BooksWeekend

Geoffrey Hill’s Darkly Luminous Poetry

Hill worked on The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin for several years before his death, planning no conclusion; the book would simply consist of as many sections as he had completed in his life.

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill (image courtesy of Oxford University Press)

Posthumous poetry collections are a dicey matter. Sylvia Plath aficionados are still outraged at how Ted Hughes rearranged the poems of Ariel, published two years after her suicide. Many readers wish that Leonard Cohen’s posthumous Poems, Notebooks, Lyrics, Drawings hadn’t been published at all.

An intentionally posthumous book, like the British poet Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, is something else altogether. Hill worked on The Book of Baruch for several years before his death in 2016, planning no conclusion; the book would simply consist of as many sections as he had completed in his life.

The Book of Baruch caps an extraordinary career. By his early 50s, on the strength of a few slim volumes of formal, densely compacted verse, Hill was acclaimed by many as the greatest living English poet. His was a darkly luminous, even claustrophobic poetry, brooding over the horrors of European history and the difficulty of attaining moral probity in a world seemingly abandoned by God.

Then he took a position at Boston University, remarried, and found the right combination of medication to treat lifelong conditions of crippling anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. Newfound equanimity resulted in a flood of work; he produced 15 collections over the last 20 years of his life, including 4 previously unpublished volumes gathered in his gigantic collection Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012.

Three of those volumes are in The Daybooks, six book-length sequences composed between 2007 and 2012. Presumably they’re “daybooks” because Hill worked on them daily, but The Book of Baruch is more diaristic than any of them: “This, it is becoming clear, is more a daybook than ever The Daybooks were,” he notes. Where The Daybooks are composed in various strict traditional forms, The Book of Baruch consists of prose poems, with considerable internal rhyming, off-rhyming, and anagrammatic play: “textured” prose, one might call them. For his part, Hill called what he was writing a “cyclic pindaric ode.”

If The Book of Baruch is formally looser than Hill’s earlier work, many of its concerns are the same. He ruminates over the scenes of his childhood and youth in Worcestershire; he raises up the memory of poets whose works have been passed over in the “lottery” of literary fame (for example, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis); he laments the present state of British and European civilization, where “hegemony” — the brute force of commerce, or what he calls (after William Morris) “plutocratic anarchy” — has effaced “hierarchy,” the recognition of “intrinsic value.” “To suppose hegemony hierarchy,” he mutters ruefully, “is not that the root of our woes?”

There’s no plan to the book. Just as Hill doesn’t really know when he’s going to end, he doesn’t seem to know what he’s going to write about next. Memories of trips — to Cornwall, the United States, India — pop up. Books fall randomly into his hands, and prompt long sections on London churches and the Blitz, Holbein’s Dance of Death, and Hogarth’s depictions of 18th-century London. David Bowie dies and Hill pays him a (characteristically stringent) homage, with a nod to John Donne:

Bowie had the best line with cliché after mine, disarticulating its artless continuity, taking it back into some single rudiment before the advent of too-coherent mass sentiment, its sweated industry.

His view of abridgments and segments, even so, was compromised by the milieu. He was a type of painless flagellant in the realm of language and song-rage: even though on the necromantic face of Lazarus he is posed in a style drawn from the files of that notorious old antic Dean of St. Paul’s ….

As one might expect of a poet nearing the end of his life, Hill thinks (though not too anxiously) about his own place in literary history. “How do I think I rate?” he wonders. “Just about on a par with Nahum Tate whose word-book for Dido and Aeneas is rightly admired, albeit by few.” (That’s far too modest.) More interesting are the moments when The Book of Baruch tries to define precisely what poetry is, which makes a riveting little catalogue in itself:

Poem as prime enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.

Poem at home under its figtree and with a thriving pigsty.

Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’….

Poem as posthumous running sore….

Poem as a form of amber rheum. Time the echo-chamber….

Poem as self-administered castor oil enema….

Poem as prime site. Poem as a slime in situ….

Poetry as revanchist oratory revanquished and revarnished. Key terms: fugatory, mortuary, unravished, wound-dresser.

Poem as catarrhal fuel; as royal jelly in no way expecting such referral….

Poem as shark embryo; eats its kin in the womb….

Despite Hill’s flagellatory self-recrimination (“Poetry is the art of the knout”), at times there’s a sense that he’s delivering his final testament as standup comedy (“my odes, largely made up of joking asides”). The jokes, however, don’t mask the underlying melancholy, familiar to those who’ve followed Hill’s work over the years.

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin isn’t easy going for the casual reader, peppered as it is with unfamiliar proper names and allusions. “Do you have to be so aggressively recondite?” Hill addresses himself at one point. “I don’t see why not.” One reads The Book of Baruch with a dictionary and an open Wikipedia page on hand. Hill has argued that there’s nothing inherently democratic about easily accessible poetry: the poet truly respects his readers by holding them to a high standard, challenging them to keep up. Still, one detects a trace of self-doubt in this protestations, a fear that his allusiveness may be no more than an armor against oblivion: “This endless name-dropping, with and without handles, is not — I repeat — my form of coping with the nameless thing, our final and fatal lot.”

In his 1998 book Canaan Hill had denounced the 1992 Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union as “an international corporate fraud” and the EU as a “community of parody.” In 2016, with the Brexit vote looming, he decided, “In the impending referendum I shall vote to remain […] The alternative now is an England of rotten boroughs and Hobbits maudits.” On June 23, Britain narrowly voted “Leave” and shortly thereafter Hill drafted his last section, which juxtaposes a sourly satirical portrait of a post-Brexit UK with the timeless, politics-free cycles of the natural world — among which are emblematically English “roses”:

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.

Hill died on June 30, a week after the Brexit referendum.

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill (2019) is published by Oxford University Press and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

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