Saturday, 2 July 2016

Sir Geoffrey Hill ( 18/6/32 - 30/6/16) - Poet of complexity R.I.P

Have just heard the sad news that British Poet Sir Geoffrey Hill has died at age 84, on Thursday
Hill, who had often been referred to as the “greatest living poet in the English language”, leaves behind him an extensive amount of poetry extending back into the Fifties that is both inspired and inspiring. Oxford University’s Professor of Poetry from 2010-2015, Hill was also a respected critical essayist, winning the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2009 for his Collected Critical Writings. I first became aware of his work from the edition of Penguin Modern Poets8, which he shared with the poets Edwin Brock and Stevie Smith.
He  has been described as a difficult poet, a  reputation he gained because he used his intellect to make a continuous engagement with the English language often in his work there are references to fairly obscure people, equally obscure texts  plus his facility for Latin and half a dozen European languages which at tmes can seem daunting. His obsession with violence and corruption in history and politics, he was drawn to the life of martyrs, the saints and poets whose word became their bond, their baptism in blood: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Péguy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Simone Weil. and this combined with his darkly Christian sensibility made him somewhat unfashionable, his foreign phrases and allusions were resented by some yet his interest and strong attachment to words placed him among a long intellectual tradition. Anyway what the hell is s actually wrong with being clever, and whatever a poet chooses to do with their skill is in the end up to them. Has not much of the greatest poetry throughout history been difficult? Is it  not the the poets duty to make us think, scratch our heads, question? Is not life  difficult and complex? Do we not try and reflect this in our work? Anyway the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, described him as “in poetry, a saint and a warrior who never gave an inch in his crusade to reach poetic truth”.
Hill had a fantastic range though  from dark meditations on morals, philosophy, religious faith and political violence to rapturous evocations of the English landscape of his native Worcestershire and wonderful poems about love. He was an uncompromising visionary and his work reveals his towering intellect and an emotional complexity that was unrivaled by many of his contemporary's.
Geoffrey William Hill was born in Worcestershire, England in 1932, to William, a police constable, and Hilda Hill, and grew up in the nearby village of Fairfield. where he grew up in constant view of the landscape that is Housman’s Shropshire. He identified himself as working class After earning a first degree in English at Oxford, entering the world of academia meaning a family tradition of joining the police force was closed to him because of deafness in one ear, the result of a childhood illness. he taught for many years, entering first at the University of Leeds for more than twenty years, then at Cambridge.He had married Nancy Whittaker in 1956, and had four children with her. The marriage was dissolved in 1983.He left for for Boston University in 1988, where he remained on the faculty of the University Professors Program. In this year he married Alice Goodman, 26 years his junior.Since 1998, he had also served as codirector of that university’s recently founded Editorial Institute. He made his home in nearby Brookline, returning each summer to England, where he kept a cottage in Lancashire. He eventually moved back to Britain in 2006 and settled in a rectory near Cambridge. He received a knighthood in  2012 in the New Years honors list..
Something I shared with him was his struggle with chronic depression and anxiety, which first emerged for him when he was at Cambridge. It was not until he moved to  Boston University that he was able finally to seek treatment for his debilitating depression with the use of lithium and Prozac which he described as a ' signal/ mystery, mercy of these latter days.' His political views though could not be further than mine he has described himself as a 'hierarchical Tory, his views were  idiosyncratic but you don't need to share these in order to get a lot from his work, his poetry is immensely varied in form and subject matter (he was also our most accomplished nature poet). One of the key features of Hill's politics is his patriotism and his nostalgia for a Britain that never actually existed. His Toryism doesn't sit well with his anger at the poverty of his grandparents which demonstrates a keen solidarity with those who are impoverished by the forces of Capital.
Hill's aesthetic has proved to be controversial owing to the use of violent language, but he maintains that the controversy he creates is unintentional: "I don't ... write poems to be polemical; I write to create a being of beautiful energy."
He is survived by his wife, their daughter, and three sons and a daughter from his previous marriage.
Geoffrey William Hill R.I.P a shining light of fierce intelligence who immersed himself in the complexities and richness of the world, a voice of moral imagination.
Some final words from Hill  and King Offa from Mercian Hymns, 1971

"He divided his realm. It lay there like a dream. An ancient land, full of strategy. Ramparts of compost pioneered by red-helmeted worms. Hemlock in ambush, night-soil, tetanus. A wasps’ nest ensconced in the hedge-bank, a reliquary or wrapped head, the corpse of Cernunnos pitching dayward its feral horn."

I will end with these three that I particularly appreciate :-

 On seeing the Wind at Hope Mansell - Geoffrey Hill

Whether or not shadows are of the substance
such is the expectation I can
wait to surprise my vision as a wind
enters the valley: sudden and silent
in its arrival, drawing to full cry
the whorled invisibilities, glassen towers
freighted with sky-chaff; that, as barnstorming
powers, rammack the small
orchard; that well-steaded oaks
ride stolidly, that rake the light-leafed ash,
that glowing yew trees, cumbrous, heave aside.
Amidst and abroad tumultuous lumina,
regents, reagents, cloud-fêted, sun-ordained,
fly tally over hedgerows, across fields.

 Ovid in the Third Reich - Geoffrey Hill

non peccat, quaecumque potest peccasse negare,
solaque famosam culpa professa facit.

Amores, III, xiv
I love my work and my children. God   
Is distant, difficult. Things happen.   
Too near the ancient troughs of blood   
Innocence is no earthly weapon.

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned. They, in their sphere,   
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love. I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

Turtle Dove - Geoffrey Hill

Love that drained her drained him she’d loved, though each
For the other’s sake forged passion upon speech,
Bore their close days through sufferance towards night
Where she at length grasped sleep and he lay quiet

As though needing no questions, now, to guess
what her secreting heart could not well hide.
Her caught face flinched in half-sleep at his side.
Yet she, by day, modelled her real distress,

Poised, turned her cheek to the attending world
Of children and intriguers and the old,
Conversed freely, exercised, was admired,
Being strong to dazzle. All this she endured

To affront him. He watched her rough grief work
Under the formed surface of habit. She spoke
Like one long undeceived but she was hurt.
She denied more love, yet her starved eyes caught

His, devouring, at times. Then, as one self-dared,
She went to him, plied there; like a furious dove
Bore down with visitations of such love
As his lithe, fathoming heart absorbed and buried.

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