Saturday 31 May 2014

Defiance or a Dare?

Last year, "stunned" by the amount of revision in Geoffrey Hill’s Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, David Williams penned a fascinating post on the nightmare now facing academics who have written about Hill's work:
What is Ricks to do about this, having now written on an apparently obsolete poem (in two books—see also his chapter in Lyon & McDonald)? He can’t revise his own critical work—the object of criticism has been in some way withdrawn. And what about others who have written on the original poem: what about me, hey, and Piers Pennington, and Michael O’Neill, and Peter Pegnall, and Charles Lock, and others? And what about future writers? Are we all bound not only to acknowledge the revision, but also to acknowledge the supremacy of the revision? And will Hill criticism have to endure a long period of deadening debate over the relative authority of the different versions and editions of the poems? And is this, in fact, the last word on all the poems 1952-2012, or should we expect corrections and revisions in the next printing?

Now, the evaluative question I’m avoiding is one on which Hill himself has had some sharp things to say, in a conversation with Peter McDonald [link]about poets revising their own work in later life. He asks Hill at the outset about good poets who have been consistent or prolific self-revisers. Hill says: “I can think off the top of my head of two or three. And all of them disastrous.” J. C. Ransom, W. H. Auden, and M. Moore were all “disastrous” in their late self-revisions, and in each case the revisions were “monstrous misjudgements” borne of “entirely unnecessary guilt,” and so moral as well as aesthetic failures. W. B. Yeats, though, “can be applauded on some but not all of his rewritings,” Hill says. “Reconceived, rethought, rewritten” is how McDonald characterizes Yeats’s late changes.

Section “20″ of Comus certainly has been reconceived, rethought and rewritten in Broken Hierarchies, and my quick look through the Amazon text shows plenty of other major and minor changes in places both expected and unexpected. Is a variorum edition on the cards? Broken Hierarchies is already almost one thousand pages long. A thousand. Is this defiance or a dare?
Williams recently returned to the subject, explaining the confusion created by some altered line-breaks in a poem from Hill's Mercian Hymns.  Read it here.

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