The Enduring ‘Gift’ of Geoffrey Hill
In an essay written in 1943 but only published in 1971, the poet Keith Douglas lamented the scarcity of effective literary commentary on the Second World War. ‘In the fourth year of this war,’ Douglas complains, ‘we have not a single poet who seems likely to be an impressive commentator on it.’1 The essay, full of bitterness, ends with a predication that shows a remarkable degree of foresight. Resigned to the fact that ‘the soldiers have not found anything new to say,’ for Douglas the responsibility and opportunity fell to those who came after the War. It would be the role of the civilian writer, as well as the soldier poet, to reflect back on the character and legacy of the conflict. ‘Their [the soldiers’] experiences they will not forget easily,’ he concluded, ‘and it seems to me that the whole body of English war poetry of this war, civil and military, will be created after the war is over.’2 In his prediction, Douglas, who would be killed only months later, laid out an invitation to a new type of war poet; one who was self-consciously removed from the battlefield and sites of conflict, in a position to reflect on what exactly it was that differentiated 1918 from 1945, and able to offer a new voice to characterise past and future conflicts.
Geoffrey Hill, I would argue, was one of very few poets writing in Britain after 1945 who successfully took up this invitation (the others, including Stand founder Jon Silkin, were most likely to be ...
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