is the lord Eros
of grief who pities
no one; it is
Lazarus with his sores.

But less so when padded out, with rhyme too much leading the sense, as in this tour de force. {17}

And you, who with your soft but searching voice
drew me out of the sleep where I was lost,
who held me near your heart that I might rest
confiding in the darkness of your choice:
possessed by you I chose to have no choice,
fulfilled in you I sought no further quest.
You keep me, now, in dread that quenches trust,
in desolation where my sins rejoice.
As I am passionate so you with pain
turn my desire; as you seem passionless
so I recoil from all that I would gain,
wounding myself upon forgetfulness,
false ecstasies, which you in truth sustain
as you sustain each item of your cross.

The following is a better-crafted sonnet, but with oxymoron overworked, indeed becoming a mannerism (miniatures, indifferent, bankrupt, abiding): {18}

Make miniatures of the once-monstrous theme:
the red-coat devotees, melees of wheels,
Jagannath’s lovers. With indifferent aim
unleash the rutting cannon at the walls
of forts and palaces; pollute the wells.
Impound the memoirs for their bankrupt shame,
fantasies of true destiny that kills
‘under the sanction of the English name’.
Be moved by faith, obedience without fault,
the flawless hubris of heroic guilt,
the grace of visitation; and be stirred
by all her god-quests, her idolatries,
in conclave of abiding injuries,
sated upon the stillness of the bride.

Expressed here is a very simplistic view of British India, indeed portrayed in stereotypes. Hill was not using poetry to explore themes but more to illustrate preconceptions — beautifully expressed in the last line, but still closing off more interesting and generous treatments. The 'complicated syntax' noted above has now become a tendency to list rather than integrate observations. 

The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy

After Mercian Hymns — popular but rather prosaic — The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy is the most accessible of Geoffrey Hill’s work. {19-20} Its 100 quatrains explore the life of Charles Péguy (1873-1914), not as biography but as evidence for something important to Hill: a poet’s responsibilities to his age. Did Péguy’s fervent nationalism betray his socialist ideals and so hasten France’s calamitous entry into the First World War? When, after  Péguy denounced the opposition, Jean Jaurès was shot by a mindless assassin in a Paris café on the eve of war, there disappeared the last hope of socialist solidarity preventing the slide into wholesale carnage, which not only ended the old world order but much of the French traditions that Péguy loved. Indeed Charles Péguy’s celebratory strain of poetry was much admired in its time, and even now is worth reading if we can cope with its incandescent Catholicism, often bitter polemics and intimidating length. His famous Eve (1911) that starts:

Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour la terre
Mais pourvu que ce fût une juste guerre.

The poem (‘Happy are those who die for the carnal earth/ but only if it be for a just war’ is the translation) runs to 7,643 lines. {21} No one writes with such ringing certainty today, not after a century of increasingly doubtful and murderous conflicts, and Hill’s tone is quieter, more questioning and indeed querulous at times, as his opening stanza indicates:

Crack of a starting-pistol. Jean Jaurès
dies in a wine-puddle. Who or what stares
through the café-window crêped in powder-smoke?
The bill for the new farce reads ‘Sleepers Awake’.

The poem’s theme is announced in the fourth quatrain:

Did Péguy kill Jaurès? Did he incite
the assassin? Must men stand by what they write,

The aabb, abab or abba rhyme or pararhym scheme is handled competently, but is often too loose to give an aesthetic shape to the quatrains: the content is boxed in, but not given the frisson of inevitability that exact rhyme creates. Most lines were adequate, however, and a few excellent:

How studiously
one cultivates the sugars of decay,

Three sides of a courtyard where the bees thrum
in the crimped hedges and the pigeons flirt
and paddle, and the sunlight pieces the heart-

shaped shutter patterns in the afternoon.
And the slow chain that cranks out of the well
morning and evening.

Happy are they who, under the gaze of God,
die for the ‘terre charnelle’, marry her blood
to theirs, and, in strange Christian hope, go down
into the darkness of resurrection,
into sap, ragwort, melancholy thistle,
almondy meadow-sweat,

Indeed a sprinkling of lines have the miraculous quality that was to largely disappear after this poem, when medication for depression  {22} seems to have made Hill a happier man but a less acute and perfection-driven writer:

Vistas of richness and reward. The cedar
uprears its lawns of black cirrus.
Down in the river-garden a grey-gold
dawnlight begins to silhouette the ash.

But more than competence is needed to make so long a poem continuously rewarding. Often Hill is challenging Péguy on his own ground and these vignettes of turn-of-the century rural life, which Péguy cast as hymns to an unchanging France, have in Hill’s hands a more matter-of-fact air:

Good governors and captains, by your leave,
you also were sore-wounded but those wars
are ended. Iron men who ring the hours,
marshals of porte-cochère and carriage drive.

Occasionally, very occasionally, we get the entirely satisfying:

Rage and regret are tireless to explain
the stratagems of the out-manoeuvred man.

If only there were more of such lines, or Hill had compressed and cut more, but setting targets, here of 100 stanzas, tends to favor shape over urgency. 

Later Poetry

The bulk of Hill’s poetry belongs to this second phase: Canaan, The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech!, The Orchards of Syon, Scenes from Comus, A Treatise of Civil Power, Without Title, Oraclau | Oracles, Clavics, Odi Barbare.  Reception was mixed, {23-24} with honest critics admitting than they often couldn’t understand more than its general drift. Worth noting are three aspects: verse competence, range of reference, and tone.

Verse Competence

The poetry had generally lost that miraculous melding of sense with verse craft, and was often simply flat:

The men hefting
their accoutrements
of webbed tin, many
in bandages
With cigarettes;
with scuffed hands aflare,
as though exhaustion
drew them to life;

(Churchill’s Funeral: Canaan) {25}

Range of Reference

Whatever may be meant by moral landscape,  
it is for me increasingly a terrain
seen in cross-section: igneous, sedimentary,  
conglomerate, metamorphic rock-
strata, in which particular grace,  
individual love, decency, endurance,  
are traceable across the faults. {26}

It’s a stretch to imagine human qualities as groupings of rock types (in which conglomerates do not fit, incidentally) and continuity across faults is in fact more easily seen on the surface than pictured in cross section. The play on meanings with ‘faults’ doesn’t yoke or extend meaning, moreover, or, to put matters another way, the ‘bedrock’ theme is not convincingly developed.

The later poems drew on a much wider range of material. The Speech! Speech! collection, for example, has references to Colonel Fjuyi and the Nigerian–Biafran civil war, the Battle of Jutland, Augustine’s City of God, Bucer’s De Regno Christi, Dürer, Charles Ives, and Saki. Some references reappear from earlier works: from Tenebrae, Gustave Holst; from Canaan, Winston Churchill and the Kreisau circle that led the plot against Hitler; from The Triumph of Love, Bletchley Park and the wartime cryptanalysts, Nobel laureates, and forensic oratory. {27}

Hill made great demands on his readers, often on unpopular themes. ‘In Hill, the roles of poet, teacher, and prophet are indistinguishably mingled. One suspects that much of the baffled hostility to his work is rooted less in its apparent difficulty than in disdain for Hill’s embattled Christianity, his taking old-fashioned questions seriously. He is an unapologetically religious poet in an irreligious age.’ {28}  But even in the more accomplished sections there were the same thoughts flashing out as insights but not returning to a carefully thought-out and consolidating position. Offertorium: December 2002: {28}

 For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
 admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
 stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:
 for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
 for all departing, as our selves, from time;
 for random justice held with things half-known,
 with restitution if things come to that.

What does ‘for late distortions lodged by first mistakes’ mean? That matters are made irredeemably so by our early mistakes? What are the mistakes lodged in – our lives? In what sense do yews guard their dark red berries, or the tombstones are then cloistered light? What do these and other insights cohere into?  Each of these lines would grow into a satisfying poem if opened out into the comprehensible, but here they are tossed out in a show of verbal brilliance but only fitful sense. The difficulties continued in later collection, {29-31} with a wide mix of social registers and allusions sufficient to baffle the most devoted of readers. Civic poetry must make sense to the general reader, and Hill’s generally does not. {32}


There was also more personal reminiscence in Hill’s later poems, but the balance was not always easy, with the poet sometimes turning on his readers, as here in The Triumph of Love XCVIII {26}

You see also
how this man’s creepy, though not creeping wit —
he fancies himself a token Jew by marriage,
a Jew by token marriage — has buzzed, droned,
round a half-dozen topics (fewer surely?)
for almost fifty years. 


Hill’s use of oxymoron, which allowed him to use the historical record but employ its doubtful veracity, the traps it sets the unwary reader, has been examined in detail by critics, {3-4} but the rhetoric of hyperbole is even more obvious. It was present from the beginning. Genesis: {33}

Against the burly air I strode,
Where the tight ocean heaves its load,
Crying the miracles of God.

No doubt Keats had said ‘I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess’ but he added  ‘and not by singularity’. Whence comes Hill’s pugilistic imagery, this continual over-energizing to make matter emphatic, brutal or obstructive to man’s purposes? Do we simply believe in the ‘magical transcendence of art’, or should we question the ‘glamorous rhetoric and grand style’? {34} We can talk about degree and proportion, and note that, while horror is never far from Hill's lines, its constant emphasis, albeit scrupulously controlled, has the usual function of hyperbole, which is to flagrantly display itself, creating suspicion and forcing us to see beyond the stated facts.  {35} But what are the facts here? Anyone who knows Plantagenet England (portrayed in Funeral Music) can imagine the barbarities behind the historian’s mild summary, ‘the insurrection was savagely repressed’, and surmise how matters were dressed up for contemporary audiences, but what larger meaning is being insisted on? The many distortions in the historical record? That’s hardly a theme for poetry unless the distortions also have a larger or personal dimension. Hill had extraordinary gifts, but they seem to have been increasingly diverted into the byways of academic thought.

Modernism and Aesthetics

Hill’s philosophical reading was selective. One can argue, of course, that words, being fallible or even deceptive, will compromise anything we read, even the most closely argued philosophic text. Or say that aesthetics is irrelevant to contemporary poetry, which has its own ways of thinking. But not to read philosophy at all makes us intellectual children, where the blind will gladly lead the blind. Why not make the journey in another, more appropriate medium, and then return to compare those insights with what the poetic impulse suggests?

We would then know if Hill became a deconstructionist in his later work, playfully exaggerating the difficulties of language by employing a language that continually undercuts itself in meaning and authority. More importantly, we would know the strengths and weaknesses of such Modernist views. Hill’s later poems seem to have been written quickly, no longer to exacting forms, without that acute ear for magniloquent and resonant phrasing. Much is versified prose. In this piece we seem to have wandered into a history seminar: {36}
            One could say that Hobbes (of Malmesbury), whom I
            would call the last great
            projector of Europe prior to Hudson
            (Hudson the Railway King) is radical
            as we are déracinés; granted that Leviathan
            towers on basics rather than from roots;
            and that roots itself, unhappily, is now
            a gnostic sign among the Corinthians.  

Some meaning can usually be construed in his poems, at least in parts, but Hill often seemed not to care whether he was being understood, or being taken seriously. He made a virtue of his personal oddities and unfashionable beliefs, ranting against his political or literary antagonists in very plebian tones. Was this the medication for depression talking, or did Hill come to think that very few of his contemporaries, or perhaps he alone, could do justice to his insights: a self-aggrandizing paranoia?  Like the Modernists in general (where originality is a lode soon mined out) and Robert Lowell in particular, with whom he had many affinities, Hill’s earlier work was the best.

When the world is facing so many problems – poverty, inequality, climate change, depleting resources, the threat of nuclear war – there also seems something unreal and irresponsible in poets and academics being wholly absorbed in abstruse theoretical problems of their own making. And self-imposed these misunderstandings generally are, as I hope the long section that follows will indicate. {37}

Modernism and Theories of Meaning

Logical Positivism

Philosophers are much exercised in saying something helpful and non-circular about meaning. An early attack on the problem was made by the Logical Positivists. Either, they said, sentences are statements of fact, when they can be verified. Or they are analytical, resting in the meaning of words and the structures that contain them. All other sentences — i.e. metaphysical, aesthetic and ethical statements — are only appeals to emotion, and therefore devoid of intellectual content. Logical Positivists supposed that language had simple structures and that the facts they held were largely independent of that language. They supposed that matters which inspired the greatest reverence in individuals and which united communities could be dismissed as meaningless. And they supposed that verification, for which mathematics and science were the admired paradigms, amounted to no more than reference to straightforward, immediately-given sense data. None of these is true, and the approach was not pursued much after the 1960s.

Linguistic Philosophy

Logical Positivism had nonetheless done good work in clearing away the tangle of philosophic argument. Perhaps more could be done? The later Wittgenstein argued that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify issues, to see through the bewitchment of language, to demonstrate that many conundrums of meaning arose through words being used beyond their proper remit. In short, rather than immerse ourselves in abstruse theory, we should study language as it is actually used, by everyday people in everyday situations. Philosophy should not be the final arbiter on use, but more the humble investigator. Much had to be given up, but the gain is the roles words are now seen to play: subtle, not to be pinned down or rigidly elaborated. Games, for example, do not possess one common feature, but only a plexus of overlapping similarities.

What happened to such a modest programme? It was not modest at all, but proved on investigation to ramify into further difficulties, which only increased with greater depth of investigation. Gilbert Ryle and J.L. Austin were among many creating what came to be called linguistic philosophy. But clarification did not arrive, only a gradual realization that the problems of philosophy, meaning included, remained on the far side of linguistic analysis.

Meaning as Propositional Calculus

Suppose we broaden its scope a little, but still require that meaning be as simple and transportable as possible. We can break a sentence into simple units (propositions) that conform to a simple assertions of fact. And we can remove the context: the who, why, how, etc. of its application. The result will assuredly be simplistic, but the sentences will rest on assured foundations and can be built in logically correct ways. The matter is often put in terms of two concepts: intension and extension. Intension is the meaning achieved by the words in the sentence. Extension is what the sentence refers to. In ‘The moon is a planet’, intension is whatever defines planets, and extension is what is referred to by the sentence, i.e. the moon. The extension is therefore the state of affairs to which the sentence refers, and the intension is that which allows us to pick out the extension of the sentence in all possible worlds.The approach derives from Gottlob Frege who founded modern logic. Simple sentences are built of propositions connected by logical constants like ‘not and or’, and ‘and’ and ‘if – then’. More complex sentences arise when ‘there exist’, ‘some’,’ supposing’, ‘all’ are employed. But the meaning is brought out by the logic of the connectives and the truth values of the propositions — i.e. what needs to be the case for the proposition to be true.

There are many advantages in this approach: clarity, certainty, universality. Once expressions are reduced to propositions with truth values, it becomes harder to dally with relativism. Truth and falsity are universals, and apply across the different worlds of individuals, cultures and times.
But matters are a good deal less clear-cut when metalanguages and different logics are involved. And, even without such complications, there is Quine's objection that translation is underdetermined, that we inevitably make assumptions in translating from one language to another which must undermine any claim that truth is universal.  There is Hacking's objection that style of reasoning is important, there being no one true, fundamental language in which reasoning should be conducted. And there is the question whether such a logic properly represents meaning. Are all sentences assertions of fact, and do we always intend to be so logical? More damaging still is the observation that language is not the self-evident and unmetaphoric entity that propositional calculus assumes. Arguments are commonly not matters of fact but rhetoric. And finally there are the facts themselves. Even in science, the most objective of disciplines, facts are not matters immediately given but arrived at through a communality of practice and assumption. 

Intention-Based Semantics

Perhaps we should start from another direction altogether and ask why human beings use speech. What are their purposes and intentions? J.L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words was the seminal work, and his approach was extended and systematized by John Searle and others. Meaning is real and includes both what the speaker intended and what he actually said — i.e. the function of a sentence and its internal structure. Speech, moreover, is rule-governed, and we should be able to spell out these rules. Paul Grice concerned himself with differences in intention between the said and the meant, and in analysing conversational situations. Implication was conveyed by general knowledge and shared interest. And an action intended to induce belief would have to a. induce that belief, b. be recognized as such by the hearers, and c. be performed with every intention of being recognized as such. His cooperative principle introduced maxims of quality (things are not said which are known to be false or for which there is no evidence), quantity (appropriately informative), relation (relevant), and manner (brief, orderly, not obscure or ambiguous). Intention-based semantic theories are still popular and are actively pursued. But they have not entirely succeeded in reducing meaning and psychology to actions and utterances. If meaning is defined as acting so as to induce belief and action in another, theories of meaning must be grounded in non-semantic terms to avoid circularity. And there is some doubt whether this can be done. Individuals act according to beliefs, and the communication of these beliefs eventually and necessarily calls on public beliefs and language.

Meaning as Truth Conditions

Is there another way of cutting through the tangle of belief and language-dependence? One very influential programme was that of John Davidson, which made the meaning of the sentence simply its truth conditions. The meaning of a trivially simple example: ‘The moon is round’ are the conditions that the sentence is true, namely that the moon is indeed round. No more than that. The programme sidesteps troublesome philosophical issues — the mind-body problem, problems of knowledge, deep grammar, social usage — to state ‘facts’ in a logically-transparent language.

But is this really what is meant by meaning? Philosophers have not generally thought so, still less linguists, sociologists, and literary critics. And, even by its own lights, the programme was unsuccessful. Its logical consistency was weakened by the need for two assumptions — that translation from natural to logical metalanguages was never with mishap, and that meaning was a holistic phenomena, i.e. that texts as a whole bestowed meaning on individual words rather than the other way about. Moreover, and despite employing the powerful resources of symbolic logic, the programme proved unable to deal with many everyday expressions or sentences.


Since all attempts to ground meaning in more fundamental entities have failed, perhaps we should conclude that sentences have no meaning at all, no final, settled meaning that we can paraphrase in non-metaphorical language. That is the contention of Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction is the literary programme that derives from this approach, though Derrida himself does not see deconstruction as a method, and still less an attack on the western canon of literature, but more a way of investigating the textural contexts in which words are used. The social, cultural and historical aspects of that context, and how we interpret a text from our own current perspective, are the concerns of hermeneutics. Derrida's view goes deeper. There is no ‘thought’ as such, he argues, that we create in our minds and then clothe with words. Words are the beginning and the end of the matter, the only reality. They refer only to other words, not to things — be they ‘thoughts’ in the mind, or ‘objects’ in the world. By looking carefully at a text we see where the writer has chosen one word in preference to others of similar meaning, and these choices tell us something about what the writer is trying not to say, i.e. is suppressing or hiding from us — either deliberately, or by thoughtless immersion in the suppositions of his time. In this sense, texts write themselves. Context and author are largely irrelevant. And not only texts. Institutions, traditions, beliefs and practices: none of these have definable meanings and determinable missions. All dissolve into words, whose deployment it is the philosopher's task to investigate.

Who believes this? Very few in the workaday world. Deconstructionists do not expect word games played with their salary cheques, or even their students’ essays. As a philosophic position, deconstruction can be defended by making certain assumptions — that words predate thought, are beyond our control, and do not make reference. But the cost is very high. Studies of brain operation do not support this position. Also jettisoned are investigations into the linguistic development of language, the social purposes it serves, its aesthetic aspects. Political injustices — which Derrida cared passionately about — are only personal views, mere words at last. Derrida was a subtle and learned writer, vastly more accomplished than the majority of his followers, but deconstruction severs language from its larger responsibilities.


And do words make only reference to themselves? Ultimately they make sense of our thoughts, our emotions, our sense impressions. We register something as loud, heavy, yellow, pungent, etc. and no amount of word shuffling can set these impressions aside. We expect objects to retain their properties, just as words retain their meaning, the two being locked together and finally cohering in a world we understand. No one supposes that words do not mediate in the way we use our senses, and that complex chains of understanding do not underlie the simple statement ‘that is a chair’. Or the power of ideology to evoke violent reactions to concepts that are not experienced and may be largely abstract: ‘communist’, ‘terrorist’, etc. But the culprit is the tangled chain of reference, the spurious associations and the procedural sleights of hand that demagogues employ.

Certainly we can declare: ‘Aha! See, words always enter into things.’ But that is the source of their power and properties. Words cannot generally be entirely divorced from context, any more than things can be handled at any length without words. Yet even this power of language can be exaggerated. Many skills are learnt by watching and doing. Painters learn from each other's paintings, not from the clever words of art critics. Musicians discussing a tricky bit of interpretation will demonstrate what they mean. In all of these cases the verbal explanation comes belatedly, and is accepted to the extent it expresses what has already been intuitively grasped. Literary critics, philosophers and academics naturally exalt the power of language, but many things in this world run perfectly well on a very slender vocabulary indeed — as driving a car, house-building, and lovemaking amply demonstrate.

Be that as it may, reference is clearly an essential part of linguistic philosophy, and the literature is extensive. One popular approach, deriving from Wittgenstein and developed by Peter Strawson and John Searle, is to establish name and reference by a cluster of descriptions. Unfortunately, however, references may be borrowed without being properly understood, and names may not require descriptions: the Cataline Plot is simply what Cicero denounced and thwarted. A second approach developed by Saul Kripke is therefore gaining ground. Naming is introduced by dubbing (ostensively, i.e. by pointing). People not present at the dubbing pick up the word, and others use it. This theory of designating chains (d-chains as they are called) has several advantages. The chains are independent of their first use and of those who use them, and they allow name substitution. Identity is speaker-based. We accept the linguistic and non- linguistic contexts, but understand that the speakers' associations forge the link between language and the world. And speakers can be precise, unclear, ambiguous and/or plain wrong. D-chains can designate things meaningless and false, as well as things meaningful and true.

Gareth Evans looked at how change of reference is possible. Sometimes we muddle up the references and then have to ground names in another way. Sometimes we can use names knowing next to nothing about their meaning, but realizing nonetheless that the category still has to be right — nouns used as nouns, lakes used in geographical and not psychological description. But what happens when we move to more abstract terms? Then matters become much more contentious, several workers arguing for reference fixing and reference fixing theories. 


Do we have to understand the cultural aspects of reference? Undoubtedly, say the hermeneutists. There is no final, unchanging, ahistorical basis for interpretation. Language is not neutral, but needs to be understood through certain filters — the continuance of the historical past for Gadamer, through labour and shared expression for Habemas, and through cultural artifacts and shared ways of understanding for Ricouer. We live on our historical inheritance, says Gadamer, in a dialogue between the old traditions and present needs. And there is no simple way to assess that inheritance except by trial and error: praxis, living out its precepts and their possible reshapings. Rationality of the scientific or propositional kind is something we should be wary of, since it evades any direct apperception of reality, the ‘truth that finds us’. Validity comes from a communality of practice and purposes, not by reference to abstract theory. Habermas is a Marxist and criticizes the ‘rationality’ of science as too much placing control in the hands of specialists, an undemocratic procedure. Man is entitled to his freedoms — from material want, from social exclusion, and from practices that alienate him from better nature. Labour is not simply a component of production, but how men are forced to live. Class ideologies that reduce liberties in this way are perversions of language, which we need to exhume and examine. Cultural objects are shared ways in which a community understands itself. But communities change. How we arrive at a proper interpretation of objects from past civilizations is something, says the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, that Gadamer does not explain. All things are relative: no one interpretation is to be preferred over another. Habermas is more concerned with method, but has also failed to bring praxis and theory together — i.e. is far from achieving Husserl's hope for a rigorous science. Ricoeur's own suggestion is to search the text itself for the complex relationship between explaining and understanding. 

Relativism in Social Context

Societies have very different customs, particularly those of native peoples isolated by history and terrain from contact with others. Anthropologists have found much that is puzzling in their myths and social practices. Some tribes claim a close kinship with the animal world, even to the extent of believing themselves to be red parakeets, etc. So the notion arose that the ‘primitive’ mind was somehow different from its western counterpart, a notion strengthened when it was found that some native languages attribute gender to inanimate objects, or have no past or future tense. Much of this can be discounted. Though their language may not have a past tense as such, Hopi Indians have no difficulty working to western timetables. Cerveza is feminine in gender, but not otherwise regarded as female. Native peoples live too close to extinction for them to indulge in mystifying beliefs, and no doubt anthropologists would impute primitivism to a Roman Catholic mass. Indeed, later investigations showed that red parakeets were being used metaphorically, or partly so. But are languages (and hence meanings) culture-dependent? We can translate between different languages, but is what comes over an adequate transcription? In one sense the answer must be ‘yes’. It remains a possibility that a native speech will one day be found expressing concepts so entirely foreign to us that translation is impossible. But none of the 4,000-plus languages has yet done so. Many examples of the native's ‘irrational mind’ prove to be misunderstandings, or words used in a non-literal way. All the same, in another sense perhaps, the answer may be ‘no’. Polyglots can switch languages easily, but the switch is into a paraphrase rather than a word-for-word transcription. What is given in translation is a guide to a different linguistic terrain, to a world recognized slightly differently. So with jargon and styles within a particular language. Vocabularies change, and so do syntax and metaphor. Human beings create models of cognition that reflect concepts developed in the interaction between brain, body and environment. Such models, called schema, may provide our five different conceptual approaches — images, metaphors, part for whole, propositional and symbolic. Linguistic functions are propositional and symbolic. Grammatical constructions are idealized schemas. And so on. Much remains to be done, not least to convince the many specializations involved, but language is not the unambiguous, neutral medium that literalists have supposed.

Religious Meaning

What is the meaning that religious adherents derive from their faith? Certainly it seems compelling, even if not communicable to those who have not experienced that reality. Wishful thinking, hallucination? No. It is not possible to prove them to be false or logically incoherent. Theism is rational within a given conceptual system, such systems being judged on their match with the evidence, on their explanatory or transforming power, on their consistency, coherence, simplicity, elegance and fertility, and on the rules that arise out of the system rather than a-priori. Religion can be seen as the sacralization of identity, which presupposes order and consistency in our views of reality. It becomes meaningful in acts: ritual, prayer, mystical encounters. As in myth, the language of religion is closed and self-supporting, not easily translated or transferred from one culture to another. Meaning is formed by acts of communication and has to be recreated in those acts time and again. It is always possible to reduce religion to anthropology or social science, but such explanations are ultimately unsatisfying, lacking the emotion-laden demonstration of a man's place in a meaningful world.


Semiotics is still an obsession of literary theory, but clearly only one of many approaches to meaning, and may indeed be fading now from the American philosophy scene. Very few of its ten thousand professional philosophers are rattling the bars of the prison cage of language. Linguistic philosophies continue, but in addition to the traditional fields — philosophy of existence (ontology), meaning (epistemology) art (aesthetics), morals (ethics) and political history — there is increased emphasis on new fields: computer issues, applied ethics, feminism, rights of parenthood, etc. Though most philosophy is still written by academics for other academics, an applied philosophy is being attempted, even if its impact on public opinion is still very small.

A great deal of this is relevant to poetry, though largely unknown to poetry readers and writers. Reference, meta-languages and even prepositional logic could help us avoid extreme positions, that poetry was only ‘emotionally’ true (New Criticism), that poetry has its own language (Modernism) and that words only refer to other words (Postmodernism). But most emphatically, modern critical theory notwithstanding, it demonstrates that we cannot make a poem's content something special that only poetry creates.  With poetry we can illustrate, personify, enhance, embody, enlarge and deepen meanings — and no doubt a dozen other benefits — but we cannot, per se, create meaning, not if those meanings are to have currency in the wider world, or be what we need to communicate with fellow human beings. For the illustration and/or embodiment of supposed language deceits in contemporary poetry there is simply no warrant. We not only fail to make sense to the educated common reader, but fail to make sense to fellow poets — which is surely the situation illustrated by contemporary reviewing: no proper analysis of what is being said, no assessment as to whether the attitudes and assumptions are acceptable or believable, no comment on the enterprise as a whole. 

Modernism and Geoffrey Hill

Given all this, can poets still claim a vatic role, a privileged access to words and their larger meanings? Possibly in academia, but not on the public stage. To be art in the older and wider sense, their creations must exhibit the features that have always made art.  To have meaning, they must obey the rules and understandings that make words meaningful to others. Poems that do not fulfil these requirements  — and many poems today refuse allegiance — are not honest, brave and forward-looking, therefore, but simply wrong-headed.

How Geoffrey Hill composed, I don't know, but suspect it was through his gift for the magnificent phrase, which is a dangerous way of proceeding. Dangerous because it's the rarest of gifts and so likely to fail or be unavailable in the 'dry' periods most writers experience. Dangerous because the approach can give collages of phrases that don't entirely fit together, a feature seen in many of Hill's poems, particularly the late ones. And dangerous, finally, because the poet is tempted to take refuge in the mesmering effects of phrases, rather than discover what he means by thinking through the varied means of his craft. The larger tragedy is not, however, that Hill overworked Modernism's fetish with language to end up writing impenetrable poems, but that he didn't use his acute critical powers to look beyond what is philosophically trivial.


1. Wikipedia authors. Geoffrey Hill. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Hill
2. Lezard, N. Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill A review Guardian, November 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/20/broken-hierarchies-poems-geoffrey-hill-review
3. Sherry, V.B, (1987) The Uncommon Tongue: The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill. University of Michigan Press. Google Books.
4. British Poetry Society writers (2016). A Tribute to Geoffrey Hill. http://poetrysociety.org.uk/news/geoffrey-hill-1932-2016/
5. Hughes, J.D. (2014) The Early Work of Geoffrey Hill, Part One. English Association Bookmarks No. 75. https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/publications/bookmarks/75Hill.pdf
6. Silkin, J. (1972) The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill. Iowa Review 3.3. http://ir.uiowa.edu/ioware/vol3/iss3/42
7. Hill, G. Funeral Music. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48460/funeral-music
8. Hill, G. In Memory of Jane Fraser. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48454/in-memory-of-jane-fraser
9. Hill, G. Genesis. The Paris Review https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/07/01/genesis/
10. Hill, G. September Song. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48459/september-song
11. Thwaite A. and Mole, J. eds. (1983) Poetry 1945 to 1980. Longman English Series.
12. James, S. (2007) Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney. Liverpool University Press.
13. Milne, W.S. Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. ttps://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/ariel/article/download/34564/28599
14. Kemeny, L. (2009) The Archaeology of Words – Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’ The Litterateur. http://literateur.com/archaeology-of-words-geoffrey-hills-mercian-hymns/
15. Pritchard, D.E. (2009)  Geoffrey Hill: Unparalleled Atonement. The Critical Flame. http://criticalflame.org/geoffrey-hill-unparalleled-atonement/
16. Hill, G. The Pentecost Castle. https://www.reddit.com/r/truepoetry/comments/4qw01h/the_pentecost_castle_by_geoffrey_hill/
17. Hill, G. (1952) Tenebrae. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48463/tenebrae
18. An Apology for the Revival of  Christian Architecture in England:: A Short History of British India (i) Poem Hunter. https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/an-apology-for-the-revival-of-christian-architecture-in-england/
19. Hill, G. (2006) Selected Poems. Penguin,
20. Poetry foundation writers. Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/geoffrey-hill
21. Charles Péguy by Roger Kimball. New Criterion. November 2001.
22. Geoffrey Hill, The Art of Poetry No. 80. Interviewed by Carl Phillips. Paris Review.  2013.
23 Poetry foundation writers. Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/geoffrey-hill
24. Potts, R. (2002) The Praise Singer. Guardian review. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview15
25. For a sympathetic review, and different assessment of the poem, see: O'Callaghan (1997) A visionary sense of Englishness. The Irish Times, March 1997. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/a-visionary-sense-of-englishness-1.48201
26. Hill, G. Triumph of Love. LI. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48465/the-triumph-of-love
27. Yezzi, D. Verse in perfect pitch. The New Criterion, July 2016. https://www.newcriterion.com/blogs/dispatch/verse-in-perfect-pitch
28. Kurp, P. Selected Poems by Goeffrey Hill. Quarterly Conversion. http://quarterlyconversation.com/selected-poems-by-geoffrey-hill-review
29. Hilbert, E. (2002) Geoffrey Hill: The Corpus of Absolution. CPR. http://www.cprw.com/Hilbert/hill.htm
30. Coyle, B. A Difficult Poet. Review of Clavics by Geoffrey Hill.  Enitharmon Press, 2011. The Oxonian Review, January 2012. http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/a-difficult-poet/
31. Lezard, N. Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill A review Guardian, November 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/20/broken-hierarchies-poems-geoffrey-hill-review
32. Logan, W. (2005)  The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin  Columbia University Press, 151. Google Books.
33. Hill, G. (2016) Genesis. The Paris Review. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/07/01/genesis/
34. Paulin, T. (1985) The Case for Geoffrey Hill. Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work edited by Peter Robinson  Open University. London Review of Books
35. Ritter, G. (2010) Recovering Hyperbole: Re-Imagining the Limits of Rhetoric for an Age of Excess. https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1020&context=communication_diss
36. Kilgore-Caradec, J . Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec on Geoffrey Hill Eborakon. https://www.eborakon.com/special-online-issue-europe/kilgore-caradec-on-geoffrey-hill/
37. Holcombe, C.J. (2016) A Background to Critical Theory.  Ocaso Press. Volume One, Chapter 29.