Among poets writing in English during the last forty years, Geoffrey Hill
was sometimes named the greatest one alive, but he was always
named the most difficult one to read. He had come to live and teach in
America in the 1980s, along with a brilliant group which included Paul
Muldoon at Princeton (since 1987), Seamus Heaney at Harvard (1985–2006),
and Derek Walcott at Boston University (1981–2007). These were famous poets
who had been drawn from the United Kingdom and its old territories to the
riches of the American universities, yet they were never American poets.
They lived in a kind of half-exile in which they were weighted down with
laurels and prizes regularly given by literary committees and societies
while being mostly ignored or neglected by their students—as Walcott
admitted to me in conversation one day.
One did not have to guess at Hill’s isolation. He was the least famous of that brilliant set of foreign poets, and the least approachable, too. I recall seeing him for the first time in 2001 in the cramped quarters of his office at Boston University, reading something intently and quite alone. His door was open for office hours, but he seemed somewhat startled to be interrupted. I gathered from his demeanor that he was not often consulted in this way. There was a serious tribe of poets and critics who admired him from afar, but how many had actually met the man? Very few. The sense I got from reading and hearing things about him was that Hill kept himself apart. Not for him the American circuit of parties and book signings. He didn’t write for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, or any of the elite literary magazines in the U.S.
He was gruff when I entered, almost forbidding, and that great bald head and those unblinking eyes stared at everything with unusual intensity, and perhaps even a bit of dismissive judgment. But once he spoke, the demeanor softened, and one noticed kindness was lurking in his words and not contempt. I introduced myself and then asked him if he would allow me to audit his classes. He readily agreed.
I could not know at the time that I was about to witness one of the more esoteric literature seminars given at an American university in 2001. Or any other university, for that matter.
The course covered a subject far from the world of contemporary poetry. It seemed to be a course on religion, not poetry, specifically on the English Protestant movement, with which, it soon became clear, Hill was obsessed. But it wasn’t primarily the religion that he discussed. Instead, in the religious works we read, he focused so much on matters of aesthetic style that students of religion must have been vexed. The syllabus was a tour through Puritan pamphleteering, but conducted, so to speak, by a literary dandy. We had to read various translations of the Bible in English in its earliest forms: Tyndale, Coverdale, and the like. Hill added manifestos of church reform from the Elizabethan Age. One day, the Puritan text under discussion was “A View of Popish Abuses.” Another day it was the Marprelate Tracts of 1588. And then Milton’s antiprelatical prose. There were Acts of Uniformity. There were the conformists and the nonconformists. Then the dissenters, new and old.
Hill began the class with a programmatic announcement: “Style is fulfilled intent.” But he expressly discounted the notion that we should read these texts only for the sake of literary style. As he picked stray lines from various pages to quote, he seemed to turn again and again to the religious origins of style—of what motivations compelled the authors to create these works. In the classroom, he often discussed how the preacher or sermonizer prepared his mind and readied his heart to preach—in the sense of inspired language. He was generally less interested in passages of filigreed Latinate syntax than in word-combinations of unusual fury (I remember “filthy quake-mire” and “a petty little stinking ditch”). Admirers of his own poetry, as I was, realized these epithets were inspirations for his own savage phrases.
It was not a class on religion, but on religious prose, the abstruse language of sixteenth-century Protestant political tracts. Could the students follow him at all? They were mostly silent, more cowed than reverential. The class made sense if you had read Hill’s poetry and prose, as I had, but was that the case with these graduate students? I could tell that the readings simply floated over the heads of most. It might have struck Hill with supreme irony that the students he was educating in Boston could hardly make anything out of the arguments of Anabaptists, Barrowists, Diggers, Enthusiasts, Levellers, Puritans, Shakers, Quakers, Ranters, Seekers, and Unitarians who left England and sought refuge in the American colonies.
Hill did not seem to mind our silence. In any case, his remarks seemed hardly addressed to us, but rather to posterity. In “On Reading Crowds and Power,” he made his feelings clear on the matter:
But hear this: that which is difficult
preserves democracy; you pay respect
to the intelligence of the citizen.
Basics are not condescension. Some
tyrants make great patrons. Let us observe
this and pass on. Certain directives
parody at your own risk. Tread lightly
with personal dignity and public image.
Safeguard the image of the common man.
Besides, he was too busy asking himself questions about the reading material. I still have some of them in my lecture notes for the class: “Can the poet, by becoming virtuous in the moral sense, increase his poetic inspiration?” This was the kind of question that I gathered he was really asking himself during the course, though he never said them out loud. They were like an invisible thread, an obscure cause, behind the actual colloquy. Does God reward the moral poet in this way? Is the poet thus entirely at the mercy of God’s intentions? Does the scarcity or difficulty of a poet’s work reflect some failing in the poet?
Of course, these questions were not so much answered as posed—and not so much posed as suggested in the struggle to make sense of the selections of Puritan prose. Hill also defined license as “self-assertion leading to anarchy and self-destruction.” Whether he was thinking of his own life or his art went unstated. He was always trying to determine whether the power of words came from a legitimate authority or, rather, from a license that writers give themselves that was ultimately full of “self-destruction.” I think he wanted proof that his own poetic talents were being used for righteousness.
At the time, I took it for granted that Hill was a Christian poet. The term is used as a commonplace in descriptions of him. A man who spent his life teaching religion, and whose second wife became an ordained Anglican minister, hardly seems a candidate for agnosticism. Yet I see now that, in various interviews over the years, he was prone to hedging, and when asked directly about being a Christian poet was recorded as saying: “Well, it’s a tag, isn’t it? They tag you with a convenient epithet. I’m reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. I’m quite able to use theological terms.”
His wife sometimes wondered about his faith, and he did, too. When, in a newspaper interview, she reminded him that he had written sensitively on Henry Vaughan’s and John Donne’s work, he replied in this telling exchange:
“Yes, because it’s excellent and fascinating. Not because I suddenly feel that Vaughan is a brother in the faith or that reading Donne converted me to a love of Christ.”
She points out that he kneels at the church altar on Sundays. Her husband, she says, is “communicant but resentful.”
“When did I say that?” says Hill.
“You didn’t, I just said it now.”
“It sounds like me.”
“I’ve been married to you for some years,” she notes.
One hopes, however, that Hill was striking a pose here, and not setting the state of his own faith perilously close to faithlessness. That was the crux of the matter: Was his religious struggle a kind of intellectual facade? There seemed a hint of suspicion that Hill claimed the faith for the sheer awkward contrarianism it allowed him, a kind of “spitting in the face” of the modern world. I hope not. Maybe he believed his Christianity—or anyone’s Christianity—was too existential a condition to be reduced to a “tag.” Surely anyone who assigns Puritan pamphlets to twenty-first-century American students is living with and working through a complicated belief.
In one poem from his final years, we find:
[. . .] What is best done
Short of forgiveness
Spares acquittals gist of noncompensation.
Practical wisdom is a world unbridled.
What you damn well care then bestowing credence?
What does it matter,
Beneficiary of what late bestowal,
One whose father, while he was yet far off,
Ran, received him joyfully, who is nameless
Given that greeting?
Through the odd diction of this late poem called “Odi Barbare,” we can trace the outline of the parable of the prodigal son. Hill plays up a winsome element of that sublime moment when the father recognizes his lost son: Ask no questions, demand no explanation or “compensation,” but only love him. Was Hill finally “given that greeting” at the end? The theology that we studied and learned in his class was, I believe, Hill’s way of wrestling with his faith and his art. The contest was a close one to the end. I was never quite sure from his teaching whether we were learning theology to bring us closer to understanding God or to provide us with difficulties and enigmas that we could only struggle with and accept.
Garrick Davis is a poet and founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review.