Hill, Geoffrey (William)

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HILL, Geoffrey (William)

Nationality: British. Born: Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, 18 June 1932. Education: Keble College, Oxford University, B.A. 1953, M.A. 1959. Family: Married 1) Nancy Whittaker in 1956 (divorced), three sons and one daughter; 2) Alice Goodman in 1987, one daughter. Career: Member, English department, 1954, and professor of English Literature, 1976-80, University of Leeds; lecturer in English and fellow, Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, 1981-88. Since 1988 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, for For the Unfallen; Hawthornden pize, 1969, and Geoffrey Faber memorial prize, 1970, both for King Log; Whitbread award, 1971, Alice Hunt Bartlett award, 1971, and Heinemann award, 1972, all for Mercian Hymns; Duff Cooper memorial prize, 1979, for Tenebrae; American Academy Russell Loines award, 1983; Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1985. D.Litt.: University of Leeds, 1988. Honorary fellow, Keble College, Oxford University, 1981, and Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, 1990. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1972. Address: The University Professor Program, Boston University, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, U.S.A.



For the Unfallen: Poems 1952-1958. 1959.

Preghiere. 1964.

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

King Log. 1968.

Mercian Hymns. 1971.

Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom: Poems 1952-1971. 1975.

Tenebrae. 1978.

The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. 1983.

Collected Poems. 1985.

New and Collected Poems, 1952-1992. 1994.

Canaan. 1996.

The Triumph of Love. 1998.


Brand, adaptation of the play by Henrik Ibsen (produced London, 1978). 1978; revised edition, 1981.


The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas. 1984.

The Enemy's Country: Words, Contexture, and Other Circumstances of Language. 1991.


Critical Studies:

"Speaking of the Holocaust: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill" by Igor Webb, in University of Denver Quarterly, 12(1), 1977, pp. 114-25; Geoffrey Hill and "The Tongue's Atrocities", 1978, and The Force of Poetry, 1984, both by Christopher Ricks; Geoffrey Hill issue of Agenda (London), 17(1), 1979; Inhabited Voices: Myth and History in the Poetry of Geoffrey Hill, Seamus Heaney, and George Mackay Brown by David Annwn, 1984; Geoffrey Hill issue of Agenda, 23, Autumn/Winter 1985-86; Geoffrey Hill: Essays on His Work, edited by Peter Robinson, 1985; Geoffrey Hill, edited by Harold Bloom, 1986; The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill by Henry Hart, 1986; The Uncommon Tongue: The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill by Vincent B. Sherry, 1987; Passionate Intelligence: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill by E.M. Knottenbelt, 1990; An Introduction to Geoffrey Hill by William Stanley Milne, 1998.

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Born in 1932, the English poet Geoffrey Hill lost the innocence of childhood and came into the consciousness of the horrors that humans are both subject to and capable of when he viewed photographs and newsreels of Nazi concentration camps. Although the Holocaust is central to Hill's conception of atrocity, he is a martyrologist who ranges across vast expanses of history to address the sufferings of many victims. Implicitly agreeing with the claim of the Frankfurt school theorist Theodor Adorno that culture and barbarism go hand in hand and taking up the challenge of Adorno's charge that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarous, Hill fully explores the relationship between cultural tradition and human suffering.

Hill is considered by many critics to be the most important British poet of his generation, following in the tradition of the great philosophical and mystical poets Blake, Shelley, Yeats, and Eliot. Compared with more prolific contemporaries such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, Hill has produced a small oeuvre. Although only a handful of poems from his eight slim volumes deal directly with the Holocaust, they are arresting and memorable addresses. Hill's style is difficult, marked by extreme compression at the level of word and line, symbolism based on historically arcane if not private meanings, complex irony (including self-irony), and an ambivalence of tone that at times defies interpretation. Readers who persist, however, find that their effort is repaid in poems that are painfully honest, intellectually profound, and shot through with moral urgency.

In Hill's first volume of poetry, For the Unfallen (1959), one can find compressed into the 16 lines of "Of Commerce and Society" those features that would come to characterize his method and his major themes, including the Holocaust:

Statesmen have known visions. And, not alone,
Artistic men prod dead men from their stone:
Some of us have heard the dead speak:
The dead are my obsession this week
But may be lifted away. In summer
Thunder may strike, or, as a tremor
Of remote adjustment, pass on the far side
From us: however deified and defied
By those it does strike. Many have died. Auschwitz,
Its furnace chambers and lime pits
Half-erased, is half-dead; a fable
Unbelievable in fatted marble.
There is, at times, some need to demonstrate
Jehovah's touchy methods that create
The connoisseur of blood, the smitten man.
At times it seems not common to explain.

There is the masterful shaping of language, for example, in the lines "a fable/Unbelievable in fatted marble," with the word "fable" opened up and redistributed in "unbelievable" and "fatted marble." One discerns Hill's self-irony in "The dead are my obsession this week" as well as his interrogation of aesthetic motivation in "Artistic men prod dead men from their stone." In the last stanza he meditates on the enigma of God's ways, an open-ended question that appears throughout his work.

In his poem "History as Poetry" Hill describes poetry as conveying through "the tongue's atrocities" the secrets and truth of "the speechless dead." Throughout his work there echoes the plea that historical memory be kept alive in a culture that has relentlessly commodified sentiment and sensationalized and flattened history into entertainment, rendering futile the power of witness. Even the most fiercely honest literary works are in constant danger of being co-opted and trivialized. A complex of recurring themes in Hill's poetry concerns the limitations of imagination, the equivocation of language, and the failure of communication. His poetics is marked by skepticism and despair, giving rise to a sustained self-interrogation, as he maintains a vigilant watch against the effects of a catharsis that would let the poet and the reader off lightly. The following lines from his poem "Annunciations" warn of the real possibility of such escapism through the blandishments of poetry:

Such precious things put down
And the flesh eased through
turbulence, the soul
Purples itself; each eye squats full and mild
While all who attend to fiddle or to harp
For betterment, flavour their decent mouths
With goblets of the sweetest sacrifice.

Literature about the Holocaust always faces the danger of becoming a "precious thing" that satiates the reader's emotions with poetic "turbulence" until the eye "squats full and mild." Hill refuses to allow his readers to push away from the poetic plate feeling sated and relieved. Near the end of his volume Triumph of Love he defines poetry as "a sad and angry consolation" (CXLVIII). By extension, Hill has claimed that a poetic offering should never be enough. For those readers who have found his poetry to be constantly bracing, profound, even prophetic, his offering has been substantial.

—Molly Abel Travis

See the essays on "September Song,"Triumph of Love, and "Two Formal Elegies."