Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill; drawing by David Levine

Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove, a small market town in Worcestershire, on June 18, 1932. “If you stood at the top of the field opposite our house,” he has recalled, “you looked right across the Severn Valley to the Clee Hills and the Welsh hills very faint and far off behind them.”1 The vista may have been splendid, but the house cannot have been grand: his father was a police constable. On his mother’s side, he is descended from artisans in the cottage industry of nail-making: his grandmother suffered a disfiguring accident that Hill refers to in a prose poem in Mercian Hymns (1971): “It is one thing to celebrate the ‘quick forge,’ another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.”2

Hill’s family was Baptist, to begin with, but soon joined the Church of England. (I gather that he considers himself estranged from the Church, though he is still occupied with it.) In 1950 he went to Keble College, Oxford, to read for a degree in English Language and Literature. After Oxford he taught English at Leeds University and at various universities in the US and West Africa. A few years later he held a fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Ten years ago, he moved to the US and took up an appointment at Boston University.

There seems never to have been a time when Hill was not writing poems. In 1952, when he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, Fantasy Press published a small selection of his work. His first major books of poetry were For the Unfallen (1959) and King Log (1968). For many years now, he has also been reading the literature, history, philosophy, and theology of England, concentrating on the period from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century—from Richard Rolle to Newman, Ruskin, and Hopkins. “Theology makes good bedside reading,” Hill jokes in “Fidelities,” a poem in Tenebrae (1978), but quandaries of belief and doctrine continue to tell upon his conscience in Canaan and The Triumph of Love. Two books, The Lords of Limit (1984) and The Enemy’s Country (1991), contain his most demanding essays on language, belief, and responsibility.

Hill has read everything, or so it seems: all the major English, European, and American poets, and many minor ones. I gather from his poems and essays that he is especially drawn to the Psalms, the Book of Daniel, Shakespeare, Robert Southwell, Donne, George Herbert—“Come back,/Donne, I forgive you; and lovely Herbert”—Vaughan, Milton, Dryden, Swift, Christopher Smart, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Shelley, Ruskin, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats, and Pound. Most of these speak for an English tradition of moral and historical awareness, and Hill sees them setting examples of scruple and conscientiousness. The European writers Hill regularly turns to include Leopardi, Montale, Machado, St.-John Perse, Péguy—one of his most celebrated long poems is The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983)—Aleksandr Blok, and Paul Celan. These impel Hill to apprehend the density and the pain of European experience, culminating in the Holocaust. Eng-land can’t tell the whole story. Among the American poets, especially during his formative years, Hill learned much from Richard Eberhart, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom. Hill’s “The Turtle Dove” seems to me a tribute to Ransom’s “The Equilibrists.” Among his English contemporaries and el-ders, he is particularly attentive to the poems of Keith Douglas, David Jones, Sidney Keyes, Jon Silkin, Charles Causley, C.H. Sisson, and William Empson. He shares with Sisson especially the responsibility of a long historical perspective and the scruple of rejecting—it is Sisson’s phrase—“whatever appears with the face of familiarity.”3

Hill has spoken of having been particularly moved, as a young man, by a poem of Isaac Rosenberg’s:

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome:
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm,
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy betrothal sung
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.4

“Shadowless,” I assume, because the worm is internal to the organism it destroys: it doesn’t cast a shadow, as an external enemy would. Like this poem, Hill’s early poems—“Merlin” for instance—make large statements about the decline of civilization, but only within the limits imposed by a chosen image or figure. They don’t go outside the image, or beyond the figure.

Hill is a literary poet, in the sense that much of his poetic experience has been provoked by other poems. “Two Chorale-Preludes” in Tenebrae are variations upon themes of Paul Celan. Some of his poems allude to English music: “Lachrimae” finds its motif if not its tears in a suite by John Dowland. Hill’s imagination accepts such gifts, to begin with, and then submits them to his own forms and ceremonies. But his most acute poetic experiences have come from the English weather of his time, the public events he could not have avoided knowing. He was too young to fight in the war, but old enough to hear talk of it at home and on the radio, the BBC nine-o’clock news and other sustaining lores. Many of the poems in The Triumph of Love are autobiographical, notebooks of night, outbreaks of “a wounded and wounding/introspection” beset by local occasions and their correlatives in English and European history. Several of them invoke the months before war was declared, Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler—“Chamberlain’s compliant vanity, his pawn ticket saved/from the antepenultimate ultimatum”—the war itself, the bombing of Coventry, evacuation from Dunkirk, D-Day—


…where on D-Day men
drowned by the gross, in surf-dreck, still harnessed
to their lethal impedimenta.

—Britain’s “narrow/miracle of survival,” and, in Canaan, “Churchill’s Funeral”—“what verdict, what people?”—a poem in five careworn parts. In Canaan Hill, thinking of “the spiritual, Platonic old England”—Coleridge’s phrase—and of the works of Milton, Constable, Blake, and Cobbett, speaks of the English as

a spectral people
raking among the ash;
its freedom a lost haul
of entailed riches.

Even in his youth, a child “of the Thirties, the sour dissipation,” Hill was gifted in the imagination of catastrophes at a distance, as in newsreels and newspaper photographs of the death camps:

A centrally-placed small round window, closed
under a pediment, caught and stared back my fear
centuries before I opened The Franchise
Affair. I am not unusually
sensitive to atmosphere, but one or two
fiery dreams of houses held
mid-day séance through my seventh year.
Photo-negatives I now accept
as the originals of this peculiar dread:
black façades, gap-windowed with solid-
glare flame, and with stark
figures caught in some unhuman
intimate torment I could not grasp
until I came to stills of the burning ghetto.

The third section of the title poem in Canaan reads:

Iniquity passes
and rectitude.
They do not spare
the sucking child nor are they
sparing with trumpets.
Now it is
Moloch his ovens
and the dropped babes naked
swung by an arm
or a leg like flails.

These poems engage Hill’s most urgent issues—pain, courage, cruelty, man’s inhumanity to men, women, and children. These press upon—to make a short list—“The Distant Fury of Battle,” “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings,” “Two Formal Elegies (For the Jews in Europe),” “Canticle for Good Friday,” “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” “Ovid in the Third Reich,” “Shiloh Church, 1862: Twenty-Three Thousand,” “Lachrimae,” “September Song,” most of Mercian Hymns, and “Funeral Music”—

Recall the cold
Of Towton on Palm Sunday before dawn,
Wakefield, Tewkesbury: fastidious trumpets
Shrilling into the ruck; some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead. Recall the wind’s
Flurrying, darkness over the human mire.

Hill has other urgent themes: power and justice, “the tongue’s atrocities,” the discrepancy between sacred and profane love, history as the ruins of time, “flesh and blood and the blood’s pain,” the decline of England, the moral fall of France, “Jehovah’s touchy methods.” A motto for Hill’s poems might well be a line from “History as Poetry”: “The lily rears its gouged face/From the provided loam.” Images of the death camps constantly recur, even though Hill is alert to “the remoteness of words from suffering,” and recognizes that Auschwitz, too, declines into a mere theme after much talk of it. In The Lords of Limit he quotes an abrupt entry in Coleridge’s 1796 notebook: “Poetry—excites us to artificial feeling—makes us callous to real ones.” There is no help for that, he seems resigned to think, except to keep it in mind and heart.

Hill’s new poems draw on a certain tradition of Roman oratory, that of laus et vituperatio, praise and blame, or salutation and censure. Cicero often brought the two words together. So did Quintilian, as in Book III, Chapter 7, of the Institutio Oratoria. In “‘Christmas Trees,”‘ one of the most powerful poems of Tenebrae, Hill speaks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer restoring “the broken themes of praise.” Poem XXIII of The Triumph of Love refers to “Laus/et vituperatio, the worst/remembered, least understood, of the modes.” In Poem XXVI Hill explains why he insists on it:

Laus et vituperatio, public, forensic,
yet with a vehement
private ambition for the people’s
greater good—Joannis
Miltoni, Angli, pro Populo Anglic-
ano Defensio: this and other tracts,
day-laboured-at, under great imposition:
as powers, far-radiant, inspiring
a broadly conceded European fame.
Laus et vituperatio, lost, rediscovered,
Renewed on few occasions this century:
Guernica perhaps; or Prague itself,
the Charles Bridge with Hrad-cany, keeping watch,
in Kokoschka’s sixty-year-old triple portrait,
beside Komensky and Tomáš Masaryk.

It follows that Hill is a moralist, and a severe one. He is not much given to metaphysics, or interrogations of Nature. He deals with the world on the understanding that it has already taken certain social and cultural forms, good and more often bad. Laus et vituperatio are civic acts, moral and political: they take the world otherwise for granted, it is what it appears to be, given, primary, objective. The question now is: How to live, what to do? What is a writer’s obligation?


Some writers maintain—Allen Tate, for instance—that a writer’s sole responsibility is to language, to make it a better means of intelligence, imagination, and memory. Hill thinks of some of his poems as bearing witness to “the lost kingdom of innocence and original justice,” a phrase he found in Father Christopher Devlin’s introduction to his edition of Hopkins’s Sermons and Devotional Writings. Original justice is, according to Devlin, “a gift conferring immunity from sin and concupiscence,” as in Adam before the Fall.5 Hill sometimes tries to imagine such innocence, such justice, as in the poem “That Man as a Rational Animal Desires the Knowledge Which Is His Perfection” in Canaan:

I imagine singing I imagine

getting it right—the knowledge
of sensuous intelligence
entering into the work—
spontaneous happiness as it was once
given our sleeping nature to awake by
and know
innocence of first inscription.

But more often the “bleak skill” of Hill’s mind is concentrated on the Fall and its consequences: he rarely visits Eden. “The history of the creation and the debasement of words,” he says, “is a paradigm of the loss of the kingdom of innocence and original justice.”

Many of Hill’s poems in the new books are gratifyingly perspicuous, and tender in ways one has not had cause to expect:

But leave it now, leave it; as you left
a washed-out day at Stourport or the Lickey,
improvised rainhats mulch for papier-mâché,
and the chips floating.
Leave it now, leave it; give it over
to that all-gathering general English light,
in which each separate bead
of drizzle at its own thorn-tip stands
as revelation.

Some of the poems become clear when you know or gather what the local reference is, as in The Triumph of Love when Hill recalls the wartime singer Gracie Fields, darling of the mills and the munition factories, “her honest yodelling” at the end of a song called (if I remember it accurately) “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”:

So she fetched home the lads
from France, as once she had marched the lasses back
to a silent mill. She, and her armed
aspidistra, last off the beaches.

But many of the new poems remain opaque even when the names are known. Whatever I know of Emerson, Melville, Gustave Holst, and Charles Ives hasn’t helped me much with this poem from The Triumph of Love:

Ignorant, assured, there comes to us a voice—
unchallengeable—of the foundations,
distinct authority devoted
to indistinction. With what proximity
to justice stands the record of mischance,
heroic hit-or-miss, the air
so full of flak and tracer, legend says,
you pray to live unnoticed. Mr. Ives
took Emersonian self-reliance the whole
way on that. Melville, half-immolated,
rebuilt the pyre. Holst, some time later,
stumbled on dharma. What can I say?—
At worst and best a blind ennoblement,
flood-water, hunched, shouldering at the weir,
the hatred that is in the nature of love.

I take it that the theme is the replacement of distinct authority by a mess of imprecision, indistinction, civil order ousted by the caprice and chance of self-reliance; but I don’t understand how Ives and Holst are thought to incur blame.

I have similar difficulty with another poem in The Triumph of Love:

If I were to grasp once, in emulation,
work of the absolute, origin-creating mind,
its opus est, conclusive
otherness, the veil
of certitude discovered as itself
that which is to be revealed,
I should hold for my own, my self-giving,
my retort upon Emerson’s “alienated majesty”,
the De Causa Dei of Thomas Bradwardine.

Trying to understand, I recall what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”:

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment…. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Alienated, I assume, because they have suffered rejection and have been in exile. As for Bradwardine (circa 1295- 1349): he wrote De Causa Dei contra Pelagium to rebuke the “new Pelagians,” mainly William of Ockham and Durandus of St. Pourçain (I learn from Gordon Leff’s Bradwardine and the Pelagians6 ) for exalting reason over faith, philosophy over theology, man above God. But Hill’s retort is empty if it merely says that Emerson was a Pelagian, properly corrected in advance by Bradwardine. Sixty pages later in The Triumph of Love, Hill comes back to Bradwardine, but what he writes has nothing to do with Emerson. The intellectual beauty of De Causa Dei rests, he says, on what it springs from, God’s grace “already present in time as in nature,” and on what it returns to, “our arrival/at a necessary salvation”:

So much
for the good news. The bad is its correlate—
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.

Hill goes on to rage about the theology of baptism by blood, subsiding only when he says that “the Scholastics/ mean more to me than the New Science.” I can’t see how Bradwardine can be moved in as a big gun to silence Emerson.

Many dark passages in Canaan and The Triumph of Love are caused by Hill’s cryptic force of mind, but this in turn has further causes, three I think in particular. Hill believes that language is enemy country, dangerous, to be mistrusted. Quoting the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote to the effect that “by wickedness [a man] passes into a nature contrary to his own,” he says:

I am willing to claim as an empirical fact that when you write at any serious pitch of obligation you enter into the nature of grammar and etymology which is a nature contrary to your own. You cannot extricate yourself from this “contrary nature” by some kind of philosophical fiat or gesture of spiritual withdrawal.7

So in different contexts Hill refers to “the coercive force of language” and “the inertial drag of speech.” The only thing an honorable writer can do with language is resist its foreignness: it would be disgusting to woo it.

Hill believes, too—a second consideration—that the alien force of language corresponds to the obduracy of the world, and he seeks drastic phrases to express this conviction. In July 1970 he read an article by Matthew Corrigan in Encounter about the exasperating difficulties Malcolm Lowry had in failing to get Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid published in a form he approved of. Corrigan referred to the publishing trade, “its primary objective world…,its cruelty and indifference,”8 meaning the wretched conditions that decent writers have had to face from New York publishers and editors. But Hill took up the phrases as if they were applicable to life itself, and in a reference to Yeats’s difficulties with language, he said: “It is as though the very recalcitrance of language…stood for the primary objective world in one of its forms of cruelty and indifference.”9 Hill has gone far to seek disquietude.

A third issue is his relation to readers. Sometimes he treats them gently, but more regularly he deems a poet’s responsibility to his themes to be far more important than any consideration due to his readers. To enforce this difference, Hill distinguishes in critical essays and a few poems between “pitch” and “tone.” Pitch is a term in linguistics as well as in music. Hill uses it as a morally charged word of highest praise, and differentiates it from “tone” in which the moral charge is lower or feeble. He takes “pitch” from Hopkins, who brooded on the word in several passages, including this one from “On Personality, Grace and Free Will”:

So also pitch is ultimately simple positiveness, that by which being differs from and is more than nothing and not-being, and it is with precision expressed by the English do (the simple auxiliary), which when we employ or emphasise, as “he said it, he did say it,” we do not mean that the fact is any more a fact but that we the more state it.10

In other passages Hopkins seems to mean by pitch the most extreme exertion of one’s moral aptitude, a concentration of self not upon itself but upon the objective fact to be apprehended. In Canaan Hill praises William Cobbett for “your singular pitch where labour is spoken of.” Pitch, as Hill uses the word and practices its value, involves intense concentration on the theme in hand, at whatever cost to a reader’s ease of mind. Only then does a writer write responsibly.

The Oxford English Dictionary brings tone and pitch together, defining tone as “a particular quality, pitch, modulation, or inflexion of the voice expressing or indicating affirmation, interrogation, hesitation, decision, or some feeling or emotion; vocal expression.” But Hill insists on keeping the two words apart. Tone, as he uses the word, is the mark of a writer who is more concerned to ingratiate himself with his readers than to do full justice to his theme. As a critical term, tone has been held to be a word of appreciation, especially by I.A. Richards, Christopher Ricks—“Tone has been called the expression on the face of the words”11—and other critics who value nicety of expression and communication. Words alone are not enough; you need to see the expression on their face when they talk to you. Hill rejects this usage, maybe because he thinks the expression on the face likely to be a winsome smile. He considers tone a quality that seduces or charms or otherwise goes out of its way to please readers: it is a symptom of a writer’s capitulation to the marketplace.

Hill’s bad eminences, writers whom he accuses of having settled for the felicities of tone, include T.S. Eliot in his later work and Philip Larkin throughout. Eliot’s early poems, up to and including “The Waste Land,” were notable achievements of pitch. Hill writes:

It was the pitch of Prufrock and Other Observations that disturbed and alienated readers; it was the tone of Four Quartets which assuaged and consoled them. That is to say, Eliot’s poetry declines over thirty years from pitch into tone.


The Waste Land, at its first appearance, could only be understood exegetically; that is its remaining strength. Four Quartets, from its first existence as an entity, was granted the major significance of reflecting Anglican einfühlung [empathy].

Tone in Larkin, according to Hill, was a sign of similar concessions to readers: “The notion of the accessibility of his work acknowledged the ease with which readers could overlay it with transparencies of their own preference.”12

It is my understanding that Hill has been strengthened in his observance of pitch rather than tone mainly by the examples of Southwell, Hopkins, and Pound, writers who consulted their own sense of responsibility to moral, social, spiritual, and linguistic values and let readers fend for themselves. They may also have felt that readers would inevitably misunderstand their work, so there was no merit in yielding to their conventional interests. Hopkins was pleased when R.W. Dixon and Robert Bridges seemed to understand one of his poems, but they often didn’t, and he never thought of changing his style to accommodate them. He had more exacting responsibilities to God, language, and the clearing of his soul.

The first consequence of Hill’s sense of language as enemy country is that he keeps his distance not only from readers but from the empirical detail of the subject: many of his poems have the quality of aloofness he ascribed to Swift’s poems:

He did not so much use as demonstrate the colloquial; the very kind of accuracy he achieved was the result of a certain aloofness. He was able to fix his perspectives.

The fixing of perspectives is a procedure more American than English. R.P. Blackmur said of Poe, Hawthorne, the Melville of Pierre, Emily Dickinson, and Henry James that each of them “contrived to present the conviction of reality best by making it, in most readers’ eyes, remote.” In Marianne Moore’s poems, according to Blackmur, “life is remote (life as good and evil) and everything is done to keep it remote; it is reality removed, but it is nonetheless reality, because we know that it is removed.”13 Hill may have been schooled by Tate and Ransom in this art of distancing. In the lines I’ve quoted from “Funeral Music” about the massacre at Towton in 1461—

some trampled
Acres, parched, sodden or blanched by sleet,
Stuck with strange-postured dead—

Hill doesn’t present the dead as a war reporter would, or a novelist. The compound adjective “strange-postured” keeps us removed, above the battlefield; we are not allowed to sink into its appearances. We are to understand, and to maintain a space for understanding. Hill provides a rationale for this procedure when he writes of

imponderables brought home
to the brute mass and detail of the world;
there, by some, to be pondered.

Another consequence of Hill’s sense of language in the new books is a curious reluctance to commit himself to the finality of a sentence. Many poems are sequences of exclamation, verbless, nouns attended by past participles as if their syntax came from Christian litanies. The reader’s problem is to divine the unspecified relation between one phrase, clear enough in itself, and the next; as in “Whether the Virtues Are Emotions,” a poem about “the inmost self” waking up the following morning to find itself not Emerson’s “outmost” but “outcast”:

and with the day
the new bride brought forth:
carnal desuetude

her mystic equity
her natures ripped hardihood
the radiant
windrows where a storm
emptied its creels
thrusting ailanthus that is called
the Tree of Heaven.

“Windrows” often means rows of hay raked together in order to dry, but in this passage they are banks of snow heaped up by the wind. The relation between the new bride, the phrases in apposition to her, and the radiant windrows—a gorgeous passage in itself, those last lines—is not clear to me, unless the sight of the windrows releases the speaker from the hardihoods that have preceded them and fulfills his desire to be released.

How are we to read the obscurely allusive poetry in Hill’s new books? Donald Davie advised readers of Pound’s Cantos not to stop at the first or any later obscurity but to take each Canto in their stride, stepping over the rough places. The crucial thing was to respond to the large rhythms of the poetry, strong and various enough to lead readers through the work. T.S. Eliot advised a reader of St.-John Perse’s Anabasis “to allow the images to fall into his memory successively without questioning the reasonableness of each at the moment; so that, at the end, a total effect is produced.”14 Those methods might be feasible, I suppose, with Hill’s longest and most difficult poems, including The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy: few readers will live long enough to follow up the references. But most of Hill’s poems are compact, grave meditations, and they call for attention as concentrated as that of reading the Bible. They insist on a slow reading, and assume that readers will want to cope with the detail, however arduous that experience is. Still, I’d like to have an annotated edition of the Collected Poems, if only to see what Hill has been reading.

Hill’s new books keep their rhythms and their distances. He is a strange, rebarbative force in poetry, a lover of causes he fears are decisively lost, and for that reason he is dismayed, and then enraged. It is the rage that stays with us when we think back on the poems.

This Issue

May 20, 1999