The Many Humours of Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill’s work has often been labelled notoriously ‘difficult’ – and much, probably too much, has been made of this assertion. In his review of Without Title for The Guardian, Peter McDonald described Hill’s difficulty as having been ‘too much debated of late’ – and yet such debate continues ten years after McDonald’s helpful intervention. A Google search for ‘Geoffrey Hill difficulty’ yields more than 370,000 results: ten times less than ‘impeach Donald Trump’, admittedly, but still enough to suggest that Hill’s supposed ‘difficulty’ now rests as the cornerstone of his reputation as a poet.
The very word ‘difficulty’ implies many of the others some readers and scholars might associate with Hill’s work; challenging, obscure, complex, dense. And yet, as with all writers of Hill’s achievement, we would err to cast his work as that of a terrible Old Testament prophet (though Hill resembled such, physically at least, in his later years), hurling down perfect, gloomy lines into modernity’s ruin. Instead, as Hill now ‘becomes his admirers’, as Yeats did for Auden, any complete appreciation ought to include the role played by humour in his work.
Those looking for humour in Hill’s poetry will readily admit the ease with which one can distinguish his voice from that of Edward Lear or Pam Ayres; there are few belly laughs to be found in works such as ‘Ovid in the Third Reich’, or, ‘September Song’. In prose, too, Hill’s capacity for acerbic judgement remained until the end of his working life. In his ...
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