Ovid in America
After the hail-in-sunshine chiaroscuro of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Spring time of the year’, sung splendidly by the Clothworkers Consort, the tribute to Geoffrey Hill in the Great Hall at the University of Leeds (on a very unprimaveral St Patrick’s Day) was brought to a close by the poet himself; a recording of his reading of D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Bavarian Gentians’, those unmistakeable Worcestershire vowels stalking among the repetitions of ‘blue’ and ‘dark’.
Hill’s imagination always inclined towards such poetry, savage energy under a no-less terrifying control. C.H. Sisson put it most memorably: his was ‘a mind in search of artifices to protect itself against its own passions’.1 I’ve written elsewhere of Hill’s admiration for a phrase from John Berryman’s ‘The Song of the Demented Priest’: ‘the violent and formal dancers’—that violent oxymoron itself held within the constraints of poetic syntax and line. As Jeffrey Wainwright reminded the gathering at the Leeds memorial, Hill’s earliest awareness of his luminaries reached across the Atlantic, particularly revering the gallant coldness of Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’.2 Hill had first discovered Tate aged 15 in Oscar Williams’ Little Treasury of Modern Poetry (1946), a gift from his father which he carried in his pocket around the Worcestershire countryside until it began to fall apart. As fortune would have it, on 3 September 1953 Tate wrote to the twenty-one-year old Hill from the Hôtel des Saints Pères on Paris’s left bank hailing the appearance of ‘Genesis’ in The Paris Review, its ‘perfect control and precision of language’.3 Several years later, ...
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