When the sad news of Geoffrey Hill’s death came home to me – after the fact and circumstance had been conveyed via today’s still unsettling mode of relayed communications from Alice Goodman’s original tweet – I stopped to consider its meaning. Here was a poet I’d first encountered at the age of eighteen and had followed avidly as each new volume arrived. Here was someone whose work had enabled me to see what a poem might be and someone therefore who had significantly shaped how I saw the world.
As a student in the School of English at the University of Leeds from 1974 to 1979 I was familiar with Geoffrey as one of my professors and as the lecturer on the Shakespeare course, though I didn’t meet him until I was a fully-fledged postgraduate. I did trouble myself to read his poetry, however, mostly by visiting Austick’s bookshop on Blenheim Terrace and surreptitiously working my way through the three volumes then published by Andre Deutsch: For the Unfallen, King Log,
and Mercian Hymns
. I vividly remember being transfixed by the seemingly magical transition in number X of Mercian Hymns
, ‘Offa’s Laws’:
What should a man make of remorse that it might
profit his soul? Tell me. Tell everything to
Mother, darling, and God bless.
I also troubled myself as a postgraduate to go back and experience the Shakespeare lectures over again. They were dramatic performances in themselves and in them the poet often illuminated the workings of his own creativity, most obviously in his commentaries on the Henry VI plays and in his exploration of the interplay between the absolute and the expedient in the tragedies. As I remember it, the lecture on King Lear
completely transformed my sense of the play I’d studied at A-level by describing it as a clash of generations, between ‘the flashy old and the spivvy new’. The new way of perceiving the play’s conflict was powerful, the fact that it had been produced by those two surprising, non-standard English adjectives was linguistically liberating.
By the time Tenebrae
appeared on Austick’s shelves, I felt suitably up-to-date and was able to make the purchase of the splendid hard-back volume with its glossy green dust-cover. In the first couple of decades of my following, it was demanding – but manageable – given there was often a gap of some years between volumes. Not so within the last twenty years, of course. Eleven collections have arrived since Canaan
in 1998, a rate of creativity which puts even greater pressure on one’s capacity to read, digest, and reflect on the significance and the identity of the overall achievement. For me – as for others – that assessment clearly still has some way to go – not least with the arrival of an imminent posthumous volume – and no doubt some surprises still lie in store as old poems continue to give up their burden. But if I had to define what I carried within me as a result of my literary contact with Geoffrey Hill in the 1970s, it would be as follows.
I was immediately attracted to a historically aware imagination and what appeared to me to be a profoundly religious sensibility, but one which readily announced doubt as a key part of its imagining of the sacred. I learned ‘Canticle for Good Friday’ by heart. The poem’s ambivalence, evident from its first verb ‘staggered’ was something to cherish. I immediately thrilled to that quality in the poems which Donald Hall refers to as ‘Hill’s precise doubleness’ which contains ‘both the statement and an acidulous criticism of the statement’. For a similar reason, the essay ‘Redeeming the Time’ made a big impression. Aside from its implicit knowledge of how rhythm might simultaneously convey the larger ideological burden of a society and the technical workings of an individual poet, its introduction of Coleridge’s idea – expressed in a letter of 1810 – of ‘the drama of reason’ has stayed with me through a number of contexts beyond the poetical, while its characteristically wide-ranging and at the same time minutely focused demonstration of the lack of a ‘counterpointing’ in George Eliot’s 1868 pamphlet Address to Working Men by Felix Holt
, has proved seminal. Geoffrey’s conclusion on this point – ‘In short, she has excluded the anti-phonal voice of the heckler’ (94), stood more generally as a reminder as to how texts had both a formal and a moral obligation to be dialectical. In the case of his own later work, of course, that description of the presence of ‘the anti-phonal voice of the heckler’ has proved to be more particularly relevant and illuminating.
This double character of Geoffrey’s poems, their capacity to give and to take away, to render something with sensuous immediacy and at the same time challenge or completely undercut it, was brilliantly exemplified in the framing stanzas of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy:
(Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, 143)
The brisk celluloid clatters through the gate;
the cortège of the century dances in the street;
and over and over the jolly cartoon
armies of France go reeling towards Verdun.
Only recently, in his ‘A Postscript on Modernist Poetics’ (2005), has this multivalent capacity of the poetry received a correlative in Geoffrey’s critical writings. In Simone Weil’s Enracinement
he finds a fitting spatial analogy to describe the coming together of the civic imagination and the formal requirement of poetry:
Simultaneous composition on several planes at once is the law of artistic creation, and wherein, in fact, lies its difficulty.
A poet in the arrangement of words and the choice of each word, must simultaneously bear in mind matters on at least five or six different planes of composition … Politics, in their turn, form an art governed by composition on a multiple plane.
(‘A Postscript on Modernist Poetics’
Collected Critical Writings, 573.)
Over his career, Geoffrey Hill fashioned a unique body of poems which scrupulously and with remarkable invention offers a witness to our time. His poetry gives us a unique opportunity to reflect not only on ourselves but on the language in which we articulate ourselves. Language, the very stuff of poetry, is often taken for granted, but the best poetry - like Geoffrey’s – wakes us up to new linguistic possibilities. In his inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry he referred us to the following definition, first published in 1935, by the poet and critic R.P. Blackmur: ‘The art of poetry is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom – language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality’ (http://media.podcasts.ox.ac.uk/kebl/general/2010-11-30-hill-poetry-keble.mp3)
Over the last sixty years, Geoffrey has repeatedly woken us up to new linguistic possibilities and has added considerably and most memorably to the ‘stock of our available reality’.