The poet and the dictionary

Alan Wall in The Fortnightly Review:

GhillyaleGeoffrey Hill’s poetic career has been mediated through his engagement with the dictionary. And that dictionary is first and foremost the OED. There is no greater dictionary in the world, and its making constitutes one of the great intellectual events of the twentieth century, though it started life in the nineteenth. There had never been anything like this before. Now the language itself has become the documented labyrinth of its own manifold meanings. Now history can be traced uttering itself thus and thus in one mutating word after another. The thought of a poet writing in English who would not grow excited turning the pages of the OED, or clicking on the electronic version, is so dismal that one wishes such a personage an even smaller readership than modern poets normally manage to acquire.

The anti-self to our word-blind, purblind poet is undoubtedly Geoffrey Hill. His verse uses lexicography and philology as heuristic principles. Where Robert Graves leapt out of the window after Laura Riding (even if he did go down a storey first), one suspects it would require the defenestration of Hill’s beloved bound set of the OED to elicit any such voluntarylapsus from him. The White Goddess, being no better than she should be, might have had a slightly harder time of it, had she been strutting her stuff in Worcestershire. With A. E. Housman to the left of her, and Geoffrey Hill to the right, she would have received some very old-fashioned looks indeed; chilly gazes from fellows not so easily beguiled. And acerbity is a necessary part of our theme. Acerbity is integral to Hill’s achievements in both verse and prose. Sentimentality is anathema. There are no flies on this fellow. The constable’s son is nothing if not forensic. Every emotion is likely to be treated as the scene of a crime, past, present, or to come.

More here.