Geoffrey Hill

This article is about the poet. For the British aeronautical engineer and professor, see Geoffrey T. R. Hill. For the English cricketer, see Geoffrey Hill (cricketer).
Geoffrey Hill
Born Geoffrey William Hill
(1932-06-18)18 June 1932
Died 30 June 2016(2016-06-30) (aged 84)
Occupation professor of English Literature
Nationality British
Alma mater University of Oxford
Genre poetry
Notable awards Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism
Spouse Alice Goodman

Sir Geoffrey William Hill, FRSL (18 June 1932 – 30 June 2016) was an English poet, professor emeritus of English literature and religion, and former co-director of the Editorial Institute, at Boston University. Hill has been considered to be among the most distinguished poets of his generation and was called the "greatest living poet in the English language."[1][2] From 2010 to 2015 he held the position of Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford.[3] Following his receiving the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2009 for his Collected Critical Writings, and the publication of Broken Hierarchies (Poems 1952–2012), Hill is recognised as one of the principal contributors to poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Geoffrey Hill was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England, in 1932. When he was six, his family moved to nearby Fairfield in Worcestershire, where he attended the local primary school, then the grammar school in Bromsgrove. "As an only child, he developed the habit of going for long walks alone, as an adolescent deliberating and composing poems as he muttered to the stones and trees."[4] On these walks he often carried with him Oscar Williams' A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry (1946), and Hill speculates: "there was probably a time when I knew every poem in that anthology by heart." In 1950 he was admitted to Keble College, Oxford to read English, where he published his first poems in 1952, at the age of twenty, in an eponymous Fantasy Press volume (though he had published work in the Oxford Guardian—the magazine of the University Liberal Club—and The Isis).

Upon graduation from Oxford with a first, Hill embarked on an academic career, teaching at the University of Leeds from 1954 until 1980, from 1976 as professor of English Literature. After leaving Leeds, he spent a year at the University of Bristol on a Churchill Scholarship before becoming a teaching fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he taught from 1981 until 1988. He then moved to the United States, to serve as University Professor and Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University. In 2006, he moved back to Cambridge, England.

Hill was married twice. His first marriage to Nancy Whittaker, which produced four children, Julian, Andrew, Jeremy and Bethany, ended in divorce. His second marriage to the American poet, and later Anglican priest, Alice Goodman occurred in 1987. The couple had a daughter, Alberta. The marriage lasted until Hill's death.[5]

Awards and honours

Mercian Hymns won the Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize and the inaugural Whitbread Award for Poetry in 1971. Hill won as well the Eric Gregory Award in 1961.

Hill was awarded an honorary D.Litt. degree by the University of Leeds in 1988, the same year he received an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award. Hill was also an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford; an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2009 his Collected Critical Writings won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, the largest annual cash prize in English-language literary criticism.[6]

Hill was created a Knight Bachelor in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to literature.[7]

Oxford candidacy

In March 2010 Hill was confirmed as a candidate in the election of the Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford, with a broad base of academic support.[8][9] He was ultimately successful, delivering his fifteen lectures in the academic years 2010 to 2015.[10] The lectures progressed chronologically, beginning with Shakespeare's Sonnets and concluding with a critique of Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going".


Hill's poetry encompasses a variety of styles, from the dense and allusive writing of King Log (1968) and Canaan (1997) to the simplified syntax of the sequence 'The Pentecost Castle' in Tenebrae (1978) to the more accessible poems of Mercian Hymns (1971), a series of thirty poems (sometimes called 'prose-poems' a label which Hill rejects in favour of 'versets'[11]) which juxtapose the history of Offa, eighth-century ruler of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, with Hill's own childhood in the modern Mercia of the West Midlands. Seamus Heaney said of Hill, 'He has a strong sense of the importance of the maintenance of speech, a deep scholarly sense of the religious and political underpinning of everything in Britain'.[12] Kenneth Haynes edior, of Broken Hierarchies, commented 'the annotation is not the hard part with Hill's poems... the difficulty only begins after looking things up'.[13] Elegy is Hill's dominant mode; he is a poet of phrases rather than cadences.[14] Regarding both his style and subject, Hill is often described as a "difficult" poet. In an interview in The Paris Review (2000), which published Hill's early poem "Genesis" when he was still at Oxford, Hill defended the right of poets to difficulty as a form of resistance to the demeaning simplifications imposed by 'maestros of the world'. Hill also argued that to be difficult is to be democratic, equating the demand for simplicity with the demands of tyrants. He makes circumspect use of traditional rhetoric (as well as that of modernism), but he also transcribes the idioms of public life, such as those of television, political sloganeering, and punditry.

Hill has been consistently drawn to morally problematic and violent episodes in British and European history and has written poetic responses to the Holocaust in English, "Two Formal Elegies", "September Song" and "Ovid in the Third Reich". His accounts of landscape (especially that of his native Worcestershire) are as intense as his encounters with history.Hill has also worked in theatre - in 1978, the National Theatre in London staged his 'version for the English stage' of Brand by Henrik Ibsen, written in rhyming verse.Hill's distaste for conclusion, however, has led him, in 2000's Speech! Speech! (118), to scorn the following argument as a glib get-out: 'ACCESSIBLE / traded as DEMOCRATIC, he answers / as he answers móst things these days | easily.' Throughout his corpus Hill is uncomfortable with the muffling of truth-telling that verse designed to sound well, for its contrivances of harmony, must permit. The constant buffets of Hill's suspicion of lyric eloquence—can it truly be eloquent?—against his talent for it (in Syon, a sky is 'livid with unshed snow') become in the poems a sort of battle in style, where passages of singing force (ToL: 'The ferns / are breast-high, head-high, the days / lustrous, with their hinterlands of thunder') are balanced with prosaic ones of academese and inscrutable syntax. In the long interview collected in Haffenden's Viewpoints there is described the poet warring himself to witness honestly, to make language as tool say truly what he believes is true of the world.[15]


The violence of Hill's aesthetic has been criticised by the Irish poet-critic Tom Paulin, who draws attention to the poet's use of the Virgilian trope of 'rivers of blood' – as deployed infamously by Enoch Powell – to suggest that despite Hill's multi-layered irony and techniques of reflection, his lyrics draw their energies from an outmoded nationalism, expressed in what Hugh Haughton has described as a 'language of the past largely invented by the Victorians'.[16] Yet as Raphael Ingelbien notes, 'Hill's England ... is a landscape which is fraught with the traces of a history that stretches so far back that it relativizes the Empire and its aftermath'.[17] Harold Bloom has called him 'the strongest British poet now active.'[1]

For his part, Hill addressed some of the misperceptions about his political and cultural beliefs in a Guardian interview in 2002. There he suggested that his affection for the "radical Tories" of the 19th century, while recently misunderstood as reactionary, was actually evidence of a progressive bent tracing back to his working class roots. He also indicated that he could no longer draw a firm distinction between "Blairite Labour" and the Thatcher-era Conservatives, lamenting that both parties had become solely oriented toward "materialism".[18]

Hill's style has also been subject to parody: Wendy Cope includes a two-stanza parody of the Mercian Hymns entitled "Duffa Rex" in Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis.


Poetry collections

Essay collections


  1. 1 2 Harold Bloom, ed. Geoffrey Hill (Bloom's Modern Critical Views), Infobase Publishing, 1986.
  2. Lezard, Nicholas (20 November 2013). "Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 by Geoffrey Hill – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
  3. Sherry, Vincent. The Uncommon Tongue: The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1987. 2
  4. Robert Potts (2016-07-01). "Sir Geoffrey Hill obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2016-07-04.
  5. "Geoffrey Hill wins 2009 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism", University of Iowa news release, April 14, 2009.
  6. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 60009. p. 1. 31 December 2011.
  7. He was nominated by Andrew Graham (Master of Balliol), Brendan Callaghan (Master of Campion Hall), Christopher Lewis (Dean of Christ Church), Richard Carwardine (President of Corpus Christi), Ralph Waller (Principal of Harris Manchester), Averil Cameron (Warden of Keble), Tim Gardam (Principal of St Anne's), Roger Ainsworth (Master of St Catherine's), Sir Ivor Roberts, KCMG (President of Trinity), and Hermione Lee, CBE (President of Wolfson) as well as by Bernard Silverman (formerly Master of St Peter's). He was also nominated by Rowan Williams and Geoffrey Rowell, Wade Allison, Alastair Buchan, and Valentine Cunningham.
  8. Nominees. Last updated 18 May 2010. Accessed 3 June 2010.
  10. In 'An Interview' with John Haffenden Hill remarks: "They're versets of rhythmical prose. The rhythm and cadence are far more of tuned chant than I think one normally associates with the prose poem. I designed the appearance on the page in the form of versets." See also: Elisabeth Mary Knottenbelt, Passionate Intelligence: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill, p. 190
  11. "Interview with Seamus Heaney", Telegraph 11 April 2009
  12. Email to Sameer Rahim, 2013 quoted in an interview with Sameer Rahim 'Poetry as History' Telegraph Review 14 Dec 2013
  13. Schmidt, Michael The Great Modern Poets Quercus Books , London, 2006 ISBN 9780857382467
  14. Hill's 'seriousness' as a poet is examined in Robert Maximilian de Gaynesford 'The Seriousness of Poetry' Essays in Criticism 59, 2009, 1-21. The main point is that Hill's poetry reveals what his critical reflections in prose sometimes deny: that poetry is capable of performative utterance (in particular of commitment-issuing utterance).
  15. Tom Paulin, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State, p.283.
  16. Raphael Ingelbien, Misreading England: Poetry and Nationhood since the Second World War, p.34.
  17. "The Praise Singer" The Guardian 10 August 2002
  18. Enitharmon Press
  19. "Broken Hierarchies (Catalogue Entry)". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 27 March 2013.
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