A Fortnightly Review
By ANTHONY O’HEAR.
GEOFFREY HILL’S The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin consists of 271 Cantos, of which Kenneth Haynes, Hill’s editor, tells us 226 were in a completed and corrected form at Hill’s death in 2016. The rest (up to 271) were in fair-copy notebooks, which Haynes has had printed as they were left, together with a very few draft fragments which are added at the end of a brief editorial note. From the start we have to say that Haynes is owed a great debt of gratitude not just for his work on Baruch, but also for all his earlier editorial work on behalf of Hill. Of course the greatest debt is to Hill himself who has unquestionably emerged as the most formidable poetic presence in the English language over at least the past half-century.
As everyone knows, Hill’s thought is often complex, though not more complex than its subject matter needs it to be (as he frequently pointed out to those who accused him of inaccessibility). His range of reference is vast and the references are often recondite, though not so recondite that anyone with access to the internet can’t quickly track them down. His language, although at times craggy and even twisted, is never less than sonorous and is often beautiful. It needs to be read out loud, not just for the sense but also for the weight and resonance and at times ambiguity, always precisely calculated, and actually part of the sense.
So Baruch is not at first sight easy. Its cantos consist of separate sentences, of differing length and with no overall metric connexion. However, there are internal rhythms and rhymes, and much internal melody, which underlines the need to read the thing out loud. As far as content goes, perhaps the nearest comparison is with Ezra Pound’s cantos, an at times bewildering mixture of personal reminiscence and confession, of soliloquys with the dead, of historical discussion, of artistic commentary, of religious-cum-mystical reflection, and above all of political obsession. In some ways this last is what comes out loudest or strongest in Baruch.
The opening is familiar enough Hillian territory:
Rehearse the autopsy. Psychic cut as ever. Not clever. Cute, my arse.’
As always, multiple meanings and humour, even if of a graveyard sort (and there is a lot about Hill’s own physical decline in what follows, which certainly has its rugged pathos, for example, ‘Geoff with the double stent and naff haemorrhoid’, 192).
Canto 271 (the last) has this
The numbness after the shock of exit, big–bummed Britannia in her tracksuit; her phantom lap of honour: no other runner.’
Hill did not like the Referendum result (indeed in the unfinished fragment he describes it as ‘the worst calamity that has struck the nation since that first day of the Somme affray’; day-affray is good, but would the claim survive revision? Would he still hold this in 2020?); even so, something, if not Britannia is redeemed in the final two lines of 271 and thus of the published book:
July, the dark month; the lime leaves turn matt. The newly-bloomed mallow will see us re-autumned before it falls fallow.
Even so, the power of stout roses has risen watt by watt against the after-glow of each brief thunder-shower.’
Beautiful, and hypnotic language; we still have the English climate to cherish.
THERE ARE CERTAINLY obscurities involved in the Gnostic Justin, who is not the Orthodox Justin Martyr, but a mysterious figure from about the same time, who taught that there were three primordial beings, the one Good creator and two subcreators or demiurges, a male and a female, who copulated together and produced twenty-four angels and the world itself. When Elohim the male demiurge returned to the One, Eden, the female, unleashed evil on the earth, and also twelve angels, as did Elohim, one of whose angels, Baruch, tries to redeem the world after Adam and Eve had, as in the standard Genesis narrative, eaten of the tree of knowledge. I don’t think that Hill sticks too closely to the Gnostic Justin, except to the extent that creation will always involve both good and evil, no creation without both, and neither without the other. He also quotes a beautiful phrase from Justin in Canto 156: ‘the Word of God became a babe that cried’, but this is, as Hill tells us, Justin Martyr not the Gnostic Justin, and is cited in response to ‘’Christ is no wild-cat’, says a preacher; but later his words like a clawed spat on the tiles’. No wild-cat, but the babe that cried did go on to whip the money changers out of the Temple, to refer to a favourite theme of Hill’s.
There is a sense in Baruch of an initially innocent existence, of Hill’s own childhood and youth. If you were alive in England in the 1940s, as Hill was, you will not need the internet to know about Pickwick fountain pens and Swan ink, Frank Whittle and the RAF Meteor, the Vulcan bomber, Fred Hoyle, Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup and the lion which enabled sweetness to be drawn from the strong, Larry the Lamb and Mr Growser, typewriters and telephones. These and other iconic motifs from the era are referred by Hill, including the way in his home the Daily Mail of the day was a presiding presence, as if to suggest a kind of sunlit innocence in his (and my) experience of that time. But this is the book of the Gnostic Justin. Along with childhood memories and the heroes and artifacts of the time, which can conjure up such feelings, other things were also going on.
The early sections of Baruch are much concerned with the Second World War and particularly the London blitz in 1940, when so many city churches were destroyed. And not just churches, devastating as that was:
Len Rosoman in Shoe Lane. Write on that if you can.
One man pressed flat as a skate; even his tin hat.
It was, I hope, quick; not like that woman in Tudor York who kept her soul tidy—a good Catholic lady—and met with things dark, shapeless, inhuman, in the midst of the everyday and things common.’ (7)
Len Rosoman was an artist who painted a picture of the incident Hill is referring to, when two firemen were crushed to death by a collapsing wall as they were fighting the fire. Hill hopes that it was quick, as no doubt we all do. But why did it happen as it did? Why was the Whitbread brewery preserved when so many, buildings and people, were not? Were we (they) let down by the authorities in some way, through ‘torpor and oversight’, Hill says, ‘though few even now will admit that; and become shifty and annoyed’? (22) Are we to suppose that Elohim (the good demi-urge) somehow spared Whitbread’s (the brewery) while ‘laying all to waste’ to the south? (8) Hill makes the appropriately named Sir Aylmer Firebrace, the head of the fire service, into something like a gnostic angel ‘determined of face, in a state of grace, striding the dark, chief surveyor of the Blitz’, before him rows of people dead in the night’s ‘vast cinema’. (6) And later ‘things are now calmer, would you agree, Sir Aylmer?’ (8), a degree of irony here, surely, addressed to a man who later turned to Christian theology, even writing what is described as a ‘spiritually scientific’ account of his work as a firefighter.1
Whatever we think of Sir Aylmer and gnostic angels, for Hill employers must shoulder much of the blame, leaving offices locked over the weekend when the blitz struck most fiercely. By contrast, employees, such as Len Rosoman’s firemen, behaved heroically, challenging ‘the burning wall with ridiculous stirrup pump and pail’. (22)
‘Renounce a degree of anger’, Hill says (5), but this is not the note struck by much of the rest of Baruch. The underlying theme is that in so much of our life to-day, as prefigured or even manifested in the Blitz, even when elements of old spiritual England still remained alive, now hierarchy has been largely displaced by hegemony. If Hill cherishes aspects of our history and culture, he does so in a Ruskinian way, combined with a fierce anger at the way, while we may ‘debate the good nature of the city-state’, mostly what we now have is ‘a stilted conversation on behalf of a jilted nation defaulted’. (2) And if Ruskin, whom Hill admires, described himself as a Tory (of sorts), for Hill the Peaky Blinders (pre-war midland gangsters, the subject of a popular television series of the current day) ‘were High Tory handlers and minders, riders to hounds, agents provocateurs for contrived wars, dealers in contraband armoured cars, playing off White against Red; and all within twelve miles or so of where I was bred… innocence and evil over my head’ in that ‘marred childhood of which I am both ashamed and proud’. (260) No doubt it is not just that Peaky Blinders are Tories, the hegemonic oligarchs who are to-day’s Tories (for Hill) are Peaky Blinders: ‘hierarchy is not peerage-hegemony or the squirerarchy, as at a time when many must beg’. (163) Of course, in 2020 many are begging; which is part of what Hill was getting at in 2015 or 2016. ‘When I was little I read the Daily Mail; and believed that a chosen few were born to rule: like, yet unlike, Dryden, Purcell, and their ‘Fairest Isle’.’ (257) What he then believed was not wrong. We need hierarchy, even more when we have been jilted in favour of Peaky Blinder hegemony.
Innocence and evil, inextricably intertwined, private and public. Eden and Elohim, the bad and the good demiurges, ‘a desire united them in one feeling of love.’ (234) Hill goes on to refer to Sir John Hawkwood, the ‘well reimbursed iron fist Italian condotierre’ as a Peaky Blinder avant la lettre. But, although Hill does not mention this in Baruch, Sir John is one of the very few people memorialized (in his case in a fresco by Ucello) in the Duomo (of Santa Maria del Fiore) of Florence. It was for what became the Florence of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi and Donatello, and which had been that of Dante, that Hawkwood worked, and which became what it was in part because of his iron fist. The Duomo, celebrating Hawkwood as it does, was regarded by Florentines of the day as the heavenly city on earth. But Hawkwood having been invoked, Hill is now in full flow:
Tell me it [‘Peaky Blinder’ -A O’H] is an incomprehensible label so to apply.
Coleridge and Ruskin, my mind’s heroes, were high Tories.
Yeats with his night dogs, torched Furies and Blue Shirt marching programme:
Pound’s two ‘Italian Cantos’; his cerebral pogrom; his readiness to play court fool at Mussolini’s foot-stool:
Original division, ultimate diffusion or fusion through whoompf creation, repeated as demeaning legends of anthropomorphic Fall, no matter how miniscule to the new scale.’ (261)
This linking of the cosmic with the temporal, of the elevated with the lowly and the demotic, even the sordid, and of the well-intentioned with the ill-thought out, even the evil, permeates Baruch as it does much of Hill’s later work. ‘Or is it that in a certain hour I read Aristotle on the mind’s power to make disparates cohere; like the oxygen constituent of air, fuel that combusts into metaphor it does not kill, though eventually it will kill us.’ (47) Fuel combusting into metaphor; and more ‘our cells are the posthumous largesse of red giants, of supernovae the weird beneficiaries or clients.’ (100)
While the overall tone of Baruch is that of a somewhat desperate grumpiness, reflecting in part Hill’s age and physical condition, as he admits, there are, as always, heroes popping up throughout the work. Coleridge and Ruskin we have already mentioned, but pre-eminent among those who have risen above the Fall is Milton. Then there are the Jesuits Gerard Hopkins (Deutschland rejected for publication by his order, who also exiled him to Dublin for an over-enthusiastic sermon in Liverpool) and Robert Southwell, the latter an Elizabethan martyr, as was Margaret Clitheroe, the ‘Tudor lady’ crushed to death between mill-stones. She and Southwell, along with the other 40 ‘English Martyrs’ are now canonised saints of the Catholic Church. Then, as often with Hill, we also find Bomberg, Purcell, Dryden, Kit Smart, Tudor and Jacobean figures such as Wyatt and Wotton and maybe to balance the Catholics, in a qualified way at least, Cromwell and other parliamentary heroes of the Civil War, Berkeley and Swift, Blake and the Welsh poet Alun Lewis (together with some of the now familiar nostalgia for colonised Wales and Ireland). More surprisingly, perhaps, Brecht comes in for praise and some criticism, but mainly praise (though Hill would have crossed the road to avoid actually meeting him). Surprising, but also poignantly, Malcolm Arnold appears; ‘Old Malc: back in Northampton, the tragi-grotesque mask of rage clamped on’, a description some might apply to Hill himself… but then Arnold’s ‘Symphony nine unwinds as though in unison in two staves, like a parody of Mahlerian benison… But there, how can it haul itself from three craters in a row, that final untriumphing lento of twenty-odd minutes, which mimes infinity without claims; can barely feel but persists in so rueing, though the wrists of the violinists must be wrung with the sustaining of its near subliminal song.’ (197)
One of the benefits of reading Hill’s later work is that it sends one to or back to neglected masterpieces, such as Arnold’s final symphony, in this case one entirely germane to Hill’s general purpose. We are also directed to the visual arts, again slightly off the beaten track, but well worth following Hill’s descriptions and promptings for: Breughel’s Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), Holbein’s remarkable Dance of Death, Hogarth’s Rake’s and Harlot’s Progresses, Rouault’s Miserere et Guerre, and Stanley Spencer’s Port Glasgow Resurrection. Those at all familiar with Hill’s work will easily anticipate the line he takes on these works, but what is more important is the way he cajoles his reader into looking at the works, either for the first time, or with a new eye.
As well as Hillian heroes there are also anti-heroes, the Benns, Gottfried and Hilary, for example, and also the ‘run of the mill’ intellectuals of the Third Reich, Goebbels and a few einzatzgruppen chiefs, with DScs and DPhils. (128) (Plus ca change!) And there are also the equivocal figures. Pound and Yeats we have already referred to, but we also find Wyndham Lewis and Henry Williamson lamented: ‘a right pair of shell-shocked intellectual beauties, each with his high manner of reproof that was also a moral boner.’ And Lewis’s Hitler ‘was the worst headless chicken act of the literary thirties’. (177) Yes, so writers we greatly admire have made regrettable political stands and statements; all part of the gnostic dualism, I suppose – and Hill certainly did admire Wyndham Lewis, Pound and Yeats, as I admire Hill. But…
We have already alluded to Hill’s view on Brexit, and what he himself admits is a change of heart on the EU. Earlier, much like Jeremy Corbyn he had derided the Maastricht as ‘an international corporate fraud’. (240) One can, of course, still argue about Brexit, and Hill may be right that what it will usher in is an ‘England of rotten boroughs and Hobbits maudits’. But Corbyn? More difficult to swallow is Hill’s late and uncritical endorsement of Corbyn as leader of the British Labour Party and potential prime minister. ‘Corbyn’s win. Democracy sprung, new-old blood, from stock and stone. Tribute to, yet break from, the great dead and my dead kin.’ (190) This was after Corbyn had won the leadership of the Labour party, but see also the earlier ‘Corbyn must win’ before the leadership vote. (186) Then, go to 187 – Corbyn freighted down by mass opinion; 192 – Corbyn, like a martyr, would have gone to the stake; 194 – Hill ‘trusts’ that Corbyn is bloody-minded, though in 228 he admits that Corbyn would not have seemed worthy of a nobly subsiding Elgarian tune. One can understand and to a degree sympathise with Hill’s long-standing dislike of plutocratic anarchy and also with his disgust at the low level of public life and comment in twenty-first-century Britain. But seems to me that the kindest thing to say about his admiration for Corbyn is that it is a somewhat bludgeoning and undirected expression of what Hill had long thought and felt about the state of society in his time, and a reaction to the phenomena which had for long obsessed him. This is not the place to discuss Corbyn, who has just led (if that is the word) his party to a colossal and devastating defeat in the 2019 general election, save to say that the policies he was fighting that election on, far from improving the life of ordinary people, would have impoverished the country for decades, and that he himself rarely misses an opportunity to side with the enemies of his country. These attitudes might be intelligible in youthful students, from where Corbyn drew much of his initial support, adulation even. Less forgivable are such attitudes in an old-age pensioner, like Corbyn himself or even, it has to be said, Geoff.
I do not want to conclude on a sour note. I will end by pointing to two gems from Baruch, which encapsulate aspects of Hill I admire and cherish. The first is the reference at 31 to Frank Musgrove, which will have mystified many readers. Musgrove was a left-wing sociologist who, in 1979 published a book entitled School and the Social Order, in which he argued that after the 1931 General Strike, the greatest betrayal of the working classes in the twentieth century was the abolition of the grammar schools. In a detailed analysis of the situation in the late 1950s and early 1960s Musgrove showed that those who benefited most from the grammar schools came from the echelons of society which never previously would had had access to an academic education or university. Further, it was the public schools who were actually terrified of the grammar schools, because the middle classes were beginning to realise that they did not need to pay for the sort of education they wanted their children to have. The abolition of the grammar schools came just in time to save the independent sector of education, as Musgrove points out. I think that Geoffrey Hill would have been introduced to this book, as I was, by our mutual friend (Sir) Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools in England. (Woodhead, Hill and I were all grammar school boys.) Having mentioned Chris, I could perhaps clarify two references in Baruch. Nash, referred to at 116 is the Woodhead house on the Anglo-Welsh border, and prompts one of Hill’s striking descriptions of nature. And the journey from East Anglia to Cornwall referred to at 171 was when Geoffrey travelled to Morvah to read from Funeral Music at Chris’s funeral in 2015.
The second passage I will draw attention to is the reference in 37 to Chesterton’s ‘unalloyed joy in describing the national genius displayed by Trabb’s boy in Great Expectations. Chesterton’s essay2 is marvellous, a moving tribute to the true or best spirit of English dissent, unviolent and unrancorous, but so telling and so true. As so often with reading Geoffrey Hill, all one can do is to think Hill for putting something wonderful and unexpected before one. And despite my cavils about Corbyn and Brexit, the same can be said for Baruch itself.
Anthony O’Hear OBE is professor of philosophy at the University of Buckingham, and a philosopher with a special interest in education. Among his most recent books: Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia (with Natasha O’Hear) and The Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature. His Transcendence, Creation and Incarnation: From Philosophy to Religion will be published by Routledge in 2020. He is also co-editor emeritus of The Fortnightly Review, and a visiting professor in The Chavagnes Studium. An archive of his Fortnightly work is here.