Monday, June 27, 2011

`The Enabling Reader, the Recusant'

The word is an exotic mouthful but the meaning is familiar: haruspex. Geoffrey Hill uses it in Section Nine of Clavics (Enithatmon Press, 2011):

“Should benefit from this mixed blood and flame
Utterance known first to the haruspex”

For the Romans and Estruscans, a haruspex foretold the future by reading the entrails of sacrificed animals. A practitioner of this form of divination, Titus Vestricius Spurinna, warned Julius Caesar of the danger he faced on March 15. As recounted by Plutarch (in Sir Thomas North’s translation):

“Furthermore, there was a certaine Soothsayer that had geven Caesar warning long time affore, to take Caesars day heede of the day of the Ides of Marche, (which is the fifteenth of his death of the moneth) for on that day he shoulde be in great daunger.”

Twice in Act I, Scene 2, of Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has the Soothsayer tell the emperor: “Beware the Ides of March.” It’s not the first time Hill has used a form of “haruspex.” In Section 29 of Speech! Speech! (2000), he deploys it as a verb:

“The sanctuary hung with entrails. Blood
on the sackcloth. And still we are not
word-perfect. HARUSPICATE; what does that
say to you?”

Christopher Ricks answers Hill’s question in True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound: “Well (since you ask), what this says to me is that (among much else) the entrails of a poem by Eliot are being inspected.” Ricks cites an echo from “The Dry Salvages,” the third of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

“To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behavior of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures . . .”

“Scry” is a verb meaning to see the future in a crystal ball, and this reader of Clavics sometimes longed for such supernatural assistance, or at least a skeleton key (a word much punned upon in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake) to unlock some of its secrets. Start with the title. Hill’s epigraph is a bogus entry from the Oxford English Dictionary: “CLAVICS: The science or alchemy of keys – OED, 2012.”

We take “clavicle,” our word for the collarbone, from the Latin clavicula, “small key.” Clavics is ostensibly a poem about William Lawes (1602-1645), court composer to Charles I, so Hill is surely using “key” in its musical sense. However, as he says in a recent interview:

“I would describe myself as a sort of Ruskinian Tory. It is only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists. I read and re-read Ruskin, particularly Fors Clavigera and I am in profound agreement with William Morris’s Art under Plutocracy.”

Ruskin’s peculiar and irresistibly readable Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workman and Labourers of Great Britain was written between 1871 and 1884. The title is Ruskin’s coinage (though worthy of Hill), and combines elements of force (“club,” clava), fortitude (“key,” clavis) and fortune (“nail,” clavus). Hill has a long history of interest in the book. Here’s Section XXV of Mercian Hymns (1971), in which the poet juxtaposes his grandmother and Fors Clavigera:

“Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg.

“The nailshop stood back of the cottage, by the fold. It reeked stale mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its low roof. In dawn-light the troughed water floated a damson-bloom of dust --

“not to be shaken by posthumous clamour. It is one thing to celebrate the 'quick forge', another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.

“Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg.”

For this reader, much of Clavics remains mysterious, perilously reminiscent of the life-sucking dedication to decryption demanded by Finnegans Wake. In particulars, it flashes with beauty, but I find the whole obscure, and I say this as a longtime admirer of Hill’s work. At the start of Section Six, Hill writes: “The enabling reader, the recusant / At my fingertips, for whom I write well.” Thank you, I think. The Recusants were English Roman Catholics who refused to attend services of the Church of England – a crime. Today, a recusant refuses to obey established authority of any sort, even poetic. I haven’t given up on Clavics, certainly not on Hill, and take heart that he rhymes “haruspex” with “paradox,” “meretrix” and “drab sex.”

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