- Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words by Matthew Sperling
Matthew Sperling’s monograph Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words achieves a remarkable entente between allowing “the complex and recalcitrant nature” of semantics [End Page 486] as it exists in the very texture of Hill’s poetic achievement, while elucidating Hill’s dark, scholastic materials in “plain prose.” Sperling’s central argument is that “Hill’s work has been sustained by a mythological sense of language’s historical drama . . . the idea that language is fallen” (2). Sperling builds this thesis around a genealogy of Hill’s philological critical thinking, beginning with debts owed by “Hill’s word-worrying poetic imagination” to the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Hill’s insistence on its sins of omission, particularly with regard to “word[s] of ‘difficult’ though real signification” coined or transmogrified in the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (33). Sperling establishes that the idealist-Romantic tinctures of Hill’s “real” signification are irreconcilable with the lexicographer’s concern for “actual” signification, a fact he arbitrates without championing either the poet’s “extreme vision” of semantic inclusivity or the prejudicates of the dictionary’s compilers (34). Chapter 2 examines Hill’s assertion that Richard Chevenix Trench was the “presiding genius” to Hopkins’s verbal ingenuity and the dictionary’s creators, while also uncovering the former’s debts to Coleridge and Emerson (53). Emerson’s belief in language as “fossil poetry,” the usages like striations of geological features, is seen as exerting a profound pull on Hill’s imagination (58). Sperling’s own critical archaeology is at its most persuasive when excavating the implications of various connections between the nineteenth-century philologists themselves, and between their work and Hill’s published and unpublished critical thought, noting hitherto unsuspected resonances in Hill’s poetry. The book finely traces the vagaries that this notion of language’s strata exerts on Hill’s work; for instance, how Trench’s nostalgic etymologizing simultaneously has glamour for Hill and is resisted in his work, the possibility of “a ‘radical’ insight” discovered in the very etymological pursuit of Trench’s conservative project (72). Sperling’s third chapter looks at Coleridge’s organicist-vitalist belief in words as “living powers,” the alienating, disinterested force of language that exceeds and absorbs historical usage (54). The subsequent chapters in the book make test cases of certain recurring linguistic tropes and specific words in Hill’s poetry, while the final section of the book considers his “theology of language” and adherence to the Christian doctrine of original sin (133).
Sperling convincingly demonstrates the extent to which Hill’s abiding sense of the relationship of language to original sin is evident in thinkers whom the latter values, Milton and Coleridge, while it is absent in those he denigrates, the empiricist-individualists Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke. Sperling links this opposition to Hill’s politics, a kind of “Toryism inseparable from the centrality of sin and fallenness,” albeit a radical Toryism (98). The modifying “radical” part of this assignation notwithstanding, it is interesting that Sperling does not clarify Hill’s conjunction of the republican Milton with such a politics. In some sense, Hill is (to paraphrase Christopher Hill on Milton) “an eclectic,” whose theological, political, and poetic commitments are generously ecumenical. Sperling seems to accept Hill’s eclecticism at face value, and it is a fair critique to level that Visionary Philology even naturalizes it, shears it of some of its intimate contradiction.
Focusing as he does on philology, Sperling overlooks another vein of post-Romantic thought germane to Hill’s intellectual preoccupations, one that is to some degree in conflict with the postlapsarian vision of Hopkins, Trench, et al. In a late essay, “Eros in F. H. Bradley and T. S. Eliot,” Hill touched searchingly on the nigh-Blakean energy of contraries in the poet’s creative impulse, as much a source of anxiety to Hill as one of inspiration; he writes of “the fundamental dilemma of the poetic craft: that it is...