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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


The Book of Baruch by
the Gnostic Justin

Geoffrey Hill

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin

Title: The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin
Author: Geoffrey Hill
Genre: Poetry
Written: (2019)
Length: 148 pages
Availability: The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin - US
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin - UK
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin - Canada
  • Edited by Kenneth Haynes

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Our Assessment:

A- : complex, but wonder-full, in both content and expression

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 3/5/2019 David Wheatley
London Rev. of Books . 12/9/2019 Seamus Perry
New Criterion . 6/2019 William Logan
The Spectator . 25/5/2019 Nick Lezard
Sunday Times . 28/4/2019 Jeremy Noel-Tod
TLS . 9/5/2019 Andrew Motion

  From the Reviews:
  • "There is scarcely one of the 271 sections in this book that does not assail the reader with the force of a vatic last judgment. (...) There is little to be gained from denying the demands involved in reading Hill, but the question of his difficulty has become an unwelcome distraction down the years." - David Wheatley, The Guardian

  • "The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin represents the final stage in that transformation of Hillís style, inaugurated by Canaan (1996), which has been noticed by many readers, sometimes to regret. (...) 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" - Seamus Perry, London Review of Books

  • "The book was probably never meant to be finished -- itís a scrapheap he might have added to for years, scraping, fine-tuning, revising in eternal contention with the world, with himself. (...) The whole is riveting and a little mad, laid out in mouse print like an interminable sonata of footnotes. (...) Much of the book is, to be charitable, prosaic, notes from the encyclopedia of discontent Hill never finished. (...) The language remains pained and elusive, twitchy and self-flagellating. There are many reasons not to read this overheated book, the longwinded ramble and leaden rant interrupted at every pass; but such reasons are nothing compared to the privilege of spending a few hours in company with one of the great poetic minds of the past century. (...) The lines are as unpoetic as a contractís fine print, without the skeleton of meter or flesh of rhyme. (...) If we call it free verse, itís the sort only Skadden, Arps could write." - William Logan, New Criterion

  • "Hillís chosen form, like Christopher Smart on steroids (for I will consider my poet Geoffrey, who also alludes to Smart within the work), allows him great freedom, and if there are some out there who will argue that this is not poetry, itís certainly not prosaic. Every word here is charged, potent, lapidary. (...) The sequence is a meditation on poetry itself, on the history of the nation, and Hill has been paying attention. (...) It is among his greatest work." - Nick Lezard, The Spectator

  • "It contains a mass of learned allusions, and is sometimes so compressed as to border on the gnomic. But it is also often funny (in a somewhat painful and precarious way, like an elephant riding a bicycle), and startling (in its brilliantly sharp recovery of childhood scenes, especially), and just plain interesting (in its gathering of opinions about poetry and poets, politics and politicians). (...) There is stubbornness here, as well as a form of regret, and in The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin as elsewhere it can make Hill seem cantankerous. Overall, though, and perhaps because he is mindful of this being a collection of Last Things, the mood is generally less grumpy than before. (...) (I)n its sheer abundance, as well as its manifold beauties and rigorous interrogations, the book can only confirm our sense of the magnitude of his achievement." - Andrew Motion, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is a posthumously published collection of 271 poems. As editor Kenneth Haynes notes in his brief and to-the-point Editorial Notes, Hill planned the work as a posthumous work: "to consist of as many poems as he would live to complete". Most have been revised (1-226 were "revised and corrected by Hill", i.e. are in a more or less final state (though he: "left a few dozen additional revisions and queries which we did not get to discuss before his death" regarding these), and even the later ones, though still partially in the works, are substantially complete.
       The form of the poetry here allows for some incompleteness in a way most might not: Hill's work here does not resemble most verse, much less neatly rhymed and metered verse. The lines are often extremely long, and though there is some rhythm and also the occasional internal rhyme ("I am more Larkin père than I am Phil or Ted, Thom, Marvell, Emily, Apollinaire") the general feel of the writing can be almost prosaic. While there is a distinct connection and progress to the lines in many of the poems, there's also often a sequential feel, with quite a few of the poems tending almost to listings of the aphoristic. (The individual poems are also not titled but rather only numbered, reïnforcing the sense of sequence, and of parts of (or variations in) a larger whole.)
       The title refers to the second-century gnostic and his 'Book of Baruch' -- not to be confused with the (semi-)biblical 'Book of Baruch'. Gnosis -- the Greek (γνῶσις) for knowledge and investigation -- figures prominently in Hill's poem, as he sees himself as a seeker, and considers variations on the concept, from definitional -- "True gnosis is obsessed with small alien details of fact" -- to examples of others who can be seen as gnostic, as in the beautifully suggested:

Newton was a type of gnostic, I suspect; one of a one-man sect.
       Hill also frequently considers poetry itself, and his work with the form, from the rather dramatic:
The crassest form of self-harm, that I have long practised, is the poem.
       To the cleverly-phrased suggestion of its worth:

Poem as a bold pioneering type of spinal tap into nature; in the hands of an amateur liable to fatal mishap.

       Or, more elaborately:

Poetry, tricky as nitrate to those who mistreat it, cannot be outwitted in its proper (many times now expropriated) field.

       Repeatedly he also considers the place and worth of poetry, and how it is valued, from the suggestion: "Whether poetry is unreal is best tested by using it to settle a hotel bill" to acknowledgement that poetry's power is limited in the modern age: "It does not make missile defence scramble nor investment recoil".
       And while Hill often looks to past -- literary and historical -- the collection is very much present-day, rooted in and aware of the Britain he was writing in -- all the way down to him taking a position on the Brexit vote (mentioning his position more than once: "In the impending referendum I shall vote to remain, Canaan notwithstanding, in which I derided the Maastricht Treaty as an international corporate fraud"); Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also rates several mentions. And there's overlap between his state-of-the-nation and poetical musings, as when he opines:

Current condition of British poetry-nation much like that of semi-derelict Pitcairn or abandoned South American whaling station.

       Even modern technology creeps in -- "Did I text you about it ?" -- though certainly often with a distinctly Hillian spin, as in: "Nefas goes SatNav on TV among the vanities" (nefas being 'something contrary to divine law', etc.). And, for all the classical references and tone, he has a pretty good feel for the contemporary world and culture, when he goes there (as here he does quite extensively -- down to a Dan Brown-mention), as in:

The spirit of the age is not now even its notorious road rage, but is stuck somewhere between Aylesbury rapper and Tupperware.

       Hill reflects on a variety of poets and works, including the familiar (in Hill-context), such as Charles Péguy, and clearly states his judgments: "Desnos is one of my heroes; and Celan another" he makes clear, for example. Interesting too -- or especially -- are the figures he feels more ambivalent about, notably Bertolt Brecht, whom he devotes one of the collection's longer sequences to. He makes clear his dislike, in many respects, of Brecht-the-man, going so far as to pointedly state:

Had I been out alone at night I would have crossed the street so as not to meet the young Bert Brecht

       But he can appreciate the work; the admission: "I admire what he wrote more than I respect his laureate career which, in that DDR-way, was reprehensible" perhaps sounding like faint praise but, when it comes down to it, Hill making clear:

You may not expect me to say this after such a recital, but it is vital that we resurrect Brecht.

It is either him or politic Classic FM 'immortalizing' ephemera. Things have become that extreme and that reductive.

       He reflects on other art and artists as well, including, at greater length, Christopher Wren as well as Hans Holbein's The Dance of Death. And death, of course, is also on his mind throughout -- an awareness of his age and physical (and mental) decline, complete with the occasional resignation and acceptance of the consequences ("Diabetes is now affecting both eyes, though what this may symbolize I can't say"). So also he suggests, generally and surely also very specifically: "Poem as posthumous running sore" -- a hope that what he writes is not merely static but survives with actual continuing effect.
       The project itself is alluded to -- he describes himself as finding himself: "in self-evident confessional season and mode" --, with reminders and (self-)encouragement:

If this is going to be your testament best press on with it. Trust that its true being is song.

       The text is, of course, dense with allusion and reference: "Permit me now to be a trifle enigmatic", he writes in one of the last poems -- eliciting surely only a guffaw or exhausted snort from the reader at that point, since Hill's entire work is shrouded in at least the air of the enigmatic, layers of difficulty -- that however are not too daunting in at least a general approach to the texts. Without annotation, there's a lot here -- words, texts, quotes, allusions, references, etc. -- that most readers will not be familiar with -- in seemingly every other line (or word ...) for some of us ..... Nevertheless, there's enough explanation (and the occasional surprising attribution: ("'All the mirrors in England are broken' I've taken from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell")) that, if one accepts an inevitable sense of being mystified by a great deal else, the text still offers a great deal, from simple (or rather, complex) poetry -- these may be sentences, rather than obvious lines of verse, but there's still a striking rhythm in them, and the occasional pure poetry ("leaving sea-rubble wretchedly a-swim, thickslicked in oil") -- to the always rich expression. Hill insists: "Intelligence matters"; certainly he admirably refuses to dumb-down, at any point. There's guidance, too, from the reminder that: "Symbolism is not all cake and spiders and rage-embalmed wedding day widders" to that: "Imagination's Milton is not Milton nor is it Milton's imagination"; indeed, in many ways Hill pushes the reader specifically to how he thinks his work should be read. (Amusing, too, is his repeated but cautious engagement with and criticism of surrealism and Dada.)
       The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is not easy going, but should prove surprisingly rewarding even for the casual reader (who doesn't mind being baffled by much that s/he comes across). The near-aphoristic nature of so much of this -- line after line, in places -- keeps the individual pieces, and the book as a whole, from getting bogged down, while the connections are fairly clearly built up and structured, step-by-step (albeit including far-flung digressions left and right). The texts then also allow for multiple levels of reading -- however far the reader wants to research and look up -- though it may prove to be a near-infinite well; certainly the doctoral dissertation that annotates the text will be many times this volume's size.
       Certainly nothing for those who want their verse accessible and familiar, but for anyone open to this sort of thing The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin is a fascinating (and occasionally daunting-to-maddening) treasure trove.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 September 2019

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The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin: Reviews: Geoffrey Hill: Other books by Geoffrey Hill under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       English poet Geoffrey Hill lived 1932 to 2016. A graduate of Keble College, Oxford, he has taught at the University of Leeds, at Cambridge, and at Boston University.

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© 2019 the complete review

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