Geoffrey Hill

I notice that Geoffrey Hill, one of the major British poets of the 20th century, has just died at 84.

It's hard to forget the time I heard him read poems from King Log, in Leeds one evening just after the book was published in 1980. An astonishingly severe and emotional reading of difficult poems such as 'Funeral Music', where he seemed to be inside the battles his words evoked. We chatted together in the pub afterwards; the next morning I bought the book and still turn to it from time to time.

Later I also listened to lectures by him, each time going away with some new thoughts of my own stimulated by his precise observations. I still recall after many years a brilliant lecture about the same time on Lord Clarendon, the seventeenth century statesman and historian, when he quoted the number of times the historian had used the word “exemplary” in the potted biographies of the key figures of his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars, and then  applied the word to Clarendon himself as the essence of his personality and intellect.

                 Agenda   Vol.17, No.1, Spring 1979

                 Agenda Vol.17, No.1, Spring 1979

On the right above is a photograph of  Geoffrey Hill as he was at the time. Always intense. Precise. In my treasured special edition of the poetry magazine Agenda from 1979, the critic John Bayley wrote of this precision that "Every word of his poems gives the impression of having been carefully blocked in, as if it were a brick fitted into a solid structure; perhaps taken out again, scrapped and examined, sometimes replaced."

In a 1981 essay entitled ‘Poetry in England Today’, given in full on this website under the rubric 'Articles', I quoted from a New Statesman article in which Hill himself set out his poetical credo more concisely than any critic could:

…the problem for a poet who does believe in the essentially simple, sensuous and passionate nature of poetry but who is quite rightly sceptical of some of the more recent manifestations of confessionalism, is the problem of how to avoid debasing these concepts. And the way that he must do this is, I think, by an extreme concentration on technical discipline. In the climate of our time the very concentration on form and discipline is going to seem to a lot of people to be cold and cerebral. But I see it as the only true way of releasing the simple, sensuous and passionate.”

That is exactly as I remember his words and feeling for history: simple, sensuous and passionate.

Shakespeare again

I just saw this fascinating insight from a contemporary British novelist who echoes Borges' notion of nothingness in Shakespeare.

Can it be that we go on finding new meanings in Shakespeare, or is it that he gave us the language to think afresh about ourselves? It is through Shakespeare that we know what being modern is: free from irrationality, alone in a world we understand imperfectly and usually too late. And free from political or religious dogma, too. The play’s the thing in Shakespeare – the interrelation of character our only guide to truth. What does Shakespeare believe? For all dramatic purposes, nothing.
— Howard Jacobson, The New Statesman, 23 April

Shakespeare anniversary

Shakespeare died four hundred years ago today in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Looking down the Avon towards the spire of Holy Trinity Church with the Shakespeare Theatre on the right. Photo by Edward Burman                                   

Looking down the Avon towards the spire of Holy Trinity Church with the Shakespeare Theatre on the right. Photo by Edward Burman                                   

He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church, where he had been baptised almost exactly 52 years earlier. Both his birthplace and the house in which he then lived were within easy walking distance of the church - in a beautiful location beside the River Avon. He is buried in the 15th-century chancel, with a slightly later monument on the wall looking down at his and his wife’s tombstones. A plaque compares him to Nestor, Virgil and Socrates. The first is today virtually unknown, the second is read by very few outside the universities, but Socrates is well-known. Shakespeare himself has one of the few names known everywhere in the world, as are those of some of his most famous characters. Hamlet above all.

                                         Shakespeare's grave; that of his wife Anne may be seen on the left                                                                           ©Edward Burman

                                         Shakespeare's grave; that of his wife Anne may be seen on the left

                                                                         ©Edward Burman

I like to think of him as an actor, one of the greatest. To my mind, in the midst of thousands of books about his life and work, the most profound writing about Shakespeare was an "essay" two pages long by Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the great Argentine author. He understood the importance of the actor in Shakespeare better than anyone, and understood how Shakespeare became Hamlet. Here are some lines from Borges’  ‘Everything and Nothing’:

In his twenties he went to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself in the habit of pretending that he was someone, so it should not be discovered that he was no one. In London he found the profession to which he had been predestined, that of the actor: someone who, on a stage, plays at being someone else, before a concourse of people who pretend to take him for that other one. His histrionic work taught him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known. And yet, once the last line of verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man had dragged off stage, he tasted the hateful taste of unreality. He would leave off being Ferrex or Tamburlaine and become no one again. Thus beset, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic tales. And so, while his body complied with its destiny in London’s bawdyhouses and taverns, the body inhabiting that body was Caesar, unheeding the augur’s warnings, and Juliet detesting the lark, and Macbeth, talking on the heath with the witches who are also the Fates. No one was ever so many men as that man: like the Egyptian Proteus he was able to exhaust all the appearances of being. From time to time, he left, in some obscure corner of his work, a confession he was sure would never be deciphered: Richard affirms that in his one person he plays many parts, and Iago curiously says ‘I am not what I am.’ The fundamental oneness of existing, dreaming, and acting inspired in him several famous passages.


The beautiful closing lines of Borges’ short piece are perfect:

History adds that before or after his death, he found himself facing God and said: I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not, either. I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dreams was you, who, like me, are many and no one.
— Translation by Anthony Kerrigan, in A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges, 1968.

                                                 Monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church                                                                             ©Edward Burman

                                                 Monument in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church

                                                                          ©Edward Burman

Cambridge Stone

In my opinion, the best book ever written about Cambridge was Donovan Purcell’s Cambridge Stone (Faber, 1967), in which an architect visits the quarries the stone came from, and mines the language of stone-masons. He notes, for example, the intractable Barnack limestone of my favourite church, St Benet’s (and of Ely Cathedral), and the shift in colour to darker Weldon stone towards the east end of King’s Chapel. The story of transport by keel and wherry from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire along the dykes and wonderfully-named rivers of the Fens like the Lark and the Wissey is a little masterpiece.

For King’s, Purcell tells us, the stone was brought to the hithes, or docks, as in Hythe and Rotherhithe, on what is now the riverfront of the College; access was from Milne Street, which was built over by the chapel but whose ends survive in Trinity Lane leading to the north door of the chapel and in Queens’ Lane which leads from Queens’ College to the south entrance to King’s. 

In this photograph, the different gradations of stone - and colour - may be seen in the pinnacle on the far right.

In this photograph, the different gradations of stone - and colour - may be seen in the pinnacle on the far right.

Twirling at Ole Miss

Just read Terry Southern’s marvellous 1963 essay ‘Twirling at Ole Miss’, from Esquire. A Texan returning to the south. Fantastic and evocative writing. Scenes we can watch as in a film (and Southern was a very good screenwriter).

A sample:

Arriving in Oxford [Mississippi] then, on a hot midday in July, after the three-­hour bus ride from Memphis, I stepped off in front of the Old Colonial Hotel and meandered across the sleepy square toward the only sign of life at hand—the proverbial row of shirt-sleeved men sitting on benches in front of the county courthouse, a sort of permanent jury.

”Howdy,” I say, striking an easy stance, smiling friendly-like, “whar the school?”

The nearest regard me in narrow surmise: they are quick to spot the stranger here, but a bit slow to cotton. One turns to another.

”What’s that he say, Ed?”

Big Ed shifts his wad, sluices a long spurt of juice into the dust, gazes at it reflectively before fixing me again with gun-blue-cold eyes.

”Reckon you mean, ‘Whar the school at?’, don’t you, stranger?” Next to the benches, and about three feet apart, are two public drinking fountains, and I notice that the one boldly marked “For Colored” is sitting squarely in the shadow cast by the justice symbol on the courthouse façade—to be entered later, of course, in my writer’s notebook, under “Imagery, sociochiaroscurian, hack.”


Another sample, when he decides to take a taxi:

Which is nearer,” I asked the driver, “Faulkner’s house or his grave?”

”Wal,” he said without looking around, “now that would take a little studyin’, if you were gonna hold a man to it, but offhand I’d say they were pretty damn near the same—about ten minutes from where we’re sittin’ and fifty cents each. They’re in opposite directions.”


Interestingly Southern also notes an early example of “upspeak”: He meets a girl who speaks “in that oddly rising inflection peculiar to girls of the South, making parts of a reply sound like a question: ‘Why, back home near Macon … Macon, Georgia? At Robert E. Lee High? … we've got these outfits with tassels! And a little red-and-gold skirt?’ …”

Is that where it came from?

From Sun Simiao's version of the Hippocratic Oath

If someone seeks help because of illness, or on the ground of another difficulty, a great physician should not pay attention to status, wealth, or age; neither should he question whether the particular person is attractive or unattractive, whether he is an enemy or a friend, whether he is Chinese or a foreigner, or finally, whether he is uneducated or educated. He should meet everyone on equal ground; he should always act as if he were thinking of himself.
— Sun Simiao, translation by Paul Unschuld

On Yaowang Mountain, central Shaanxi

     A modern effigy at his tomb

     A modern effigy at his tomb

Yao Wang means “medicine king”, yao being herbal medicine and wang the word for king. It is where Sun Simiao, one of the greatest doctors in history, retired to a mountain in central Shaanxi, on the outskirts of Tongchuan. He was born in neighbouring Shanxi in the 580s, but travelled extensively and eventually retired to Yao Wang. He died there in 682 AD.

Many of his insights were original and correct. One tiny example: he recognized that goitre (when the thyroid gland causes the neck to swell) was mainly caused by iodine deficiency. Shaanxi is far from the sea and mountainous, so he correctly prescribed the use of seaweed for its high iodine content.

One chapter of the many volumes of medicine and philosophy, and studies of Taoism and Buddhism, provides a still-used ethical pronouncement which is comparable to the more ancient Hippocratic Oath.

His words are full of real wisdom:

Whoever suffers from abominable things, such as ulcers or diarrhea, will be looked upon with contempt by people. Yet even in such cases, this is my view, an attitude of compassion, of sympathy, and of care should develop; by no means should there arise an attitude of rejection.
— Translation by Paul Unschuld

           The restored Song dynasty building in which Sun Simiao is thought to have spent much of his time

           The restored Song dynasty building in which Sun Simiao is thought to have spent much of his time

A book-hating printer

At dinner last night I met a Chinese book printer, but he hates reading books - especially novels, which he believes lead youth astray. All formats: printed books, e-books, cartoons, and short versions on the mobile. His home is bookless. He reminded me of the printer Jerome-Nicolas Séchard in Balzac’s Lost Illusions who admonishes his son David in these words: “If you had not studied books, if I had kept you under my eyes, you would have done as I pleased, and you would be marrying a miller’s widow this day with a hundred thousand francs in hand, to say nothing of the mill.” (translation by Ellen Marriage, Philadelphia, 1898)

Noodles v. Pasta

A lot of nonsense is written on this rivalry by both Italian and Chinese authors, and even more spoken in conversation. Quite often this nonsense is stimulated by national pride, and alcohol.

From  National Geographic New  s  online   28 Oct 2010   

From National Geographic News online 28 Oct 2010


The origin of noodles and pasta is ambiguous. In 2002, noodles claimed to be 4,000 years old were discovered by Chinese archeologists in Lajia, an archeological site in the northwestern province of Qinghai. The find was given credibility by its publication in the scientific journal Nature in 2005. These noodles were made of two kinds of millet, known as foxtail and broomcorn. They looked good in the photos which were circulated.

A serious difficulty with this widely reported find - from BBC News to National Geographic and many newspapers all over the world - emerged in several later articles. It was shown, for example, that while the authors of the Nature article specified that the ancient noodles were “pulled” just as they are today, in fact that technique - which we see in the whirling noodle demonstrations in Shaanxi and Shanxi just as in the pizzerie of Naples - is impossible with noodles made of millet since that grain lacks the gluten which provides the necessary elasticity for such displays.

Let’s consider the historical record.

In fact the grinding of wheat or rye and subsequent mixing with water was carried out in both Europe and Asia in neolithic times. But that didn’t make noodles or pasta. In China, the earliest written record of noodles is supposedly found in a book dated to the Eastern Han period, and noodles made of wheat flour did become a staple food of Han people during that time. In Italy, around the time of Christ the Roman poet Horace (whose real name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus) mentioned fried sheets of dough which he called lagana, a word which is still used today of a kind of unleavened bread in Greece and is probably the origin of the modern Italian lasagne. A little later the Greek author of medical texts Galen (Aelius Galenus) gave the name itrion (in Latin itrium) to any mixture of flour and water. Medieval Arabic authors used the form itriyya of dried forms of pasta boiled in water, and wrote that this product was imported from Sicily - which the Arabs ruled for around three hundred years.

Now the most obvious thing here is the striking temporal parallel between Chinese and Italian evidence: the beginning of the period known as Eastern Han, in 25 AD when the Han dynasty moved its capital from Xi’an eastwards to Luoyang, corresponds closely to the lifetime of Horace, who died just thirty-three years earlier in 8 BC. In view of the link with Galen, who was born in 129 AD, it is worth noting that Horace’s birthplace in southern Italy, Venosa, was said to have been founded by the Greek mythoogical hero Diomedes and lay on the Via Appia - which was the ancient road from Rome to Brindisi, whence ships sailed to Greece.

The application of Occam’s razor would point to more or less simultaneous origins for noodles and pasta, which was in fact the case of most “discoveries” and “inventions” from the neolithic period through to historical times.

Putnam again

A good obituary in The Economist this morning, with an excellent synthesis of the "brain in a vat" thought experiment and an interesting reference to The Matrix:


A related example of the tension between knowledge and reality came with another thought experiment: a sceptic might wonder whether she were no more than a brain in a vat, artificially nourished, and stimulated with a bogus but utterly convincing version of the real world. How could one prove that this is not so? The answer is that our brains are more than just perception machines, and meaning depends on what other people think too. So a brain in a vat might exist, but it could not meaningfully say that it was merely a brain in a vat. Philosophers would call that epistemological externalism: factors outside the mind are crucial to what it can be said to “know” and “think”.

Many saw parallels between that controversy and “The Matrix”, a successful Hollywood film which bridged science fiction and philosophy. It portrayed a dystopia in which machines have subdued humans by trapping them in a simulated reality while their bodies languish in vats.

Mr Putnam was surprised and flattered by the film-makers’ interest.

Although I knew the thought experiment (a long time ago) and enjoyed the original film when it came out in 1999, I hadn't made the connection with Putnam - who as the obituary also hints was far from being a populariser.

Hilary Putnam

A hugely influential figure few people know nowadays, the American philosopher Hilary Putnam, died last week at the age of 89.

A mathematician by training with an expert knowledge of physics and computer science, he also wrote on ethics, logic, pragmatism, epistemology, aesthetics, religion, realism/reality and the mind-body conundrum. I recall that he learned ancient Greek in order to study Aristotle properly; no mean feat. The fact that he was a professor at MIT and then Harvard seems almost irrelevant.

I remember stimulating discussions of his “brain in a vat” thought experiment, and reading some of his dense papers on the philosophy of mind. They don't make them like that any more, and people with a fraction of his breadth of specialised knowledge and subject areas are described as polymaths.

Remarkably, as late as last year this old-world scholar was still giving lectures over Skype.


This is the name in Persian for a water channel dug underground at a precisely calculated angle of slope to bring water from a source usually under mountains or hills down to the arid land of the plains where people live. In effect, an underground aqueduct. They consist of a tunnel barely high enough for a bending man to pass, with regular vertical shafts used both in the construction process and for regular maintenance. The earliest known qanats date to around 2,700BC, and thousands are still in use today. The building of a qanat was a highly specialised process, since the gradient sometimes had to be worked out over a length of up to 50-70 kilometres, although most are much shorter than that. The long straight lines of excavated circles of earth around the vertical shafts are visible from the air, and were often one of the only features visible on domestic flights over the south-east of Iran. They stretch across the desert landscape at regular intervals of about fifty metres. The main well at the head, artificially created from an underground spring, can be up to 300 metres underground. It was therefore expensive and difficult to build a qanat, and was often carried out as an investment by landlords, who could then sell the water. For the specialised labourers who dug and maintained tunnels and shafts, known as muqannis, it could be dangerous work - when tunnel roofs collapsed for example.

Since the water never comes to the surface until the end of the qanat there was obviously not much evaporation even in the summer months when temperatures in south-eastern Iran reach into the mid- and upper-40s centigrade.

This expertise was exported to several neighbouring countries, and I now know that the Turpan water system in Xinjiang - where the qanat is known as a karez - was probably introduced by Persian experts during Tang times. In this case, water originating in the Tian Shan Mountains was brought down to supply the needs of Silk Road caravans and travellers on the rim of the Taklaman Desert.

These photographs were taken in 1978 near Kerman, in south-eastern Iran: in the first, looking across the arid landscape the circular mole-like heaps of excavated earth, or miniature bomb craters, mark the opening of a vertical shaft and illustrate the direction of the qanat down to the village whose single-storey houses can be seen on the horizon; the second photo shows the opening of the qanat in the village at ground level, where the crystal-clear water could then be collected for household use, and switched through gates and dams into irrigation channels for agricultural use as needed.

Picasso and authenticity

A fascinating article on Picasso and the family business deriving from his legacy in this month’s Vanity Fair. Six numbers of what he left at his death in 1973 will suffice to illustrate the problem: 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, 30,000 prints, 150 sketchbooks, and 3,222 ceramic works. Just one plaster bust was sold for $105.8 million a year ago.

And then there are the fakes, copies and merchandising of everything from pillows to cars. For authenticity is one of the problems, and Picasso himself didn’t always help. 

The article sent me back to a book on Picasso by the great Hungarian photographer Brassaï, who recorded a day in 1943 when a lady brought an unsigned painting to show the artist. “Yes, it’s a Picasso,’ Picasso said, rather oddly. ‘It’s authentic.” So we can understand that the lady then asked him to sign it. But he refused, complaining that people were always asking him to sign things. She asked again, and he refused again. His reasoning was curious, and illustrates the enormity of the problem:

“Non et non, Madame! Si je le signais maintenant, je commettrais moi-même un faux. Ce serait ma signature de 1943 rapportée sur une toile peinte en 1922… Non, je ne peux pas le signer, madame, je le regrette.” (Brassaï, Conversations avec Picasso, 1964, p.86)

In substance, he would commit a fraud himself by signing in 1943 a work painted in 1922. The book is worth reading for some of the best photographs of Picasso ever taken.

Hazlitt on Byron

It is salutary to read the prose of William Hazlitt from time to time. While editing some film of Newstead Abbey taken last summer I looked up his essay on Byron in The Spirit of the Age: Or, Contemporary Portraits (1825). He says all that is needed to understand Byron (according to him one of the two greatest geniuses of the time; the other was Walter Scott), as is clear from these opening words:

'[Lord Byron] is, in a striking degree, the creature of his own will. He holds no communion with his kind; but stands alone, without mate or fellow—

               "As if a man were author of himself,

                And owned no other kin.”

He is like a solitary peak, all access to which is cut off not more by elevation than distance. He is seated on a lofty eminence, "cloud-capt," or reflecting the last rays of setting suns; and in his poetical moods, reminds us of the fabled Titans, retired to a ridgy steep, playing on their Pan's-pipes, and taking up ordinary men and things in their hands with haughty indifference. He raises his subject to himself, or tramples on it: he neither stoops to, nor loses himself in it. He exists not by sympathy, but by antipathy. He scorns all things, even himself. Nature must come to him to sit for her picture—he does not go to her. She must consult his time, his convenience, and his humour; and wear a sombre or a fantastic garb, or his Lordship turns his back upon her. There is no ease, no unaffected simplicity of manner, no "golden mean." All is strained, or petulant in the extreme. His thoughts are sphered and crystalline; his style "prouder than when blue Iris bends;" his spirit fiery, impatient, wayward, indefatigable. Instead of taking his impressions from without, in entire and almost unimpaired masses, he moulds them according to his own temperament, and heats the materials of his imagination in the furnace of his passions.'

Poignantly, Hazlitt wrote this while Byron was in Greece and tells us learned of the poet's death as he was completing the essay.