Such is Hill’s seriousness that commentators often fall on his more frolicsome moments with unseemly haste. The element of “music-hall kvetch” remains strong here, but the line between quip and tragic harrumph is often blurred. The current state of British poetry is that of a “semi-derelict Pitcairn or abandoned South American whaling station”: not the most auspicious places to source a music hall audience, but suitably Lear-like spots for a “monologue shot through with frequent episodes of multi-voiced fugue”. That monologue is also, implicitly, a dialogue with his younger self... The comparison with Browning goes deep. The description of Tennyson’s In Memoriam as “an emotional scam drawn on the pieties of our social betters” is pointedly abrasive (Hill’s great debt to Tennyson notwithstanding), and the testiness may remind readers of the monk in Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” (“Gr-r-r – there go, my heart’s abhorrence!”). In Hill as in Browning, the poles of sacred and secular, vision and squalor, run very close together. The Book of Baruch is a work of the sovereign imagination in a state of radical alienation, to put it in Hillian terms, and all the better for its soiling at the hands of a fallen and imperfect world. Or as Browning might say: “Plena gratia / Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r – you swine!”
The rhythmically unpredictable, clangingly associative sentences that result might be the greatest doggerel ever written in English. Like a Shakespearean fool in Speaker’s Corner, Hill’s rap-like ranting takes an anarchic joy in cacophony. Here, for example, he evokes the fall of one of Sir Christopher Wren’s London churches during the Blitz: “Burning St Mary-le-Bow, in ravishing show, saluted by her own bells, a last cascade of thrashing, mangled squeals as down they go.” For every cinematic line flashed out from fluent memory, there is also much obscure quibbling and indignant quarrelling. Shortly before he died, Hill took a swipe at younger poets whose highest ambition was “winning the twitterverse”. The gnosticism, or mystical knowledge, that he pursued instead was a defiantly old-fashioned obsession with the “genius” of his own country.