Issue 22: Karl O'Hanlon reviews Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Daniel Halévy’s biography of Charles Péguy begins:

      ‘There is nothing more mysterious than those dim periods of preparation

      which every man encounters on the threshold of life’ [… Péguy’s] lifelong

      effort was to keep alive those first gleams of light.

The same effort marks the work of Geoffrey Hill, whose posthumous volume The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin confesses, ‘I remain an old man with a young brain’. Hill still ‘cannot let ill alone’ the ‘eerie silences of / wartime Worcestershire and other hinterlands of that legendary nation’, that glowery stormlit Pathé reel that he made out of lifelong raids on the inarticulate, blurred realm of childhood.

The Book of Baruch features a cameo by Hill’s grandmother, a labourer in ‘the nailer’s darg’ celebrated in Ruskinian fashion in Mercian Hymns, one of her nails twisted into the unwobbling pivot ideogram in Ezra Pound’s appropriative, erratic translations of Confucius. The ‘moody testament’ of Romanesque church architecture that Hill depicts in that early volume on the Anglo-Saxon reign of Offa also emerges in the posthumous collection, with a tympanum Samson wrestling a lion for Tate and Lyle to repackage the biblical myth as a form of trustworthy, post-war Englishness, which Hill compares to ‘the “beehive” of a nice naïve girl’ or the 1968 ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign under Harold Wilson’s government which, like Cameron’s Big Society and zero-hour contracts, asked workers to give buckshee free labour to boost a mismanaged economy (while draping a Union Jack over the invitation).

The Book of Baruch confronts the intimate contradictions in British politics, rawly picked into an open wound by years of radical Tory misrule and the 2016 referendum. It is not for nothing that Hill insists ‘it is vital that we / resurrect Brecht’, a poet whose attention to the ‘critical grasp of irreconcilables’ in the political realism of Coriolanus Hill admired (and favourably compared to the method of Mao).

At the centrepiece of the book is a sequence on the Blitz, a ‘litany’ that like Georges Rouault’s grand cycle Miserere, ‘that Parisian oblation / of worked, reworked, burin-and-acid griming’ as Hill described it in The Triumph of Love, is a charred offering:

      Burning St. Mary-le-Bow, in ravishing show, saluted by her own bells, a last

                        cascade of thrashing, mangled squeals as down they go.

Unlike state choreography (the self-congratulatory Cameroonian causerie that was the opening ceremony of Austerity Britain’s London Olympics, the ‘four years of profitable tears’ with which Hill arraigns the Great War centenary, or ‘that final interviewer from hell’ confronting ‘some near-death veteran’), Hill’s poetry is sensitive to the complicity of memory, imagination, and falsification, the Coleridgean callousness of poetry’s inducements to artificial feeling, enjoying ‘its slow-motions tricks, stayed ultimate-unreel, luxuriating in the wondrous peal.’ In Ludo, one of the Daybooks, Hill imagined a Staffordshire figure of Oswald Mosley, ‘bottled spells that England frowsily / simmered with, drowned in its patent heart; / sweetness, venom, not to be told apart’. English bottle, the patented and hawked Blitz Spirit passed around of late, has let loose the venomous Blackshirt genie, a realisation that informs much of The Book of Baruch.

Hill’s late remarks on an ideal poetry took W.B. Yeats as a model: ‘this sense of massive architectural control […] but out of it burst these spontaneous, ragged phrases’. The Yeatsian phrase ‘difficulty is our plough’ became a mantra in Hill’s Oxford Professor of Poetry lectures, with the idea that poetic technique forces the poet ‘down under the surface’ of the poem. In Odi Barbare, Hill’s Sidnean sapphics harnessed the syllabic line and the energy of enjambment to deliver such poignancies as:

                                                                              […] I am

      Sick of this dying

      Time that bends so beautifully around things.

More often than not, however, the neurotic and outrageous forms of The Daybooks are, like Tommy Cooper’s ‘glass, bottle, bottle, glass’, pretexts for Hill’s wayward pratfalls, anarchic juggling with Miltonic apples: ‘It was out from the rinde of one apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving together leapt forth into the World’ (Areopagitica). This is the heterodox notion of the inseparability of good and evil, with poetic felicity dependent on what J.R. Mombert describes in a remark often cited by Hill as ‘the imperfection which marks all human effort, especially where it aims to avoid it.’

Hyper-Augustinian ideas on the depravity of human will after the Fall, at some indefinite point, shade into the Gnostic idea that good and evil are two parts of the same dualistic cosmology. Luther’s homo incurvatus in se [humankind turned, or bent, inwards upon itself], a figure like Francis Bacon’s ‘Tartars bowe’ of retorsion that is central to Hill’s poetry, sees failure, limitation, and wilful obstinacy and ignorance not only as endemic, but intrinsic. In The Daybooks, Hill explored Gnostic dualism through poetic tomfoolery and recurrent allusions to heterodox Christian alchemists such as Thomas Vaughan.

The arbitrary forms of The Daybooks (Donne’s octet from ‘Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day’, a canzone from an early poem by Robert Lowell) invited gauche rhymes, ungainly line management, ‘sublime doggerel’, that is seen not only as necessary discord to resolve into lyrical felicities and displays of logopoeia, but also to deconstruct myths of ‘sheer perfection’ and poetic closure, shown to be fool’s gold rather than the philosopher’s stone. In those late works, Hill turns the theological crux of incurvatus in se into Looney Tunes, the madcap last minute switcheroo of the bomb, or the impossible delayed gravity before the inevitable plummet: ‘give me my medal for rhymed sabotage’, he demands in Expostulations on the Volcano. To what extent is Wile E. Coyote a punchline to Lutheran soteriology?

In The Book of Baruch, this same obsession with hamartia and backfire runs through the volume: ‘The original poem, according to strong rumour, was a boomerang’. Nevertheless, the arbitrary—and arbitrating—forms of The Daybooks have been put to one side for an ampler, more forgiving form: Jesuitical laxity, say, in place of Jansenist rigour. Hill’s ‘darkly-lucent’ lyricism is still on display, old Platonic England a house with the lights on and nobody home, a crepuscular sinewy facility that he shares with Philip Larkin whom he detested:

      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.

The form of the volume combines elements of prose poetry (‘I am found amid rough paragraphs’), defused clerihews, verbal toccata, and crossword clues with the dense concertina mutations of cynghannedd, Welsh consonantal repetition which Gwyneth Lewis has described as ‘deep theology’. Hill seems to enjoy the serpentine lateral undulation of this verbal chiming, whereby the vowel leapfrogs over the repetition: ‘Conserve energy; enrage no nerve; deploy the curve.’ Internal rhyme (and the risk of its attendant crassness) maims and moves Hill’s oration.

Rap, which contains aspects of cynghannedd, cannot be discounted as an influence (as Paul Robichaud has also noted). Hill seems to pick up the mike dropped by his old rival/doppelgänger, RAPMASTER, accosted in Speech! Speech!, here freestyling through 271 cantos, a modern Dunciad: ‘the genius-struck donkey work of rhyme’ saluting ‘a Saturnian age’, a new Dullness enthroned in lead.

Along with the Blitz poems, another set-piece scattered throughout The Book of Baruch is a series of temporary identifications defining the art of poetry, ‘Poetry as…’, quasi-metaphors where poetry or the poem jumps in and out of rôles like a masker. The seriality and grammatical lack of direct complement betrays Hill’s resistance to the idea of language as exchangeable commodity: ‘simile is a dwarf homily; metaphor an intrinsic forensic power.’ My favourite of these rôles is ‘Poem as bold pioneering type of spinal tap into nature; in the hands of an / amateur liable to fatal mishap.’

Against time-serving and ignorance, ‘lords of public want, sinecurists of their own failure’ (the surreal spectacle of former ministers armed with mops pointing at their own caca in a bid to lead the Tory party), Hill situates his Gnostic myth, ‘a pact between high style and political / tract, preferably in rhyme’. Drawn from an obscure text known only through an equally obscure catalogue of minor heresies by a third century Father, the Justinian heresy is a highly dualist Gnostic doctrine, in which the demiurge Elohim is seduced by a woman named Edem or Israel, snake-down from the waist, giving birth to creation and a hierarchy of good and evil angels, with Baruch among the former, and the Labours of Hercules refigured as bouts with the twelve evil angels.

Hill’s cantos seem to emulate the cleaning of the Aegean stables, and he figures that Gnostic task in contrast to the self-stultifying “heroism” courted by Brexiteers: ‘We shall undergo Sisyphean not Herculean labours.’ True gnosis, Hill defiant jests, is ‘what I love and admire’, and the poems, like Auden’s ‘ironic points of light’, conduct ‘a sphere of pure metaphysical fire / signing-off on the nation.’

As ever, Hill’s Book of Baruch places poetry at the nervous system of civil polity, however obscure and eccentric that rapport is seen to be. In one of the last interviews he gave before he died, Hill admitted to being fearful in light of the deterioration of the post-war geopolitical consensus, and the resumption of quasi-Cold War tensions between Europe and Russia: ‘I am appalled to think what may be coming upon the world […] If I write about destruction it’s because I am terrified of it.’ 

A self-declared ‘Ruskinian-Tory’, an accurate appraisal of Hill’s politics has struggled to get a hearing at least since the War of Tom Paulin’s Ear that sprawled across the pages of the London Review of Books in the mid-1980s, after Paulin diagnosed ‘a Powellite strain in Hill’s conservatism’ (with Craig Raine libellously inferring that ‘a glass or two’ might account for Paulin’s misreading). In Expostulations on the Volcano, Hill protested the injustice of polemic masquerading as criticism: ‘One line describes me […] Even projected as neo-Nazi’, a response to a 2002 essay by Laurie Smith in Magma defining the poetic method of the author of ‘September Song’s as ‘fascist’.

The range and extent of Hill’s allusions to the ‘anarchical plutocracy’ of post-war British politics is perhaps surprising. In Canaan, Hill compares Thatcher’s Britain to the place-seeking yes-men of Cromwell’s Protectorate, the poem ‘Dark Land’ punning on the grocer’s daughter’s birthplace and the vicious doctrine of bootstrapping: ‘Aspiring Grantham / rises above itself’. The unctuous cant of Cool Britannia is dealt with in later volumes such as Speech! Speech! and A Treatise of Civil Power: lines from ‘In Memoriam: Gillian Rose’, ‘Devastated is estuary; devastation remains / waste and shock’, and Blair’s funeral oration for Diana, ‘When all else fails CORINTHIANS will be read / by a man in too-tight shoes.’

Broken Hierarchies referenced the Marxist John Cornford, the Lockerbie bomber, Cambridge Five member John Cairncross, the founding of Plaid Cymru by Saunders Lewis, Michael Foot’s biography of Nye Bevan, ‘self-sublimed’ Roy Jenkins tucking in to dover sole, and the disgraced CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred Goodwin, appearing before the Treasury Select Committee ‘en fête / […] to debate / To some acid cud the taste of ruin.’

The Book of Baruch is similarly wired. Homage is paid to British leftist poets Christopher Caudwell and Julian Bell for ‘reason and emotion in the same span of structural / imagination’. Hilary Benn, the honourable member for the Oedipus Complex and Commons spokesman for bombing Syria, is denounced as a ‘that cultivator of mental celery’. Hill alludes to John Maynard Keynes’s observation in 1919 during a visit to Flanders that posterity will make of Ypres and Passchendaele a ‘tragic and sentimental purification’.

The Peaky Blinders are recast as ‘High Tory handlers and minders’, rabble and oligarchy in collusion, and, perhaps improbably, Hill draws the middle-brow condescension of Classic FM, Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ (beloved of David Cameron), and the Trident nuclear deterrent into the same set of ‘coarse blebbed’ impulses as the white supremacist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

Thatcher is also once again in his sights. Richard Chartres’ funeral sermon for the Iron Lady is derided for its unbelievable ‘credible reality of wealth, entitlement, and open stealth’, exemplified in a tin-eared anecdote about Thatcher slapping the episcopal wrist at a City function for reaching for fattening duck pâté midway through her peroration on Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. Hill also raises the curtain on a ‘Minor Restoration drama of Thatcherism’s high old time’ (perhaps Margaret Redux, with the scheming Duke of Guise, a quintessential wet, played by the Alsatian-strangling Michael Heseltine).

Hill’s deliberate intention to leave the poems gathered in The Book of Baruch out of the ‘deathbed edition’ of Broken Hierarchies and publish them posthumously affords a declarative nakedness:

      Corbyn must win. Though he is a flawed man it is not my belief that Hogarth

                       would set him down as a tout or a thief.

The Book of Baruch mints several memorable poetic images out of the political welter of Brexit: ‘A brain with canine teeth’, adapted from lines by Gottfried Benn, somehow captures in a single stomach-churning catachresis the mixture of abdication, blundering malignity and low cunning that characterise this period of political crisis.

Like Corbyn and the Bennite wing of the Labour party, Hill was an opponent of the Maastricht Treaty. In the 1996 volume Canaan, a poem on the Kreisau circle’s resistance in Nazi Germany, ‘De Jure Belli Ac Pacis’, channels the semantic animus of Milton in bitter puns and polemical effects of enjambment:

      Could none predict these haughty degradations

      as now your high-strung

                                               martyred resistance serves

      to consecrate the liberties of Maastricht?

The grotesquely enjambed adjective ‘high-strung’ alludes to Hans Bernd von Haeften’s execution by hanging at Plötzensee, raging against what Hill sees as the licentious ‘liberty’ of dressing up a neo-liberal project (with its attendant ‘liberties’ for finance and business as against those of labour) as a post-war organ for collective security.

One of the grand revisers of post-war poetry, Hill changed tack in 2016. A palinode marks the decision:

      In the impending referendum I shall vote to remain, Canaan notwithstanding, in

              which I derided the Maastricht Treaty as an international corporate fraud.

      The alternative now is an England of rotten boroughs and Hobbits maudits.

      In the deepest sense I have never changed my mind.

Hill lived just long enough to register ‘the numbness after the shock of exit, big-bummed Britannia in her tracksuit’, and ‘the lime leaves turned matt’ in a dark July. His poetry might yet come to be read as a seismograph of post-war British politics, scratchily forecasting and recording at the same time.

Karl O'Hanlon's most recent work has appeared on Wild Court.

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