294. (Geoffrey Hill)

In my last post on Geoffrey Hill’s last work, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin I wrote that the poem needed to be heard as quiet, even tentative utterances, faltering forward along their internally rhymes, inwardly girded lines. It is not impossible to hear the poem this way, but it is somewhat stupid and it flies against the poem’s cues as to how it’s voice should be placed and pitched: we are offered numerous comparisons (late Yeats, very early Auden of The Orators, Brecht) to works about public rhetoric, oratory, performance, albeit public rhetoric, oratory, and performance that exists in alienated relationship to its public. The voice of the performer is sure of itself, but sure also that the seats are not full, the theater derelict, and the lighting flickering; the poet as prophet, but not, as the title of the poem (or collection) says, a canonical prophet. It may be that no center exists to which poet as prophet can adhere, but it is also the case that the prophet Hill constructs is itself, as a matter of Hill’s design, scrappy around the edges, uncertain of his own status; the product, that is, of his times; the world gets the prophet it deserves, or something, and this prophet knows it. The voice of the poem is cut across with self-conscious self-deprecation. And it is possible, also, to find the poem tentatively feeling its way forward at times—but this is not the dominant mode.

Placing the voice of the poem is one thing—charting its movement is another. Close reading and analysis of individual sections can only be meaningful against a backdrop of topics, allusions, and preoccupations that are draped across the entire work. To make sense of the larger movement of the poem, I will attempt a paraphrase of a section against that backdrop.

I’ve attempted a close reading of section 77 but will do so differently here. That section:


The ‘Irish Salamis’: a commonplace flourish (Yeats) about the clerkly author of Tar Water (Berkeley).

He was sending intelligence out for audition; he believed a win would be good for the nation, the mind of Ireland freed, raw body, old head, albeit Swift died mad.

The ‘Irish Salamis’ is a price you must pay for some victory over and above Pearse and Connolly and the ‘right rose tree’. It is, as he said, also ‘liable to bias’.

The Queen at the wall in Ireland was not entirely unlike Willy Brandt at the Ghetto memorial.

Whether ‘the ultimate reality must be anarchy’ who can presume to say?

‘Tradition is kindred’: perhaps that is true; perhaps a great cross-roaded mind has blundered: ‘nadir to nadir’, riches to rags; in the temple of order decapitated stone figures struck from niches; mobbed cattle with their drool and ordure; at their hooves dogs.


The background paraphrase, taking this as a sample of the poem’s larger patterns: Here is another instance of Yeats the poet struggling with the role of public poetry, and with the fate of idealism in the politics of a nation—whether there is a victory of nationhood that can be more than bloodshed and civil unrest, whether some idealism can prevail. Berkeley is invoked on several occasions, first in the epigraph at the start of the book, translated, “Q: What becomes of the eternal truths? A: The vanish.” Here he is invoked though, through Yeats, and Hill is neither assenting nor dissenting from Yeats’ appraisal of Berkeley, as the defeater of English materialism, the victor of Philosophical Idealism; he is instead interested in Yeats’ struggle, as he is interested throughout in how authors and thinkers have reckoned with the past, and, more specifically, reckoned with the idea and ideal of a nation.

Hill’s British nation is itself idealized, as is Coleridge’s, as is Blake’s Albion, and as Yeats’ Ireland is; but that idealized nation is impossible given the state of the commonwealth, the “mobbed cattle with their drool and ordure.” Hill pivots to the Queen because he is British, and because the relationship to Yeats’ nationalism cannot be a simple one of appreciation; and again he is equivocal. The Queen is “not entirely unlike” but not like either. It is perhaps an instance of what Hill describes as “proximities held magnetically apart” (section 21); the poem’s refusal to produce reconciliations where none can or should exist as much a proof of its strength as those harmonies it does produce—harmonies of sound that, in the battery of internal rhymes and near-rhymes and sight-rhymes and assonances of the poem seem to be fortuitous, felicitous, contingent, even chance, so that the contingency of language, one word’s happenstance stance towards other words, becomes an agent of thought: “High poetry is another name for the lottery” (18) but also “The serendipitous many times deceives with its priority” (40) and also  “Most times, in the matter of poems, I follow where I lead” (190.) An especially salient demonstration of the method is found in the final line or unit of section 25:

There’s talk of whale’s magnifying a human cry when they are struck and dying. It is unedifying. Grief and shame run amok. Mock tears? The stars do not fall; they appear to blur and swell.

What is unedifying, Hill means, is the too-widespread attribution of grief and shame; but the line also concedes that for grief and shame to be run amok is for there to be too many genuine sources of grief and shame in the world. Mock tears are both tears that, by being helpless and inadequate to suffering, mock it, as well as fake tears. For the purposes of the point I am making though, notice how “amok”  is picked up in “mock tears” so that the excess of grief and shame, and the excessive positing of grief and shame, gives rise to both questions: whether the tears are genuine or whether, despite being genuine, they mock. Through the tears, the stars (a word that lightly echoes “tears,” itself sonorously “blurred and swelled”) do not fall; they remain passive and inert, but what they “appear” (also the appearance of the stars depending o the “tears” and the rhyme here correspondingly richer, stronger as is the relationship between the word) as changes.

The appearance of the stars draws us back to the first unit/line of the section: “The planets that combust in their own dust and yet revive as we believe they must; the intellective spheres’ sublime account that we find words for since we must invent: Mercator of the stars and hemispheres and the just wars.”  Those planets that combust and that dust in turn recall the collection’s epigraph by Milton: “Who can discern those planets that are oft Combust, and those stars of brightest magnitude that rise and set with the sun, until the opposite motion of their orbs bring them to such a place in the firmament, where they may be seen evning or morning.” Section 25 is about discerning the stars, discerning something beyond, which is distorted, but not shaken by our mock tears run amok.

Language itself is the matter of poetry, and the empiricist claim to gain knowledge by apprehension of matter the target of Berkeley’s idealism; matter, whether language, or sub-atomic particles, or man’s moral state,  is subject to gravity; Berkeley returns in sections 166 and 167 in reference to his youthful theory of particles of the mind’s energy (“Spry young Berkeley, remarkably, decided that particles are units in the mind’s energy” and “particles of the mind’s obscene energy”); Newton is a presence throughout the book, weighted against, but not pitted against, Blake and Christopher Smart who broke with rationalism in the case of one and sanity in the case of the other (see section 23 for Smart/Newton), but who similarly understood the weight of matter (the “state of matter” is also alive in the poem, where “state” is chemical and political) and the matter of weight (“pondus” is a crux of section 30), as it sounds in the phrases the “weight of the world” and “weight of the word” (phrases played upon in a beautiful poem by Hill published in an earlier collection).  In Section 77, the corruption of the world, the tendency to fall, the weight of things is apprehended in the last image, the matter of muck, looking down into the “ordure,” which is the antithesis to the order of the stars. Hill is drawn to Yeats’ commonplace journals, his struggles with nationhood and with idealism, but he looks with skepticism upon Yeats’ phrases: “perhaps a great cross-roaded mind has blundered” alludes to Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem celebrating British heroism, but here turned to describe Yeats’ own mind, though not with historical obtuseness, since Yeats’ vision of the Irish Nation, with Berkeley as a root, is very much a tradition of Anglo-Irish thought; in that sense it is cross-roaded, Anglo and Irish, but also suitable for the allusion. More generally, the point of doubting Yeats is to doubt whether the rise to idealism is possible, whether the upmost reaches of the Yeatsian tower can be reached, or whether the things are not fated to move from nadir to nadir, the ruined tower a shed for muddy animals.

The gutted “temple of order” is of a piece with the London churches lost to the Blitz that Hill honors in the astonishing section 36, the Blitz a recurring preoccupation of the first forty-odd sections of the poem; the final image speaks also to section 54: “A Cardington airship shed is grand once you comprehend its purpose of monstrous birthing and repose.” The “temple of order” hollowed out and filled with ordure speaks also to sections 76 and 78, concerned with poetry’s inheritance of land; the mud is not a chicken farm as in 76, but it is something more fallen with more grotesque pathos, more grandeur than a chicken farm.

The most perplexing line of section 70 is the question: “Whether ‘the ultimate reality must be anarchy’ who can presume to say?” The question is not rhetorical in the sense that Hill is himself uncertain whether “anarchy” should be accepted as the “ultimate reality,” where ultimate means foundational but also final; the stress though I think is on the word “must” so that Hill is struggling with whether it is necessarily so, whether an ideal alternative is possible, or whether the ideal can do anything in response, in reaction. Section 156 opens: “The ordeal of shaping fantasy that does not betray the real is confusing in More’s parable of the isolate commonweal, as in all Tudor treatises on public order, one might add.” “The ordeal” is also “the order” of “The Temple of Order” that must be true to the real, while remaining something that is not, cannot be, real.

The question Hill asks in section 70 might be heard as rhetorical in so far as the “who can presume to say” receives stress: nobody or anybody. That question does not seem to seek an answer; there is no external, authoritative voice on the matter, no secret truth to possess and reveal beyond the secret truth, the gnosis, that an individual most retrieve, receive, safeguard, and affirm—albeit at the cost of prophetic alienation and even seeming caprice, as Hill recognizes in the self-dramatized (so much of the poem is self-dramatized, but without the cheap irony that would posture merely to disown) section 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.” That is right but too baldly stated, too defenselessly thoughtless in its expression; we are to feel that the matter is not so simple, but that stating the matter is either, perhaps, a compromise with falsifying simplicity or else remote difficulty.

The Gnostics of the poem are those who recognize and who participate in the hierarchy of intrinsic value that is not the hierarchy of class (Hill can encounter Vanbrugh as a poet, but, in section 43: “The stratum into which I would have been born was not a desideratum. He might have pitched me a coin, had I held his horse at an inn.”) This is a precarious order, or a fallen or impossible order, impossible beyond the gnosis of poetry, which can serve as a “microclime” of the romantic nation that has never existed; it is opposed to anarchy, where anarchy is associated with the value of finance and the City. Section 38: “Creation is loss, I will happily affirm that; a scarcely felt re-adjustment on another planet. In a thousand years someone will remark upon it: intrinsic value and the ever more remote sphere of capital gains.” The statement is skeptical to the enduring presence, the enduring value of either intrinsic value or capital gains, as well as to the difference that creation does not make, to the inconsequence, at a distance, of loss. But the “sphere of capital gains” is the “ever more remote” and, more importantly, is the alternative to “intrinsic value.”

One consequence is for what order must or can look like; serendipity, hazard, contingency, improvisation must be the generative principles of order–even as they are characteristic of anarchy–if the order that is sought, depends on hidden gnosis, emerges from an anarchic state; the poem is built on those principles. But even serendipity is co-opted by the value that is set by the hegemony of the monetary: “A malign form of serendipity at large has for long run through the City, where impetus is violent anarchic discharge, a primitive gunpowder train set sizzling by Anon” (40). A truer serendipity can be found in the structures of jazz. Hill tells us he was once disparaging of jazz music, but in this poem he embraces it. The final line/unit of section 36: “Thirties jazz which, unheard, I declared crude, sounds proud and austere to me now; accurate music appropriate to heaven. Some may say, even so, that I blaspheme. Let them.” He turns to jazz again in the penultimate line/unit of section, this time to explain, I take it, both the movement of life in directions that cannot be anticipated beforehand or explained by the “agenda” we “originally imagined,” and also to explain the “angular articulation” (section 36) of his own poetry: “In the acquiring of craft discipline, jazz is just fine” (section 57).

The urge to affirm that which has intrinsic value, a nation, heroic achievements, the self, the matter of the world, demands the loose form of the poem, a form that queries, questions, circles back, but that nonetheless reveals a structure of sound and sense as it reveals more and more of itself.

The urge to affirm intrinsic value, the urge to speak publicly of a gnosis that cannot be uttered to this public, at this time, in this world, without undue compromise, leads also to heresy; hence the title of the collection, which the text on the back of the volume tells us, is named after Justin’s gnostic Book of Baruch “identified as the ‘worst of heresies’” in antiquity. A heretic, T.S. Eliot wrote, is “a person who seizes upon a truth and pushes it to the point at which it becomes a falsehood.” The truth of intrinsic value, the gnosis of the book, presents itself, at times, as such an extreme of falsehood (how can intrinsic value be true except as an article of faith?)—but Hill recognizes that, and would respond I imagine by affirming that poetry is that which lies and feigns, and so is the proper place for such a necessary falsehood, necessary that is to the “truth” of a world that itself provides insufficient or indifferent measure of value; faith in value and judgment of value are themselves compromised by the falsehoods of the world, and so the charge of heresy is one that the poem would embrace.

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