Tag Archives: The book of baruch by the gnostic justin

Geoffrey Hill, Hopkins and the working poem.

Hill’s final collection, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Julian, is blurbed as a ‘meditation on the nature of poetry’ and Poem 71 seems to live up to that promise;

A working poem has, or is, its own microclimate; certainly, in Britain it does so
        posses its nous. Some of us may be distinguished thus, pre-structuralists
        of our antic cause; the streamlet's cluck and treble through meadow and
        arable; gold gobs of mistletoe, the spoiler, the spoils, heaped in Tenbury
        market to go

Something here to be garbled if half understood. I am invoking presence not
        mood. Mood - almost at first standing - abandons us while, in absence,
        presence remains I state it crudely enough for small gains.

But it is not, even so, the same as the 'strain of time' which, according to that
         Jesuit, (resolute, glad, forlorn), draws from us the psychic skin that bound
          us to find the world tolerable, ourselves credible; and reels it in: alien
          a photonegative of all earthly loves; the Aurora palpitating absently
            apart in its waves and coils.

How, knowing this, he could write 'Hurrahing in Harvest' I can barely
          conceive, though it refelcts and reveals 'Spelt from Sybil's Leaves'
          mutually audible, darkly lucent, impenetrable, starkly provident.


I’m particularly fond of the way in which Hill writes, in both his criticism and verse, about the nature and role of verse. He’s previously described poems as a ‘sad and angry consolation’ and suggested that poems are best suited to memoriaiising the dead. On this occasion he appears to suggest that the poem is something apart and evoking a presence rather than a mood. The adjective ‘working’ can refer to something that is functioning as it should or;

Serving as the basis for further work; (of a theory, hypothesis, etc.) that is sufficient for present purposes but is likely to be developed or refined later; provisional; (of a document, drawing, etc.) serving as a draft; preliminary, unfinished.

I’d suggest that it is the second of these that we are meant to attend to although a working poem can also be an effective poem. If we take the second definition then this can be applied not just to indivdual poetry but the entire body of poems that, from the beginning, have been developed and extended by subsequent generations.

I live in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight which has its very own microclimate by virtue of its position between St Boniface Down and the English Channel. Us locals are very pleased about this because it adds to our sense of individuality and apartness, we have our own plants and our own lizards and butterflies which we claim to be unique in the UK. Poem as microclimate may then be said to create and preserve elements which are special and specific to it. It may also perpetuate itself. I’m following the second and “chiefly British” definition of nous as:

Common sense, practical intelligence, ‘gumption’.

Of course, Hill would want the British poem to retain some notion of common sense because he is a patriot and seems to subscribe to this odd view of British culture as the sole repository of plain and unadorned thought. We then have this quite startling description of some of ‘us’ poets being identified by the sound of a running stream and the sparkle of mistletoe piled up at a provincial market. The ‘cluck and treble’ and ‘gold gobs’ give emphasis to Hill’s stature as our finest nature poet.

Turning to mood and presence, I don’t find this convincing because it seems too grandiose and because the notion of presence remaining in its absence smacks of religiosity rather than poem things. It would also seem that the idea of invocation is used to gesture towards the presence of Christ in the christian mass. This isn’t to deny that poems can create a sense of presence, I get this strongly from David Jones In Parenthesis and from Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and from many pieces of music but I don’t experience this in a religious or spiritual sense. It’s more about being able to identify with and personally relate to what’s being expressed than any notion of wider powers. One of the strengths for me of poetry is its ability to compress and distill complex ideas and emotions into a single line or phrase but I don’t think that we should try to mystify things further.

The Jesuit is Gerald Manley Hopkins and I have to state that I’ve never been able to see any value in this poet’s work. Because of Hill’s enthusiasm and advocacy, I’ve spent more than a little time with the verse in an attempt to grasp what it is that I’m missing. I’ve also read quite a bit about Hopkins only to decide that I don’t like him much as a man either. Up until now I haven’t been at all familiar with either of the two poems mentioned above but they are both remarkable enough for the Hopkins penny to begin to drop.

The third paragraph’s apparent denial of what Hopkins may have said about poetry’s power to strip us of our comforting delusions sets up the contrast between two poems doing very different things.

Hurrahing in Harvest turns out to be a joyous description and celebration of God’s presence in the world and is brimful of humanity and faith. The line “Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?” could be read as too cloying but is somehow saved by the insistent alliteration. Again this is subjective, I’m irrationally fond of words starting with the same letter and this is particularly pleasing to my ear. I’d also like to draw attention to the use of ‘realer’ which seems to make the line work well. The poem’s final line almost falls over into kitsch but saves itself by the strength of what it is saying- especially the repeated hurling for him.

Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves is a bit more complicated and much darker. It contains most of the baseline tricks of the poetry trade but I’m not sure that there’s that much invocation going on. There is however a concluding line which describes life as a torturer’s rack;

Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, | thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Hill concludes by pointing up this apparent contrast and claiming that one poem ‘reflects and reveals’ the other. We are left with four separate qualities, two of which are a bit tired (‘mutely audible’ and ‘impenetrable’) and two others which will resonate with me for days.

Geoffrey Hill’s Riot of Poetry Similes

This is from the, probably self-penned, blurb on the back of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Thematically the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of its evident helplessness.

As someone who has followed these meditations for the last 15 years, this claim holds great interest both as a reader and practitioner. I’m therefore now pondering on what Sir Geoffrey decided to leave us with on this reasonably crucial subject.

One of the abiding features of the poetry is Hill’s tendency to show off, with regard to poetry, his The Triumph of Love has this:

Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation. What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? a sad and angry 
consolation.

This may indeed be beautiful but there are very few poets who would have the front to point this out within the same stanza. This particular simile and Hill’s claim that literary and artistic practice require “a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead…..” have acted as ‘markers’ for my relationship with the work as a whole. With The Book, however, we now have many more ways of thinking about the nature of the Poem and mulling over its strange helplessness.

I still haven’t paid enough attention to this sequence of 271 parts, a process that will take months but I have selected some of the more startling and provocative observations. This is the last sentence from Poem 149;

No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from
     limescale under the rim.

Scurrilous, deliberately offensive but, he may have a point. What is lazily referred to, by me and many others, as the mainstream can be sad to be said to embody both of these qualities. I’ve long been of the view that this particular kind of output is inherently doomed to a bland mediocrity because its voice is strangled into a bridle deemed to be proper and fit. i’m therefore in sympathy with the view expressed, even though it’s more of a confession than an observation. Hill isn’t saying that this work is burdened by such a stain but that it seems to him that this is the case. The implications being that his work avoids the upright and uptight and is thus unburdened by this mark.

I have to confess that this made me smile a lot because it seems to capture the best of Hill’s mischievous barbs, the limescale under the rim being particularly apt.

This being Geoffrey Hill, we also have the realy quite serious observations with their amended syntax, These are from 213 and 239;

We do well on the whole to unscramble continuity from tradition. Continuity may be more important; the poem must affirm portent to make gravity tremble.

Poem as one case of post partum depression, in some part with cause yet
without reason.

Both of these are brow furrowing, in the interests of context, I should provide the rest of each poem but this would only further cloud the issues that appear to be at stake. With the first, separating out tradition from continuity is tricky in the extreme, both relate to the past  and to mental and physical things that proceed through time. Traditions can die out whereas continuities, by definition, keep going on. Much of Hill’s work is concerned with these persistent phenomena. His Mercian Hymns  of 1971 sets the reign of the early medieval King Offa of Mercia firmly in the 20th century.

I have Hill as a quirkily sentimental traditionalist. This is a fuzzy impression rather than a clear and precise notion, nevertheless I am a bit startled by this assertion and what follows. A quick glance at the OED reveals that ‘portent’ has two main definitions: “A sign, indication, or omen of a momentous or calamitous event which is about to happen” and “A prodigy, a wonder, a marvel; something exceptional or extraordinary.” Taking the (now rare) second definition as the one intended, it would appear that the role of the poem is to assert and confirm the wondrous and exceptional nature of someone or thing. Needless to say, making ‘gravity tremble’ is a great sounding phrase but doesn’t mean very much when thought about. If Hill means to have ‘a great effect’ then he should be clearer, in my admittedly pedantic view.

I would however draw attention to the other qualities of the above, it starts with an equivocation – mostly, it would be a good thing if we…. which reads like the opening of a gentle suggestion rather than the clear imperative that it ends with. Portents as signs of things that are about to happen populate most religious texts and it may be that this alludes, at least in part to the birth of Christ.

It is safe to suggest that Hill has never experienced a post partum depression for obvious reasons. This doesn’t prevent him from putting together one of his less than brilliant witticisms with the play on ‘part’ and the ‘without reason’ quip. I like to think the point being made is a serious one, that the poem has its source of inspiration but this then gets extrapolated  into something that may not be entirely rational / reasonable.  As someone with some experience of severe depression, I would however like to point out that we depressives are rarely without ‘reason’ indeed when depressed we often have a more realistic view of things because we can’t put on the rose-tinted glasses what ‘normal’ people rely on.

To conclude, this is all of Poem 129;

Poem as enforcer of the realm. Poem as hostage to straws that overwhelm.
Give me back the stocky tu quoque of the baroque.
Poem as slow-burning arquebus fuse in a re-enactment universe.
Poem as nightmare stepmother in the Brothers Grimm. Poem as loquacious
sightseer at an unspeakable crime.
Poem reluctant to give its own name even though lately granted immunity
from recrimination.
Poem at home under its fig tree and with a thriving pigsty.
Poem as hapless amateur in competition with ‘Summertime’.

I hope that I’m not alone in being delighted by this, it strikes me as both incredibly inventive and very, very clever. I can even forgive the tu quoque  / baroque device because the rest is Hill at his best. The first line encapsulates for me the poet’s dilemma, we’d love to speak truth to power, to act as moral assayer in the courts of kings and queens yet we are also plagued by those small blemishes and imperfections that, in our heads at least, ruin what we make. I’m going to skim gracefully over the second line because it doesn’t have a simile and move on to this about-to-go-off gun in this recreated and thus fake universe. The arquebus, the forerunner of most firearms, came into use in the early 15th century and  weren’t very good. Until the end of the 16th century there was still some debate as to whether arquebusiers were more or less effective than bowmen. I therefore have this image of Something Bad about to happen when the sparkly b movie flame eventually ignites the gun. It now occurs to me that the flame may never reach the gun, that it may burn ineptly forever being harmless and menacing at the same time. My daughter’s a keen re-enacter and has been since her mid teens so I know something of the painstaking care that goes in to getting the historical details as right as possible. A re-enactment universe would also be an equally synthetic version of moment of time past but on a much, much larger scale, one that would completely overwhelm this dodgy firearm. As both a reader and a wannabe poet, this line resonates and sets off ideas and makes me smile a lot.

The wicked stepmother is a little brow furrowing, as I recall it, the tale involves a magic mirror and a woman who will stop at nothing to remain the ‘fairest in the land’ and so makes several attempts to kill Snow White, her step-daughter. She is eventually exposed and dies a horrid death at Snow White’s wedding. The ‘nightmare’ describing word, if that’s what it is, is unusual in this and most other contexts.  This being the case, I’ve scurried off to the OED which has this for the adjective; “Having the quality of a nightmare; extremely distressing, frightening, or oppressive; nightmarish. Later in weakened use: terrible, awful, fraught with difficulty” which is helpful.  There are in “The Book” a couple of occasions where Sir Geoffrey refers to his use of obscure historical figures and seems to take some pride in doing this. His previous response to the oft repeated charge of difficulty is that “life is difficult” and that his work is a reflection of that.

Hill was known for his frequent use of the OED and will no doubt have been aware that ‘fraught with’ is defined as; “(a) attended with, carrying with it as an attribute, accompaniment, etc.;  (b) ‘big’ with the promise or menace of; destined to produce”. The second of these makes me grin. I find Hill’s work, as with Celan, Prynne and David Jones, to be big with the menace of difficulty which, for me, is a Very Good Thing.

I’ll leave speculation about the Wicked Queen, except to note that relationships with Step-mothers can also be ‘big’ in the same kind of way.

I write quite a lot of material on unspeakable crimes (Derry, Newtown, Ferguson) and their implications and often feel queasy  about whether what I’m doing is some kind of atrocity tourism. On first reading, this seemed to be an easy cliche but it now seems uncannily prescient.

The poem that’s reluctant to identify itself is probably one that disguises its meaning and is criticised initially for this crime but rater gains recognition and praise. This can also be applied to Hill himself who had to put up with all kinds of barbs but was eventually elevated to the Chair of Poetry at Oxford, the highest accolade in the UK.

Hill was the finest nature poet of his generation and the fig tree and the pig sty reflect elements of the pastoral tradition in poetry. Perhaps both the sty and the type of tree contain an oblique barb or some degree of self deprecation.

I’m taking this particular Summertime to be the song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in part because elsewhere in the sequence he confesses a new found liking for Thirties jazz.  From the mid-late nineties some of Hill’s work seemed to suggest that he wants to entertain us as some kind of music hall act. The poem’s aspiration to be culturally popular may be what is hinted at here, the later work is littered by very bad jokes which are certainly hapless. Gershwin’s setting of the DuBose Heyward poem is an example of genius in transforming something merely good into one of the most important and influential songs of all time.</em>

It hope I’ve shown here how Hill has given his readers much food for thought. This particular disturbance pervades through most of the poems and only rarely do the similes fall into clunkiness. As is expected with Hill, there are more than a few inconsistencies and some quite startling breaks with what has gone before. However, this is a much more fitting way to end a career than The Day Books appeared to be.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is published by the OUP and can be gotten from Amazon for sixteen of your finest English pounds. Buy it.

Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

The above has been recently published and it is a very welcome antidote to the bewildering foibles of The Day Books. The blurb on the back is revealing. I make no apology for these two lengthy excerpts:

Written in long lines of variable length, with much off-rhyme and internal rhyme, the verse- form of the book stands at the opposite end from the ones developed in the late Broken Hierarchies where he explored highly taut constructions such as Sapphic metre, figure poems, fixed rhyming strophes, and others.

and

Thematically, the work is a summa of a lifetime’s meditation on the nature of poetry. A riot of similes about the poetic art makes a passionate claim for the enduring strangeness of poetry in the midst of evident helplessness………….. the references to alchemy, heterodox theological speculation, and the formal logics of mathematics, music, and philosophy are made coolly, as art, and as emblems for our inadequate and perplexed grasp of time.

I have to report, on an initial read-through, that this collection makes me smile a lot because it feels like a return to the aspects of Hill’s work (Comus, The Triumph of Love, Mercian Hymns) that I enjoy the most. I didn’t enjoy any of the late work mentioned above and that part of the blurb reads a bit like a gentle response to those of us who expressed our doubts.

Because I haven’t yet begun to pay serious attention to the sequence as a whole I thought I’d allow my youthful enthusiasm give a few examples of what I find (at the moment) to be the most grinworthy (technical term).

Poem 109 is a meditation and pronouncement on Stanley Spencer and Things Scottish. Up until yesterday afternoon I either didn’t know or had forgotten (both are equally likely) that, according to the DNB, ” the War Artists’ Advisory Committee commissioned Spencer to record shipbuilding on the Clyde” and that the Resurrection series was one of his more significant works of that period. Hill’s poem starts with “The Resurrection, Port Glasgow, of nineteen forty-five to forty-seven, is not the triumph that the late Referendum could have been”. I’m taking it that, although the blurb refers to Brexit, this is the vote on Scottish Independence. Hill’s readers will recognise the characteristically complexity of the sentence and the fact that this may not need to be said. Art criticism is well beyond my capabilities but I will observe that it would seem unlikely that Spencer had Scottish independence in mind at the time, regardless of his fondness for the shipbuilders on the Clyde. It’s a remarkable enough line to draw me in further. The other question that arises is whether Hill’s view of the triumph that could have been marks a shift in Hill’s political beliefs and associated patriotism.

The next ‘stanza’ is “Art can incorporate a summation of what we inherit to impart of national / tradition. The tradition of the Clyde is now said to have died with Jimmy Reid.” The first sentence might be read as a statement of the mostly obvious whilst the second would seem to contradict it. Those of us of a certain age and political persuasion will recall that Jimmy Reid was the leader of what turned out to be the Clyde’s final industrial action. It would seem reasonable that the ‘tradition’ here refers to the history of radical socialism for which the Clyde workforce was rightly renowned. Again, this seems to signal a shift in Hill’s politics. The phrasing of the first sentence is reassuringly typical of Hill’s way of expressing Big Thoughts and this particular thought is consistent with both his earlier poetry and criticism. I’m taking it that ‘impart’ is a carefully chosen verb.

A brief note here about formatting, each poem is in prose. Each new paragraph begins at the left margin and the rest of the lines are indented by five spaces. The WordPress rendering of the pre tag makes it difficult to accurately reproduce how this looks on the page so I’m incorporating the lines into my paragraphs with ‘/’ marking each line break.

The next paragraph is; ” A kind of colloquial good, ‘Waking up’, ‘Tidying’, ‘Reunion of Families’- / Nineteen forty-five – forty-seven bore an obligatory hope – can stitch together a public shroud from private kindness; so that political / bloodymindedness must mourn its vital progeny born dead.” This is where we get into vintage Hill territory, what exactly might be intended by a ‘colloquial good’? Why is the hope of 1945-47, prompted by the election of a Labour government, said to be ‘obligatory’? If we take colloquial to refer to common or conversational speech might this ‘good’ be a quality in society that is beneficial for everyone? Or might it refer a thing being seen to have value by the ordinary people of Glasgow?

The years referred to also deserve some attention. This was perhaps 20th century’s most significant in British politics with the foundations of a social democracy and the National Health Service being laid. The hope was that a class ridden society could be transformed into something more equitable and just. Hill was born in 1933 and, as a bright teenager, would have been more than aware of these momentous shifts.

One of the definitions provided by the OED for ‘obligatory’ is; “Frequently humorous. So customary or fashionable as to be expected of everyone or on every occasion.”

We are therefore directed to the mood of optimism amongst ordinary people that the inequalities of the past would be eradicated and that significant improvements in living standards were about to occur. Of course, these hopes were not entirely met, the standard excuse being that the size of the post war debt to the US prevented the Atlee government spending enough to make a significant/lasting difference. Hill’s use of this adjective would seem to be an attempt at a kind of arch humour, that this was a hope that everybody felt obliged to share no matter how realistic it may be.

Jimmy Reid was to many the epitome of political and industrial ‘bloodymindedness’ and since then there have been very few figures in the UK labour movement to achieve similar prominence and success. Of course, successive governments since 1971 have colluded in the slow death of the British shipbuilding industry and the consequent damage done to communities. Trade Union legislation has also greatly limited the ability of workers to take action against unfair treatment. I’m hoping that this is what Hill is referring to with the still born progeny.

The last stanza is the longest and most direct; “Scotland is not England, of course; and, of the two, the condition of England / is worse. Spencer’s was an English muse, nevertheless; a power of sorts / among her foreign peers; and with a very local sense of redress that, / undeniably beautiful, pressed down on Clydesiders a sentimental appeal, / like skeins of festal coloured knitting wool that they may well have / wished not to possess.

This seems to be fairly straightforward the condition of England is (not was) worse than that of Scotland. Spencer and his source of inspiration were English and, although he created beautiful work set on the Clyde, he was hampered by a sentimentality that may not of been popular with the community that he was depicting. There’s also this local sense of a need for justice for wrongs done. The grin factor is obviously subjective but I think it’s important to recognise and celebrate the things that give us pleasure. In this instance the pleasure comes from a recognition of Hill’s personality (another loose and subjective term) and what would appear to be his method of thinking. The altering of syntax is a fairly consistent device over the last 30 years or so which some find annoying but I feel is an important illustration of how big or difficult thoughts are arrived at. I’m absorbed by this process and feel almost involved in the production of the work. This may seem overly personal but the late Hill at least does have this attractive-but-maddening tendency to throw himself, lock, stock and barrel into his work. Poem 109 is an example of Hill getting hold of a theme and shaking it to bits. Spenser is described in admiring tones in the two previous poems but here thoughtful consideration is given to a quite specific aspect of his work. I smile here because of the way in which the point about sentimentalising / prettifying is made and because I’ve been a member of a community that has had similar treatment from time to time and been less than pleased. Of course, Hill the curmudgeon is still present with the born dead progeny, a simile designed more perhaps to shock than inform. I’m also intrigued by this apparent political sea change. Hill described himself once as a ‘Red Tory’ and this strand is the most apparent in his work along with more than a smattering of patriotism. Both of these would seem to run counter to what’s expressed here and in other parts of the sequence to this is invites further exploration.

However, the elements that made me smile the most on an initial reading is “like skeins of festal-coloured knitting wool” and the need for redress being pressed down. Both of these are, to my ear, redolent of Hill at his very best