Sorts of Hierarchies

I was intrigued when I read that Geoffrey Hill’s forthcoming collected poetical works would be called Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (OUP: 2013). I recognized it as the title of a poem in Without Title (itself a title that suggests the breaking of a certain kind of hierarchy), but I hadn’t thought of that poem or the title phrase as representing Hill’s poetics in some essential or synecdochical way (as for instance Opened Ground does so well for Heaney). I could hear broken echoing thematically throughout the oeuvre, but hierarchies not so much, for some reason. Chiefly it reminded me of Hill calling himself “an hierarchical democrat” at a handful of public appearances (a designation somehow in opposition to the plutocratic anarchist). So I decided to look back through the works for hierarchies to see what I had missed. It turns out I had missed quite a lot.

Here’s a list, I think complete, of hierarchies, hierarchy, hierarchical in their immediate contexts. As a preamble, it strikes me that this is one lemma for which the plural form represents a difference in significance beyond mere +number. Singular hierarchy lays claim to a total and totalizing order, whereas plural hierarchies implies a variety of ordering systems, and the existence of some unspecified relation among them (itself perhaps hierarchical, but perhaps not). Perhaps because of this self-complicating feature, hierarchies is considerably more unusual than hierarchy (5.5x rarer in the British National Corpus – compare system/systems 2.4x, echelon/echelons 0.2x, rank/ranks 3.7x, e.g.). So I’ve separated them out (according to another implied hierarchy). Further observations below.

both origin | and consequence, its | hierarchies of sorts (“Churchill’s Funeral”)
pending the hierarchies so soon to be | remade (Speech! 35)
The hierarchies are here to be questioned (Triumph XXV)
springing from the hierarchies of splendour | and salutation (Triumph LXXIV)
Blake | in old age reaffirming the hierarchies. (Triumph CXXX)
so let us | presume to assume the hierarchies (Orchards LXX)
at best a portal for the hierarchies. (“Courtly Masquing Dances” 69)
“Broken Hierarchies” (title of poem in Without Title)
and the hierarchies | Redundant now, warped in familiar ways (Oraclau 57)
How the hierarchies overshot their runways. (Odi XLII)
the younger writer who reminds me most powerfully of the Bradleian hierarchies is Simone Weil (Critical Writings)

If not hierarchy | then general dynamics (Speech! 70)
Law-breaking too is in the hierarchy, (“Courtly Masquing Dances” 2)
Surrey, his hierarchy of verse (“Holbein” II)
broken status, debauched hierarchy (Critical Writings)
an antique hierarchy of ideal ontological principles (Critical Writings)
There is hierarchy even in this. (Critical Writings)
aesthetic distinctions based on social hierarchy (Critical Writings)
from the ‘bloudy’ hierarchy of Rome and from the tyranny of original sin. (Critical Writings)

hierarchic, hierarchical:
hierarchical distinctions and brute natural obduracies (Critical Writings)
the hierarchic and stratified commonweal as divine propriety (Critical Writings)
a hierarchical institution cannot be … egalitarian  (Critical Writings)
Such choice of words is … hierarchical in intention (Critical Writings)
hierarchical Toryism (Critical Writings)
this hierarchical-vernacular monad (Critical Writings)

Hierarchies of sorts, indeed. Some observations:

While all three words occur in the Critical Writings, the noun form is used more often in early essays (three times, versus once in the later “Of Diligence and Jeopardy” and once in the late “Eros in…”) and the adjectival form exclusively in the late essays (starting with “Dividing Legacies”).

I found none of these word forms in any of the poetry before Canaan.
Triumph of Love has four, Comus three.

As mentioned above, the singular noun is 5.5x more frequent in the British National Corpus than the plural noun. In Hill’s poetry, the plural form is 3.3x more frequent than the singular.

To put some more refined numbers on this, in his poems and prose combined, Hill uses hierarchies at a rate of 34 times per million words, and hierarchy at a rate of 21 per M. In comparison, the BNC has a rate of 3.24 per M and 17.7 per M, respectively. This means that while Hill uses hierarchy about as often in his poems as the texts in the corpus (=94M wds), he uses hierarchies about 10.5x as often, pro rata. hierarchical appears about 2x more frequently in Hill than in BNC.

What does all this amount to? I dunno. Some other words Hill has the same degree of relative fondness for (i.e. about 10.5x the BNC) are: choruses, vows, Herbert, epoch, hobby, apathy, construe, imagination. By comparison, words at 100x include lamentation, selfhood, Bonhoeffer, Montaigne, unreconciled, cahiers, and juste. Of all these, unreconciled is the one that strikes me immediately as Hillian. Another Hillian word, negotium, is the most overrepresented common noun of all (at 4,000x), with businesse (3,250x) and haecceitas (1,980x) close behind. Interestingly paronomasia (1,700x) and enjambment (1,700x) are among the three or four most overrepresented of the words that I would think of as real English words.

Continuing in this vein, a small number of words come within three decimal points of being exactly as common in Hill’s oeuvre as in the BNC. You’ll never guess: they’re fitting, imposing, and remind.

Oh, one more thing. Among the words at the bottom of this list, with frequencies 0.025x to 0.013x BNC (i.e. 40-77 times more common in BNC than in Hill) are: minister, income, million, information, authorities, police, manager, planning, schools, started, systems, companies, UK, and training. Comments on the poet and public discourse are invited in due course.

And another: Hill’s interest in tofu is about 23x that of the BNC.


  • [reposted from Geoffrey Hill Exchange]
    How often does the word ‘ganglion’ occur?(!) (And how are you doing this?) (Does Christopher Ricks have the same technology?)

  • D-AW wrote:

    [reposted from Geoffrey Hill Exchange]
    “Ganglion” happens twice in the Critical Writings: “ganglion of energy, techne, belief, and opinion”; “the ganglion of language and circumstance from which the piece of divine poetry is created”. Can’t find it in the poems. I think CBR goes about things a bit differently than I do.

  • D-AW wrote:

    As far as how I’m doing this: “import criticism.”

  • [reposted from Geoffrey Hill Exchange]
    Another, more recent, instance of ‘hierarchy’ that may be of interest: ‘Henry was a political oxymoron; at once the autocratic creator of a hegemony and the anarchic destroyer of a hierarchy’ (Hill, ‘Poetry and Disproportion’, Oxford, 10 May 2011 [audio link provided – D-AW]). It seems to be a word he enjoys saying.

  • [reposted from Geoffrey Hill Exchange]
    To take another recent example, he pronounces Wordsworth a ‘hierarchist of the imagination’ in the course of the recent interview for Oxford Student Online. The same interview also has him employ ‘hierarchical’ (in relation to the teaching of poetry) and, finally, ‘hierarchy (of the intelligence)’. What fun!

  • D-AW wrote:

    Glad to have those examples. They’re of the quasi polemical kind that I tended to associate with GH before the title of the new book came out. E.g. from my notes of a discussion b/w him and Rowan Williams in Oxford, 2008: “I’m not an elitist. I’m an hierarchical democrat. Blake was an hierarchical democrat. You cannot see that wonderful plate from Job (When the Morning Stars Sang Together) without realizing that he had a profound belief in the hierarchies. And to believe in the hierarchies is not to be an elitist, it is something quite other.” “Hierarchical democrat” was often on his lips in those days. I don’t know if it still is.