"Speech! Speech!" continues much in the mode of "The Triumph of Love": praise and lament "in different voices", a polyphonous essay into the stresses and strengths of the English language, its potential for wrought honesty as well as casual deception.
The poem's ethical obsession is with pitch, as opposed to tone: the making and upholding, in language, of difficult distinctions as opposed to - so far as it can be held distinct from - the equitable imperative smoothing-over of disputes and differends (the "healing" snake-oil of much contemporary political rhetoric). In illustration of this, as in obedience to it, "Speech! Speech!" bristles with split hairs. The defamatory satirical genius of the poem lies in its outrageous conflations, a wit that works insidiously, like guilt, by association. But its moral animus ("animus is what I home on, even as to pitch" - section 90) is focussed on those parts of speech where one is surprised to see distinctions being made, or remade - surprised that they should (still) be thought or seen to matter.
There are many places in the poem where it becomes difficult, important, to ascertain what is being driven at, from what angle (or angles) and with what force. So, in section 57, the speaker beckons:
Show you something. Shakespeare's elliptical late syntax renders clear the occlusions, calls us to account...
The reader of "Speech! Speech!" is similarly drawn to the places where Hill's elliptical verse indicates, but does not show, unaccounted-for ommissions, exclusions, losses. We are ordered to "[j]udge the distance" between generations, to take the measure of what Hill sees as the abrupt - overnight - pillage and erasure of a common heritage - "common" in a sense to be distinguished from, but not opposed to, that of "demotic". This is arguable, of course, and the poem argues with itself about it, about the meaning of "democracy" and the condescension of "the egalitarian anti-elitist SUN" (a widely-circulated British newspaper, whose language Hill parodies passim). Nevertheless, Hill seems genuinely shocked by the way that English culture has changed over the past fifty years, and is clearly contemptuous of the ability of electronic databases and the "world-surfing quote research / unquote of your average junk maestro" (cheers!) to replace the "forms of understanding, far from despicable, / and furthest now, as they are most despised" he celebrated in "The Triumph of Love" (section CXIX). His argument may be judged reactionary, but it is passionately made.
I have found it difficult to receive the verses of "Speech! Speech!" as Hill says they were intended - as praise-songs. What is being praised is presumably the faculty the poem itself aspires to, that of fashioning a language fit for human use out of the "acoustic din" of an indifferent mass culture. Or, rather, what is both praised and petitioned by "Speech! Speech!" is that part of ourselves that might find a use for such a language, that is too proud and attentive to be satisfied with less - that is healthy enough to curse. But sheer celebratory delight (not, for once, miscalled) is achieved only in brief epiphanic flushes, as if by concession: for the most part the dominant, almost ineluctable mood of the poem is one of sadness and anger.
"Speech! Speech!" is a poem to spend time with - more time than I have spent so far. Notice is given on the inside sleeve that it is a "tour de force", and I would not dissent from that; however, there is much about it that will not come immediately, and may not come at all until the last measures of one's own reading (such is the messianic hope of interpretation). Off you go, then...