by Christy Edwall
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin Geoffrey Hill, Oxford University Press, 2019
One week after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the poet Geoffrey Hill died. I had wondered whether Hill – a fierce critic of the clichés of political rhetoric and the consequent degradation of public life – would spend his late 80s writing a sonnet cycle on the farce of the referendum. Instead I made Hill my Facebook profile picture, in full hood-eyed, prophetic scowl. Who’s the old guy? my brother messaged me.
Geoffrey Hill is a hard poet to sum up without turning people off. In order to read his poetry sympathetically, one must allow that the doctrine of original sin might shape, not just deform, the imagination. In a publishing landscape increasingly interested in marginal voices, Hill is establishment: a recipient of a knighthood who, before his death, was occasionally referred to as the ‘greatest living poet in the English language’. The amicable bête-noire of the former poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, Hill was an opponent of ‘accessibility’ in poetry, known instead for advancing the opinion that poetry ought to be difficult, and that accessibility is the province of propaganda because ‘tyranny requires simplification’, as he put it in an interview with the Paris Review. His own poetry, particularly as it moved away from the flinty lyricism of his early work, is difficult. Late Hill can be an acquired taste, like liver. His lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry – delivered at the Exam Schools between 2010 and 2015 in a gleeful waistcoat, looking even more than usual like a malevolent Father Christmas – seemed to have been written for a 17th-century ear trained by three-hour sermons. It was his scrupulous habit to read every significant quotation twice. When he misspoke, he would growl, ‘DAMNIT.’ Misspeaking, for Hill, had serious consequences. Even when sincere, one always risks perjuring oneself.
Hill’s final collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, named after a second-century text denounced by Hippolytus of Rome as the worst of all heresies, begins bristlingly: ‘Rehearse the autopsy. Psyche cut as ever. Not clever. Cute, my arse.’ The autopsy in question is the book in hand, which according to its editor, Kenneth Haynes, was always intended to be published posthumously. In the mini-envoi of the first line, refracted through imagined voices, the poet wonders whether the collection will be seen as pretending to a cleverness it can’t carry off, or as another example of the proliferation of poetry which ensued when, after years of chronic depression, he finally went on medication. The line is pure late Hill – imperative, terse and ludic, offering little promise for the reader hoping to ‘unbend his mind with verse’, as Wordsworth put it.
The Book of Baruch comes six years after Hill’s collected poems, Broken Hierarchies, which, at 992 pages, shows the genealogy of the poet’s style from plainchant to cryptic crossword. Where the collected poems show the range of Hill’s formal constraints, the Book of Baruch takes a longer line – verse-paragraphs forming a sequence of 271 poems, few of which are governed by a single argument. As if to anticipate displeasure, the copy on the book’s jacket advises its readers how to address themselves to this last work: ‘with much off-rhyme and internal rhyme ... the looser metrical plan of the new book admits an enormous range of tones and voices.’ If you thought this was just a grab-bag of an octogenarian’s poetic rages, the dust jacket advises, tune your ear. Still, these are frisky, fidgety, cramping lines – strafes of verse. (‘I no longer care that this protest is not syntactically neat,’ Hill contends in poem 163. In 25: ‘I am found amid rough paragraphs’.)
Hill’s themes in this collection swivel from the bombing of London to his Midlands childhood, his scrutiny of the century in which his final years were unfolding and – most trenchantly – his examination of the nature and value of poetry, its intentions, ambitions, self-delusions and collaborations. The book’s disconnectedness comes from it being ‘more a daybook than ever The Daybooks were’. A ‘daybook’, the Oxford English Dictionary clarifies, is an obsolete term for a diary, journal or ship’s logbook, and The Daybooks is the title given to the volumes Hill composed between 2007 and 2012. One should not look to The Book of Baruch, then, for the comforts of formal unity.
Much of the criticism that could be flung at this last collection is anticipated by the poet. Hill acknowledges his habit of making ‘vatic one-liners’, and his penchant for ‘cultural name-dropping’. The saints of The Book of Baruch are more or less familiar to readers of Hill: Blake, Brecht, Coriolanus, Timon, Holbein, Charles Péguy, William Cobbett, Yeats, Celan, et al. In a cultural moment when artists are expected to behave well, and publishers insist on morality clauses, the poet is perverse enough to include among his saints the artist Eric Gill, who had sex with his sisters, his daughters and his dog; the poet Gottfried Benn, who briefly supported Hitler; and Ezra Pound, the Mussolini-loving anti-Semite, although Hill makes no attempt to absolve them of their histories. Hill’s works seem to conduct themselves like Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a compendium of what you ought to read, see, listen to: a list of artefacts to be saved from the past century’s wreckage. Both James and Hill started as outsiders – one the son of a Worcestershire police constable, the other the son of a single mother who worked in a factory – and I wonder whether such encyclopaedic tendencies offer a standard by which outsiders can hope to learn the language of cultural passing.
Hill is unbothered by the clutter and clatter of names: he takes ‘a pull on these names as a sexton would have hauled on a passing bell in former times’. In theory, Hill’s litany is a call to observance and to ritual duty, as well as offering a memorial for the dead, who are at risk of being permanently displaced. In practice, this hauling yields clotted lines like the following: ‘If Gogol had contrived “Peer Gynt” as a Mussorgsky libretto, might that work’s stature now be greater than the Commendatore’s statue or Sprachgitter?’ The poet’s alibi is his choice of form: a ‘monologue though with frequent episodes of multi-voiced fugue’ (poem 182). The art he ‘rates’ has a ‘strut: the toccata, in short’ (poem 199). But what if the strut looks like an unbalanced swagger? What does one make of, say, ‘Pondus not any more clinching depravity. Nefas goes SatNav on TV among the vanities’. Internal rhyme there is, but what syntax? Or the finickiness of ‘Again I use quasi-telegraphese to deliver the ever-importunate Muse’?
In short, it is hard to imagine the friend into whose hands one would press The Book of Baruch. If it is, as its author describes it, the agitations of a ‘cyclic Pindaric ode’, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics informs me that the odes of the Greek poet Pindar (522–443 BCE) are known for their ‘vertiginously changeable tone’. So far, so Book of Baruch. Aside from their tendency to twist and shift, odes have traditionally been occasional, if not ceremonial (Marvell’s serpentine ode on Oliver Cromwell is always at Hill’s fingertips). Yet Hill increasingly wrote under the burdened consciousness of a public role for which no public remains. If his poetry has the ‘power to vex’, as one poem puts it, it is because Hill felt the times to be vexatious. As he writes in poem 188:
These patterns, here, of internal rhyme are set to do more than mnemonically chime.
They form the DNA of a lay, a poem that I intend shall comprehend the mind and clay of some sane realm.
That realm no longer exists. Or if it does, we no longer live there. ‘Current condition of British poetry-nation like that of semi-derelict Pitcairn or abandoned South American whaling station’, observes the poet in poem 205 with characteristic lugubriousness. (For a delicious take on contemporary politics, I recommend going to YouTube for Hill’s 2015 Newsnight interview, in which ‘Britain’s greatest living poet’ comments upon the forthcoming general election.) The skilled internal rhyme of Hill’s lay can be affectively simple, as in these lines on the poet’s father in poem 254:
He was a good man; I brought him pain and pride.
When he abruptly died greed obliterated the 'citizen’s code'. His pitiable wallet disappeared before or during the brief ambulance ride.
Hill’s choice of adjectives – the pitiable wallet – is as just as the osprey’s ‘triggered claw’ in ‘Genesis’, published in 1953 when the poet was still an undergraduate. Despite the anguished historical and theological wrenches of his verse, Hill is a masterful nature poet. From poem 150:
The aspen’s full silvery delight, small aerial pool to the sight; hawthorn quick again, luminous chalk-white; once-rare red kite a now familiar livery, a hawk’s veer, its flair in flight.
The nearness of flair to veer here seems to me to catch traces of vair – of liveried fur, the textures of an older age – in the cross-fibres of the poem. These lines, like the description elsewhere of ‘cinquefoil apple-flowers’, remind one of Hill’s deep indebtedness to Gerard Manley Hopkins, a significant interlocutor in his critical prose as much as his poetry. Across the collection, the ripening of lime trees offers the barest of leitmotifs, a flickering of Hill’s openness to beauty in a desecrated century. So, in poem 159, the poet writes, ‘Well into late May the lime leaves, to my inexpert eye, seem able to interrelate / with light as in pure fable’. In poem 252, the apple is in ‘full flush’ with the ‘fretty-leaved lime’. And, in the next poem, ‘So short the time while the lime leaves have become denser and darker.’ Earlier, in poem 69, Hill meditates on
The way the lime leaves darken in high summer; then it begins to blow and low rainclouds come churning across and the sun takes his chamber: I love this atmosphere-laden afternoon as I do Tennyson.
This is a startlingly sincere admission. Tennyson is an unexpected touchstone for Hill, since Tennyson’s poetry seems to me to tempt his readers to an emotional extravagance which Hill’s rigor contests. Auden, after all, while praising Tennyson’s ear called the Victorian the ‘stupidest’ of English poets, whereas Hill wears his erudition openly. Despite Hill’s admission of love, the next lines of poem 69 peel back the rain-soaked atmosphere to reveal his scepticism.
Intelligence matters. Even In Memoriam is an emotional scam drawn on the pieties of our social betters, including high-collared men of science and letters.
Hill’s poetry, particularly as it has developed over the last thirty years, is deeply suspicious of the ‘emotional scams’ of poetry – of the sentimentality of the lyric, our age’s preferred mode – and inoculates itself against the lyric’s false consolations, although this is less a case of disliking lyric than of recognising how easy it is to do badly. Despite these suspicions, the collection accrues a lyrical counterpoint as it draws towards its end – compensation, perhaps, for persevering through the book’s twitches and jerks. This is not to say there aren’t moments of reversion to type: a reader fatigued by the present news cycle may be repelled by the ongoing topicality of his commentary. Hill is firm on Corbyn (‘Corbyn must win’), a figure who ‘would have gone to the stake or the Tyburn chopping-block’ as ‘some make of Anabaptist freak’. The poet is bald on his position in the coming referendum (‘I shall vote to remain’) since leaving the European Union would leave England a country of ‘rotten boroughs and Hobbits maudits’. Yet the final poem in the sequence, written in the aftermath of the referendum only days before Hill’s death, is both electric and elegiac. Here it is in its entirety:
The numbness after the shock of exit, big-bummed Britannia in her tracksuit; her phantom lap of honour; no other runner.
July the dark month; the lime leaves turned matt. The newly-bloomed mallow will see us re-autumned before it falls fallow.
Even so, the power of stout roses has risen watt by watt against the afterglow of each brief thunder-shower.
A frisson of repulsion remains: the phrase ‘big-bummed Britannia in her tracksuit’ is like a pylon in a field, ugly and un-ignorable. Still, directly after this cartoonish intrusion, the lime leaves return, the late consonance of plant and season: amidst the consequences of the fall, hope.
In The Book of Baruch, Hill has left behind a testament, insofar as it continues his previous work: to contest what he decided was ‘cultural stupidity in high places’, as he declared in his valedictory lecture as Professor of Poetry. However pompous this sounds, the lecturer was conscious of his speech’s portentousness. Later readers may decide that Hill belongs to the high places which he claims to contest; yet, if The Book of Baruch is a manifesto, it is also a self-critique: frequently unlikeable, awkward and, yes, difficult. As Hill told the Paris Review, ‘We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other ... Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?’
CHRISTY EDWALL has just finished a DPhil in English Literature at New College. She has been published in Granta, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Stinging Fly.
Art by Abigail Hodges