The English writer and educator Geoffrey Hill (1932–2016) was often counted as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. A longtime fellow at Emmanuel College Cambridge, Hill ignored the contemporary trend toward accessibility and produced complex verse inspired by his personal experiences and intellect.
As a poet, Geoffrey Hill was known to be complex and often maddeningly difficult. One way to describe Hill's life and work would be to say that his breadth of knowledge was vast and he embraced contradiction. A writer steeped in the landscapes and lore of his native England, he spent much of his career in the United States. He favored historical and even biblical subjects and juxtaposed them with events drawn from modern life, and while possessing a formidable vocabulary of almost-obsolete words, he also employed contemporary locutions such as “been there done that.” Both Hill's supporters and his detractors tended to agree that a proper critical evaluation of his work might come several decades after his death in 2016.
Geoffrey William Hill was born in the small town of Bromsgrove, England, on June 18, 1932, and grew up in nearby Fairfield, where his father was a police constable. Hill grew up in Worcestershire, amid the sort of bucolic landscape that had inspired generations of English poets, and this landscape would inspire him as well. An only child, he did well in school but was somewhat solitary. Nevertheless, he played soccer at Bromsgrove County High School, acted in school plays, and served as a prefect—a student monitor. Each morning he had to face the assembled students and introduce a piece of classical music that had been chosen by the school administration. One day, when “Tubby the Tuba” was the selection, Hill showed a flash of the humor that would enliven even some of his thorniest poems. Standing before his schoolmates with a serious demeanor, the young Hill announced that the school's headmaster would introduce the musical selection that day.
A year after graduating from Oxford University, Hill was hired as a lecturer at the University of Leeds. His lectures, which mixed erudition with a certain eccentricity even at the beginning of his career, proved extremely popular and soon students who were not enrolled in his classes made it a point to listen in. As in his poetry, Hill wove together diverse subjects during his lectures, forcing students to pay attention and reward those who accepted the intellectual challenge. As he was quoted as noting in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, “My professional work has had a beneficial effect on my creative work, in the sense of putting in my way happy discoveries which I might not have made if I'd not been a teacher of English literature.”
While teaching at Leeds, Hill continued to write poetry, publishing his works in both English and North American journals. In 1959 the publisher André Deutsch issued his first volume of verse, For the Unfallen: Poems 1952–1958. Meanwhile, Hill had married Nancy Whittaker in 1956, and the couple worked together to raise their four children before divorcing in 1983. Hill's personality was dour, and his colleagues at Leeds ironically nicknamed him Chuckles.
While remaining on the staff at Leeds through 1980 (he was made a full professor in 1976), Hill took the first of several international sojourns when he accepted a visiting lectureship at the University of Michigan for the 1959 school year. A second book of his verse, Preghiere, was released in 1964, and in 1967 he journeyed outside the Anglosphere to guest lecture at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. Unfortunately, unrest was building toward civil war in that African nation and he was forced to return to England. Despite the instability, he completed a new book's worth of poems, and King Log was published in both England and the United States in 1968.
Hill's next verse collection, Mercian Hymns (1971), remains one of his more widely read works and exemplifies some aspects of his style. An Old English kingdom, Mercia, covering the area where Hill grew up, and the poems here juxtapose stories about Mercian King Offa with episodes from Hill's childhood wanderings in the area. Describing his boyish adventures in elevated, royal language, Hill seems to suggest that rulers are like children: their whims and often their cruelty are motivated by inner childlike impulses. Many of Hill's poems touch on historical topics, but they often use history as a means to consider aspects of the present.
Throughout Hill's body of work, readers encounter similarly challenging concepts. In “The Songbook of Sebastian Arruruz” (from King Log), the poet creates a fictional Spanish poet, Arruruz, and then includes translations into English of the poet's imaginary works, all in service of a comic tale about how the fictional poet's wife leaves him because he is too heavily involved in writing. Hill also showed himself to be up to the task of translating Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's poetic play Brand. Although he spoke no Norwegian, he worked from a plain translation supplied to him by a Norwegian writer. Creating an original poetic rhythm that he felt fit the subject matter of the play, he fit the play's 6,000 lines into that rhythm. A production of Brand using Hill's translation premiered in London in 1978.
Although Hill's poems were not designed to appeal to general readers, his admirers have remained unrestrained in their praise. Writing in the Washington Post, book critic Michael Dirda called him “the greatest living English poet,” and his opinion was widely echoed, including by literary critics and creative colleagues such as fellow poet Donald Hall. Some reaction to his work was less favorable, of course, viewing his verse as packed with impressive literary technique but lacking a human element. Hill took issue with those who criticized his poetry for excessive difficulty, telling Carl Phillips in the Paris Review: “I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.” Responding to those who called his work inaccessible, he quipped to London Guardian writer Robert Potts that “the word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs…. There is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible.”
In 1981 Hill became a fellow at Emmanuel College Cambridge, remaining there until 1988. In 1987 he married his second wife, Alice Goodman, a writer whose works include the libretto for John Adams's opera Nixon in China. He moved from Cambridge to Boston University, where he was a professor of English literature and religion until 2010. While teaching in the United States, Hill was troubled by chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders and was prescribed Prozac. The treatment had a strong effect on his productivity as a writer; between 1952 and 1994, when a volume of his collected poems was issued, his total poetic output totaled only about 200 pages, but between the mid-1990s and 2013, he produced a dozen books of poetry and three books of essays. His increased production may also have been prompted by the heart attack he suffered in 1988. As he reflected in the Guardian, “If I don't do it now, I never will; there is that sort of urgency.”
In 2010 Hill returned to England to take a post as professor of poetry at Oxford, his alma mater. Oxford University Press published Broken Hierarchies, a collection of poems covering Hill's entire career, in 2012. His contribution to British poetry earned several literary honors, among them the Faber Memorial Prize, the Loines Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing from the Ingersoll Foundation. He was knighted in 2012.
With an intellectual curiosity that extended beyond wordsmithing, Hill took up the piano in later life, and he was an enthusiastic plane spotter and builder of toy train structures. He worked until the day of his death, passing quietly on June 30, 2016, at his home in Cambridge, England, with his wife Alice at his side. At his death, he left instructions that his final work—which included allusions to his death—be published posthumously.
Contemporary Poets, St. James Press, 2001.
Books & Culture, May–June 2004, Alan Jacobs, “The Lord of Limit: Is Geoffrey Hill ‘the Greatest Living English Poet’?,” p. 16.
Guardian (London, England), August 9, 2002, Robert Potts, “Geoffrey Hill: The Praise Singer.”
Paris Review, spring 2000, Carl Phillips, “Geoffrey Hill: The Art of Poetry.”
Times (London, England), July 2, 2016, “Sir Geoffrey Hill; Obituaries; Fiercely Intelligent Curmudgeon Hailed as Our Greatest but Most Difficult Poet,” p. 80.
Washington Post, October 26, 1997, Michael Dirda, “The Measure of Things”; July 4, 2016, Matt Schudel, “Geoffrey Hill, Often Hailed as Britain's Greatest Poet, Dies at 84.”
Poets.org , https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/sir-geoffrey-hill ,“Sir Geoffrey Hill” (September 15, 2017).□