The national question and the greatest living English poet

Can Englishness be articulated to a progressive project? Perhaps its time to turn to Geoffrey Hill, a poet immersed in the complexities and richness of England.
Nick Pearce
5 January 2012

Louise Mensch MP attracted a lot of attention for her recent GQ interview, in which she expressed frustration at not being promoted. I was rather more taken by a tweet in which she declared her delight at the news that the poet Geoffrey Hill had received a knighthood in the New Year’s honours list. As far as I could see, she was one of only two politicos who noticed Hill’s honour, the other being a fellow Conservative, Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome. ‘Great art of the first rank’, she declared.

She was not wrong. Hill is often described as the greatest living English poet, and with good reason. Born into a working class family in Bromsgrove, his work is rich in allusions and references to English history, landscape, poetry and politics. His sweep takes in the lot: from King Offa to Milton, Cromwell to Bacon and Burke, as well as his own nameless ancestors, the ‘so many’ who ‘had, and have, nothing’, ‘my people, whom I nonetheless honour, who bought no landmark other than their graves’.

Back in the 1980s, this immersion in the complexities and richness of Englishness led to an intemperate and one-sided attack on Hill by Tom Paulin, who accused him of romantic English nationalism. That attack was wide of the mark, occasioned in part by Hill’s use in Mercian Hymns of the same reference to the Tiber ‘foaming out much blood’ that Enoch Powell had deployed so infamously down the road in Birmingham a few years earlier. Hill’s use of Virgil’s reference was a very different one to Powell’s, however, drawing to a close a hymn that reflects on torture and political violence (‘Iron buckles gagged, flesh leaked rennet over them; the men stooped, disentangled the body’). Hill’s Englishness is not approached by way of a colour bar but by the ‘strange likeness’ that Mercian Hymns records.

Hill has nonetheless expressed an admiration for 19th-century Tory radicals and on occasion called himself a Ruskinian Tory (indeed, he might even be appropriated for Blue Labour purposes if he wasn’t so difficult to read). His voice draws on deep wells of English thought, both radical and conservative. And thus, demanding as his poetry can be, it is valuable to those who want to probe the contemporary meaning of Englishness.

The future of England will become a matter of mainstream political discussion in the next few years. The English question is just as central to debates on the future of the union as to whether Scotland chooses independence (or, as is more likely, ‘maximum devolution’). One cannot be determined without the other. It may be that the English choose more local devolution, to their cities or counties, while the Scots seek greater powers; or that they argue for their own parliament. One way or another, the English dog will finally bark, as a forthcoming IPPR pamphlet documents.

The historian Norman Davies notes in the introduction to his latest work, Vanished Kingdoms, that: ‘The English in particular are blissfully unaware that the disintegration of the United Kingdom began in 1922 and will probably continue.’ That puts it too strongly, in my view. But it registers the profound point that the basic shape given to the United Kingdom over many centuries began to change radically in the 20th century, a process which accelerated after 1997. The bluff and bluster of contemporary English euroscepticism simply serves to obscure this fact.

For those of a progressive disposition, the really interesting challenge is whether contemporary Englishness can be articulated to a more recognisable centre-left project: inclusive, cosmopolitan and pro-European, but not shallow, glib or tokenistic. If art and culture are anything to go by, there are reasons to be optimistic on that score.

But let us give the final word to Hill, and King Offa from Mercian Hymns, Mensch’s favourite:

He divided his realm. It lay there like a dream. An ancient land, full of strategy. Ramparts of compost pioneered by red-helmeted worms. Hemlock in ambush, night-soil, tetanus. A wasps’ nest ensconced in the hedge-bank, a reliquary or wrapped head, the corpse of Cernunnos pitching dayward its feral horn.

Cross-posted with thanks from Nick's ippr blog

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