Haruspicating: Geoffrey Hill
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote: "Opposition is true Friendship." This aphorism supplies Christopher Ricks with both his title and his theme. The three poets he discusses — Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell — are united here in contentious friendship not so much with one another as with the overpowering shade of T. S. Eliot and, to a lesser extent, that of Ezra Pound. Behind all five looms the even more pervasive presence of Dante. Who could claim that the course of true friendship, especially among poets, ever ran smooth? Ricks argues that all of these three poets — each great in his own right — struggled to come to terms with their hovering, inescapable predecessors by a variety of artistic stratagems. In the case of Hill (the only living poet among them) by subtle obstinacy, in Hecht's by barbed eloquence and in the case of Lowell (who saw himself as inheriting Eliot's mantle) by a sense of privileged affinity. The three poets could not have been more different, both from each other and from Eliot or Pound (let alone Dante). Yet their allusions betray them. In glancing echoes, in ricochets of phrase, in their very punctuation, they reveal the impress of their masters, at once contested and revered.
Ricks's argument, though spun out with impressive ingenuity and an abundance of learned references, isn't entirely convincing. While there's obvious indebtedness, particularly in the works of Hecht and Lowell, the stylistic divergence is also strikingly apparent; and Ricks's "coincidings" and "corroborative convergences", as well as the "massive concurrences", to use his somewhat torturous terminology, often seem playful when they aren't simply adventitious. Thus, in his Speech! Speech! of 2000, Hill twice uses the word "haruspicate". Many readers will recall Eliot's use of that word in "The Dry Salvages." Ricks is right to note this but his interpretation seems forced. "Hill, whether he altogether wishes to or not, is set to communicate with Eliot as well as with us, to converse with his spirit as well as ours, to divine all that he can, all round." Well, maybe. But couldn't Hill simply have chosen that unusual word because it suited his purposes best? Taken in context, Hill's lines may reveal what Ricks calls "amiable frictions," but they don't contain the least hint of what he elsewhere terms "the threat of congealed Eliotry":
over the unmentionable, the occult
of bladder and bowel.
When Ricks smuggles in the clause, "whether he altogether wishes to or not", he lets slip another agenda. He somehow knows what Hill is up to better than the poet does himself. Perhaps this explains why Ricks's essay on Hill displays an urgency missing from the other two essays — a "friendship of opposition" is in play here too.