Geoffrey Hill 1932-2016
Geoffrey Hill’s death on Thursday 30 th July was announced thus in a Tweet by Alice Goodman:
Please pray for the repose of the soul of my husband, Geoffrey Hill, who died yesterday evening, suddenly, and without pain or dread.
I was moved by reading these words, and by the general request to pray for the repose of Hill’s soul. That said, I am unsure how respond further. I recognise that, for him and Alice Goodman, the Christian context remains clear and paramount. And this is to be respected. I suppose that I am trying to think about what his ‘presence’ will now be for me and for many others, Christian or not, and how his ‘repose’ might also be facilitated by our keeping his work ever-present.
I want to give a brief account of his publications in Stand
. I first heard him giving 1 st Year Lectures on poetry in the autumn of 1962 at the University of Leeds where I was a student, it seems on reflection mainly of poetry and Wittgenstein. From that time and throughout my life, reading, listening to, and writing poetry, and through helping to edit Stand from 1963 onwards, Hill’s work has been a guide and a guardian for me. The shock and surprise at the Tweet was immense.
Geoffrey Hill was fascinated by Wittgenstein’s understanding of life and language. I wonder if Alice Goodman’s words might be paired with these from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits. Tractatus 6.4311)
The poems, and their language ‘live in the present’. Would Hill have wanted or expected an ‘easeful death?’ In a partial answer we might think of ‘the democracy of the dead’ (from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy
, 1908), the subject of his Oxford lecture of 3rd
December 2013, and the continuous force of words. He also quoted in Oxford from a later work by Wittgenstein on the presence and activity of words:
...it is the field of force of a word which is decisive.
(Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations)
Reading and enacting the drama of Hill’s poetry may offer a complex ‘repose’. Will the field of force round his words be getting it decisively right? Let us hope so.
, written 1961, were Hill’s first poems to be published in Stand
(5:2, 1962). They were soon followed by some of his most famous poems, including ‘Funeral Music’ (8:3, 1966) and ‘September Song’ (8:4, 1966), which was discussed at length by Jon Silkin, founder-editor of Stand
, who lived in Leeds from 1958 to 1965. Silkin’s discussion was included in Peter Robinson’s book on Hill, and quoted in full by Christopher Ricks in The Force of Poetry
as an exemplary piece of close textual reading. It is humbling and rewarding to think of Stand
’s relationship with Hill as part of such a wide-reaching response.
In recent years, Hill contributed much to Stand
, including a substantial section of Scenes from Comus
(3:4 and 4:1, 2002), from ‘Of Carnal Policy’ (9:1, 2005), from ‘Ludo’ (11:1, 2012), from ‘Expostulations on the Volcano’ (11:2, 2012), from ‘Liber Illustrium Virorum’ (11:3), and from ‘Al Tempo de’ Tremuoti’ (11:4). He was a Friend of Stand
in many ways and recently mentioned his interest in an interview in ISIS
Many of his friends attended his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry. As so often, it was a process of sharing, challenge, discovery and dramatic celebration. He was there but his reading and singing made writers from the past present.
Geoffrey Hill joined the Department of English at the University of Leeds in 1954. Appointed by Professor Bonamy Dobrée on the suggestion of the then Gregory Fellow in Poetry, John Heath-Stubbs, his early years with the duties as a lecturer, and with a young family, meant that new poems came slowly. For the Unfallen
appeared in 1959, the year he taught at the University of Michigan. Back in Leeds in 1960 he met again the poet Jon Silkin who had been Gregory Fellow from 1958 to 1960. Stand
,first based in London, 1952 – 1957, was reformed in Leeds from 1960. ‘Locust Songs’, published in Stand
5:2 (1962) and dedicated to Allan Seager, who taught Creative Writing at the University of Michigan and published important novels and short stories. ‘Locust Songs’ were some of the first poems I heard him read in Leeds in, I think, 1964. ‘Shiloh Church, 1862 Twenty-Three Thousand’ was shocking then, as it is now. It explores with pain and indirect regret some of the worst cruelties of the American Civil War:
So with sweet oaths converting the salt earth
To yield, our fathers verged on Paradise:
European religious conviction in America finds ‘...a slow / Bloody unearthing of the God-in-us.’ Was it as though war, violence to the body, infection, disease and decay were seen, and experienced, as related processes whose understanding came from imagining them in the same profile, an inbuilt causation not a literary trope but part of the holy; ‘repose’ as living the truth? Despite their setting in war, and their reflection of the imposition of cultural horror on the individual, they are neither obscure nor generalising. Reading them again in the context of Alice Goodman's announcement that he had died with neither ‘dread or pain’ I can see the timed and dated, but timeless import for him, and for all of us. His death took place without the horror in those poems from the 1960s.
Hill's poems in these early Stand
s in some ways are very personal and revelatory. ‘The Assisi Fragments (6:1, 1962) opens with this epigram by Nietzsche, ‘- this delight in giving a form to oneself as a piece of difficult, refractory and suffering material - ’. In later collections, including Broken Hierarchies
, the quotation was deleted, perhaps from a worry that they might make interpretation by others too programmatically facile. But what an extraordinary distillation of contemporary writing by Hughes and Silkin, and his own poems, these are:
Lion and lioness, the mild
At their precise peril kept
Distance and repose -
Some of Hill’s earliest published poems were in the Oxford journal ISIS
in the early 1950s. He was always interested in, and involved with, publishing. Both practical and principled, his concern for the writer’s and reader’s sense of ‘editorship’ was vital. And his consistent loyalty to the routes through which poetry is learned and becomes public were astonishing and moving. Near the end of his 2015 interview in ISIS
he was asked
Do you actively seek out any contemporary figures?
No! Absolutely not. I’m 83; I don’t have all that long left to live. I want to do my own thing. I wish them well in a vague sort of way, but I have no desire to found a Hill school. I am friends with people who were in Leeds in the 50s; I am friends with Jon Glover, who is the managing editor of Stand, and I am a patron or a friend or whatever of Stand – I give them some money. I am on very friendly terms with Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press. They tell me about people they think highly of. (ISIS, 27 April 2015)
We are grateful to be placed thus in Geoffrey Hill’s sense of ‘tradition’.
British and American politics are going through enormous changes. Hill’s lectures expected familiarity with centuries of political debate and writers’ experiences and commitments. He was profoundly worried that we might not be aware that ‘oligarchy’ and ‘anarchical plutocracy’ were terms common to Chesterton and Belloc as well as finding their roots in William Morris. He was always sensitive to the working of ‘tradition’ in writing and editorship. The ‘democracy of the dead’ was, for Chesterton and Hill, an awareness of, and respect for, ‘tradition. He was perplexed, rueful and amused at recent official and unofficial recognition of younger poets, though he will have remembered ways in which Leeds, Carcanet and Stand
have keenly discussed ‘tradition’. Defining, and writing ‘allegiance’ to, the present is hard enough. Indeed, for Hill, the past was always here and now. Perhaps his present ‘repose’ lies in Chesterton’s words:
I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.