A tribute to Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill & Alice Goodman, Cambridge, England, by Judith Aronson. ©Judith Aronson, 2016.
Geoffrey Hill & Alice Goodman, Cambridge, England, 1984, by Judith Aronson. ©Judith Aronson, 2016.

Geoffrey Hill, among the most important poets of his generation, once described by Harold Bloom as “the greatest living poet in the English language”, died on 30 June 2016, aged 84. Our condolences to his widow, Alice Goodman, who posted the following on 1 July on Twitter:

 

Please pray for the repose of the soul of my husband, Geoffrey Hill, who died yesterday evening, suddenly, and without pain or dread.

In The Guardian, Christopher Ricks, a former Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford and a long-time friend of Hill, wrote:

There was no living poet whose latest work I more wished for and stood in need of at once, on the day of publication, above all for its immediacy. Long ago: “a poet at once urgent and timeless”. Yesterday (30 June 2016) I collected the five copies that I had ordered of his mint-new Peer Gynt, complementing his superb Brand. He always maintained what he had maintained: that our word is our bond. What is it to stand by what you have done and been and said? For my manifestly smaller part, I stand by my convictions, voiced over the course of fifty years, that his poems “matter increasingly, they accrue”.  And that “Hill is his own man, yet his poems bear witness to T.S. Eliot’s high sense of tradition: ‘The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) among them’”. In 1968, King Log was the really new. And still is. But then so was all that Geoffrey Hill created on poetry’s behalf, on his own dear behalf, and on ours. 

Maurice Riordan, editor of The Poetry Review, said “Geoffrey Hill was the English lyric poet of our time, whose verse most purely sounded the national psyche – that sometimes troubling entity. The news of his passing on the day we remember the Somme feels both sad and in keeping with his immense spirit.”

Ian Duhig added: 

The massive achievement which is Broken Hierarchies sits beside me now, bristling with my amazed Post-it notes, where it will remain. Hill said “I write / to astonish myself”, which reminded me of Diaghilev’s demand of the young Cocteau echoed in the latter’s Orphée, made there of the poet, something Hill managed constantly. What strikes me about Hill’s urgent relevance is the fact that he was the most European of poets, something his widow commented on in recent weeks; he might have joked in his poetry about being “deaf in several languages” but his pages sang with them. This is a vast loss. Better poets than me will find better words for it but for now I’m going to open Broken Hierarchies again for its sad and angry consolation, and to think, as I can’t now imagine a better way to honour Geoffrey Hill than by thinking.

Geoffrey Hill was born in 1932, in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, the son of a policeman. “I’m glad to have been born when I was, and in the social stratum that I was,” he told the Paris Review in 2000. “I’m glad and proud of being born into the English working class.”

Following a county scholarship and a grammar school education, he studied English at Keble College, Oxford, where his poems were first published by the Oxford Poetry Society. He subsequently taught English at the University of Leeds, from 1976 as Professor of English Literature, and later at the University of Bristol and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1988, he moved to the USA to teach at Boston University. He was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, 2010 to 2015, and a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was knighted in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to literature.

His first collection, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958 (Andre Deutsch, 1959), winner of the Eric Gregory Award, prefigured the style and concerns he would develop in subsequent collections. King Log (1968), Mercian Hymns (1971), Tenebrae (1978), The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy (Agenda Editions, 1983, Oxford University Press, 1984) and Canaan (Penguin, 1996), established his reputation.

Minimal, enigmatic poetry in all these collections – humorous only occasionally – reflected fallen worlds, historical or contemporary, in which myth, religion, the English landscape and language itself offer at most equivocal consolations.” – Randall Stevenson, The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12

Hill’s collections also include The Triumph of Love (Penguin, 1998), Speech! Speech! (Penguin, 2000), The Orchards of Syon (Penguin, 2002), Scenes from Comus (Penguin, 2005), and two books with Clutag Press: Oraclau | Oracles (2010) and Odi Barbare (2012). His collection, Clavics, published by Enitharmon in 2011, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Broken Hierarchies: Collected Poems 1952-2012, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. Hill wrote for the theatre; the National Theatre staged his rhymed-verse version of Ibsen’s Brand in 1978. He was also an essayist and critic. In 2009, he won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism for his Collected Critical Writings.

Hill was sometimes accused of baffling complexity and obscurity but as Patrick Kurp, reviewing his Selected Poems in the Quarterly Conversation, wrote: “His poems can be as densely allusive, multi-voiced, polylingual, dissonant, and radically playful as Finnegans Wake. Many poets deploy surface difficulty (Guy Davenport called it ‘false density’) to mask essential emptiness; when Hill is difficult, he has something to say that cannot be said glibly, and he thus rewards attentive readers.”

Interviewed by The Isis magazine in 2015, Hill rejected the idea that he sought out splendid isolation as a writer and a thinker: “I wouldn’t mind if I were met by thousands of students waving banners with ‘Viva Hill’ on them, as I believe Eliot was towards the end of his life; I see no particular benefit or pleasure in being solitary. It would be very nice to sell tens of thousands of copies and get the royalties, but if that’s not to be, that’s not to be.”

He added: “I’d like to see a poetry which is highly architectonic and yet sounds spontaneous, as in Yeats. There’s always this sense of massive architectural control in Yeats, but out of it burst these spontaneous, ragged phrases. That’s what poetry should be like. I want poetry still to be rather like late Yeats and early Eliot. I don’t want it to be a sort of simpering drizzle. I really do want there to be some sense of order battling anarchy within the very structure of a poem.”

Did he succeed? Reviewing Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (OUP, 2013) in The Poetry Reviewin 2014, Conor O’Callaghan wrote:

Titled, fêted, scarcely a week goes by without some journo declaring Oxford’s current Professor of Poetry as “the greatest living English poet”. Is he? There are younger English poets producing better poems than Hill is currently writing, sure. But none out there has written anything that could hold a candle to his best. Like Montale, he too has “come at the end / to the forum of world acclaim”, and no living poet deserves that more than Geoffrey Hill.

Sir Geoffrey William Hill, FRSL, 18 June 1932 – 30 June 2016.

Obituaries and tributes

The Telegraph paid tribute: “His voice boomed and rasped, but his eyes twinkled. He knew that he could be funny and also a funny spectacle. Above all, the figure in the lonely tower was also a reliable friend, a conscientious teacher and a loving husband.”

The Guardian quoted Hill from an interview in 2002: “In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together.”

Anna Leszkiewicz from The New Statesman said: “in an age when a little light research is as easy as saying “Google”, when a book-length annotation of Hill’s most difficult (and amazing) long poem “Speech! Speech!” is available for nothing on the internet, we really have no excuse for not diving into this man’s extraordinary oeuvre.”

“Brilliant, rich-eared, contrary, monumental essential outsider and Parnassian.” – George Szirtes

“When in 1982 John Skelton of the Open University Press invited me to propose a collection of essays by various hands on a contemporary poet, Geoffrey Hill had to be its subject. The protracted difficulties involved in bringing this first book on his poetry to publication three years later paled to insignificance beside the anguish produced by its reception in the London Review of Books (where Hill was unjustly associated with Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech), and the correspondence that followed. My subsequent writings on Hill’s work have tried to explain why so extraordinarily democratic a poet should have been encumbered with such self-tormenting ideas of language, readership, and value. But, of course, we couldn’t have had the one without the other. In 2009, when Oxford University found itself compromised and embarrassed by the nullification of its attempt to elect a Professor of Poetry, he agreed to bring his gravitas and integrity to redeem the office from that media taint. I am by no means alone in appreciating that Geoffrey Hill wrote some of the most important poetry in English of his time. We shall not see the like again.” – Peter Robinson

“Desperately sad to hear of the death of Geoffrey Hill. His was such a fine gift.” – David Harsent

“Sorry to hear about the death of Geoffrey Hill; his Mercian Hymns defined an aesthetic and poetic response to landscape that has shaped me.” – Ian McMillan

“Geoffrey Hill deserves all the superlatives: magnificently gifted as a poet, critic and lecturer, he was unafraid to display his intellect in his writing, though it was never for effect and always in the service of poetry, or to illuminate the work of others. When he approached me out of the blue to ask if Enitharmon Press would like to publish one of his last collections, Clavics, I expected to be intimidated but found him the most congenial and appreciative of people, with an infectious humour and a genuine concern for the welfare of my publishing house at a time when it was a casualty of savage Arts Council cuts. Later I attended most of his Oxford lectures as Professor of Poetry, which dazzled with erudition and brilliant insights, as well as with moments of almost slapstick comedy. His command of the audience was complete, his delivery and verse-reading mesmerising, and he confounded those who considered his work difficult by being unfailingly intelligible and entertaining, combining references to high and low culture, history ancient and modern, contemporary affairs and personal anecdotes. What a glorious coda to his career.” – Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon Press

“I feel my words to be inadequate, but Geoffrey’s certainly are not. ‘Edging the meadow / The may-tree is all light and all shadow. / Coming and going are the things eternal.’ I give thanks for the fact of his life and work – and pray in my barbarian manner for the repose of his soul.  I can’t imagine we’ll see his like again.” – Steve Ely

“RIP Geoffrey Hill, a consistently surprising poet. ‘Everything that I write is a kind of battle won – or lost – against silence & incoherence.” – John McCullough

“One of England’s great poets.” – Clarissa Aykroyd

“I don’t claim to understand most of his work, but I always felt it.” – Richard Skinner

“Another terrible sadness here.” – Chrissy Williams

“This is appalling news.” – David Wheatley

“We’re very sad to hear Geoffrey Hill has died. “What / ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad / and angry consolation.” – Scottish Poetry Library 

“Even against the current blues this is a powerful and particular sadness. A master and a giant.” – Andrew Bailey

“The death of Geoffrey Hill is a huge blow. A poet whose words grew out of the land he walked on. A genius. RIP.” – Ruth Davis

We’re greatly saddened today by the death of Geoffrey Hill. ‘And it seemed, while we waited, he began to to walk towards us he vanished.'” – The Poetry School

“RIP Geoffrey Hill. Massive mind. We’ll be wrestling with his work for centuries.” – Max Porter

“Geoffrey Hill is one of the few poets who stunned me into trying to write. His work revealed a beauty beyond cant and consolation. RIP.” – Dai George

“RIP Geoffrey Hill. A true giant of modern poetry. Love & condolences to and all who loved him.” – Rachel Mann

A poem by Robert Richardson, a member of The Poetry Society

The Chapter House Reading
for Geoffrey Hill (at Lincoln Cathedral)

I

Words strict as these blocks of stone
serving their purpose to fit

and so create a structure
where beauty is also shown;

listening was itself a trance
of meaning chipped into sound,

a transfer of the moments
poems were made to enhance.

II

The reading came to an end,
words were no longer distinct

but part of a crowd’s chatter
that poured out its muddled blend;

you seemed to be a sealed will
defined well against the stone

and contained within a coat
resisted silence’s chill.

1 July 2016