‘Geoffrey Hill was, in poetry, a saint and a warrior who never gave an inch in his crusade to reach poetic truth’, so said Carol Ann Duffy. And it is in this fittingly poetic vein that people have been mourning the news that Sir Geoffrey Hill – who was often described as the greatest living poet in the English language – died on 30th June, aged 84.
In tribute to how prolific Hill’s poetry in considered, he was knighted in 2012 for his services to poetry. ‘Mercian Hymns’ won him the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize and the inaugural Whitbread Award for Poetry in 1971.
Having been described as one of the greatest war-poets of the 20th century, his childhood in Bromsgrove, the West Midlands, was a catalyst for his creative endeavours.
Born in 1932, he said that witnessing German bombers flying over his working-class home, as having ‘dictated for the rest of my life the way I have perceived certain juxtapositions of the real and the surreal. One is simultaneously terrified, appalled and curiously detached. Which is as good a description of a poem as I can think of.
‘[I was never] interested in watching films of books by Lewis or Tolkien or – who’s that Harry Potter woman? – because when they attempt to juxtapose the normal with the supernormal – the school room suddenly becoming a focus for evil or whatever – I don’t need it. I’ve had my fix’.
After graduating from the University of Oxford with a first class degree, he then went on to become the Head of English at the University of Leeds where he taught between 1954-1980, before going on to teach at the University of Cambridge and the University of Boston.
Before his death, Hill donated numerous of his notebooks to the University of Leeds’ library archives. As a student at the University of Leeds, not only have I seen his notebooks, but have handled them directly.
To be able to hold in your hands the work of a poetic ‘saint’, ‘a warrior’, is nothing other than a privilege. The weight of these notebooks is filled with the weight a generation of readers who saw in Hill’s poetry a voice that spoke the words they could never capture, and the words they never knew needed capturing. The poet’s notebook becomes the closest thing we get to a visual metaphor of their mind.
To have held such history was an inspiring moment, and also something that was rather sobering; Duffy was wrong to elevate Hill as a ‘saint’. What makes Hill’s poetry so impacting is that he was one of us – he was a mere mortal. To elevate the artist in such a way is to do a disservice to the dedication that goes into creating great art. Poetry is not the ‘spontaneous overflow of power feelings’, as William Wordsworth – the prolific Romantic writer – once described. It is something measured and designed; it takes years of practise to achieve such precision.
Despite its dwindling popularity amongst the public, poetry still remains a thriving art. It can be hard explain to someone who ‘just doesn’t get’ poetry quite what exactly it is about it that is so impacting. But, as Dylan Thomas once put it: ‘poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.’
‘Poetry’, thus, is not just a poem, but the feeling this poem evokes in us. With Hill having written some of the greatest post-war poems that reflected on the horrors of the events in 1939-1945, Adam Foulds – poet and novelist – described how ‘[Hill’s] work was of unparalleled integrity, beauty and depth that will be read for centuries to come […] his words have clawed my mind for the last twenty-five years’.
In the concluding line of his renowned Holocaust elegy, ‘September Song’, he says ‘this is plenty. This is more than enough’. But of course, how can we ever do justice to the ‘zyklon and leather, [the] patented / terror’, the ‘routine cries’ of its victims?
We can’t. We can never do justice to death. It involves an impenetrable silence that we can never understand. And, ultimately, in the same way that Hill ‘made / an elegy for myself it / is true’, I have wrote an obituary for myself (it is also true). In writing about death, we write about the living’s response to death, because living is the only thing we know how to do. I have written about Hill’s life through the eyes of my own.
As Hill taught us in ‘September Song’, we can only understand others through our understanding of ourselves. Indeed, our understanding of others may sometimes reflect more about ourselves then it reveals about them.
In ‘Triumph of Love’, Hill beautifully wrote:
Even now, I tell myself, there is a language
to which I might speak and which
would rightly hear me;
responding with eloquence; in its turn,
negotiating sense without insult
given or injury taken.
Familiar to those who already know it
elsewhere as justice,
it is met also in the form of silence.
We cannot speak the language of death. It is ‘only familiar to those who already know it’ – it is impossible for us to translate. While death is the ultimate ‘form of silence’, Hill’s voice lives on through his poetry. He will continue to speak for generations of readers to come in the same way the voices of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf still speak on to us today. His voice may now be frozen in time, but as time passes it will continue to grow. Poetry – and art – is not a static form, but one that continues to change with every reader that approaches it.
Even in death, we find life. So, today, the poet dies. But tomorrow, a new generation of writers will be born in the shadow of Hill’s legacy. RIP Geoffrey Hill. RIP.
Words by Juliette Rowsell