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SPEECH! SPEECH!

: A EUROPEAN POEM

Geoffrey Hill’s long poem Speech! Speech!, published in 2000, is distinctive for

its density. It is notorious for its serried collection of references and allusions to a

broad spectrum of history and art. The poem is in many ways indicative of Hill’s

more recent work: the focus is at once blurred – through the vastness of

reference – and sharpened through Hill’s specificity and attention to detail. For

Hill, this amalgamated style is not only aesthetic, but also part of an over-arching

idea, one that has remained with him throughout his poetic career. He is

concerned primarily with the act of looking back – of remembering and recalling

the past through its redramatisation in verse. Furthermore, Hill urges his readers

to recall without softening or romanticising the reality of the past: this is the Hill

who scorns an understanding of Saint Sebastian as the beautiful martyr, catching

his death “in a little flutter / Of plain arrows”. 1 For Hill, the past is as real as, and

as present as the present itself. It is through remembering, through bringing the

achievements and the sufferings of the past into our present that we can repay

the debt (and thus also alleviate the sense of guilt) that we owe the generations

which came before us. For Hill, remembering is everything: he urges us to live

with the dead, indeed, he has himself written of the “daily acknowledgement / of

1
From ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian’ section six of Hill’s long poem ‘On Commerce
and Society’ from New and Collected Poems 1952-1994 (Boston; New York: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1994).

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what is owed the dead”.2 Consequently, the present for Hill is simultaneously of

the utmost and of little importance: it is no more present in the present than the

past, and yet it is vital that we remember the past in order for it to survive into the

present. The result is often tragi-comic in Speech! Speech! as scenes of

seriousness and gravity are juxtaposed with toilet humour and celebrity gossip.

The past is easily forgotten when its “files” are “pillaged and erased / in one

generation” (Speech! Speech!, st.1). Hill’s personal history, and certainly his

formative past, is English. Consequently, his England “is a landscape which is

fraught with the traces of a history that stretches so far back that it relativises the

Empire and its aftermath.”3 In redramatising, Hill revitalises, and the result is a

complex play of registers and references.

Why, though, is this recalling of the past particularly European, particularly

British? Hill writes for the dead using the English language. English is notorious

for being a mongrel, hybrid language, made up of and bearing witness to the

political and social history of Britain and of the larger environs of Europe. Indeed,

Speech! Speech! can be seen to resemble the English language itself; as Peter

Ackroyd has written “it can be maintained that English art and English literature

are formed out of inspired adaptation; like the language, and like the inhabitants

of the nation itself, they represent the apotheosis of the mixed style.”4

2
Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
2000 (first 1998), CXIX.
3
Raphael Ingelbien, Misreading England: Poetry and Nationhood since the Second
World War (Amsterdam; New York: Editions Rodopi, 2002) p.34.
4
Peter Acroyd, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (London: Chatto and
Windus, 2002) p.xxi.

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Englishness, then, is inherently inclusive, and open to, as well as partly made up

of, the world at large, predominantly Europe. Hill’s interest in the intricacies of

English and thus also in European languages is particularly evident in his recent

work, where the tensions created by implied etymological discussion and by

complex wordplay almost replace narrative – the multilingual references in

Speech! Speech! demonstrate Hill’s interest in the wider discussion of European

languages, as well as identify the poem, even on the page, as a European poem.

It is Hill’s self-conscious use of the language’s innate historical properties and

European-past-filledness that distinguishes his use from the ordinary. And it is

his awareness of these properties, and the way in which they affect his use of the

language, which make his English European.

But what is European? It seems that, unlike Englishness, which has as its

specific characteristic its lack of specificity – its mutability – Europeanness is only

defined against an ‘other’, the other most commonly being, at least after the

Second World War, America. Hill’s interest in Europe and Britain becomes

obvious when this American comparison is made. America is the New World;

Europe is the Old World. Europe is where the past is inescapable and all

encompassing, where historical events still impact on everyday life. For its

colonisers, America was the land of hope for a new and different future, the land

in which the past could be forgotten. It is exactly this forgetfulness against which

Hill campaigns – his poems are, in his own words, “praise-songs” (S!S!, st.99)

for the past and its martyrs; he wants, literally, to bear witness to history itself.

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Hill, after all, is the author of the poem ‘History as Poetry’. The Americanisms in

Speech! Speech! (“WHÁDDYA – WHÁDDYA –“ (st.107); “TALK ABOUT LAUGH,

TALK ABOUT / ANGRY” (st.10)) are often a kind of contrapuntal voice: obviously

not that of the author and of the majority of the text, they are the ‘other’ voice,

often speaking out – perhaps as Daumier’s rowdy crowd (presented on the cover

of Speech! Speech! as an imbecilic and juvenile audience5) – against the

author’s own voice.

How, then, can Hill continue to produce work so obviously British and, in a wider

sense, so identifiably European? It is, as suggested earlier, through the language

itself, the most portable and adaptable vessel for our history available to us, and

our strongest link to our past. Hill has been living in the United States for almost

twenty years, and yet his poems remain distinctly un-American in tone. Europe is

not Hill’s only concern (he is equally fascinated, at times, with Nigerian politics),

but the past of Europe and Britain remains, through language, his primary

concern. For Hill, the past is most present in Europe, and remains powerfully

manifest in both his own past and his own language, English.

Ann Hasan

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Cover of Counterpoint Edition (New York: Counterpoint, 2000).