Geoffrey Hill

I notice that Geoffrey Hill, one of the major British poets of the 20th century, has just died at 84.

It's hard to forget the time I heard him read poems from King Log, in Leeds one evening just after the book was published in 1980. An astonishingly severe and emotional reading of difficult poems such as 'Funeral Music', where he seemed to be inside the battles his words evoked. We chatted together in the pub afterwards; the next morning I bought the book and still turn to it from time to time.

Later I also listened to lectures by him, each time going away with some new thoughts of my own stimulated by his precise observations. I still recall after many years a brilliant lecture about the same time on Lord Clarendon, the seventeenth century statesman and historian, when he quoted the number of times the historian had used the word “exemplary” in the potted biographies of the key figures of his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars, and then  applied the word to Clarendon himself as the essence of his personality and intellect.

                   Agenda   Vol.17, No.1, Spring 1979

                 Agenda Vol.17, No.1, Spring 1979

On the right above is a photograph of  Geoffrey Hill as he was at the time. Always intense. Precise. In my treasured special edition of the poetry magazine Agenda from 1979, the critic John Bayley wrote of this precision that "Every word of his poems gives the impression of having been carefully blocked in, as if it were a brick fitted into a solid structure; perhaps taken out again, scrapped and examined, sometimes replaced."

In a 1981 essay entitled ‘Poetry in England Today’, given in full on this website under the rubric 'Articles', I quoted from a New Statesman article in which Hill himself set out his poetical credo more concisely than any critic could:

…the problem for a poet who does believe in the essentially simple, sensuous and passionate nature of poetry but who is quite rightly sceptical of some of the more recent manifestations of confessionalism, is the problem of how to avoid debasing these concepts. And the way that he must do this is, I think, by an extreme concentration on technical discipline. In the climate of our time the very concentration on form and discipline is going to seem to a lot of people to be cold and cerebral. But I see it as the only true way of releasing the simple, sensuous and passionate.”

That is exactly as I remember his words and feeling for history: simple, sensuous and passionate.