295. (Geoffrey Hill)

Here is a link to a self-portrait by David Bomberg: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bomberg-self-portrait-t03265

Here is a link to a portrait by David Bomberg: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bomberg-lilian-painting-david-painting-lilian-t03338

Here is a link to a late painting, not a portrait, by Bomberg: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bomberg-trees-in-sun-cyprus-t06634

From a 2017 academic essay on Bomberg by Brendan Prendeville:

What was to be searched for was, in Bomberg’s celebrated expression “the spirit in the mass”. Here he particularly had Cézanne in mind; but rather than inviting his pupils to follow a particular stylistic precedent, he based his teaching on the principle – derived from his reading of Bishop Berkeley – that touch has primacy over vision.

And the final stanza from Blake’s “Jerusalem”:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Now here is section 114 in Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin:

Happy the tears that are not camera-shy and haemorrhage to cheers.

Bomberg did portraits rarely, self-portraits queerly. He could have produced them in-style and lived well.

To the realm of ideas a spendthrift thriftiness: a verb or Berkeleyan particle—Berkeley   on optics being Bomberg’s oracle.

Approve him according to the likes of Blake’s Jerusalem. Why? People self-maim,    irrespective of injury. The cry you have just uttered has not heard of you, trust me.

Adjuncts of weight and mass rebuilding the dead face without cause.

I have known a gifted, gracious man so saturate in sweet white wine that his skin stank like a sodden nappy as he sank slowly to type. His slurred tongue needed to be frequently wrung. A man of the word, utterly without spite, dissolving into his own detritus, hapless poetry slithering off his lap and through a fatal pedestrian gap, as in Gin Lane, that exemplary scene.

The dirty matter of moral freedom needs to be visited again; when what we have is the polity of Sodom and that other city of the plain.


And a paraphrase, with the above links and quotations as anchors for the ascent:


The formal opening, with Biblical syntax and cadence, sardonically envies those tears for the public, which bleed out into their own cheers, and bleed into cheers from others; the word “tears” itself bleeds sonorously and grotesquely into “cheers.” Such tears are marks of suffering to be photographed and celebrated, and their suffering itself becomes a celebration. Those who cry are not themselves happy (that would be perverse, hypocrisy—too cynical by Hill), but their tears are. 20c British painter David Bomberg not blessed by such tears; he declined to profit from his portraits. The lavish (“spendthrift”) thriftiness, the excess of thrift, is chiefly Bomberg’s, whose guiding principles from the realm of ideas owe to Berkeley: the primacy of touch over vision. But the line might also glance, and strike a glancing blow, at Hill, who returns frequently to Berkeley in the collection: it is both thrifty and excessive. In section 131: “Obsession is repetitious when it is unmute.” Bomberg, for Hill, becomes a Blakean hero, seeking an ideal to be realized in Britain, by creativity and imagination; he is one of the heroes of the poem (the entire book, that is). Self-alienation and self-harm are aligned with creation and art elsewhere in the poem, and now we are asked to look towards Bomberg’s art and self-maiming. In all of these compound self-reflexive words, the weight needs to be placed on “self.” The “self-maiming” is the strangeness of the self-portraits; it is inseparable from self-expression for Bomberg, and that “mental fight,” that taking up the arms of art as Blake does, sets him among those of whom, to whom, with whom Blake sings. The second-person pronoun “you” is difficult here, as elsewhere in the poem, which is exactly the point. My uncertainty of whether it takes me in, or whether it aims at Bomberg, or whether it is Hill’s self-address is appropriate. It cannot be claimed by me; it cannot neatly take hold of Bomberg, absent and dead; and addressed to Hill’s self, it has the effect of estranging “self-as-other.” As in other poems, by other poets, the force of the word lies first and foremost in its opposition to “I,” and in its dependence on “I.” Here, though, the effect is further darkened by the line itself: if “you” is Hill, it is a reminder that the utterance or expression detaches from the utterer; if “you” is the reader, it is a reminder of our distance from the poem. “Trust me” clinches the irony: who is this we are to trust, and what authority of intimacy can this “me” possess in light of what we have just read? Something happens in the next line: “Adjuncts of weight and mass rebuilding the dead face without cause.” A memory coalesces involuntarily; the portrait of a face, now dead, is rebuilt by the weight and mass of particles on the optic nerves. Once again, the self, the author, the creator, is estranged from the act or event, even if participating in it; it happens without cause. The statement is both a general law of what happens, but also, within the poem, a transformative utterance, yielding the astonishing fleshiness, grotesque, corporeal, sensuous of the following paragraph. The poem has turned obliquely. I take the penultimate paragraph (“I have known…”) to be a portrait by Hill, his own response to Bomberg, and it is redolent, albeit the medium is verbal and not visual, of a thickly-slathered paint by one of Bomberg’s pupils (Leon Kossoff, for instance). This is what such art can bring into focus; this is the flesh being recalled, wasted and wasting, and prompting Hill to the final resolute rumination: “we need to think more about moral freedom.” Sodom and Gomorrah, of course, but “that other city of the plain” catches a rhyme with “again,” and in so doing enacts a commitment to form and to obligation in a small matter; at the same time the phrase “that other city of the plain” touches a note of breezy absent-mindedness, echoing a worldly indifference to what has become of the world, and to what prefigures its state, the rhyme cinching a culpably complacent ease.

I found this to be among the most challenging sections of the poem, not because of the erudition but because of the movement between parts; but as with other sections, it is held together not only from within, by internal lines of thought, but from without, buttressed by the great masses of allusions and preoccupations that accrue as one reads the poem as a whole, and that provide it with a unity. With the whole poem in mind, the final line does not feel like a swerve away from the initial lines on Bomberg, as much as a return to a guiding anxiety; on the other hand, the initial lines on Bomberg do not seem like a distraction away from what the poem really centrally is about as much as they seem another satellite caught in its pull.


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