Geoffrey Hill

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

Geoffrey William Hill was born into a working-class (“red brick”) British family, educated at Keble College, Oxford University, and subsequently spent his life in academe, from 1954 to 1980 at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, where he rose to the rank of senior lecturer in English. He then accepted a position at Cambridge University as a university lecturer from 1980 to 1988. In 1988, he moved to the United States to become a professor of literature and religion at Boston University.

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Hill is among England’s most highly decorated living poets. For the Unfallen earned him the E. C. Gregory Award for Poetry in 1961; King Log the Hawthornden Prize in 1969 and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1970; Mercian Hymns the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize from the Poetry Society in 1971 and the Heinemann Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1972; and Tenebrae the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize in 1979. Speech! Speech! was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2001. In addition to such recognition of his individual works, Hill’s place in British letters has garnered him laurels such as the Loines Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983 and the Ingram Merrill Foundation award in literature, 1985. His poetry is more highly rewarded than widely read, however, and more admired perhaps than liked. His place in British letters is as an academic poet writing for a highly literate and doggedly patient literary audience. Hill’s work is among the most difficult of postwar Britain.

The essay collection The Lords of Limit offers his readers a glimpse into the sensibility behind the poetry. In nine essays, drawn in part from his university lectures, Hill addresses a variety of works, ranging from the apparently accessible poetry of Jonathan Swift to two apparently intractable dramatic poems by Ben Jonson, Sejanus and Catiline. One comes away from the book less with clear explications in hand than with a sense of Hill’s conception of the literary art. It is when literature most stubbornly refuses to explain itself or be easily explained by a reader that Hill is intrigued. Poetry is to be read and reread and through that process understood, but never does high poetry lend itself to the kind of keen analysis and discrete exposition that has become standard in modern academic circles. Such an aesthetic should surprise none of Hill’s readers.

Considerable pleasures may be had from Hill’s poetry, but they come at the price of patience and study. Poets of the generation before him, such as Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin, have little immediate bearing on his work, and both in content and form, Hill’s work has always seemed out of step with that of his contemporaries, particularly the most readily available, such as the poetry of Ted Hughes. Hill’s work brings to mind most of all that of poets from whom he is several centuries removed, notably John Donne and William Blake.

Hill has done his best to distance himself from the first twenty years of his writing. Nevertheless, they are indispensable to anyone wishing to understand and appreciate his achievement, for there his formal and thematic concerns are found in sharpest focus. One discovers in Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom a concern with the limits and potentials of Christian belief, but as well a tension between Creation and Fall, and all that suggests. The act of establishing an earthly paradise brought with it the seeds of the Fall. In “Genesis,” the first poem of his first volume, mortality and menace appear amidst grace from the outset as a bird of prey appears on the horizon, “Feathering blood along the shore.” Hill is more likely to employ traditional poetic forms than are most of his peers; examples include quatrains of off-rhymed pentameter verse in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, the sonnet in the extended poem Tenebrae, and the double sonnet in the short poem “Annunciation.” Hill’s formalism is not entirely traditional, however. His most penetrating writing is about human history, particularly the private experience of modern history, and in such cases it seems as if the subject matter threatens to burst traditional forms at their seams. Moreover, language itself is often suspect.

The first poem of King Log, “Ovid in the Third Reich,” offers readers a Nazi war criminal at once indicting himself and protesting his guilt as he locates himself midway between the blessed and the damned. It begins too simply: “I love my work and my children. God/ Is distant. Difficult. Things happen.” The poem might be said to suggest what all of Hill’s poetry attempts to do—that is, to locate humankind between good and evil, Creation and Fall, between the blessed and the damned, but it can only do this if readers are willing to invest themselves through multiple readings. Virtually every champion of Hill’s capacities with form has noted as well the difficulties posed by the irregular cadences of his lines, the torturous syntax he often employs, the way Hill forces rereadings. It is as if he means to remind readers that the regularities of conventional form no longer serve to express their deepest losses. Like the speaker in “The Songbook of Sebastian Arruz,” the best the poet can do is to approximate the patterns: “Already, like a disciplined scholar,/ I piece fragments together, past conjecture/ Establishing true sequences of pain.”

Hill’s relocation to the United States does not appear to have affected his poetry; it is as difficult and also as British as ever. The poems in Canaan express Hill’s outrage at England’s recent history and politics. The Triumph of Love marks a softening of Hill’s formalism as it addresses the ideas of suffering and memory. Hill’s resolutely difficult diction comes to the fore in Speech! Speech! as he contemplates the degradation of speech and public discourse at the turn of the century and ponders the ways in which the poet may continue to express truth and beauty in an environment that so debases language. The Orchards of Syon, a collection of seventy-two twenty-four line monologues, contrasts three poetic worlds—Syon, Goldengrove, and Vallombrosa—in a series of meditations on aging, dreams, and the writing of poetry itself.

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