Geoffrey Hill

The “unabashedly elitist” elegist of England is an ideal candidate for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry

Literature Underrated

It’s probably not surprising that a poet who could write a “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings”, or three exquisitely elegiac sonnets evoking the subtleties of “British India” should find himself persistently underrated in today’s stridently multicultural Britain. 

Surely, such subjects are admissible only when issuing smug denunciations? The “Requiem” appeared in Geoffrey Hill’s first collection, For the Unfallen, of 1958, the sonnets in his Tenebrae of 1978 and three decades later, their beauty still astonishes. Nor are they, we now can see, quite what their titles suggested. The second sonnet on British India concludes:

The flittering candles of the wayside        
                                       shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts      
                                     the dust.
Krishna from Radha lovingly 
                          untwines.
Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their
heads.
The alien conscience of our days is               
                                            lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.

Hill himself has represented something of an “alien conscience” during his long and increasingly prolific career as a poet. He has stood apart not only from manifestoes and from movements — including his contemporaries in The Movement — but from stylistic trends and fashions. Alhough he has the entire tradition of English verse at his fingertips and plays on it with consummate virtuosity, it is difficult to identify any unmistakable precursor. He is as indebted to Shakespeare and Milton as he is to Eliot or Pound, all of whom he somehow manages simultaneously both to acknowledge and to encompass. But this hasn’t been a shrewd career move. A poet as unabashedly learned as Hill is “elitist”. His poetry is tissued not only with a vast range of reference to many literary traditions and their languages — French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Spanish, among others — but he makes no concessions to the reader. As he has said, he respects the reader’s intelligence too much to do so. All this may help to account for the fact that for the 18 years he spent in the US as a professor at Boston University, from 1988 to 2006, he remained relatively obscure. Hill does not “network”, he does not lend his name to blurbs, he refuses acolytes — again, hardly shrewd practice among the preening poetic careerists who largely dominate what Americans like to call “the world of poetry”. It says more about that little “world” than about Hill’s poetry that in his final years there, he was unable to find a publisher for his work. 

Although Hill has now been nominated for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry — a position for which he is ideally qualified, both as poet and critic — his reception in Britain since 2006, when he returned to settle in Cambridge, has been curiously mixed. He has always had his detractors here but it’s sometimes hard to know what vexes them most. It may be his Christian faith, as self-lacerating as it is celebratory. In The Triumph of Love (1999), he asked, “So what is faith if it is not/inescapable endurance?” but in the same work composed a sublime canzone to the Virgin Mary. It may be his fierce and passionate engagement with English and European history and tradition, the saints as well as the monsters. It may be his intricate, polyphonic style — what he has come to call, echoing Dante, “a noble vernacular”. Perhaps it is all of these, along with the fact that Hill, now in his 77th year, continues to stand apart. 

After 12 collections of poetry spanning almost 60 years, and a succession of magisterial literary essays, now gathered in the more than 800 pages of his Collected Critical Writings (Oxford, 2008), he still remains, as he put it in Speech! Speech! (2000), “terror-stricken, unteachable”.

If Hill is underrated (as opposed to being simply “underread”), that may be because he is routinely considered “difficult”. This is no truer of Hill than of Pound or Eliot, Isaac Rosenberg or Dylan Thomas but their works have been smoothed by long familiarity and Hill’s has not.

In his later work, beginning with Canaan in 1996, Hill’s music has become increasingly more complex. He weaves together hymn-verses, “old saws”, interjections, headlines, buzz-words, editorial asides, foreign phrases, slogans, American slang, creating a strange interrupted eloquence.

Over the past half-a-century, Hill has been patiently creating a style of his own, which has boldly confronted the horrors of the age, as well as rare instances of heroism and sanctity. 

Its distinctive music may owe much to “the outnumbering dead” but in the end it’s unlike any other poet’s. If it sounds harsh, maybe that’s because we haven’t yet learned how to hear it. It is a music that promises to “survive these desolations”.