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date: 25 January 2020

Hill, Sir Geoffrey Williamfree

(1932–2016)
  • Kenneth Haynes

Sir Geoffrey Hill (1932–2016), by Jenny Polak, 1983

Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. © Jenny Polak

Hill, Sir Geoffrey William (1932–2016), poet, was born on 18 June 1932 at Hollymount, Stourbridge Road, Bromsgrove, the son of William George Hill (1899–1979), police constable, and his wife, Hilda Beatrice, née Hands (1899–1961). They had been married for ten years before the birth of their only child.

Formative years in Bromsgrove and Oxford

Hill’s father’s family was rural working-class and tory. His paternal grandfather, originally a gardener and a smith from a village near the Severn, joined the Worcestershire police force and rose within it, retiring as deputy chief constable in Stourbridge. Hill’s father, after serving in the Royal Field Artillery in the First World War, also joined the force, but he was temperamentally less suited for it. He was demoted from his position as detective constable in Bromsgrove to become constable in the village of Fairfield, a few miles north, where he lived with his family at the police house from about 1936, and where Hill attended Fairfield junior school. His mother’s family, from Bromsgrove, was urban working class, Baptist, and strongly Labour in its politics. His maternal grandmother had worked in the local nail-making trade. Neither of his parents received secondary education. His early childhood reading included Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, presented to him in Sunday school (the family was Anglican), and such alarming but stimulating works as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll, and the Police Gazette. As an only child (with older cousins whom he did not see often), Hill was somewhat isolated in his childhood. His mother was recurrently ill, and he would stay with his grandmother during her longer hospital stays.

Hill first went to Bromsgrove County High School in 1942. Shortly afterwards he suffered mastoiditis, which left him deaf in his right ear. Because of the illness, his parents decided to hold back his enrolment until 1943. The headmaster, W. P. Baron, inspired dread, but Hill received support and encouragement from several teachers. He later described his education there as ‘benevolently stern’ (Raheem, ‘An interview’). In his French and Latin classes, he read works that were typically assigned at the time: Tacitus’s Agricola and books four and six of Virgil’s Aeneid; Racine’s Andromaque, Corneille’s Polyeucte, and fiction by Balzac and Maupassant. From his sixth-form English teacher, Kenneth Curtis, who had been taught by F. R. Leavis at Cambridge, Hill learned the critical emphases of Leavis and T. S. Eliot. In contemporary English and American poetry, he made many discoveries on his own. His father occasionally took him to bookshops, especially during his sixth form, when he acquired a number of volumes of contemporary poets in Faber’s Sesame Books series (W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Edith Sitwell, and Edward Thomas); the collected poems of A. E. Housman and John Masefield; and T. S. Eliot’s Selected Essays. The most influential purchase, however, was Oscar Williams’s A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry (1947); he later recalled that within ‘about 10 months I think I’d memorised just about every poem in that book’ (ibid.). The major discovery in it was Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’, which he later credited with showing him how to become a modern poet. Before Tate, Edward Thomas and Dylan Thomas were the main influences on Hill’s adolescent poetry, some of which was published in the Bromsgrove County High School Magazine. His subjects included the Worcestershire countryside, Birmingham scenes, the deaths of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth, and music (including Peter Warlock and Holst’s Planets); other poems, especially those under the influence of Edward Thomas, he destroyed.

Hill was unsuccessful at winning an open scholarship for Oxford or Cambridge, but he was proxime accessit in the open exhibition for Keble College a few months later. Supported by a Worcestershire county major scholarship, he was able to enter Keble as a commoner in the autumn of 1950. He was ill at ease during his first year but later made friends who shared interests in poetry. Towards the end of his Oxford career, friends in a student magazine described him as a ‘creature of extreme moods and loves and hates’, exasperating and boorish at one moment, ‘charming’ and ‘lovable’ the next (Isis, 18 Nov 1953). Many of his friendships were connected with the Oxford University Poetry Society; the most important of these was with the American poet Donald Hall, who was at Christ Church as a Rhodes scholar from the United States. Hill’s knowledge of contemporary American poetry was unusual when he entered Oxford, and with Hall’s guidance it became deeper; in particular, he gained from Hall an appreciation for the early work of Robert Lowell and the Kierkegaard poems, especially, of Richard Eberhart. Besides Americans, Hill was influenced by poets such as George Barker and David Wright, whom he met at Oxford when they visited under the auspices of the Poetry Society. Wright became a close friend, and one of the few people with whom Hill carried on a literary correspondence. Surrealist poets and romantic modernists such as Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, and Barker were always more important to Hill than the English poetry of the ‘Movement’, for which he had little sympathy.

In the 1950s there were many literary venues where Oxford undergraduates could publish their verse. Hill’s own publications at Oxford were praised at the time for their exciting newness; in a student magazine his poetry was called ‘unique in contemporary university poetry, a rich and individual freak of poetic weather in a dry literary climate’ (Isis, 18 Nov 1953). In addition, he was already publishing internationally; his poem ‘Genesis’ appeared in the Paris Review in 1953. In that year he graduated with a first-class degree in English. This, together with his reputation as poet, was the reason he was hired by the school of English under Bonamy Dobrée at Leeds University, where he started as a lecturer in 1954 (after making his first trip abroad, hitchhiking with a friend in Germany and the Netherlands). He remained at Leeds until 1980.

Leeds and first marriage

The scholars and critics who most influenced Hill at Leeds were his senior colleagues G. Wilson Knight, some of whose work Hill had read at secondary school, in conjunction with Eliot’s; Arnold Kettle, who combined Marxist and Leavisite approaches in the study of the English novel; and J. P. Mann, Hill’s most important mentor at Leeds, a Coleridge scholar who helped Hill as he prepared to lecture on a wide range of subjects and periods within English literature. Leeds University at the time was notable as a centre for contemporary poetry. Its student literary magazine, Poetry and Audience, founded in 1953, published works by students, fellows, and staff, as well as by established poets outside Leeds; it included verse by George Barker, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Jon Silkin, and others (including the Leeds students Tony Harrison and Ken Smith). One of the Gregory fellowships in the creative arts at Leeds, instituted in 1950, allowed for practising poets to be associated with the English department; among the fellows were John Heath-Stubbs (1952–5), Jon Silkin (1958–60), and David Wright (1965–7). In 1962 a Poetry Room was established at Leeds to record poets reading from their works. Hill was involved in all three of these ventures: he published in Poetry and Audience, came to know most of the Gregory fellows, and was in charge of the Poetry Room from its foundation until 1968.

Hill published relatively little criticism during his twenty-six years at Leeds; he was, however, constantly drafting and redrafting poems into his poetry notebooks, a lifelong practice which provided the main continuity in his life and was often its sole focus. From the notebooks he slowly accrued poems. The slim volumes For the Unfallen (1959), King Log (1968), Mercian Hymns (1971), and Tenebrae (1978) appeared while he was based at Leeds, as did his translation of Ibsen’s verse drama Brand, performed at the National Theatre in 1978. From early on his work received searching criticism and won a number of awards; with Tenebrae, however, the œuvre also became subject to polemical objection, which found his ‘attempt to depict lyrically the consequences of old betrayals’ in England’s governance and its governance of empire to be nostalgic (New Statesman, 8 Feb 1980). Hill’s subjects were diverse, often historical, and included English, European, and American sources. The Penguin anthologies of Spanish, Italian, and Russian verse provided points of departure for several poems, as did scenes he observed while travelling or teaching abroad: Michigan in 1959, the Soviet Union (Moscow, Armenia, St Petersburg) in 1966, the University of Ibadan in 1967, and India in 1976, and two trips to Poland by 1980. His style could be at once bookish and savage; he approved of Thomas Mann’s ambition to represent the creation of an ‘opus open simultaneously to the criticism of bloody barbarism and to the criticism of bloodless intellectualism’ (T. Mann, The Genesis of a Novel, trans. R. and C. Winston, 1961, 126).

On 14 July 1956 Hill married Nancy Muriel Whittaker (b. 1933), a secretary, and daughter of Henry Whittaker, businessman. She had earned her degree from the University of Leeds a few years before. They had four children, Julian, Andrew, Jeremy, and Bethany, between 1958 and 1967.

Hill’s depressive and obsessive-compulsive tendencies became unmanageable by the 1970s. In 1972, after collapsing in a car, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with agitated depression. He left his family in 1974 (the marriage was officially dissolved in 1983). His distress at this time was intensified both because of the burdens he assumed in 1976 with his new position as professor of English and head of department and because of the distress of two subsequent failed relationships. He endured bouts of self-harming, cripplingly severe panic attacks, and concentrated moments of intense suicidal thoughts. When he saw by chance an advertisement for a position at Cambridge, he applied and was hired. He started work in January 1981, as a university lecturer in English literature and fellow of Emmanuel College.

Cambridge, Boston, and second marriage

Hill had begun working on his book-length poem The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983) while still at Leeds but made little progress. In September 1980 he travelled to France for the first time, and there began to write the quatrains of his poem, in iambic pentameter and, like the Ibsen translation, with much slant- and near-rhyme. It was designed as a tribute (‘éloge and elegy’) to the French poet, whom he called ‘one of the great prophetic intelligences’ of the last century (Mystery, 31), and by whom he was both fascinated and repelled. He completed it in the summer of 1982, after which came the longest interval in Hill’s career in which he did not publish an independent book of poems (it would be thirteen years before Canaan appeared). He laboured intensively on the three ‘Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres’ which were published in his Collected Poems of 1985, but with which he remained gravely dissatisfied (a greatly revised and expanded collection of these hymns was published in 2013). He also published a collection of critical essays, The Lords of Limit (1984), and in 1986 delivered the Clark lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge (published as The Enemy’s Country in 1991).

Hill met Alice Abigail Goodman (b. 1958) while at Cambridge. The daughter of Lawrence Eugene Goodman, a professor of engineering at the University of Minnesota, she had graduated from Harvard in 1980 before coming to Cambridge as a Doris Russell scholar at Girton College. They married on 26 May 1987 and had one daughter, Alberta (b. 1987). Despite the stable relationship, and despite Goodman’s success as a poet and librettist (Nixon in China, 1987; The Death of Klinghoffer, 1991), Hill was unhappy and uneasy at Cambridge, where he suffered a heart attack in 1988.

In 1988 Hill and his family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where from January 1989 he taught in the university professors programme at Boston University. As was the custom of the programme, he held a second affiliation, in his case with the department of religion in the College of Arts and Sciences (the department of English did not extend an appointment). He regularly taught a freshman course on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus as well as graduate seminars on ‘Literature and religion in England 1500–1800’, ‘Aspects of poetry and religion’, ‘English poetry and the First World War’, and Gerard Hopkins; he occasionally co-taught with the theologian Lucien Richard. During his time in Boston for several years, where he began to take anti-depressant medication, which remained effective for most of a decade.

Hill’s collection, Canaan, came out in 1996. His formal and often grand style, as well as his depiction of the new European Union as a mercenary travesty of European values, was not sympathetically received, at least in England, in that decade. Adopting a looser and more vernacular style, he published in 1998 The Triumph of Love, which adopted a laus et vituperatio mode, and included critics of Canaan among its targets. Speech! Speech! and The Orchards of Syon appeared in 1999 and 2002, retrospectively forming, with the purgatorial Triumph of Love, a kind of Dantesque commedia. Books came fast: Scenes from Comus (2005), Without Title (2006), A Treatise of Civil Power (2005, rev. edn 2007). He also began to publish critical essays and deliver invited lectures with some frequency. From 1998 he was involved in the leadership of a new Editorial Institute at Boston University, co-founded by him and Sir Christopher Ricks.

Shortly after the move to Boston, Goodman converted from Judaism to Christianity and began postgraduate work in theology. She returned with their daughter to England in 2000 and became an Anglican priest after completing her training there. Hill remained in Boston for several years, where he suffered another heart attack in 2001. His anti-depressants ceased to be effective around this time, and he was hospitalized for short periods because of his psychiatric illness, which improved after ECT treatment 2006.

Final years in England

Hill retired from Boston University and returned to England in 2006. In his last years, especially after Goodman became rector of Fulbourn, a village near Cambridge, in 2011, he found stability and a measure of happiness. His collected criticism was published in 2008, and Broken Hierarchies, his collected poems, in 2013. The latter concluded with The Daybooks, six books of poems (three of which had been published previously) in which he experimented with strict stanza forms (quatrains; sapphics; and stanzaic patterns found in Donne, Vaughan, Herbert, and Lowell). It also included the volume Ludo and two collections (Hymns to Our Lady of Chartres, and Pindarics) that were greatly expanded from poem sequences that had appeared within previously published works.

In May 2010 Hill was elected professor of poetry at Oxford, delivering lectures there from November 2010 to May 2015. In 2012 he was knighted for services to literature. He made a few trips abroad after his return, to France, Germany, and Italy, and occasionally travelled to Wales. A trip to Florence in May 2007 provided the initial stimulus for Al tempo de’ tremuoti (in Broken Hierachies); his visits to Wales were refracted in Oraclau; and the journey to Munich and Berlin in November 2014, when he laid a wreath at Plötzensee in memory of the German resistance to Hitler, was memorialized in his planned posthumous volume, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin (2019). The Book of Baruch was written in long lines with a variable number of both stressed and unstressed syllables, and with much rhyme and off-rhyme, both internal and external. This form he had adopted previously for his second Ibsen translation, Peer Gynt, which was published in 2016 together with a revised version of Brand. He died on 30 June 2016, at the rectory in Fulbourn, of heart failure. He was survived by his wife Alice and by his five children. His funeral was held at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on 25 July.

Sources

  • Isis (18 Nov 1953)
  • New Statesman (8 Feb 1980)
  • J. Haffenden, ‘Geoffrey Hill’, in Viewpoints: Poets in conversation with John Haffenden (1981), 76–99
  • P. Robinson, ed., Geoffrey Hill: essays on his work (1985)
  • H. Bloom, ed., Geoffrey Hill (1986)
  • D. Sexton, ‘Poetry: interview: David Sexton talks to Geoffrey Hill’, Literary Review, 92 (1986), 27–9
  • S. Vincent, The uncommon tongue: the poetry and criticism of Geoffrey Hill (1987)
  • E. M. Knottenbelt, Passionate intelligence: the poetry of Geoffrey Hill (1990)
  • C. Phillips, ‘Geoffrey Hill, the art of poetry no. 80’, Paris Review, 154 (Spring 2000), www.theparisreview.org/interviews/730/geoffrey-hill-the-art-of-poetry-no-80-geoffrey-hill, accessed 13 August 2019
  • A. M. Roberts, Geoffrey Hill (2004)
  • M. Schmidt, The great modern poets (2006)
  • S. James, Shades of authority: the poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney (2007)
  • P. Pennington and M. Sterling, eds., Geoffrey Hill and his contexts (2011)
  • A. Mounic, ‘Le poème, “moulin mystique”: entretien avec Geoffrey Hill’, Temporel: Revue Littéraire & Artistique, 6 (2008), temporel.fr/Le-poeme-moulin-mystique-Entretien, accessed 2 Sept 2019
  • D. W. Davies and R. M. Turley, ‘Cambrian readjustments: an interview with Geoffrey Hill’, Poetry Wales, 46/1 (Summer 2010), 10–13
  • J. Campbell, ‘Interview: Geoffrey Hill, a Ruskinian tory’, The Oxford Student (26 May 2011), 31, oxfordstudent.com/2011/05/26/interview-geoffrey-hill-oxford-professor-of-poetry, accessed 2 Sept 2019
  • Daily Telegraph (14 Dec 2013)
  • K. Haynes, ‘A bibliography of the works of Geoffrey Hill’, Geoffrey Hill: essays on his later work, J. Lyon and P. McDonald, eds. (2012), 170–216
  • M. Sperling, Visionary philology: Geoffrey Hill and the study of words (2014)
  • The Guardian (10 Aug 2002); (2 July 2016); (9 July 2016); (24 July 2016)
  • Daily Telegraph (14 Dec 2013); (2 July 2016)
  • The Times (2 July 2016)
  • New York Times (2 July 2016)
  • The Independent (5 July 2016)
  • Bromsgrove Advertiser (5 July 2016)
  • S. Raheem, ‘An interview with Geoffrey Hill (1932–2016)’, Prospect Magazine, 20 July 2016 www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/blogs/sameer-rahim/an-interview-with-geoffrey-hill-1932-2016, accessed 13 August 2019
  • R. Williams, funeral address, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 25 July 2016, www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=9781, accessed 13 August 2019
  • The Economist (30 July 2016)
  • A. Pestel, Geoffrey Hill: the drama of reason (2016)
  • ‘A tribute to Geoffrey Hill’, Poetry Society, poetrysociety.org.uk/news/geoffrey-hill-1932-2016/, accessed 13 August 2019
  • A. May, ‘Geoffrey Hill: a life in poetry’, Oxford Today, www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/features/geoffrey-hill-life-poetry, accessed 13 August 2019
  • profile, British Council, literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/geoffrey-hill, accessed 13 August 2019
  • profile, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/geoffrey-hill, accessed 13 August 2019
  • WW (2016)

Archives

Film

Sound

Likenesses

  • J. Aronson, bromide print, with Alice Goodman, 1984, NPG
  • J. Aronson, bromide print, 1986, NPG
  • C. Floyd, colour print, 2007, NPG
  • P. Everard Smith, colour print, 2009, NPG
  • J. Polak, oils, 1983, Emmanuel College, Cambridge [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs
(1849–)
marriage certificate
death certificate
University of Leeds Library
British Library, National Sound Archive
British Film Institute, London
birth certificate