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The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, by Geoffrey Hill 

06 December 2019

Fraser Steel reviews a publication intended to be posthumous

SIX years ago, Geoffrey Hill surprised the literary world with more than 300 pages of previously unpublished poetry in Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (also edited by Kenneth Haynes). Three years after his death, he has sprung another surprise, in the form of a book-length sequence (A. N. Wilson’s choice for book of the year, Christmas Books, 29 November) that, Professor Haynes tells us, was “planned . . . as a posthumous work”.

The annals of English poetry offer notable examples of posthumous publication (Herbert, Hopkins), but few, if any, of planning for posthumous publication, and, I think, none in which the plan was executed by the kind of process that Professor Haynes describes in his “Editorial Notes”: “First . . . he worked phrases and sentences into verses and drafts of poems; second . . . he wrote out whole poems; and third, I produced at intervals new typescripts incorporating additional photocopies from the fair copy manuscript plus corrected pages from the previous transcript. At each stage Hill made a large number of revisions, some definitive, some tentative.”

And what of the result? I’m reminded of Yeats’s observation that “The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box” (the latter part of which Hill quoted, with “instinctive assent”, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of English Literature at Leeds University).

The poetry here is seldom of the closing-box kind, but the abundance of corrections in this instance doesn’t mean that we are, after all, dealing with prose — though much of it could be taken for prose if it weren’t for the play of assonance to be found in almost every line.

A uniquely keen ear has always been at work in Hill’s poetry, in which meaning is often enacted or underscored by precisely calibrated aural harmonies and dissonances (see how the “t” hardens in “Patience hardens to a pittance”), but here it’s pervasive, sometimes to the point at which it appears to be generating rather than embodying the thought — did anything beyond the gravitational pull of the near-rhyme prompt him to describe William Cobbett as “least amiable great grandfather of the Hobbit”?

Yet the thought is important, in what seems to me the most declarative of Hill’s writings. Its title is at the same time a guide and a bit of a tease. Little is known of Justin the gnostic (“not to be confused with the more famous Justin Martyr” — Britannica), and a scholarly understanding of Gnosticism won’t help the reader much; but Hill’s deployment of his own notions of true and false gnosis gives the book a kind of key signature, pointing away from the world of “Widely applauded honours and prizes” towards what’s authentic, exemplary and potentially restorative (“Restitution is the burden of what I am about”).

Under that rubric, Hill has given us a prolonged rumination on themes that preoccupied him throughout his life as a poet, so much so that it could almost serve as a commentary on the denser, more tightly wrought work in the 1985 Collected Poems which some find inaccessible. The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin doesn’t change my view that Hill’s standing as one of the great poets of our time rests essentially on the work published up to 1985, but, of the volumes that have appeared since then, it’s the one that I would least want to be without.

Fraser Steel is Head of the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit.

The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin
Geoffrey Hill
Kenneth Haynes, editor
OUP £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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