Sir Geoffrey William Hill is an English poet, professor emeritus of English literature and religion, and former co-director of the Editorial Institute, at Boston University. Hill has been considered to be among the most distinguished poets of his generation. In June 2010 he was elected Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford.
Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England, in 1932. When he was six, his family moved to nearby Fairfield in Worcestershire, where he attended the local primary school, then the grammar school in Bromsgrove. "As an only child, he developed the habit of going for long walks alone, as an adolescent deliberating and composing poems as he muttered to the stones and trees." On these walks he often carried with him Oscar Williams' A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry (1946), and Hill speculates: "there was probably a time when I knew every poem in that anthology by heart." In 1950 he was admitted to Keble College, Oxford to read English, where he published his first poems in 1952, at the age of twenty, in an eponymous Fantasy Press volume (though he had published work in the Oxford Guardian — the magazine of the University Liberal Club — and The Isis).
Upon graduation from Oxford with a first, Hill embarked on an academic career, teaching at the University of Leeds from 1954 until 1980. After leaving Leeds, he spent a year at the University of Bristol on a Churchill Scholarship before becoming a teaching Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he taught from 1981 until 1988. He then moved to the United States, to serve as University Professor and Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University. In 2006, he moved back to Cambridge, England.
Hill is married to Alice Goodman, and they have one daughter.
Awards and Honours
Hill was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by the University of Leeds in 1988. He is also an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford; an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; and since 1996 a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2009 his Collected Critical Writings won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism.
Hill was knighted in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to literature.
In March 2010 Hill was confirmed as a candidate in the election of the Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford, with a broad base of academic support. He was ultimately successful.
Hill's poetry encompasses a variety of styles, from the dense and allusive writing of King Log (1968) and Canaan (1997) to the simplified syntax of the sequence 'The Pentecost Castle' in Tenebrae (1978) to the more accessible poems of Mercian Hymns (1971), a series of thirty poems (sometimes called 'prose-poems' a label which Hill rejects in favour of 'versets') which juxtapose the history of Offa, eighth century ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, with Hill's own childhood in the modern Mercia of the West Midlands. Hill has also worked in related fields - in 1978, the Royal National Theatre in London staged his 'version for the English stage' of Brand by Henrik Ibsen, written in rhyming verse.
Regarding both his style and subject, Hill is often described as a "difficult" poet. In an interview in The Paris Review (2000), which published Hill's early poem 'Genesis' when he was still at Oxford, Hill defended the right of poets to difficulty as a form of resistance to the demeaning simplifications imposed by 'maestros of the world'. Hill also argued that to be difficult is to be democratic, equating the demand for simplicity with the demands of tyrants. He makes circumspect use of traditional rhetoric (as well as that of modernism), but he also transcribes the idioms of public life, such as those of television, political sloganeering, and punditry. Hill has been consistently drawn to morally problematic and violent episodes in British and European history. He has written poetic responses to the Holocaust in English, 'Two Formal Elegies', 'September Song' and 'Ovid in the Third Reich'. His accounts of landscape (especially that of his native Worcestershire) are as intense as his encounters with history.
Hill's distaste for conclusion, however, has led him, in 2000's Speech! Speech! (118), to scorn the latter argument as a glib get-out: 'ACCESSIBLE / traded as DEMOCRATIC, he answers / as he answers móst things these days | easily.' Throughout his corpus Hill is uncomfortable with the muffling of truth-telling that verse designed to sound well, for its contrivances of harmony, must permit. The constant buffets of Hill's suspicion of lyric eloquence—can it truly be eloquent?—against his talent for it (in Syon, a sky is 'livid with unshed snow') become in the poems a sort of battle in style, where passages of singing force (ToL: 'The ferns / are breast-high, head-high, the days / lustrous, with their hinterlands of thunder') are balanced with prosaic ones of academese and inscrutable syntax. In the long interview collected in Haffenden's Viewpoints there is described the poet warring himself to witness honestly, to make language as tool say truly what he believes is true of the world.
Controversy, Explanation and Parody
The violence of Hill's aesthetic has been criticised by the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin, who draws attention to the poet's use of the Virgilian trope of 'rivers of blood' – as deployed infamously by Enoch Powell – to suggest that despite Hill's multi-layered irony and techniques of reflection, his lyrics draw their energies from an outmoded nationalism, expressed in what Hugh Haughton has described as a 'language of the past largely invented by the Victorians'. And yet Harold Bloom has called him 'the strongest British poet now active.'
For his part, Hill addressed some of the misperceptions about his political and cultural beliefs in a Guardian interview in 2002. There he suggested that his affection for the "radical Tories" of the 19th Century, while recently misunderstood as reactionary, was actually evidence of a progressive bent tracing back to his working class roots. He also indicated that he could no longer draw a firm distinction between "Blairite Labour" and the Thatcher-era Conservatives, lamenting that both parties had become solely oriented toward "materialism".
Hill's unmistakable style has also been subject to parody: Wendy Cope includes a parody of a 'Mercian Hymn' in Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, and Ron Paste's parody 'Preach! Preach!' appears in Other Men's Flowers under the anagrammatic pseudonym "Fogy Hell-Fire."
When snow like sheep lay in the fold
And wind went begging at each door,
And the far hills were blue with cold,
And a cloud shroud lay on the moor,
born 19.6.32 - deported 24.9.42
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wards,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.
Created purely from glass the saint stands,
Exposing his gifted quite empty hands
Like a conjurer about to begin,
A righteous man begging of righteous men.