Scenes From Comus by Geoffrey Hill

Scenes From Comus is dedicated ‘For Hugh Wood On His 70th Birthday’. Hugh Wood is a composer who, in the 1960’s, wrote a symphonic work for soprano, tenor and orchestra also called Scenes From Comus. Hill and Wood were both born in September 1932. So both were 70 in 2002 when these poems were written. It is not the first time Hill has celebrated September. The collection King Log (1968) contains the poem ‘September Song’, an elegy for a victim of the Holocaust, which is also ‘an elegy for myself it/is true’. September was the month of the performance of Milton’s masque Comus in 1634. So much for context. As for content, a considered playfulness is apparent from the outset. In the second poem of the first section Hill proposes ‘That we are inordinate creatures’. Are we to take this as meaning ‘immoderate, excessive’? Certainly. But we should also look further. A few lines down we have:

Marvel at our contrary orbits. Mine
salutes yours, whenever we pass or cross,

which may be now, might very well be now.

We might then want to consider ‘inordinate’ in the context of the meaning of ‘ordinate’ (parallel line) or ‘co-ordinate’ (brought into proper relation). If Hill notes here our tendency to excess (in opposition to Milton’s theme of desire and chastity in Comus) and also our unsynchronised progress through life (‘our contrary orbits’), sometimes (may be now) our co-ordinates bring us together. Here the orbits that cross are those of Hill and Hugh Wood whom he addresses at intervals throughout the sequence. Speaking of Milton he says:

He was a cheerful soul and loved your music,
Hugh, as he must have told you many times. 

So Hill’s work is comic, refusing tragedy, which “is not conclusive”; is playful with language, never settling on a single interpretation or meaning; and is self-consciously ironic in interleaving personal references, thematic exploration and social comment.

The sequence is divided into three sections: ‘The Argument of the Masque’, ‘Courtly Masquing Dances’ and ‘A Description of the Antimasque’. The first and third sections have 20 poems each and the central section has 80, providing a symmetrical analogy with musical structure. The opening ‘Argument’ is presented as a series of propositions, many beginning with the rhetorical form ‘That …’. One of the arguments developed is a deliberation around the word ‘pondus’ and the relative weights of word and world. This theme is carried over from the ‘Argument’ to the beginning of the central section. There the word ‘equipollence’ is introduced, returning to the idea of counterbalance, equivalence of signification. The use of such words can only compound the frustration of those who find Hill ‘difficult’, his lines ponderous. But ponder he will.

Having said this, there is also a lyricism in this collection that harks back to Mercian Hymns. We are here in the same border country too:

This brings us to Michaelmas, its rule and riot,
its light a fading nimbus over Wales.

The location of Milton’s masque was Ludlow Castle where it was performed in honour of the Earl of Bridgewater being appointed Lord President of the Council of Wales. Although Hill writes very much from a sense of “…a fabled England, vivid / in winter bareness” there is also very much a sense of where this ends “half way across a field, / the valley of the Honddu at the cleft / church of Cwm Yoy”. Hill’s response to Comus interleaves an exploration of the masque as a form, a commentary on the context for this particular masque and a series of thematic observations very much in the context of our own times. Hill often manages to make poetic capital out of the conflict between the knowingness of the modern ironic mode and the necessary seriousness, even gravitas, that his project demands. The resulting tragi-comic view of Humanity requires careful phrasing and placing of individual words to create an appropriate context and emphasis for his observations:

This our egregious masking – what it entails.
Our sex-masques plague threatened. Our murrain’d
rustic to-and-fro-ing, lording it here, and there,
craven in vanity. I mean, lawful
lordship, powers that múst be, I do not grudge.
Nor do I challenge the power of the Lord
President in Cymru. Diolch – diolch yn fawr!

The masque as a form was essentially about idealising and complimenting those in authority against the riotous rabble represented by the anti-masque.
The opening lines here comment on the theme of chastity in Milton’s masque as such an idealisation. We presumably have to take ‘plague-threatened’ and ‘murrained’ as references to our own times as well as Milton’s. But notice how ‘lording it here, and there’ mutates from the notion of promiscuous sexual behaviour to the notion of ‘lawful lordship’. How has this happened? It seems, after all , to mean rather more than a necessary check on licentious behaviour. From here a careful attention to the rhythmic balance and phrasing of the following lines is necessary. The first thing to notice is the accent mark of the word ‘múst’. This is a device that Hill has used, along with the sign | to mark a rhythmic pause, with increasing frequency as if, like Hopkins, he needs to guide us towards the right level of emphasis. The inevitable nature of such power is acknowledged but ‘I do not grudge’ hardly seems to mean what, taken at face value, it says. The final two lines, with their deliberately ambiguous line break and the resulting comic quality of the obeisance to established power so far undermines the acknowledgment of due authority that we are left with a complex of attitudes to a range of things that might be conveyed by the notions of order and disorder.

Here historical references cannot be left out of account. Milton served Cromwell’s Council after the Civil War. His dealings with power when writing Comus were a barely adequate apprenticeship for the weightiness of this later calling and the dangers it exposed him to after the Restoration:

Milton meant civil war 
and civil detractions, and the sway of power

the pull of power, its pondus, its gravity.

and the theme of the weightiness of words against the world is spun out like a web through the later part of the ‘Argument’:

And they talk about Heavy Metal! They don’t know,
these kids, what weight of the word is
that in the half dark of commodity most

offers are impositions.

As the sequence develops it takes its reader forwards from September to the year’s end and to the North – ‘Thule’s irregular reefs’ – or Iceland where, it seems, many of the poems were written. A line from another Milton poem: ‘In Wintry solstice like the shorten’d light’ opens the final poem and provides a culmination for these meditations on light in darkness. But its final line ‘What did you say?’ reasserts the playful irony of a poet who seems convinced that the world cannot respond to the necessary weight of his words. 

(First published in Poetry Wales)