Rabelais and the likely lads
A posthumous collection of poems by Geoffrey Hill embodies a controversial but impassioned idea of what poetry is and does
“Old men’s avant-gardism”, Thomas Mann is supposed to have quipped of Parsifal and Falstaff—whether in admiration or dismay is not recorded. It is a phrase and a concept that might be applied to Geoffrey Hill’s
poetic testament, the posthumous The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.
The title refers to an extremely heretical text written by an early Christian (frequently, but wrongly, confused with Justin Martyr). Hill uses the word “gnosis”, a technical term drawn from heresiology, at several points in the series of 271 poems that make up this volume, but he attaches his own, rather personal, sense to it. “By gnosis I mean both what it ought to have been and what it is, to tell truth,” he says in poem 59, and he reprises the theme in poem 81:
Repeat: what I love and admire is true gnosis; everything that I hate is not.
Stated so, it is rough but adequate; sufficient to get the right things
done, I mean. Of my thesis this is the ghost-score.
“Ghost-score”, then: but also a vehicle for settling some scores—“Restitution is the burden of what I am about” (poem 25). There is a substantial measure of prophetic denunciation and contempt here. It is cleared of the possible charge of vindictiveness by the fact that Hill himself is not infrequently its target.
The idea of a coterie of true believers and those banished to an outer darkness has hung around Hill’s poetry since 1985, when what wittily became known as “The War of Paulin’s Ear” broke out in the letters page of the LRB. Tom Paulin had published a “take-no-prisoners” review of a collection of essays devoted—the word seems inescapable—to appreciations of Hill’s poetry. Paulin deplored what he took to be Hill’s reactionary politics, he sneered at what he saw as his self-importance, and he mocked what he caricatured as the mincing, adulatory deference of his admirers. He also, unguardedly, dismissed Hill’s poetry as derivative and metrically dull (hence, “The War of Paulin’s Ear”). The letters page of the LRB for the next few issues was thronged with “contributions” on this issue, with in particular two memorable and characteristic offerings from the late Eric Griffiths.
An important precursor for Paulin in his attack on poetasters and criticasters was Pope, and he invoked The Dunciad at moments in his review. In The Book of Baruch it is an important poem for Hill, as well:
Dunce that I am I am nonetheless hooked on Pope’s maleficent dream in the Dunciad Variorum. (poem 98; cf. poems 65 and 233)
One of the organising themes of The Book of Baruch is an apocalyptic sorting of poetic sheep from goats, not quite in the manner of Pope, since Hill’s particular aversions are not named, although it is not hard to discern who they may have been.
But, as Hill says, “The canon is a chain letter to which you must commit” (poem 174), and it is clear where Hill’s commitments lie: with Pope, Swift, Milton, Johnson, Blake, Smart, Hopkins, Tennyson, Rimbaud (perhaps surprising), Auden, Wyatt, Pound, and—this surely very surprising—David Bowie. One of Hill’s more unexpected comments on the “condition of England” theme that runs through the book is that “our flame of genius appears sunk, now that Dave Bowie has signed into the tomb with his very considerable panache and aplomb” (poem 233). No irony here, for all that I can see. Hill may have recognised a general parallel to what he was undertaking in The Book of Baruch in Bowie’s own careful and stylish synchronising of an artistic valediction with physical death. The co-ordination of the tomb with aplomb was evidently at the forefront of Hill’s mind, too.
Almost as startling are the following lines, one of a series of aphoristic comments on the nature of poetry that run through the whole collection:
Poem as adumbration of the Abbey of Thelema.
As slow-release semantic corm.
Poem as Bob’s Thelma. (poem 202)
The transition from Rabelais (or is it Aleister Crowley?) to The Likely Lads is characteristic of the intrepidly experimental quality of Hill’s poetry in this collection, where the cultural dynamics can be vertiginous, and where Hill presents himself at moments as prophet and at others as charlatan. “I am found amid rough paragraphs” (poem 25), he says, where “rough” both brings with it the aesthetic connotation of a proud eschewal of “finish” or decorum, and also announces a willingness to dish out some over-due punishment, some rough justice.
One great former poet about whom Hill seems to have found it hard to arrive at a settled view is Yeats. In certain respects The Book of Baruch can be compared with Yeats’s Last Poems, as both poetic testament and rueful commentary on the poet’s own earlier poetry. The self-glorifying phrase to which Yeats succumbed in “Under Ben Bulben”, “the indomitable Irishry”, Hill dismisses as “claptrap and gaucherie” (poem 238). But he could have endorsed the “toccata and strut” of these lines from that
poem’s fifth section, which echo many of his own preoccupations:
Irish poets, earn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Hill declares himself “a student . . . of stately irate Yeats” (poem 158), and there are clear similarities at moments between this late poetry of Hill’s and, for instance, Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. Hill, like Yeats, unsparingly presents himself as “a broken man”, trapped in the resentments of “the embittered heart”, and finally as tethered, alongside Yeats himself, in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”. For both Hill and Yeats, late style entailed a rueful but defiant self-dismantling. The late poetry of both men is thus disarming in two senses. In its critical rejection of earlier poetic style, it translates into the realm of poetry an epic topos, the disarming of the hero at the end of a day of battle. In its vulnerable candour, it disarms the reader.
“The virtuous utility of art resides—presides—in proximities held magnetically apart” (poem 21). In The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, Hill performs a series of such acts of separation. This posthumous collection, severely and self-effacingly edited by Kenneth Haynes, embodies a controversial but impassioned idea of what poetry is and does. It deserves our respectful, careful attention.
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin
By Geoffrey Hill
Edited by Kenneth Haynes
Oxford, 160pp, £20