I’m approaching this with some trepidation. Many more qualified and erudite people have commented on Hill’s work and I am painfully aware of my own inferiority in terms of education and reading. However, in recent years I’ve spent a llot of time with Hill’s poetry and have recently read his criticism. What follows is an ‘ordinary’ reader’s account of what Hill has to say and the various ways in which he says it.
I’d tried to read Hill about twenty years ago but found the density of language too dense and formidable. I gave him another go in 2005 when he published ‘Scnes from Comus’. I was attracted to this by a rave review from Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian and also by the fact that I was familiar with ‘Comus’ and hoped that Hill might have something interesting to say about Milton’s poem.
Hill’s Comus made me smile, here was a poet clearly confident in his gifts and taking great delight in that confidence. I enjoyed his dexterity and his ability to nail the right phrase at the right time. He also quotes himself as if tracking back to other brilliant turns of phrase. As for the subject matter, Comus is only tangenitally about Milton’s poem but does contain enough allusions for me to want to argue back (a good sign). I was smitten and have read this collection many times since.
Geoffrey Hill has since become part of my ‘central’ reading list along with Milton, Spenser and Marvell. I haven’t yet acquired all his poetry so the following is a partial view of the great man.
Hill has a reputation for difficulty. This is entirely justified but it’s a strange kind of difficulty. Most of the poems are littered with references to other writers and their works- half of the pleasure of a Hill poem is in tracking down those asides. This in itself isn’t all that odd- poets do it all the time- but what is disconcerting is that Hill abhors getting to his point. Most poems seem to contain small bits of meaning along the way rather than a clear theme. The meaning then becomes the summation of those constituent points. Another problem is that Hill’s themes tend to be quite arcane. No doubt Hill would argue that they only appear arcane in our overly materialistic culture. The other problem is that these poems are not written for an audience- Hill writes primarily for himself and is thus free to make few concessions to the reader.
Hill loves language. His criticism is littered with closely argued expositions on the meaning of indivual words at certain periods in history. His poetry is a celebration of the diversity and strength of language. I refuse to believe that anyone can have such an extensive vocabulary and am currently trying to spot which words he’s looked up in the OED prior to using. It’s a good game.
Hill is a committed Christian. His faith allows him to write movingly about figures such as Robert Southwell and Henry Vaughan. I am sure that he’s entirely comfortable with the ‘prophet’ mantle that others have given him. Hill’s faith should not however deter the lay reader- the religious bits are often beautifully done but you don’t have to agree with them.
It is possible to argue with Geoffrey Hill. In ‘Orchards of Sion’ he makes several references to ‘Atemwende’ and has several goes at elucidating its meaning. ‘Atemwende’ is the title of a collection of poems by Paul Celan and it means ‘breathturn’. I’m not happy with Hill’s various renditions of the meaning of ‘turn’ and feel that he misleads the reader. In ‘Comus’ Hill worries about the word ‘haemony’ which may be an allusion to the fact that we’ll never know what Milton meant by it but it kind of gets in the way.
Geoffrey Hill can be tender and humane. His poem about Gillian Rose is moving and respectful in a way that she would have appreciated. It also shows that he’s read ‘Loves Work’ which must be impressive.
Geoffrey Hill has had mental health problems. From the one reference to lithium in the poetry, I take it that he’s bipolar. Hill’s poetry can be gloomy but he’s never written (as far as I can tell) from the depths of depression. Some critics seem to make much of Hill’s late productivity and put this down to finding the right treatment. I don’t think it works like that, the tone of the later work may be more bright but that’s probably due to confidence rather than medication.
Hill tells jokes in his poems, most of them aren’t very funny.
Geoffrey Hill can be a complete bitch. When Hill doesn’t like something he can be both nasty and scathing. He’s also an elitist snob who doesn’t like anything that may have mass appeal.
Without doubt Geoffrey Hill is the best poet currently writing in English. Everyone should get to know him.