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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism


Style and Faith

Geoffrey Hill

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To purchase Style and Faith

Title: Style and Faith
Author: Geoffrey Hill
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2003)
Length: 161 pages
Availability: Style and Faith - US
Style and Faith - UK
Style and Faith - Canada
  • Seven essays, originally published in the TLS, English, and Agenda between 1989 and 1999

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well done, but specific and likely not very accessible focus

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Style and Faith collects seven review-essays, five of them written for the Times Literary Supplement. Several of them are of new editions of specific works, but almost none of the works Hill focusses on are themselves new -- and several seem unlikely to attract more than a handful of scholarly readers (most notably Early Responses to Hobbes, ed. G.A.J.Rogers -- in six volumes and with 1699 pages). Even the rare recent title -- Isabel Rivers' Reason, Grace and Sentiment (1991) turns out to be A Study of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England 1660-1780. So there's a whiff of must here.
       Style and faith are the two central points of interest -- not surprisingly, as they are both of central concern to Hill generally. In his own poetry he certainly seeks to use them complementarily, style conveying faith, faith imbuing style -- though, of course, never as simply obviously as that: therein lies the art, and it's that art that fascinates Hill.
       An allusive poet, it's not surprising that Hill focusses on works that borrow, echo, and comment -- from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy to various Hobbes-respondents to dictionaries. Commentary, in the broadest sense of the term, is -- or can be -- an enrichment of the text, especially in the bringing together of disparate texts (it's what Burton did, it's what Hill does in his poetry, it's what many of the authors discussed in these essays did), and Hill here revels in it, pulling together the many threads behind many of these works -- a fascinating glimpse, though often so recondite that it's hard for the less well-read to judge his leaps and connexions.
       The first piece is on the second edition (1989) of the Oxford English Dictionary, the second on a modern-spelling version of Tyndale's New Testament (Yale University Press, 1989): "The English Bible and the English Dictionary, the two great recorders of our memory, conscience, travail and diligence". These are among the more approachable pieces: Hill's sense of language and the illustrations he uses -- of definitions and uses -- help readily convey his concerns. The OED-piece is impressively but accessibly argued, while the modern-spelling Tyndale effectively (and entertainingly) ripped to shreds.
       In his anti-modern-spelling tirade Hill admits:

Those who plead for the retention of old spelling are perhaps sentimentalists, dilettanti of 'form and pressure', self-deluded in their passion
       But he goes on to make a good case for such retention -- at least in this case. The unfortunate editors of this edition are also taken to task, their endeavour shown to be -- in this form -- at the very least a misguided one ("if one cleaves to the text and plain story of the introduction one finds it a sad jumble of stylistic solecisms and illogical conclusions").
       'Keeping in the Middle Way' discusses Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, and if Hill's frame of reference is again often beyond the scope of many readers ("What I am adumbrating here seems more inclined to Erasmian copia than to Ramist anatomy" is only the tip of the iceberg), it is still a useful overview and analysis of a number of writings (and writers) of that time. Several of the authors are discussed here and elsewhere in this volume, including Richard Hooker and Hobbes, while others are considered more closely in later pieces -- such as Clarendon in 'The Eloquence of Sober Truth' and Wesley in 'The Weight of the World'. The continuity, the focus on sixteenth and seventeenth century writers, does make for a bigger picture emerging from these pieces.
       'A Pharisee to Pharisees' offers a close reading of Henry Vaughan's 'The Night' -- going so far as to consider more than a page of Vaughan's night/light rhymes. Hill finds support here for his own writing philosophy too: "Pedantry not only spells constraint; it is also freedom".
       'The Weight of the World' (which originally was called 'Style and Faith' but ceded that title to the book as a whole) offers a critique of the first volume of Isabel Rivers' Reason, Grace and Sentiment. Hill does well in his criticism -- though, while he is perhaps correct in his unwillingness to accept Rivers' planned bifurcation of her subject, without the second volume in hand (Hill considers only the first) one wonders how fair his judgement can be (at least regarding this aspect of Rivers endeavours).
       The essay already opens:
     The critical limitations of Reason, Grace and Sentiment are (as such limitations generally are) inseparable from a general limitation of insight and imagination.
       Hill has -- bless him -- high standards, and he won't let a critic or thinker slide by without, among other things, imagination. Rivers perhaps makes herself an easy target ("Attempts to discriminate and evaluate repeatedly collapse upon the words 'interesting', 'interestingly' or 'of more interest than'), but Hill also soundly makes the counter-arguments, demonstrating that there really is more here and that Rivers could have done much more with her material.
       The closing piece, 'Dividing Legacies', takes as a starting point T.S.Eliot's The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, two lectures that Eliot had not allowed to be published during his lifetime. Discussing the publication of these, and Eliot more generally, Hill again seeks to define style and faith in a time closer to our own, a useful step bridging the earlier focus on writers from several centuries ago and (near) contemporary times.

       Much of this material is simply daunting. The works of the authors Hill discusses -- with an ease and familiarity so great it appears almost off-hand -- are likely, with a few exceptions, largely known only to the scholarly few. Still, a great deal that is familiar is also brought in and discussed at some length -- first and foremost many things biblical (a mainstay for Hill and his authors, and not unexpected in a volume focussing on Style and Faith), but also Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henry Vaughan, and T.S.Eliot.
       The references can overwhelm (in a different way than in his poetry), but Hill is a remarkable writer, taking great care in his expression and managing both precision and artistry: his passion shines through all academic rigour, and there's that's little dry about this volume. Still, this is not a book for many readers: the arcane subject-matter and the references will likely be too much for most. For those so inclined: it requires some effort to get through, but, by and large, rewards that effort well.

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Style and Faith: Reviews: Geoffrey Hill: Other books by Geoffrey Hill under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:

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About the Author:

       English poet Geoffrey Hill was born in 1932. A graduate of Keble College, Oxford, he has taught at the University of Leeds, at Cambridge, and at Boston University.

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© 2003-2019 the complete review

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