On the Edge

Civil power is a strange choice of subject for a poet like Geoffrey Hill, who started writing in the early 1950s, the age of anxiety, a notoriously bad time for civil liberties and a good time for literature. Or more accurately, the times were good for literature because they were bad for civil liberties. With the cold war at its coldest and Senator McCarthy on the prowl in the United States, politics was a topic to avoid—tricky and prone to misinterpretation—and intellectuals generally were not to be trusted. In England, where the climate is milder and demagogues, like political passions, rarely thrive, the anxiety was no less but it came disguised as reticence, parochialism, and snobbery.

Either way, literature seemed a better, safer alternative, not as a continuation of politics by other means but because it concerned itself with values worth believing in and moral distinctions no one else seemed eager to discuss. A century earlier, in The Study of Poetry, Matthew Arnold had looked forward hopefully to a future when “most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.” In lieu of viable alternatives, his predictions finally seemed to come true in the 1950s.

It was a time when literature really mattered. If you were young and clever and ambitious, there was no higher calling. And because the early Modernists—Eliot, Pound, Joyce—had set the standards high, there were few vocations more intellectually demanding or more worthy. Literature in general and poetry in particular were presumed to be difficult and the New Critics were there to show just how difficult and deep they were. Nowadays “elitist” has become a term of abuse, but back then, when fewer people went on to universities, higher education itself was elitist. Elitism, in fact, was something young people aspired to because it was measured by intelligence, not class.

By those standards, Hill was a natural. He was a bookish working-class teenager—his father and grandfather were village policemen—who fell in love with modern poetry in his teens and never recovered. Nothing unusual in that, of course. Falling in love with authors is what bookish teenagers do and serial infatuation is a necessary stage in every writer’s development. Hill was different only in the sophistication of his choice: he has said that he read Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” when he was sixteen and “it struck me like a bolt from heaven; overnight I became a modernist.” Modernism, however, was not part of the curriculum at Oxford when Hill went there, in 1950, to read English. The English Department was the fiefdom of J.R.R. Tolkien—at that time better known as a philologist than as a fantasist—and he controlled it as cunningly as Eisenhower thought the military-industrial complex controlled the United States: the syllabus started at Beowulf and ended around 1834, with the death of Coleridge; the study of Old English, Middle English, and modern …

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