Reviewed by Rob Spence
When Geoffrey Hill died in 2016, his monumental Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 -2012 was still fresh, its astonishing range and scope providing ample testimony to the poet’s achievements over six decades. It seemed as if that volume would provide a fitting capstone to a career in which he had resolutely followed his own course, never fitting in with any passing poetic fad, never associated with any group or school, always pursuing a singular vision in demanding, complex verse. How marvellous, therefore, that this new volume, far from being (as one might expect) a tidying-up collection of unconsidered trifles, is in fact a major addition to the canon. In a volume apparently conceived by Hill as a posthumous work, no fewer than 271 entirely new poems are presented, in which the poet rehearses themes familiar from his previous work, but also scathingly examines the state of Brexit Britain.
Readers of Hill will know that his work is linguistically and formally challenging. As expected, then, the new volume makes no concessions but rewards the reader with unexpected flashes of wry humour among the thunder and lightning of his majestic judgments. The poems present an exhilarating, unwieldy, rambling journey through the life and times of the poet, sometimes revisiting old preoccupations and arguments, at other times addressing pressing contemporary issues. The title of the book, typically, is an obscure reference to the version of the creation myth by the second-century gnostic teacher Justin, deemed by Hippolytus to be heretical, and the most abominable book he had read. The gnostics’ emphasis on examining the human condition certainly chimes with Hill’s lifelong concerns, and in this volume, one is constantly surprised by the range of Hill’s allusions. It is, in this respect, a book to be savoured and returned to, for stimulation and enlightenment.
How to describe the form that Hill adopts here? The best I can come up with is “verse paragraphs” though that doesn’t really come close to capturing the unpredictability of the texts. The poems are often dense and knotty, but also loosely organised with a continuing delight in internal rhyme and incongruous juxtapositions. There’s also a sense of the mischievous in many places, especially when Hill confronts some aspect of modern popular culture. Here, for example, is his take on the Twitter phenomenon, with an additional swipe at the newly retired Poet Laureate.
The current Laureate, who invites us to celebrate an entire Twitter, as once
she might have high-fived the Tatler, presents it as lead actor or agent in
the democratic theatre (I use the word figuratively and concur with her
that power should not be applied furtively). But brevity itself does not
signal the nativity of a new openness, a new commonweal of agreeable opinions.
I am as much in love with the equitable as she is; but even so feel jilted and
miserable; and sometimes tell myself lies:
Regarding creative freedom, its proclivities and tyrannical dominions.
There’s so much going on here: the grumpy dismissal of a trendy poetic gimmick, the rejection of the culture of immediacy, the rumination on the creative process. And all expressed in this conversational, loping verse/prose that is entirely original, with its half-rhymes, its sudden changes of tone, its uncompromising intellectuality.
In contrast, here is another passage, evoking the London of the Blitz, but also the London consumed and reconstituted by earlier fires:
Like much else rebuilt out of brick dust, ash and silt of soot; a holocaust in
that word’s true cast: a multiplex burnt offering, residue of scorched
hollows, roast flesh, hallows torched, when the City went up.
Roman and Saxon roused from half-houseled sleep where they had housed.
This is so apt in the way it conjures up a sense of the timeless as well as the perennial incompleteness of the city. And that brilliant collocation, “scorched hollows, roast flesh, hallows torched” paradoxically chills in its vivid evocation of the heat of destruction. The sinewy language recalls a phrase used of Dryden by the critic Donald Carne-Ross, which Hill quoted approvingly in one of his Oxford lectures: “massive, truculent English.”
The obscure connotations of the title are not forgotten in the text: Hill returns several times to the philosophical problems raised by the gnostics, and the idea of gnosis (“knowledge” or “insight”) is one of many threads that run through the work, which reads like a continuous piece rather than 271 separate items, though admittedly one full of digressions, asides and blind alleys.
The breadth and depth of allusion reflects a lifetime of voracious reading and writing, but even so still startles in its all-encompassing reach. Just a random glance through a few pages reveals a cornucopia of references. Poets- Blake, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Larkin, Douglas, Pound, Berryman; novelists – Gogol, Defoe, Wyndham Lewis, Sterne, Susanna Clarke; and philosophers, divines, charlatans, gnostics, architects, politicians, from Hilary Benn to Gottfried Benn, from Himmler to Barry Cryer – all swirl around in what we might, taking a self-deprecatory phrase from one of the later poems, refer to as “Geoff’s mystery tour.”
It’s almost impossible to think of anything with which to compare this treasure trove, but a friend suggested that it had some common ground with the nineteenth century Italian philosopher, poet and essayist Leopardi’s Zibaldone in its quicksilver movement between the historical, the aesthetic, the personal and the aphoristic. Perhaps Hill also had the Biographia Literaria by one of his heroes, Coleridge, in mind. In any event, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin resists classification. It is a magnificent conclusion to his oeuvre, and will, I’m sure, be seen by future critics as a key text of our troubled times.
Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro
Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin (Oxford University Press, 2019). 978-0198829522, 148 pp., hardbackBUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.