Geoffrey Hill’s final statement and the dead wife.

2019 saw the publication of Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, a sequence that Hill intended to be published after his death and which, according to the blurb, contains “a riot of similes about the poetic art” and its inherent strangeness. This, we are told, is also intended as a ‘summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry” and there are many things here to ponder. As I’ve said elsewhere, these represent an improvement on the five Day Books which Hill published towards the end of his life, which is a relief. The overall tone feels like a return to The Triumph of Love and Comus but I’m not sure that the content is up to the same standard.

The similes are many and vary from the profound to the crude. In fact they are so numerous that this reader has felt a little overwhelmed by the onslaught, some may feel that several are gratuitous.

I’ll probably reproduce all the similes on a later post but now I want to concentrate on just the first four in one poem because they ‘speak’ to me personally and are representative of the better work in the sequence. This is Poem 142;

Ordered reappearance of ideas from chaos: motto-phrase from poeisis of my declared period but not since

Poem as ‘dome of many coloured glass’ caught in mid-explosion on slow-motion film.

Barely in memory a ceremonial and normal life that can contain grief for a dead wife.

Imagination, at such and such a putsch, a form of conservative agitation. In an unjust nation. Freitod its safest ambition.

This is not a creed. Nor is it quite yet an autopsy on public need.

When ingenuity is suppressed let it not be disordinately released or we shall all be gassed by a watercolourist of scant ability and poor taste.

Delete and substitute:

‘For the first time in our history, love for the Fuhrer has become a legal term’.

And not even this will discredit our mystery before the highest democratic posthumous consistory, our wounds shallow, our tears glistery.

Poem as compact design, supreme nadir in the trap of a drain. Poem as dwarfed and distorted mimeo, disseminating in rhyme the murderous bibles as if they were Berlin or Warsaw or Moscow bus timetables.

Had Britain ‘gone under’ in that dire frame I would, a decade later, have become a Home Fires collaborator, I shouldn’t wonder; but through fear rather than greed.

(Please note that the lineation above is not the same as it appears in print, the lines are longer and the subsequent lines after the first of each statement are indented. My only excuse is that I haven’t kept up with the WordPress use of the <pre> tag. Will try harder.)

My personal interest in the above is that three years ago my wife died after a reasonably sudden and unexpected illness and this event caused me to become disenchanted with poetry because, like many things, it seemed quite trivial in the greater scheme of things. I was thus a bit disturbed to see ‘grief for a dead wife’ as part of this particular piece because it seems quite blunt and incongruent with the rest of what’s being said.

Hill was born in 1932 in the West Midlands and his late childhood and early adolescence was overshadowed by the Second World War and especially German bombing raids. This has remained a primary focal point throughout Hill’s work and figures prominently in Baluch. Amongst other concerns, there’s an abiding interest in Christian martyrs and in the workings of Grace.

In the brilliant Triumph of Love Hill defines poetry as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ which I thought was both accurate and lyrically strong. None of the definitions here, for me, are able to match that strength.

This ordered re-appearance throws up a few questions. It is true that some of us write in order to work out what it is we’re thinking because our thoughts and other mental processes seem tangled and incoherent. I’m not however sure that what we’re after in this is an ordering but more a kind of winnowing so that what’s left is what matters- whether or not it makes an orderly pattern.

I like motto-phrase as being more accurate than either slogan or maxim and i can see how this would apply to various schools and types of poetry. I think I’m correct in saying that Hill’s main period of academic / critical interest was the first half of the seventeenth century with forays into later periods. It may be that this is his ‘declared’ period but this is only a semi-educated guess. I’ve always found ‘poeisis’ to be a tricky term because it looks and sounds elitist and because it covers too many areas of endeavour to be useful. Most of Hill’s usage of obscure or ‘difficult’ vocabulary can be justified because that particular word adds precision whereas poeisis, in this instance doesn’t. The limitation of this to a particular period (‘not since’) seems at odds with the more universal business of poetry making that Hill seems to be after.

The multi coloured dome is apparently from Byron’s Adonais, this seems to be the relevant bit-

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

It would therefore appear that the poem in this instance is a kind of frame by frame record of the moment of death, when life is destroyed or shattered rather than ‘just’ coming to an end. I think that the poem is exceptionally good at memorialising the dead but I’m less convinced that it is itself at all like this shattered dome. I’m prepared to accept that the use of Byron’s poem to say something about poetry may indicate that there are further subtleties that may be going on here but I’m not sufficiently intrigued to attend to these here.

It’s not immediately apparent what the next sentence refers to, If we think about a putsch as an act intended to take control of something rather than an insurrection or a coup d’etat then it could be said that a poem is a way of ruling the poet’s emotions. I’m taking ‘such and such’ to have it’s colloquial meaning and to have been used because of the rhyme.

The next observation throws up a number of questions for me:

  • Why is ‘barely’ used in this way?
  • What is meant by ‘ceremonial’?
  • Is this dead wife a generic or particular figure?

It turns out that the first adjective opens up some ambiguity that I didn’t initially recognise. The OED reminds me that there is “Openly, without disguise or concealment, clearly, plainly” in addition to “Only just; hence, not quite, hardly, scarcely, with difficulty”.

Which would seem to give both something scarcely remembered but those memories that remain being clear. this makes sense to me, I have only a hazy memory of my early childhood, for example, but there are some events and experiences that remain very clear indeed.

Hill was a committed High Anglican Christian and his second wife became an Anglican priest. Church services at that end of the spectrum are also filled with liturgical rites and rituals that are referred to as ceremonies. He was also knighted and elected Chair of Poetry at Oxford University, both of which are freighted with the ceremonial.

If this is particular, I’m not entirely sure that any individual life can be said to be ‘normal’, any of my friends would be considered as normal people but none of them hace had lives that conform to any kind of norm. This may however be a minor quibble on my part.

Hill married twice and his second wife, Alice Goodman, is still alive so this may refer to his first, Nancy Whittaker although I don’t know whether or not she predeceased him. In terms of poetry making, the only direct reference that I’m aware of is this from Comus:

That the antimasque is what saves us
challenge by challenge. Still I anticipate.
I did not anticipate the marriage

that I destroyed. It was not then the fashion.

Having given this some thought, after my original startlement, the containment of grief seems a bit anomalous. Obviously I can only speak of mine and my family’s recent experience but grief is a very slippery and periodically persistent thing that doesn’t seem able to be contained. Some elegies speak eloquently of some aspects of individual grief but I think it’s unlikely that they contain all of it for a ‘dead wife’ or otherwise.

I’ll take ‘imagination’ in its broadest and most everyday sense but, rather than a coup d’etat, I’ll take the secondary definition of ‘putsch’ given as “a sudden or forceful attempt to take control of an organization, business, etc.; a sudden vigorous effort, a concerted drive or campaign”. A conservative agitation seems to be a contradiction in terms unless we think of people who agitate in order to keep something, the obvious recent example being the more vocal activites of Brexit supporters in the UK,

It’s fairly evident that some imagination is needed in the business of poetry making but a bit less clear how it can also said to be such an agitation. I’m also a bit suspicious that ‘such and such’ is only there because of the rhyme. ‘In an unjust nation’ isn’t a sentence, which is odd for Hill. The next few lines leads me to assume that the nation in question is pre-war Germany and that this putsch may, after all, be Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. We now come to annoying foreign words. The interweb tells me that freitod is German for suicide. I can think of no good reason in this instance why the English noun shouldn’t be used. To throw in a term that most ‘ordinary’ readers won’t know just puts them off and smacks of elitism and deliberate obfuscation. It may be here that Hill intends to point out the threat to the creative spirit that the totalitarian state poses. The last sentence would seem to argue that remaining silent is the safest response that a poet or artist can make when living under such a regime.

The next line seems like a bit of a retreat. The four similes are set out in the way that you would set out a statement of beliefs. If it isn’t a creed then why should Hill set them out in such a manner and express them in such a rigorous way. The second sentence is intended to be more telling (‘quite yet’) and less transparent. Has this public need died? Is there no longer such a thing as societal privation? Has the need been made public, ie placed in the public domain? Is it instead a need that is felt by members of the public. Or is it both and why is it dead?

In conclusion, I hope that I’ve shown that Hill’s singular voice and critical acumen stayed with him to the end and that this particular poem contains many elements that we should all give consideration to. I intend to follow this with some thoughts on Hill and Germany.

One response to “Geoffrey Hill’s final statement and the dead wife.

  1. Very interesting, thoughtful rumination mainly on section 142 of ‘The Book of Baruch’; the implication is, and I tend to agree, that it’s one of the best things Hill has done. These somewhat terse expressions, tilting to the exact, are pithy and intense, sometimes dark, and good to encounter some insightful commentary on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s