The poet, who read English at Keble and was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 2010, never doubted his vocation, writes Alex May.
By Alex May
The poet Sir Geoffrey William Hill died on 1 July 2016, aged 84. Born on 18 June 1932 and brought up in Worcestershire, the son (and grandson) of a police constable, he was educated at the County High School, Bromsgrove, and Keble College, Oxford, where he read English, graduating in 1953. As an eight-year-old he saw the glow on the horizon as Coventry was blitzed, and he was ever after fascinated by impermanence and chance. Later he roamed the local countryside with a copy of Oscar Williams’s A Treasury of Modern Poetry in his pocket; he never had any doubt about his vocation as a poet. His first poems were published while he was still an undergraduate, in the Oxford Guardian and Isis, and in a Fantasy Press volume.
Throughout his career Hill combined academia and poetry. He taught at the University of Leeds from 1954 to 1980, the last four years as professor of English literature; from 1981 to 1988 he was a university lecturer in English and fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and from 1988 to 2006 he was professor of literature and religion at Boston University, USA, where he was also founding co-director with his friend Christopher Ricks of the Editorial Institute. In 1956 he married Nancy Whittaker, and they had three sons, Julian, Andrew and Jeremy, and a daughter, Bethany, but the marriage was dissolved in 1983. He then met Alice Goodman, a graduate of Harvard and Cambridge, fellow poet, and librettist of two operas by John Adams; they married in 1987 and had one daughter, Alberta. Throughout his life he suffered from anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive behaviour, but with his second wife’s encouragement he sought treatment, which afforded him a measure of emotional stability.
Hill’s first poetry collection, For the Unfallen (1959), won the Gregory Award, and was followed by King Log (1968), which won the Hawthornden Prize. He was perhaps best known for his thirty Mercian Hymns (1971), juxtaposing scenes from the life of Offa with reminiscences of his own childhood in the West Midlands. Further collections included Tenebrae (1978), which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, and – his output accelerating rapidly following his second marriage and treatment for depression – Canaan (1996), which many compared in impact and subject matter to TS Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’; The Triumph of Love (1998), which won both the Cholmondeley and the Heinemann awards and, contrary to its title, was a meditation on the twentieth century as an age of extreme violence; Speech! Speech! (2000); The Orchards of Syon (2002); Scenes from Comus (2005); Without Title (2006); A Treatise of Civil Power (2007); Oraclau/Oracles (2010); Clavics (2011), and Odi Barbare (2012). Overall he published some twenty volumes of poetry, including five volumes of selected or collected poems, the last being Broken Hierarchies: Poems, 1952–2012 (2013).
He was often described as a ‘difficult’ poet; his poems were rich with historical and literary allusions, often arcane or obscure, marked by frequent abrupt changes of tone or metre and interjections, and tackled complex issues concerning morality, religion, politics, and violence. He described poetry as ‘solemn, /Racked with anarchic laughter’. His deep love of the British countryside and embeddedness in British history – what Seamus Heaney described as his ‘deep scholarly sense of the religious and political underpinning of everything in Britain’ – led many readers to assume he was a High Tory, though in fact he was a lifelong Labour voter.
Hill also wrote a version of Henrik Ibsen’s Brand in rhyming verse, first produced at the National Theatre in 1978, and four volumes of literary criticism, including Collected Critical Writings (2008), which won the Truman Capote Prize. His judgements on contemporary poets were frequently pungent; he once described Carol Ann Duffy as writing in ‘cast-off bits of oligarchical commodity English, such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon’.
In his latter years Hill was often hailed as England’s finest living poet. He was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 2010 (beating Michael Horovitz and Roger Lewis amongst others), and received an honorary DLitt from the university in 2010. During his five-year tenure he delivered fifteen lectures on subjects ranging from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, audio recordings of most of which are available on the English Faculty website. In his first he declared, ‘The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering; relevance and accessibility strike me as words of very slight value .... Accessibility is a perfectly good word if the matter under discussion concerns supermarket aisles, library stacks or public lavatories, but has no proper place in discussion of poetry.’
Among many other honours he received honorary degrees from Leeds, Warwick, Bristol and Cambridge universities, and was an honorary fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He was knighted in 2012. From 2006 he and Alice lived in Cambridge, after she – by now ordained an Anglican priest – became chaplain at Trinity College, and then rector of Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams. He is survived by her, by their daughter, and by the four children of his first marriage.
Dr Alex May (St John’s, 1982) is research editor at Oxford DNB. Portrait of Sir Geoffrey Hill by Clara Molden / Camera Press London.