Already, like a disciplined scholar,
I piece fragments together, past conjecture,
Establishing true sequences of pain;
For so it is proper to find value
In a bleak skill, as in the thing restored:
The long-lost words of choice and valediction.
————————————-— Geoffrey Hill, “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz, I”
Oxford University has a new Professor of Poetry. The post is largely ceremonial, though it does require the occupant to deliver an occasional lecture. Still, it is a significant honor, second only in the United Kingdom to that of poet laureate. First established in 1708, the professorship is an exclusive club, one that has numbered among its members Matthew Arnold, Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney.
Geoffrey Hill won this year by a landslide. Normally that sort of margin would indicate a broad base of admiration and even affection among Oxford graduates, but in this case the appearance is deceptive. It would be closer to the truth to call this a grudging landslide—an awkward, belated acknowledgement. After all, Hill’s first book, For the Unfallen, was published in 1958, and the brilliance of his poetry and criticism has been recognized for decades. He could easily have become Professor of Poetry at any time in the last thirty years. But it is only now, as he nears eighty, that he has been granted the distinction.
Press reports about the election were filled with descriptions of his life and work that sound more bemused than admiring. Several recounted some of the epithets often flung at Hill’s oeuvre: “unbearable, bullying, intransigent, intolerant…mandarin and rarefied…warmth in these poems is like a dying sun seen through a wall of ice.”
Angry and difficult: it is hard to imagine two qualities we like less in our poets today.
Hill is nothing if not a contrarian—a man born out of his time. He began publishing just as “The Movement”—whose members included Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis—gained ascendancy in Britain, a group that stressed simplicity of diction and light, bantering irony. Into that milieu Geoffrey Hill—with his densely layered allusions and etymology-soaked language, his facility for Latin and half a dozen European languages, his obsession with violence and corruption in history and politics, and his darkly Christian sensibility—emerged like the love child of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Half a century later, Hill never has come into fashion. Clearly he asks more of contemporary readers than they are willing to give. Despite Wikipedia and Google Translate, his foreign phrases and allusions are resented. His breathtaking erudition is reduced to the dirtiest word we can think of: elitism. His magnetic attraction to what Eliot called the “overwhelming question” causes distress.
The subjects that preoccupy Hill—the mystery of sin, our forgetfulness of the past, the enormous responsibility that rests on those who use words in the public realm, and the triumph of vanity and superficiality in contemporary culture—are considered downers these days, even in literary circles (perhaps especially in literary circles). We prefer the small, private, limpid moment to the large public stages of history—the battlefields, concentration camps, and assassination scenes to which Hill returns time and again.
And yet, for all these criticisms, few who have ever put some effort into reading Hill report that he has failed to reward them handsomely. The work he expects us to do is the best possible kind: the deep imaginative labor of making connections and understanding contexts—which, in the end, is a pleasurable form of serious play. If Hill writes about violence and tragedy, he also writes generously about those who bear witness to truth in the face of persecution or indifference, the saints and poets whose word became their bond, their baptism in blood: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Péguy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Simone Weil.
When asked recently about the charge that his poetry is not accessible enough, Hill had this to say:
Accessible is a perfectly good word if applied to supermarket aisles, art galleries, polling stations and public lavatories, but it has no place in discussion of poetry and poetics. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves; we’re difficult to each other and we are mysteries to ourselves; we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when, if such simplifications were applied to our own inner selves, we would find it demeaning?
Hill turns the standard argument about difficult poetry being undemocratic on its head. Democracies go wrong, he says, when they are swayed by terrible simplifications. Art that keeps us alive to the moral ambiguities of life is the best protection against the slogans of ideologues and tyrants.
Hill’s career as a poet began, appropriately enough, with a poem entitled “Genesis,” and the powerful cadence of his voice was established in the opening lines: “Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God.” As an annunciation of his lifelong preoccupations, “Genesis” is pitch-perfect:
By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.
And by Christ’s blood are men made free
Though in close shrouds their bodies lie
Under the rough pelt of the sea;
Though Earth has rolled beneath her weight
The bones that cannot bear the light.
As Hill must have known from the outset, the introduction of religiously charged language would not be a popular move. But it has remained there, stubbornly entwined not only with the poetry but the criticism as well. In an early essay—also something of a manifesto—entitled “Poetry as Menace and Atonement,” Hill wrote that “the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense—an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony….” Drawing on the thought of American southern poet Allen Tate and French philosopher Jacques Maritain, Hill criticized the modern sin of “‘angelism,’ the refusal of the creature to submit…to the exigencies of the created natural order.” To avoid the sin of “illiberal pride…the speaker [of a poem] must submit to an exemplary ordeal.” Only then will his language avoid the menace of narcissism and achieve “an atonement of aesthetics with rectitude of judgment.” “From the depths of the self,” he concludes, “we rise to a concurrence with that which is not-self.”
If these concerns sound a lot like those of T.S. Eliot, that’s because Hill has been locked in a protracted agon with that poet. While critical of Eliot on many occasions—he thinks that theFour Quartets represents a tragic fall into metrically weak and sentimental language—Hill shares Eliot’s belief that poetry must move from self to not-self, from the present to history, from the private to the public. In his long sequence The Triumph of Love, Hill speaks of “Laus / et vituperatio: the worst / remembered, least understood, of the modes.” The ancient rhetorical mode of “praise and blame” calls on the poet to engage not only in lyric celebration but also prophetic speech. At the end of this sequence, Hill concludes that poetry is “a sad and angry consolation,” a paradoxical combination of grief and outrage against injustice with the bitter, healing herb of truth.
The strange, disturbing thing about the accusations of anger against Geoffrey Hill is the double standard being applied. Creative writers today are frequently lionized for their anger over such issues as global warming or civil rights. The answer, I suspect, goes back to the problem of “angelism.” The form of indignation popular now stems from an externalizing of evil into institutions, governments, classes; it is expressed from an angelic height that refuses to submit to the exigencies of the created order. Hill’s anger is more unsettling because it cuts to the quick of our souls; it gives no quarter because it goes to the heart of our creatureliness. Hill could say, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a writer he closely resembles: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
A fascinating aspect of Hill’s own life and work is that in recent years he has not only recorded his own painful submission to the limits of the human condition but developed a capacity for black comedy. After years of depression and virtual silence, Hill received treatment that has led to a late publishing bonanza. The vituperatio remains as sharp as ever, but now it includes himself. “Shameless old man,” he calls himself in The Triumph of Love. “Charged with erudition, / put up by the defence to be / his own accuser.”
And, if you look carefully, there is laus—love, even—to be found in Hill’s poetry, as in thecanzoni of praise to the Blessed Virgin in the same poem. “Vergine bella,” he hails her, remembering her statue at the end of World War II:
when your blast-scarred face
appeared staring, seemingly in disbelief,
shocked beyond recollection, unable to recognize
the mighty and the tender salutations
that slowly, with innumerable false starts, the ages
had put together for your glory
in words and the harmonies of stone.
But you have long known and endured all things
since you first suffered the Incarnation….
Much of the greatest poetry throughout history has been difficult. What we forget is that these works come down to us cushioned by a cloud of interpretation. That is how the economy of literature works. That responsibility lies with us. And we’re late in getting started with Geoffrey Hill.
When he arrives in Oxford to deliver his first lecture as Professor of Poetry, Hill will appear stern and white-bearded, walking with a cane. But I suspect that he’ll steal a brief, tender glance at the soaring steeple of the university church that stands in the High Street, dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin, the Vergine bella beyond the recollection of many, but not this man.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.