Sir Geoffrey Hill – obituary


Sir Geoffrey Hill, who has died aged 84, was a poet and scholar whose combative and infrequently impenetrable work led critics to hail him as considered one of Britain’s best writers.

His genius – and his sturdiness – had been broadly acclaimed in his later years, along with his election in 2010 as Oxford Professor of Poetry for 5 years and in 2012 a knighthood, which he accepted to honour his dad and mom.

His abiding theme was tradition, and he would preserve returning to the query of whether or not now we have the suitable language to commemorate or lament the previous. Hill’s poetry abounds in Latin puns, Hebrew epigrams, anagrams, enjoyable with misprints, references to medieval theologians and coded allusions to any critics who’ve registered unease along with his aggression, or what one known as his “unearned grandiloquence”.

As if to enrage them additional, he produced increasingly more indirect poems which, for all their vatic depth, he fairly thought of to be trendy variations of Pope’s Dunciad. Seamus Heaney and Tom Paulin got here in for explicit scorn, and in The Triumph of Love (1998) Hill dismissed the previous as “that Irish professor of rhetoric”.

That insult was all of the extra double-edged due to Hill’s repeated unwillingness to belief the rhetoric of politicians, advertisers and even poets themselves. For all that, his personal work is suffering from literary units. He had a keenness for epanalepsis, and delighted in developing palindromic phrases: “Windfall cited as creditor, who / would credit score windfall with out fee?” Typically, if a line or determine appeared too neat, he would flag it as much as the reader.

After two strains of crafted pentameters in Speech! Speech! (2000) he backs away to remark: “How formally this begins.”

These self-contradicting ironies ran via his life and work. As an educational he would go about with such a haunted look – “self-caricaturingly martyred”, as one buddy put it – that secretaries at Leeds College would name him “Chuckles” (a nickname in all probability coined by the poet Ian Duhig).

However there are echoes of music corridor comedy all through his longer poems; for instance: “Is that proper, Missis, or is that proper? I don’t / care what I say, do I?” He as soon as claimed, jokingly, that he had learnt as a lot from Frankie Howerd as he had from John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins. In a single poem he colluded with the “Chuckles” tag, solely in Latin (“Geffe juvat”).

Nonetheless, even his wit (which he would touch upon – “Who’re you to say I sound humorous”) was one thing that might make the poet troublesome to learn (which was one thing else he would touch upon – “Don’t give them any extra / to work on…”).

He was conscious that he was troublesome, however would scoff at individuals who stated his work was inaccessible. “The phrase accessible,” he wrote, “is okay as an alternative; that’s to say, public bogs ought to be accessible to folks in wheelchairs.”

His level was characteristically paradoxical – that makes an attempt to be fashionable or broadly understood usually find yourself being undemocratic, and that leaders who bandied about banal demagoguery are typically despots. The very issue of his poetry gave it an ethical cost, to which the reader needed to rise. As he put it, “Nothing true / is straightforward”, earlier than checking himself once more: “is that true?”

Simply as puzzling is how a poet who was so dismissive of a big readership ought to have reacted in so prickly a technique to the reactions of readers. His work will be seen as an prolonged dialogue with an uncomprehending however bemused viewers, who may have learn in The Orchards of Syon (2002): “I need you / to fathom what I imply. What do I imply?”

And whilst he’s scowling on the trappings of fashionable tradition, he reveals familiarity with it. His extra “road” language is surprisingly updated – “IN YOUR FACE!” and echoes of Paul Celan or Calderón de la Barca sit alongside nods to Elton John or Monica Lewinsky: “(Rum place for a cigar, Herr Präsident…)”.

This reveals tradition and reminiscence to be excessive amongst his priorities. Hill’s data of music, poetry, artwork and philosophy was all the time embedded in a wry evaluation of the world round it. His final concern was how you can honour the reminiscences of issues or folks price honouring.

These would come with the victims of pogroms, whether or not they had been Nazi atrocities or the horrors of Clifford’s Tower in York in 1190; or the victims of struggle in Africa, resembling Colonel Fajuyi, who died for exhibiting hospitality to a visitor when Igbos wished to kill him in 1966; or the poet Christopher Okigbo, who was a casualty within the Biafran struggle. He would additionally honour these earlier than him who had paid related tributes in earlier generations. For all his obvious hostility to the world, he known as himself a “reward singer”, and earned a spot among the many reward singers of the previous.

He admired the Elizabethan Catholic martyrs, resembling Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, who had been, he defined, “transcendently tremendous human beings whom one would have liked to have identified. The data that they might so sublimate or transcend their peculiar mortal emotions as to willingly undertake the course they took, figuring out what the just about inevitable finish could be, strikes me to reverence for them as human beings and to a sort of absolute astonishment. The actual fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so usually ignoble.”

None of this public damning or feting prevented him from writing intensely private poetry. The longer, later poems usually doc a non-public battle with despair, and are revealing concerning the medicine, resembling lithium, that it took to supply them. Nonetheless open he was about this, he nonetheless noticed it as “ammunition to those that don’t like me … they are saying ‘Hill has simply turned the faucet on and now he can’t flip the faucet off.’ ”

After these struggles all through the three greatest texts – The Triumph of Love; Speech! Speech!; and The Orchards of Syon – that final work stands as a sort of Paradise following on from the previous Hell and Purgatory, and it tenderly evokes the panorama he knew as a boy.

Geoffrey William Hill was born at Bromsgrove on June 18 1932, to William, a police constable, and Hilda Hill, and grew up within the close by village of Fairfield. Geoffrey dominated out following his father into the constabulary, or becoming a member of the Armed Forces, as a result of from the age of 11 he was deaf in a single ear. Happily the situation did little hurt to a lifelong love and intimate data of music. He shortly selected an educational profession, and in 1950 left Bromsgrove County Excessive Faculty for Keble, Oxford, the place he took a First in English.

His mom was a reader; his father not a lot. Geoffrey had gained Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as a prize at Sunday college and “fell in love”, hoping, he remembered 70 years later, “to do one thing which may equal or exceed the mysterious fantastic thing about this stuff”. His first poems appeared whereas he was nonetheless at Oxford, in Donald Corridor’s Fantasy Poets sequence.

His debut piece, “Genesis”, portended a lot that will comply with: the pastoral imagery, the wrestle with religion, and in the end the violence. “There is no such thing as a cold delusion will maintain,” he wrote, in contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice.

He went on to show at Leeds College, the place he would seem in a robe to ship lectures that college students bear in mind as being “Byronic”. His standing was enhanced by his rising fame as a poet. In 1959, For the Unfallen appeared. It’s a mystical work, composed with scrupulous regard for formal verse and traditional genres.

From then till 1964, he wrote extra sporadically. He had married Nancy Whittaker in 1956, and had 4 kids along with her. The wedding was dissolved in 1983.

He revealed a seminal assortment, King Log, in 1968. There, the wilful ambiguities and the tick of interrupting himself with heckles resembling “Tasteless! Tasteless!” turn into an everyday function. This quantity secured his fame for frolicsome seriousness. It opens with considered one of his most anthologised poems, “Ovid within the Third Reich”, a distilled reflection on the diploma to which a poet will be harmless of the horrors round him.

His notes on “Funeral Music”, a sequence of sonnets partly set on the Battle of Towton of 1461, are eager to ascertain simply how a lot blood was shed. (“One finds the chronicler of Croyland Abbey writing that the blood of the slain lay caked with the snow which coated the bottom and that, when the snow melted, the blood flowed alongside the furrows and ditches for a distance of two or three miles.”) Hill makes use of the personae of slaughtered historic figures to say one thing about our widespread mortality, writing within the last sonnet of the sequence:

“Whether it is with out / Consequence once we vaunt and undergo, or / If it isn’t, all echoes are the identical / In such eternity. Then inform me, love, / How that ought to consolation us – or anybody / Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place, / Crying to the tip ‘I’ve not completed’. ”

The sudden entry of the non-public endearment is attribute; he’s writing of a bloody world through which love, one way or the other, should survive.

In a later sequence of managed quatrains on Charles Péguy (1983), he readily identifies with a person moved by concepts of regeneration and sacrifice.

In 1976, Hill turned professor of English at Leeds. From 1981 till 1988, he was a lecturer at Cambridge, and a fellow of Emmanuel School. His voice and readership had been firmly established with the additional volumes Mercian Hymns in 1971 and Tenebrae in 1978, and critics divided between agog interpreters and baffled detractors. When Penguin produced a Collected Poems in 1985, they tackled the issue head on; the blurb printed the unfavourable gobbets alongside the extra optimistic feedback: “insufferable, bullying, intransigent, illiberal, good,” wrote one commentator, whereas others supplied, much less ambiguously: “inaccessibly obscure and unusual and mannered” and: “glowering, unlovely egotism”.

In 1988 he was appointed professor of Literature and Faith at Boston College. The title is apt for somebody whose later work was so preoccupied with language and redemption. From this level longer works appeared shortly, at roughly two-yearly intervals, starting with Canaan in 1996. The Triumph of Love is a free meditation on the facility of phrases in an age that follows Auschwitz, starting and ending with a one-line stanza. The previous reads: “Solar-blazed, over Romsley, a furious rain-scarp”; the latter replaces “a” with “the”, as if an consideration to element is at the least a begin. A lot in between has the tone of a realized essayist.

The following lengthy poem, Speech! Speech! (2000) is stricter, and in it the poet fulminates in opposition to what he calls “inattention” (amongst different issues). Two years later, in The Orchards of Syon, Hill writes elegantly about music, as if this would possibly supply an escape from the round bouts of self-probing and lacerating. “Does music / know or care the way it sounds?” is, in Hill’s language, a observe of hope.

Briskly after that, he wrote a sequence known as Scenes from Comus, which appeared in completed type in 2005. It might have been his strangest quantity, but it surely incorporates such gems of self data as this: “That from this noise, this mêlée, there points / a grand and crabby music. And that I / need my piece of it. Even when not mine.” It was set to music by Hugh Wooden.

In 1988 he married Alice Goodman, 26 years his junior; she is greatest identified for writing the libretti for John Adams’s operas Nixon in China and The Loss of life of Klinghoffer, and in 2006, having transformed to Anglicanism, she turned the chaplain of Trinity School, Cambridge. It was the start of a productive, comfortable interval for Hill, regardless that he would grumble in his poetry about folks to whom the Nobel Prize did or didn’t go. A lyrical assortment got here out in 2006, With out Title, exhibiting him to be extra reconciled to ageing, and extra at peace with himself.

Subsequent got here A Treatise of Civil Energy (2007), extra direct in fashion, after which Oraclau | Oracles in 2010, Clavics (2011), Odi Barbare (2012) – culminating within the 1,000 pages of Damaged Hierarchies: Collected Poems 1952-2012.

Hill’s wide-ranging essays on writers, philosophy and language had been collected in The Lords of Restrict (1984, the title taken from an Auden poem), The Enemy’s Nation (1991), Fashion and Religion (2003) and Collected Crucial Writings (2008).

By now he had fought off his psychological sickness, which he later thought of to be obsessive compulsive dysfunction, began taking anti-depressants, and, following a coronary heart operation, would pound at an train bike whereas working via a detective novel. He moved again to Britain in 2006 and settled in a rectory close to Cambridge.

Hill was an odd combination in his look: resembling, in youth, a barely extra craggy James Mason – and in previous age, Jeremiah; he was each a dandy and a tramp, wore a paisley silk cravat and a Harris Tweed jacket above Tesco’s denims, barely at half-mast. He complained about standing however would trudge to a pupil poetry occasion in a moist upstairs room in Headingley. His voice boomed and rasped, however his eyes twinkled. He knew that he may very well be humorous and in addition a humorous spectacle. Above all, the determine within the lonely tower was additionally a dependable buddy, a conscientious trainer and a loving husband.

He’s survived by his spouse, their daughter, and three sons and a daughter from his earlier marriage.

Sir Geoffrey Hill, born June 18 1932, died June 30 2016


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