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Hill, Geoffrey

HILL, Geoffrey


Nationality: British. Born: Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, 18 June 1932. Education: Fairfield Junior School; County High School, Bromsgrove; Keble College, Oxford, B.A. 1953, M.A. 1959. Family: Married 1) Nancy Whittaker in 1956 (marriage dissolved), three sons and one daughter; 2) Alice Goodman in 1987, one daughter. Career: Member of the department of English from 1954, and professor of English literature, 1976–80, University of Leeds; university lecturer in English, and fellow of Emmanuel College, 1981–88. Since 1988 university professor and professor of literature and religion, Boston University. Visiting lecturer, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1959–60, and University of Ibadan, Nigeria, 1967; Churchill fellow, University of Bristol, 1980; Clark Lecturer, Trinity College, Cambridge University, 1986. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1961; Hawthornden Prize, 1969; Faber memorial prize, 1970; Whitbread award, 1971; Alice Hunt Bartlett award, 1971; Heinemann award, 1971; Duff Cooper memorial prize, 1979; American Academy Russell Loines award, 1983; Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1985. D.Litt.: University of Leeds, 1988. Honorary fellow, Keble College, 1981, and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 1990. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1972. Address: Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England.

Publications

Poetry

(Poems). Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1952.

For the Unfallen: Poems 1952–1958. London, Deutsch, 1959; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1960.

Preghiere. Leeds, Northern House, 1964.

Penguin Modern Poets 8, with Edwin Brock and Stevie Smith. London, Penguin, 1966.

King Log. London, Deutsch, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1968.

Mercian Hymns. London, Deutsch, 1971.

Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom: Poems 1952–1971. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Tenebrae. London, Deutsch, 1978; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. London, Agenda, 1983; New York, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Collected Poems. London, Penguin, 1985; New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

New and Collected Poems, 1952–1992. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

Canaan. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

The Triumph of Love. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998; London, Penguin, 1999.

Recording: The Poetry and Voice of Geoffrey Hill, Caedmon, 1979.

Play

Brand, adaptation of the play by Ibsen (produced London, 1978). London, Heinemann, 1978; revised version, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

Other

The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas. London, Deutsch, and New York, Oxford University Press, 1984.

The Enemy's Country: Words, Contexture, and Other Circumstances of Language. Oxford, Clarendon Press, and Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1991.

*

Critical Studies: Geoffrey Hill and "The Tongue's Atrocities," Swansea, University College, 1978, and The Force of Poetry, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984, both by Christopher Ricks; An Introduction to 50 Modern British Poets by Michael Schmidt, London, Pan, 1979, as A Reader's Guide to Fifty Modern British Poets, London, Heinemann, 1979, New York, Barnes and Noble, 1982; Double Lyric by Merle E. Brown, London, Routledge, 1980; "The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill" by Andrew Waterman, in British Poetry since 1970, edited by Peter Jones and Michael Schmidt, Manchester, Carcanet and New York, Persea, 1980; by the author, in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation with John Haffenden, London, Faber, 1981; Inhabited Voices: Myth and History in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney and George Mackay Brown by David Annwn Frome, Somerset, Bran's Head, 1984; Geoffrey Hill: Essays on His Work (includes bibliography) edited by Peter Robinson, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, Open University Press, 1985; The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill by Henry Hart, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986; The Uncommon Tongue: The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill by Vincent Sherry, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1987; Passionate Intelligence: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill by E.M. Knottenbelt, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1990; Geoffrey Hill Sixtieth Birthday issue of Agenda (London), 30 (1–2), 1992; "Variation and False Relation in Geoffrey Hill's Tenebrae" by Andrew Michael Roberts, in Essays in Criticism (Oxford), 43 (2), April 1993; "The 'Intelligence at Bay': Ezra Pound and Geoffrey Hill," in Paideuma (Orono, Maine), 22 (1–2), Spring/Fall, 1993, and "'"The Poet's True Commitment': Geoffrey Hill, the Computer, and Original Sin," in Literature and Theology at Century's End, edited by Gregory Salyer and Robert Detweiler, Atlanta, Georgia, Scholars, 1995, both by Avril Horner; "Home-Made Englands: History and Nostalgia in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison" by David Gervais, and "Semiotics and the Poetry of David Jones and Geoffrey Hill" by Kathleen O'Gorman, both in In Black and Gold: Contiguous Traditions in Post-War British and Irish Poetry, edited by C.C. Barfoot, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1994; "The Fallen World of Geoffrey Hill" by William Logan, in New Criterion (New York), 12 (7), March 1994; "The Treacherous Years of Postmodern Poetry in English" by William A. Johnsen, in Forked Tongues? Comparing Twentieth-Century British and American Literature, edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, London, Longman, 1994; "'"The Resonances of Words': Lope de Vega and Geoffrey Hill" by Colin Thompson, in Modern Language Review (Leeds), 90 (1), January 1995; "Music Alone Survives? Collapsing Faith in Some Sonnets by G.M. Hopkins and Geoffrey Hill" by Christine Pagnoulle, in Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens, 42, November 1995; "'"Fatness' in Pound and Hill" by Lennard Nyberg, in Studia Neophilologica (Uppsala, Sweden), 69 (2), 1997; "Poets and Prophets: Geoffrey Hill in America" by Philip Horne, in Symbiosis, 2 (2), October 1998.

*  *  *

Geoffrey Hill's poems are poems of extremity. Their thematic poles are the extremes of sex and of death, the body's proximate cravings and terrors and its remotest cravings and terrors. Their manner of proceeding—costive, densely allusive, highly polished—is the self-protective stylistic shield of a man appalled before his experience and by what he understands to be the experience of his race in history. The poems ironically deflect their subject matter through dramatic contexts and fictionalized locations. "The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz," for instance, is a poem about sexual despair, but the heartrending poignancy of some of its moments is undermined by the elaborate literary deceit of the poem's form. If there is personal utterance behind the "Songbook," its tracks are well covered by the artifice in which Hill creates a fictional poet—Arrurruz himself—and then "translates" his work into English. The deliberated wit of this is entirely characteristic, as is its modernist cult of impersonality.

If such procedures occasionally have the effect of making Hill's poetry hermetic to the point of a reader's despair, they are also the signals of an intensely dramatic, historically empathetic imagination. Hill's best poems attempt to dissolve the self into history, legend, and myth and to find a meeting point between personal and communal meaning. I am thinking especially of his poem sequences "Of Commerce and Society," "Funeral Music," Mercian Hymns, "An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England," and The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. In these poems, in very different ways, Hill's essential commerce is with what he calls "the speechless dead," reimagining the occasions of their suffering and finding in it paradigms for the ways in which we all necessarily live and die.

It will perhaps be obvious from this that Hill is a poet immensely self-conscious about language itself and a poet whose moral and political preoccupations deepen everywhere into preoccupations that may properly be called religious. In the sequences "The Pentecost Castle" and "Lachrimae" these themes are focused through an attempt to come to some kind of terms with the figure of Christ as it has been presented by the mystical tradition of European Christianity. They are sequences of dark paradox that combine longing, rejection, self-abasement, and a kind of grim hope, what Hill elsewhere calls "cries of rapture and despair."

In The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy the politico-religious interest is newly concentrated into a lengthy meditation on the figure of Péguy, whom Hill describes in a note as "one of the great souls, one of the great prophetic intelligences of our century." A French Catholic nationalist whose Le Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d'Arc embodies a kind of mystical patriotism, Péguy, it must be said, is on the face of it an unlikely candidate for such celebration.

Hill's ambition in the poem is to probe, as he also probes in his essay "Our Word Is Our Bond," some of the questions about the relationship between poetic language and political action that also fascinated Yeats, a poet clearly centrally important to him. The poem's procedures, however, are oracular and hermetic, for Hill depends to a large degree on various kinds of wordplay and pun and on some use of the French language. Perhaps as a result, there has been considerable disagreement over what exactly is involved in Hill's conception of the "patria." John Lucas has also found—as I find myself—something disconcertingly "schoolmasterly" about the poem's tone in places, a tendency to "advertise its seriousness." But although it has been impossible to come to any final judgment on this worrying, complicated, resonant poem, in one respect at least it clearly brings to a climax something central to Hill's work. There is an extreme sensuousness of evocation in which the natural world and human thought are seen to interpenetrate each other in a way reminiscent of some of Eliot's Four Quartets:

   Yours is their dream of France, militant-pastoral:
   musky red gillyvors, the wicker bark
   of clematis braided across old brick
   and the slow chain that cranks into the well
 
 
   morning and evening. It is Domrémy
   restored; the mystic strategy of Foch
   and Bergson with its time-scent, dour panache
   deserving of martyrdom. It is an army
 
 
   of poets, converts, vine-dressers, men skilled
   in wood or metal, peasants from the Beauce,
   terse teachers of Latin and those unschooled
   in all but the hard rudiments of grace.

—Neil Corcoran

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