A Snake in the Garden
In March 2016, Geoffrey Hill wrote me a detailed letter about his correspondence with Tony Harrison in the 1960s, while the latter was in Nigeria. He described a poem which he began writing at this time for his fellow poet: a poem which he did not complete for 48 years. He later developed his early lines into a three-part sequence ‘To Tony Harrison’, published in Broken Hierarchies in 2013 (728-730). The first poem in the sequence begins: ‘Correctly scotching the snake he’s not yet / Convinced of his power’. This same line, composed almost 50 years earlier, can be seen in Hill’s Nigeria Notebook in the Geoffrey Hill Archive, held in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds.
The Tony Harrison Archive in Leeds also contains letters relating to this incident with the snake, which had a marked impact on Harrison, then working as a young lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria. Harrison also wrote to James Simmons in this period about a cobra in his garden – the second snake he had to kill. This was a period of great political tension in Nigeria, and alongside his anxiety about killing the snakes, Harrison wrote to Hill about the Igbo massacres and the difficulty of resolving such extreme violence with the routines of everyday life.
Hill spent a brief period in Nigeria just before the devastating Nigerian Civil War. He met Christopher Okigbo during this time, who was killed shortly afterwards. Hill’s Speech! Speech! contains a number of poems about the Biafran war, and he ...
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