Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin takes as its subject and condition the inverse of a diaspora: not a people scattered from a place, but a place scattered from its people. The people are Hill’s Gnostics (a designation he assumes with something of a facetious wink, but with pride), the heretics, the creators and critics of a Britain that has never existed except in the imagination: Blake’s Albion, a Tudor fantasy, a Romantic nation, shadowed by, and sometimes suddenly breaking from, the detritus of history. The poem is less about a “back when” and more about a “back there,” which may turn out to be an “up there,” though there is little hope; hence it is a vituperative elegy mourning what has persistently been prevented from realization, except in the dreams and imaginations of a few, sometimes by way of negation and criticism of what is.
“Place” is also among the technical challenges of the poem—but that is to say no more than something that is the case for any poem. Instead, it might be said that “place” is a special challenge for this poem, displaced as it is, and yet committed as it is to establishing a lineage of others similarly displaced. As a matter of principle, the success of a work of imagination will depend on its placing itself, and establishing the place in which it stands; that is one way of describing F.H. Bradley’s axiom (of which Hill approves) that a poem must “get the condition of judgment within the judgment.” In the case of Hill’s poem, with its flourishes of self-dramatization, it is all the more imperative that the drama is located and situated. In my experience with the poem, the moments where it comes most alive are those where the sense of place is most keenly felt, where Hill most fully inhabits a place, and where it is least accessible to my appreciation, it is where I cannot discern a place where Hill stands, and so cannot enter into the poet’s imagination. That is not to say that I find least accessible those expressions of utter displacement and disorientation; those, after all, can powerfully carry a sharp orientation towards somewhere absent or impossible. But they can also lack that sense.
It may seem that I am substituting “place” for the old ideal of formal unity; it is related, but not the same. From one perspective, “place” develops unity and elaborates upon it to speak of what the experience of a poem’s unity is like in terms that are not limited to literature or art; from another perspective, it suggests how a poem, or any work of art, has responsibilities to a shared field of living, and to imagining life and art as being situated in the world, or without it, but towards it.
The technical machinery that Hill invented for the entire poem, that shapes each section, the long lines with dense inner-rhymes and cross-rhymes, some near, some sight, some neat, some messy, is a machine that summons place sufficiently to express the distance from it. The degree to which the place is brought forth, and even inhabited, by Hill, differs from poem to poem, but the success of any given section depends on some orientation towards place, whether it is a particular place richly imagined, or the sense of place more generally, from which Hill is excluded. Where the poems are most difficult for me to enter and appreciate, it is owing to my uncertainty about how to place the lines, and how the lines are themselves placed, in relation to any place or notion of place at all. In my experience, the difficulty is greatest from around section 130 to section 182, a sizeable and daunting stretch that has readily accessible rewards, but that is not as immediate in its riches as the sections from 182 to the close, at section 271, or even the first 130 sections.
The machinery itself, the formal invention of the poem, allows for Hill an elaboration of expression that is both charged and extensive, permitting both syntactical complexity and abbreviation; the long lines are woven together, meeting at snags of sound and grammar, like nests or burrows, suddenly forming an extensive network through which the reader passes.
In my earlier posts I focused on sections that gave me some trouble. Here I would like to give attention to those that I can easily, fully appreciate—the sections that testify directly to Hill’s accomplishment. Here, then, is a poem whose sense of displacement feels fully realized in its power, poignancy, and pitch of language, section 229:
The static exercise-bike in his basement next to a crammed wine-rack; such was my donnée, you might say, for that breakthrough elegy way back; and for an awkward fecundity since then.
For more than that dull reason I am in self-evident confessional season and mode. It was so provident that I could barely speak, miming the astonishment, mining the fabulous lode without diminishment.
How introverted all this has become since I became self-narrated; even though the best of me is linear and simple: this present apology an example.
Poem as form found in a citadel of the mind if not exiled therefrom. To write thus is to proclaim a continuum, not a going rate.
For Gerard, ‘summer’s sovereign good’ was swimming nude in the Hodder.
I know so well that same deep cleft; can tell how it might appear, a total recall, or near, to one, after-bereft, brinksman of despair.
Turing as victim of a public politic crime continues to draw me to its drame, as it must some others.
‘The fury of intelligence baffled and inspired by circumjacent stupidity.’ This needs to be felt through and through as prosody, though; and with the going rough.
Poem as problem for the ‘concluding-problem’: in this sequence a current theme.
No need to wring your carbolic-soaped hands every time.
The poems that most obviously effect displacement often turn on the “poem as” figure: the poem itself experienced as a point of nostalgia. In some sections, they dominate; in others, such as this, they emerge. Here, the displacement is effected over the course of the section, the thickly painted scene in the first sections giving way, as it were, to the self-dramatized self-reflection of the third line/unit: “How introverted all this has become since I became self-narrated.” Another pattern in the poem: where the self-dramatization is most finely tuned, the sense of displacement is at its height, self-dramatization coinciding with estrangement and self-estrangement alike; and in this section what helps the tuning is the turn towards places that are elsewhere more fully inhabited: Turing briefly in 227, Hopkins with special beauty in 214:
Haeccitas appears out of black brickwork like evidence shallowly buried for a hundred years. Dark remnants glim hallowly; there is a spontaneous combustion in the vast bastion of waste.
The Church of St Francis Xavier, where Gerard was rebuked for overwrought pulpit behaviour, I believe I could revere merely for his being (briefly) there.
Reconstructed to Dublin, poisoned iron drinking-fountain, finally even he began to complain.
214 stands as an exemplary instance of the recovery of place, effected with concision and thick layering at once; it is of course a recovery of a place that bears witness to displacement, and to alienation, as most of the most intensely imagined places in the poem are, but it is a place nonetheless. It is sections like this that are most welcoming to readers also.
But 229 is not without ways for a reader to enter into its feelings of being without, and of being on the outside of what poetry is and could be, not least. Where the final line turns to the second-person, “No need to wring your carbolic-soaped hands every time,” it censures both poet and reader, but the occasion of the censure and address are well-established as the preceding lines. The rebuke is itself “placed.”
In section 226, displacement is effected and registered with more a more tenuous unity, but with a compensating tenderness and delicacy that suggests vulnerability and exposure:
When I confessed to the palely dressed lady that I had no testosterone I was prophesying, old son.
Does the moon inflict change? She appears without malice.
And my late nature is a coup de theatre manufactured by dry ice.
Biological etiology, even, serves the Logos, the Word that survives vogues.
I cannot say to what this brings me or where it leaves me on any given day.
So many whom I admired are solidly interred [points to his head], each a vociferous similitude.
A shade too close to Leopardi, ‘Chorus of the Dead,’ of which, fortunately for me, few here have even heard.
I believe I value BV as such as he deserve.
PS: the living likeness was due a to a novel embalming fluid.
Here again is self-dramatization, but flatly, suitably for the flattening of self that the lines express—and no more so than in the italicized stage direction, which comes in the line that I think especially poignant in its plainness that accommodates humility, dignity, and melancholy, none of which are dispelled, and all of which are given heroic grandeur, in the phrase “vociferous similitude,” all alike in their stentorian voices. It’s a poem about decay and change, and loss; the first line emanates from a memory of reading The Woman in White but the rest of the section soon leaves that behind, and the space around the speaker is filled by a mist, though he remains grounded there: “I cannot say what this brings me or where it leaves me on any given day”: a suggestion of Beckett. “Given” recalls also “donnee” from section 229, and the poem as a whole could be said to be built from what happens to have been received—the chance inheritance, otherwise waste.
In the final 80 or 90 sections of the poem, those poems that most fully realize place are memories (in the earliest sections, they are scenes from post-Blitz London and WW1, as well as the superb section on Holbein’s Dance of Death), and of these, I think section 232 serves as a final example:
Wisdom, as hygiene, sure to touch its toes from time; even, though more rarely, the parts of shame.
Which were—are—so evident in Gandhi and Gandhi’s India where the poor crouch briefly in a position of postprandial.
This memo to inform my present kind carer that we are en route to Tagore’s ashram in Shantiniketan. Hardly the Grand Tour, even in memory.
At stations along the way I was served tea through the open window in recently-baked cups of rough clay that afterwards were to be broken, as though ritually, so it appeared to be.
We have, then, the collective motion of the train; and I have the singular demotion of my attestations to the divine.
But nothing so alien as now by body is, after—precisely—forty years, to the guarded passage of its exiled desires.
At Tagore’s house they sang me a hymn and said it was by him. I found it, as I recall, hypnotically beautiful.
I also recall that I thought he had lived in some style. Everything indoors was (to my uneducated eye) tastefully regal.
Gitanjali, which in English is more or less on a level with Songs of Travel, won an early Nobel. Those who can read it in the original Bengali say it does ‘lovely things’.
‘Ashram’ most probably is the incorrect term for the estate I arrived at. It could have been a country gentleman’s farm in the English shires. But I am accustomed to my brain as an entertainment of crossed wires which, as we tell ourselves, does no great harm.
But it does; it does. How glad I am, now, not to be in my own shoes.
Labyrinthine anatomy of the ‘simply divine’ understood by none.
The lines both remember a place and place the memory; they place also memory itself, in relation to the aging mind and aging body. At part it is affecting because the decorous humility before what is culturally foreign is matched by the decorous humility in the self-alienation; and it is a matter of exposure and decorum, and the necessity of exposure that would violate decorum in some circumstances, that is the occasion for the poem, in its first line.
“Place,” in Hill’s poem and elsewhere, is a lived experience of unity, just as unity is the lived experience of place. Place grounds our concepts of belonging, fitting, perspective, and proportion, and when the place cannot be inhabited, it is to say that something has come apart such that belonging and perspective and proportion are indeterminable. (Place is space under the aegis of ought. An athlete moves in a space; a dancer moves in a place).
A poem must, if it is to be a poem, have some recourse to standards of belonging, perspective, fit and proportion, and section 232 manages to bring place sufficiently into view, both in its description, but also in its evident decorous poise; they suggest that the poetry has partially won out against the disunity and displacement that it apprehends (in both senses of the word). Hill can make poetry itself a subject of so many sections because the fate of poetry is commensurate with the fate of place—or less loftily and more knottily, the place of poetry is commensurate with the place of place. Anarchy and hegemony are the forces disrupting place; hierarchy and intrinsic value bind place together. The Britain that Hill imagines exists in the imagination that can harmonize experience according to scales of value; without the scales, harmony, and unity, and place, would not be possible. The corruption of place is a loss of place.
I will end by quoting section 236. If asked to explain it, I do not know what I could say, except that it’s disunity registers bafflement beautifully and not arbitrarily:
Whales self-strand lately in North Sea shallows. We do not understand why.
The waters recede: neither covenant nor creed.
Seventeenth-century statesmen’s obituaries are copiously tendentious even when they cite Grotius.
You’ll say I am ungenerous to a necessary national sagesse of that time and place.
Poem in memoriam the Missing of the Somme: probably, as you claim, a misuse of the medium.
Just possibly in some extraordinary way worthy of them.
Scattered uncertain applause from both sides of the House of Mirth.
The House of Mirth is home to the heart of fools; they do not know what to make of the past, of the memorializing poem, or the Missing of the Somme; they do not know what to make of Hill’s verse and applaud uncertainly. Both sides of the House, because it is also Parliament, applauding from both sides, which shows it to be, though they do not know why, a matter of national pride. It is worse than the copious tendentiousness of the obituaries of statesmen from an era when the receding waters revealing stranding whales were interpreted biblically: the covenant of God after the flood. The “you” is Hill, and an interlocutor, never identified, never fixed, but never broadened to include an Everyman Common reader; it is the antiphonal heckler (of Hill’s criticism) perhaps. That necessary national sagesse of the seventeenth-century is itself as foreign as the French word for wisdom; ungenerous, perhaps, but on terms that suggest how far the grounds of censure and complaint have shifted, as if “copiously tendentious” obituaries are any longer a symptom or product of the ills of the time, as if they would cite a political theorist or philosopher at all; Hill’s complaint against them is real, but the irony cuts harder against the present than the criticism cuts against the past. The whales are stranded because of North Sea oil, where the sonar to gauge the depth of the sea-bed misleads the whales into shallow animals. They do not understand fully why, but the real lack of comprehension is deeper than the science of whale navigation, into a lack of comprehension about human behavior and folly; the whale is the leviathan of the state, also. The stranded leviathan on the shore is a figure for the catastrophic loss of life in the First World War, a subject of many of the earlier sections of the poem.
But such an explanation only explains how the poem’s parts hang together; it does not speak to or of the effect of the poem’s strange relation to its own unity and disunity—for the poem can only be read with both in mind. What is affecting in it is probably, more than anything, its calm drift through its despair, its yielding not to compromise with the state of things, but its yielding to perplexity at the state of compromise; in it, Hill looks limpidly and resignedly at his own perplexity and refusal to resign himself to the world.
The section stands aloof, then, from the place it contemplates, but in its aloofness it is grounded, centered, and at rest.