Cute, My Arse
- The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin by Geoffrey Hill
Oxford, 148 pp, £20.00, April, ISBN 978 0 19 882952 2
You would be hard pressed to describe Geoffrey Hill’s final work. To say it is a sort of notebook cast as a prose poem in 271 sections of greatly varying length doesn’t get you very far. In one way it is squarely in the tradition of Pope’s Dunciad (which it mentions): it is a poem about the betrayal of England, a yowl of anger and outrage at the prevailing imbecility Hill often addressed in his later works. It is also a poem that meditates darkly on history, especially preoccupied (as he often was) with the two world wars and the turmoil of England in the 17th century, episodes involved, if obscurely, in a narrative of national catastrophe that comes across as nearly all-encompassing. But then there have always been some recusant figures in Hill’s mythology who elude the general ruin, and the poem is also a collection of portraits of those embattled men and women who somehow kept true amid the chaos. They prove an extremely miscellaneous gathering of poets, novelists, thinkers and polemicists, composers, painters, architects and (rarely) statesmen. Some sections have something of the quality of a diary or a day-book: he takes note of public events (Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the Brexit vote), responds to the books he’s reading and to what’s in the papers, as well as occasionally registering very beautifully the changing seasons in his garden and, somewhere in the background, the progress of the church year. Parts of the poem are movingly autobiographical, full of elegiac feeling: he looks back, for example, to his roots in Worcestershire while experiencing old age and bodily decline (‘Diabetes is now affecting both eyes, though what this may symbolise I can’t say’). And for a lot of the time it is a poem preoccupied with poetry: there are numerous one-line aphoristic definitions of ‘poem’ throughout, both weighty (‘Poem as cradle of the unbiddable name’) and flighty (‘Poem as equity release – whatever that is’), as well as frequent notes to self about this poem in particular, as in its opening line: ‘Rehearse the autopsy. Psyche cut as ever. Not clever. Cute, my arse.’
That opening line is a crash course in a voice the reader is going to have to get used to (I was about to write ‘going to have to bloody well get used to’ – a certain take-it-or-leave-it pugnacity is part of the effect). Hill’s early verse was celebrated by critics for its air of hard-won formal accomplishment, that sense of ‘formality under duress’ which Hill once attributed admiringly to the American poet Allen Tate. ‘With what concentration, effort, agony he must have laboured on these marvellous poems!’ Michael Wharton exclaimed in a review in the Spectator, praise which was prominently reprinted on the jacket of the 1985 Collected Poems to sum up a whole school of regard. Wharton was best known for a column he wrote in the Telegraph under the name ‘Peter Simple’, and he was pleased to see in Hill’s austere lyricism a salutary rejection of vulgar modern mores, so I am not sure what he would have made of ‘Cute, my arse’ – not to mention, from later sections of the poem, ‘a shot of jism’, ‘a selfish prick’ and ‘wanky candles’. Which is to say that The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin represents the final stage in that transformation of Hill’s style, inaugurated by Canaan (1996), which has been noticed by many readers, sometimes to regret. Like Auden, Hill grew increasingly irritated by the praise that continued to be heaped on his youthful promise – ‘Not again those marvellous early poems/Lately acknowledged’, he complained in Odi Barbare (2012) – for, also like Auden, he devoted a great deal of his later imaginative effort precisely to not sounding like he used to. John Bayley, an attentive but sceptical admirer, once shrewdly said of the early Hill manner: ‘The danger with this sort of poetry is that it is the kind that looks like poetry, which need not mean that it is not the real thing, but is bound to raise a certain sort of doubt’; and you could see the progressive roughening up to which Hill subjected his lyric gift as an attempt to refute any doubts about its being the ‘real thing’. ‘The obsessive concern I have with order in the early work,’ he told an interviewer in 2000, ‘is one that somebody has who feels all the time how endangered order is, and what a potential threat to order he is’; in the later work he felt able to be much more ‘ragged edged’, less subject to a punitive regime of verbal discipline.
‘No upright poem in its uptight English can seem to me quite free from limescale under the rim,’ he says here, embracing a less house-proud muse. The voice is still full of the old duress, but it avoids formality with a desolate glee: it is improvisatory and throwaway as though happening in real time, syntactically unkempt, peremptorily colloquial, heedlessly disinclined to spell things out, at times sourly hilarious, irascible, often exasperated. The thing is written in varying lines of what you might even call prose were they not interlaced throughout with glancing half-rhymes – what Hill calls at one point ‘rhyme-scoop’ – as in that opening line where ‘ever’ chimes with ‘clever’, ‘cut’ pairs off with ‘Cute’, and ‘Rehearse’ with ‘arse’; meanwhile, as a kind of anti-rhyme, the last three letters of ‘autopsy’ repeat themselves with a different sound as the first three letters of ‘Psyche’, and ‘Cute … arse’ is an approximate anagram of ‘cut as ever’. The poem sometimes wanders as far from a solemn music as to approach the clerihew, something about which Hill makes a knowing joke: ‘Sir Christopher Wren, in or around the year seventeen ten, went to dine with some men, memorially, with a view to re-edifying the clerihew.’ Wren went to dine with some men in a clerihew by E.C. Bentley, the inventor of the form: ‘He said, “if anyone calls/Say I’m designing St Paul’s’ (a building which he completed in 1710). Hill’s poem lives locally in these small, self-delighting verbal graces that can have the air of deft contrivance or happy accident, while its more momentous and even ominous compulsions work themselves out on the grand scale, as though occupying some other part of the poet’s mind.
‘Again I use quasi-telegraphese to deliver the ever-importunate Muse,’ Hill says a few pages in: it’s a very characteristic joke, rhyming so approximately on (of all words) the word ‘Muse’, and, in the drollery of ‘ever-importunate’, confessing a vocation and sounding thoroughly sardonic about it at the same time (‘a poetic gift,’ he once said in an essay about Hopkins, ‘is always inordinate in its demands’). His ‘quasi-telegraphese’ style leaves out words which grammar normally requires, such as pronouns and articles, and omits too the fuller information or explanation that you might expect in a more expansively discursive sort of language, and jumps by unpredictable association from subject to subject. Here is an example, from about a third of the way through, by which time you are probably getting the hang of it:
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.
So what do you make of that? Salamis was the famous naval battle at which the Greeks defeated the Persians; but that won’t help with the phrase ‘Irish Salamis’, which of course is not ‘commonplace’. It appears in Yeats’s diary for 1930, passages of which were published posthumously by his widow in a book called Explorations (1962). Yeats coined it to praise the philosophy of George Berkeley, the 18th-century bishop of Cloyne (and so a cleric, as well as ‘clerkly’), which Yeats thought had seen off a threat to civilisation no less deadly than that posed to Greece by Xerxes and his men: the enemy for Berkeley, as for Yeats, was not military but intellectual, the empiricist philosophy of John Locke. Berkeley did indeed write a book entitled Siris: A Chain of Philosophical Reflexions and Inquiries concerning the Virtues of Tar Water, a work of great eccentricity much loved by Coleridge, but his attempt to refute Locke occurs elsewhere, principally in the Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and in the early manuscripts belatedly published in 1930 as his Commonplace Book (hence, perhaps, the appearance of the word ‘commonplace’): that was Yeats’s favourite, and Hill refers to it with pleasure elsewhere in The Book of Baruch. Eccentrically, Yeats liked to think of Berkeley’s form of idealism as somehow Irish, a clear marker of difference from the dreary materialism of the colonial power; although his victory doesn’t seem to have done much to soften the terrible end of Jonathan Swift, who died demented in 1745, unconsoled by his compatriot’s breakthrough in epistemology. Yeats saw Berkeley’s immaterialism as a return to ancient wisdom, a reinstatement of the proper sovereignty of the imagination, and thus, or so Hill seems to suggest, it saved Ireland from a more earthbound nationhood, such as that which required the shedding of blood, the subject of Yeats’s poem ‘The Rose Tree’ (1920), in which Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, leading figures in the 1916 Dublin Rising, concur that ‘nothing but our own red blood/Can make a right Rose Tree.’ (Pearse had declared that it would take ‘the blood of the sons of Ireland to redeem Ireland’.) Yeats said in this same diary that, thanks to the ‘Irish Salamis’, ‘we were biased, we are biased’ in literary judgments of Irish writers; but the phrase Hill uses suggests he is also remembering a passage in the marvellous introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse where Yeats is describing the rebellious poets of his youth who wanted to kick over Victorian moralism: they thought of poetry, he says, as ‘a tradition like religion and liable to corruption’. And what about the queen? In 2011 the queen made the first state visit by a British monarch to an independent Ireland, where she paid her respects to the republican dead in the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square; the German president Willy Brandt made a gesture of contrition that became famous as the ‘Kniefall von Warschau’ before the monument to the Warsaw Rising during his visit to Poland in 1970. The person who speculated that ‘the ultimate reality’ must be ‘anarchy’ was Basil Bunting, whom Yeats quoted in his diary, in which he also said that ‘tradition is kindred’ and that civilisations generally last for two thousand years ‘from nadir to nadir’. The closing lines seem to rise from this tangle of reference into an imaginative space all their own, exemplifying Hill’s genius for the clinching image, here some post-apocalyptic collapse into barbarism, rather as Yeats depicted it with such relish in poems such as ‘The Second Coming’. The vandalised temple is now occupied by harried cattle: some catastrophe has occurred.
As his career went on, reviews of Hill would increasingly begin by acknowledging his reputation for being ‘difficult’, even ‘notoriously difficult’, a subject Hill himself tackled with testy vigour whenever he was questioned about it. He could be magnificently contemptuous about the virtues of ‘accessibility’ and what he saw as its spurious connection with ‘democratic’ values. ‘Often the word difficult comes up,’ the interviewer from the Paris Review said. ‘Like a Victorian wedding night, yes,’ Hill replied, a good example of his lugubrious wit, before mounting a defence: ‘Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other … I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.’ An authority he invoked on several occasions was the anti-Nazi classicist Theodor Haecker, who wrote that what despots really like is for language to be straightforward: ‘any complexity of language, any ambiguity, any ambivalence implies intelligence.’ And indeed many great Hill lines linger in the mind precisely because as soon as they have settled into one meaning they start up again and discover another: ‘This is plenty. This is more than enough’ or ‘Tragedy has all under regard’ or ‘There is not another moment to lose.’ Hill’s anti-totalitarian defence of difficulty is well taken; but it is less obvious that the difficulty at issue in the section of The Book of Baruch I quoted above is really a matter of ambiguity or ambivalence so much as it is of knowing what Hill is talking about. He often described himself to journalists as a poet ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’, a phrase from Milton that Coleridge made famous, but whatever he meant by ‘simple’ I don’t think he ever claimed you could understand his poems without putting in some work: ‘Any reader who was prepared to read through my Collected Poems with the kind of attention which one ought to be able to take for granted could see for himself or herself the truth of the matter,’ he told David Sexton, somewhat sternly.
T.S. Eliot once said that genuine poetry could ‘communicate before it is understood’, though that doesn’t preclude understanding it too: it might seem a generous thing to say that the poetry in some way communicates its meaning, or its feeling, even in the absence of your knowing anything very specific about Yeats or Berkeley, or the queen visiting Dublin or Brandt visiting Warsaw, and that knowledge of those things would prove an additional grace to reading rather than its precondition. But I’m not sure you would make much at all of those lines unless you knew something about Yeats and Berkeley, and about the queen visiting Dublin and Brandt visiting Warsaw. Eliot also suggested that ‘the reader of a poem should take at least as much trouble as a barrister reading an important decision on a complicated case,’ a sentiment with which, despite his multiple reservations about Eliot, Hill would no doubt concur. ‘Do you have to be so aggressively recondite?’ he demands of himself halfway through this poem, and answers back: ‘I don’t see why not.’
So while this is certainly a ‘literature of power’, in the terms of Thomas De Quincey, it is also ‘a literature of knowledge’. You either will or won’t recognise the references to Brueghel’s painting Dulle Griet, say, or Holbein’s Dance of Death, or Brecht’s 1940 radio play The Trial of Lucullus, or John Arthos’s 1968 study Milton and the Italian Cities. The ease with which such material is incorporated is winning. It is a poem on first name terms with tradition: ‘Will Blake’, ‘Kit Smart’, ‘Bert Brecht’, ‘Alun’ (Lewis), ‘Gerard’ (Hopkins) – and my favourite, ‘old Malc’, the composer Malcolm Arnold. (Did anyone call him that in his own lifetime?) Sometimes you have a clue: ‘Who say “cordiality responsible for such uncongeniality”? (Psst! Paul Klee.)’ Then, if you are reading with the kind of attention a poet ‘ought to be able to take for granted’, you might track down an entry in Klee’s diaries, in which he complains about a salon so over-full with people that it made ‘a cheesy mass’: ‘Cordiality is responsible for such uncongeniality,’ Klee writes.
The lowbrow references are probably much more treacherous than references to Purcell or Wren, or will soon become so. Hill was very taken by the American editor who explained the description of King Offa as ‘overlord of the M5’ in Mercian Hymns as referring to a branch of the British secret service rather than the motorway system. Such contingent stuff enters his poetry with a mordant mischief, as though advertising its transience, a spirit that has always been there in Hill though not always appreciated: Hill himself spoke of ‘the constant presence of humour throughout my poetry, and even a light-heartedness which I think many critics have either wilfully neglected to notice or innocently overlooked’. The only disappointment when his immense collected poems Broken Hierarchies appeared in 2013 was Hill’s decision not to reprint most of the notes in his 1985 Collected, especially this one, which attended the phrase ‘I was invested in mother-earth’ (also from Mercian Hymns): ‘To the best of my recollection, the expression “to invest in mother earth” was the felicitous (and correct) definition of yird given by Mr (now Sir) Michael Hordern in the programme Call My Bluff televised on BBC2 on Thursday 29 January 1970.’ Nothing is as transient as the broadcast media, and a reader in time to come is going to need some help with references to Benefits Street (a fly-on-the-wall television documentary about people living in the demi-monde of welfare payment dependency) or Barry Cryer at Eighty (an ‘all-star gala thrown to honour comedy writer and performer Barry Cryer’, aired on Radio 4 on Wednesday, 2 December 2015). I don’t suppose my students would get this most cryptic of the ‘Poem’ aphorisms, probably my favourite: ‘Poem as Bob’s Thelma’. An editor in fifty years’ time may write:
A reference to the popular situation comedy Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, aired on BBC television in 1973-74. Thelma (Brigit Forsyth) is the fiancée and subsequently wife of Bob (Rodney Bewes), whose scurrilous childhood friend Terry (James Bolam), returning to civil life after five years in the army, seeks to challenge Thelma’s domesticating influence, resulting in numerous comical episodes. ‘Likely lad’: n. (b) British a working-class young man; a young man with characteristics stereotypically associated with the working class. (OED)
Hill has been very well served by the excellent Kenneth Haynes, who saw both his prose and his poetry into the magnificence of their Oxford editions while Hill was alive, and who now brings this final posthumous poem to press; but although the essays have been annotated with exemplary thoroughness, the poems have been left to stand (no doubt by Hill’s wish) pretty much on their own two feet, and you can see the justice of Christopher Ricks’s remark that ‘we stand more in need of a thoroughgoing edition of Hill than we do of critical commentary on his art.’ It would be a real job, mind you. ‘If you hit on a phrase or a reference now which you don’t know, you tap it up on the computer and in five seconds you have the obscure reference,’ Hill told one interviewer, which is partly true (as you can see), though from my recent experience I think he overestimated the technology. I did not know him very well, but we had a few conversations while he was professor of poetry in Oxford and I was head of the English faculty, and I remember him looking at me with sudden intensity and saying, in a highly characteristic voice of semi-mock-heroic gloom, ‘I do not do the Google.’
Hill seems genuinely to have admired the actor Helen Mirren, the subject of a much noted aside in A Treatise of Civil Power which might otherwise have been construed as sardonic: ‘Things are not that bad./H. Mirren is super.’ (‘Could you bear,’ he asked one of his interviewers, ‘to watch another episode of Prime Suspect?’) But generally the contemporary world enters his poetry in a symptomatic way, as signs of a culture on the slide. The great cartoonist Pont contributed a series to Punch in the 1930s called ‘The British Character’ which pictured the middle classes exemplifying various dismaying traits, things like ‘A Disinclination to Sparkle’ and ‘The Importance of Not Being Intellectual’, but one of the very best hits is a picture of a man in a leather chair, perhaps in the Athenaeum or some senior common room, angrily throwing his copy of the Times across the room, the caption being ‘A Tendency to Think Things Not so Good as They Used to Be’. Hill would fall into that category: ‘Things are indeed hapless,’ he says at one point, though the spectacle is not without Pont-like comedy: ‘The Vulcan was a marvel of a plane, though that has been long gone; and I fail to recall, since then, much else of worth.’ He was perfectly aware of his reputation as a cantankerous grump: when Colin Burrow reviewed his collected poems in the LRB (20 February 2014), the piece was entitled ‘Rancorous Old Sod’, which actually mitigated a harsher self-description (‘rancorous, narcissistic old sod’). He is splendidly vituperative in this poem about ‘the soap opera of contemporary poetry’, a local manifestation of ‘the unprofound cultural anarchy of this latter time’; he speaks, with heartfelt dismay, of ‘the ills of the nation’ and acknowledges, with a disarming stroke of Eeyore-ism, ‘my Muse of national demise’. He can sound sometimes like the hero of Ibsen’s Brand, which he translated for the National Theatre, a ferocious moralist whose diatribe is at once thrilling and appalling: ‘This entire Age is devoid/of grace or merit;/it’s ruled by creeping pride,/dull frivolity,/meanness of spirit.’ This lament at the broken zeitgeist can be very funny in a bleak sort of way: ‘The spirit of the age is not now even its notorious road rage, but is stuck somewhere between Aylesbury rapper and Tupperware.’ Hill cites admiringly, though warily, Wyndham Lewis’s Art of Being Ruled, which, ‘prescient on our behalf, foresaw the selfie, the sickly gloss of candy-floss devoured without retching’: this is political outrage in contemptuous high modernist mode. ‘Bravo, the high sick melancholy, merchant venturers, posturers in skin-tight theology, epoch-equipping poets at it likes stoat. Bravo, everybody!’
So what is ‘this commonweal which holds the genius of England in its thrust and recoil’? The answer is money, and the rhetoric is no less impressive for sounding occasionally so old-fashioned: ‘the towering edifices of high finance’ house the villains who pursue the ends of ‘international finance, more vicious even than Vichy France to the world’s wellbeing’. ‘There is no doubt that high modernism made me what I am,’ Hill reflected in 2000, and in his view the ‘great master of high modernism’ was Ezra Pound, who propounded at length in the Cantos and elsewhere his view that if a culture got money wrong (he called this ‘Usura’) then everything went wrong. In an interview Hill said he appreciated in Pound ‘the truth of much of what he has to say about Mammon’, though he remained circumspect about the company he was keeping: the Pound who appears in The Book of Baruch (as ‘Ez’) is condemned for allowing antisemitism to get ‘wrapped up with paper money, monopolies, stock-jobbing, fiddled revenues, expropriated land’.
Hill’s are also the visionary politics of a tenacious high Romanticism, moved by a primitive disgust at what Wordsworth called ‘getting and spending’. His phrasing sometimes sounds rather like William Blake, whose name and example as a London poet crops up quite a lot, or like Coleridge at his most indignant: this is a story of native genius held in thrall by the hostile forces of trade – what Hill refers to at one point, in a Poundian spirit, as the ‘Putrescent idol of retail’. As Coleridge put it in a passage Hill drew on for the epigraph to ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, there is what we once had, ‘spiritual platonic old England’, represented by Sidney, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and their kind, and then there is what we now have, ‘commercial G[reat] Britain’, over which presides the philistine materialism of Locke. ‘Gross Britannia’, Hill calls it. The poem begins in the City during the Blitz, with Wren’s churches crashing to the ground while their bells sound out – a striking detail which might suggest from the off how a broken music may emerge from disaster. ‘My brain,’ Hill says later in the poem, ‘is St Bride’s tower, bell-confused while the bells take plunging fatal rides inside an hour.’ While the churches burned, Whitbread Brewery withstood the flames (‘Whitbread, house of Whitbread, standing in for the City’, as Hill ingenuously explains his allegorising), a symbolic triumph of Mammon which, in a different way, is captured in the fate of St Giles Cripplegate, destroyed in the war and rebuilt with City money, and which ‘now stands as icon to the Barbican Estate’. Its reconstruction within the City is testimony to a more pervasive spiritual dereliction: ‘The Church of England today is a near bankrupt holding company for things sacrosanct.’
Hill is also animated by the thought which moves so powerfully in Ruskin that the works of art produced by a culture are a health check on the state of its polity: ‘Current condition of British poetry-nation much like that of semi-derelict Pitcairn or abandoned South American whaling station’. ‘The current Laureate,’ meaning Carol Ann Duffy, ‘invites us to celebrate an entire Twitter, as once she might have high-fived the Tatler.’ Or consider Coventry Cathedral: the original building was destroyed by Nazi bombs and left a symbolic ruin, but its undistinguished replacement serves only to exemplify what has gone awry, in particular Graham Sutherland’s vast tapestry of Christ in Glory, which portrays an ‘ill-favoured Creator presiding over a universe of subservient matter, seemingly intended for the investiture of Sepp Blatter and his spiritual kindred’. (Remember him?) There is an unreasonable cartoonish vigour about such scattergun critique, but you cannot doubt its deadly seriousness at some level.
‘Unbelievable the credible reality of wealth, entitlement and open stealth’: the incredible but actual state of affairs that exists is what Hill came to call, in a favourite phrase taken from William Morris, ‘plutocratic anarchy’, or ‘Anarchical Plutocracy’, or ‘oligarchic democracy’, or ‘oligarchic mob rule’, something which became a preoccupying theme. ‘I think at certain periods in our history some good poets have felt they have a vocation to speak up for a political truth,’ Hill once said, implicitly allowing the possibility that he had a similar vocation. What political truth is at stake? That the people in charge, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, confuse use-value for ‘intrinsic value’; and that, without a due regard for intrinsic value, things fall apart into anarchy, or what Hill calls, in this poem and elsewhere, ‘hegemony’. With a proper acknowledgment of intrinsic value, though, you get not hegemony but ‘hierarchy’, which is what you should be aiming to have: ‘Bless hierarchy, dismiss hegemony,/Thus I grind to conclusion,’ he wrote, coming to the end of an earlier sequence, Liber Illustrium Virorum. I think the point of ‘hegemony’ is that it stretches as wide as society, and anything in the culture may be included in the charge sheet, from government housing policy to brewery marketing campaigns: ‘O Tory-grandee-right-to-buy oligarchy, plutocratic malarkey, Uncle Toby and Tristram Shandy real ale, in which and wherefrom we are all grounded awash, thriftlessly and for sale’. The idea of intrinsic value came from Ruskin: Hill often invoked it in his later prose – ‘Let me recommence my old caterwaul of “intrinsic value”, if only to rile you,’ he announces at one point in The Book of Baruch – and commentators have had a lot to say in its explication. Despite their efforts, though, it is not altogether clear what it means, and Ruskin himself is inspiring and mystifying in equal measure about the notion: when discussing it he tends to adopt that any-man-of-plain-sense-can-see tone which occasionally disfigures his writings. But you can at least tell what it is he is against: the idea that ‘buying and selling are always salutary, whatever the intrinsic worth of what you buy or sell’ (The Crown of Wild Olive). It is difficult to imagine anyone actually believing that buying and selling are always salutary no matter what is being traded (children? chemical weapons?), but the feeling that drawing things into the world of commercial transaction and human business is somehow to spoil them is so strong for Ruskin that it forces the creation of such an unlikely opponent in order categorically to refute him.
Ruskin offered wheat, air and flowers as examples of things that have an intrinsic value which is nothing to do with the value assigned by the market, and added: ‘It does not in the least affect the intrinsic value of the wheat, the air, or the flowers, that men refuse or despise them.’ More than that, you can’t help feeling, it is actually the world’s neglect that guarantees them, keeping them securely away from the besmirching hands of business. In his 2000 Tanner Lectures, Hill took Ruskin to task for implying as much, and criticised the impulse to keep value ‘isolated from current degradation’ as an ‘elegiac’ impulse when value should be conceived as something more actively involved with the world at large. A wholly worthy sentiment, but it’s hard not to see it as an oblique kind of self-criticism, since Hill’s own sense of value is intensely elegiac. ‘It is easier to say what “intrinsic” value is in defeat than in victory,’ he said in the same lectures: ‘Intrinsic value, for the loser, is sealed into the enduring qualities of the life that was; the price paid by the victor is the inevitable lifelong penalty of compromise and corruption.’ The spirit of history that moves in this poem, as in Hill at large, is one of noble defeat or neglect. The artistic figures he reveres are mostly the fallen – Swift, Blake, Clare, Isaac Rosenberg, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, Robert Desnos, Charles Péguy, Paul Celan, as well as people who are defined by their outsiderness, such as the young Berkeley and the mathematician Alan Turing – whose integrity is interwoven with their ruin. The poem is full of short studies of such figures: Hill disarmingly admits his own disposition to ‘cultural name-dropping’. As the collection of doomed possessors of intrinsic virtue mounts, the poem gradually assumes the character Hill once attributed to the great work of Hobbes: ‘Leviathan, whatever else it is or is not, is a tragic elegy on the extinction of intrinsic value.’
Poetry is not obliged to offer a coherent political philosophy, of course, but Hill repeatedly chose to cast his later verse in explicitly political terms, so it is not going against the grain of his own rhetoric to wonder what the politics at issue might be. ‘I hope,’ he wrote in 2002, ‘that the poetry I have been writing since 1992 squares up to, takes the measure of, weighs up, the violent evasions and stock affronts of the oligarchy of fraud.’ Tom Paulin once wrote in these pages a brilliantly intemperate account of ‘Hill’s conservative imagination’ (4 April 1985), sparking a long correspondence of attack and counterattack; but it no longer seems obvious that that is quite what his imagination was, or anyway became. Ruskin described himself as both ‘the reddest of the red’ and a Tory of the old school, and Hill might well have said the same – in fact he more or less did on several occasions. ‘I would describe myself as a sort of Ruskinian Tory,’ he told a student journalist, who may have looked bemused since he added helpfully: ‘It is only Ruskinian Tories these days who would sound like old-fashioned Marxists.’ He writes unabashedly about ‘centuries of stultifying class privilege’ in a way that you don’t hear much in modern verse, and his contempt for ‘business’ feels vaguely leftish, as when he attacks the Maastricht Treaty as ‘an international corporate fraud’: the old left always used to mistrust Europe as a bosses’ club. But then the enthusiasm for ‘hierarchy’ is clearly coming from somewhere else: ‘I am still an elitist,’ he said in his speech on winning the Ingersoll T.S. Eliot Award, ‘in the sense of desiring to see fulfilled, in our types of pluralist democracies, the potential contained within a natural aristocracy of the spirit.’ ‘You must allow for my elitist hysterias, as people in the past were permitted bomb stories,’ he says in The Book of Baruch.
‘Coleridge and Ruskin, my mind’s high heroes, were high Tories,’ Hill also tells us here; and of course Paulin was quite right to see that some of his instincts were deeply conservative. He admired the writings of the Elizabethan jurist Sir Edward Coke, for example, who, he says, ‘wrote a Shakespearean book about justice’. Coke was the great champion of the common law, a quintessentially conservative institution because it arises not through edict or design but spontaneously, as a kind of Volk wisdom, a transhistorical accumulation of thousands of particular acts of judgment: this is ‘what wise tradition means by spontaneous’, Hill writes, ‘that keeps its distance from those inane Guardian creatives and their patent mental laxatives’. The main paradox of conservatism is that such faith in inherited tradition goes hand in hand with a conviction that individual human beings are incorrigibly limited in their capacities, as though frailty en masse should somehow add up to strength. It begins in human weakness, and while – as Anthony Quinton observed – you don’t need to believe in original sin to make imperfection your starting point as a political theorist, it’s obviously a mighty metaphysical help. Hill’s belief in original sin was quite passionate: it was, he said on one occasion, ‘the most coherent grammar of the plight of tragic humanity that I have ever encountered’, and he quoted numerous times Cardinal Newman’s view that ‘some terrible aboriginal calamity’ lurked in the prehistory of mankind. The doctrine, as the philosopher Stephen Mulhall says, makes us ‘always already errant before any particular errancy’, and it certainly stands at the opposite pole to ‘a liberal understanding of human values as the self-originating sources of moral value’: political activity usually involves a more can-do attitude than that instilled by what The Book of Baruch calls ‘the tragic inevitability of the Fall’.
What doesn’t feel conservative about Hill, though, is an instinct, quite as deep as his conviction of innate imperfection, that value is dissonant, oppositional, the product of a rebarbative individualism. Traditional conservatism, as enunciated by Burke, say, is deeply wary of unsociable men and distrusts nothing more than the figure of lonely genius; but integrity in Hill is always lonely, embattled, kicking against the pricks. This poem is full of isolated or marginalised refuseniks like Blake or Wyndham Lewis or Pound, who existed on the dangerous edge of things, and the poet for whom he has most obvious fellow feeling in this work is probably Milton: ‘Truth is schism,’ he also tells us. The adversarial conception of his last work must have grown in part from the real Book of Baruch, a piece of Jewish Gnosticism that retells in massively truncated form the story of everything from Creation to Crucifixion. It survives in a fragmentary state solely because it’s quoted by the second-century theologian Hippolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies as an example of shocking error – a perfect example of writing against a hegemony. Justin has a good theory about the reason things are so bad on earth which may have appealed to Hill: the wrong angels are in the driving seat, the angels of Pishon, and when they get the upper hand somewhere, ‘famine, distress, and tribulation/foul that segment of the earth,/for their criterion is for ruling avarice’.
What modern poetry needs badly, Hill said in a late review, is a sense of ‘utter alienation’, such as his heroic solitaries represented. He called Isaac Newton ‘one of a one-man sect’, and comes across himself as something similar: for all its heroic engagement with historical realities, from the civil war to the Battle of Jutland, The Book of Baruch seems to proceed entirely on its own terms and to resist anything like participation in a public discourse. Its sheer miscellaneousness somehow militates against the political response it otherwise appears to provoke by mentioning Corbyn or the abolition of the grammar schools. If, for example, you were to say of the attack on Mammon: yes, but Adam Smith would have agreed that the personality traits that motivate men of business are deplorable – greed, personal advancement, a love of glory. But, Smith would have gone on, you can’t have civil society at all without the national wealth that such dislikeable emotions seem best pitched to create. Well, it’s an argument, and its merits are neither here nor there: the point is that as soon as it’s uttered you realise how completely alien it is to the world of Hill’s poem. ‘Civil polity – let us make the claim – is poetry’s natural habitat,’ he announced in a remarkable late essay about Hopkins, but whether it was his own poetry’s natural habitat seems much less clear. The vociferous turn to the matter of cultural catastrophe in Canaan and afterwards certainly helped Hill enter a late phase of tremendous fluency and eloquence, but the poetry continued to come from the same intensely private, brutally self-contesting space it had always come from. He describes his brain at one point here as ‘an entertainment of crossed wires’. The poem is both angry and sad, as Hill once stipulated a poem should be – ‘a sad and angry consolation’, though I’m not sure there’s much consolation on offer. The nearest you come, perhaps, are the passing glimpses of the world outside his window, and you know they aren’t going to last:
Well into late May the limes leaves, to my inexpert eye, seem able to interrelate with light as in pure fable.
And the early roses now sway more weightily in the gardens of the new houses.
The apple blossom and the hawthorn blossom are gone. There remains a broad variousness of matt and gloss green.
Dead fledgelings are tossed by custom onto the compost.
There is colloquy, even at noonday, between us and our neighbour Venus.