Last Thursday, on the eve of the centenary of the battle of the Somme, and with the nation drifting into constitutional crisis, the British poet Geoffrey Hill died aged 84. His career spanned more than 60 years, and no writer in our time has been as eloquent as him on matters of collective memory and on the dubious patrimony of Englishness. Hill was “forever tangling with England/in her quiet ways of betrayal”, as he put it in a section of his poem “The Orchards of Syon” (2003) which seeks to balance “recollection” and “rage” in the accounts:
Debit the lot to our chequered country,
crediting even so her haunted music.
Though Hill went deeply into the matter of England, he was also, as much as T.S. Eliot before him, a writer embedded in European history and literature. His 1994 poem “De Jure Belli ac Pacis” (“On the Law of War and Peace”) – addressed to Hans-Bernd von Haeften, the German jurist executed for plotting against Hitler – weighs Europe’s dark past up against its present condition as a vast marketplace:
To the high-minded
base-metal forgers of this common Europe,
community of parody, you stand ec-
centric as a prophet.
Something similar might be said of Hill: in relation to our debased political conversation and our historical amnesia, his was a prophetic voice, out of step with the age.
The force of Hill’s writing came not from his ideas or opinions, but from his uniquely rich and strange feeling for words. Note how many implications, in the lines quoted above, are summoned up by a single word. “Chequered” gives us England’s chequered past, a hint at the prime minister’s country residence (“Chequers”), and, more remotely, an echo of previous ways in which the country has been parcelled out in literature: John of Gaunt’s “blessed plot” speech in Shakespeare’s “Richard II”, and Philip Larkin’s “postal districts packed like squares of wheat” in “The Whitsun Weddings”. For Hill, in a phrase of Coleridge’s that he quoted many times, words were “living powers”; the history and experiences of everyone who had gone before were present and alive in the English language.
That understanding brought with it a sense of obligation to the dead that sometimes made writing agonising, but it also gave Hill an unmatched capacity for showing history and conflict and justice working in and through particular words, phrases and sentences. Even when his range of reference brought huge perplexities into his poems, so that it sometimes seemed like it would take a lifetime for a reader to become familiar with everything the poems were about, Hill’s words remained charged and surprising and memorable. “Hill addresses the language…like a mason addressing a block”, Seamus Heaney wrote in 1977 – and then, changing his metaphor, “Words in his poetry fall slowly and singly, like molten solder.” Few writers in English have endowed the language with the substance and physicality that Hill did.
His work took many unexpected turns. The early books of poetry are slim and intense, with each word doled out sparingly. “King Log” (1968) ranged from “Funeral Music”, a sequence of unrhymed sonnets on the wars of the roses, to “September Song”, the most important poem in English about the difficulties of artistic creation in the era of the Shoah. “Mercian Hymns” (1971), perhaps Hill’s greatest work, overlaid the time of the Anglo-Saxon King Offa with the poet’s own Midlands boyhood, in a sequence of prose-poems of extraordinary verbal inventiveness and flashes of comedy.
Hill’s first “Collected Poems” (1985) barely filled 200 pages, but after long silence in his middle years, a new phase of productivity began in the 1990s that lasted for the rest of Hill’s life. It culminated in “The Daybooks” (2007–2012), 300 pages’ worth of poetic sequences that saw Hill return spectacularly to strict rhyming forms after more than 20 years. As well as his poems, Hill produced a very substantial body of critical writings, with essays such as “Our Word Is Our Bond” (1983) making perhaps the most searching enquiry into the responsibilities and affordances of writing by any post-war poet.
Hill’s final book was published on the day of his death, when his verse translations of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” and “Brand” – the former new, the latter first published in 1978 – appeared together in the New Penguin Ibsen series. The high jinks of “Peer Gynt” gave full rein to Hill’s verbal and formal virtuosity, with his anarchic linguistic brio conjuring a “sublime doggerel”, in his own words, to render Ibsen’s farce-like scenes in English. Well into his ninth decade, Hill was still gathering new words for his wordhoard: in Act Four, Peer says of Anitra, the Bedouin princess: “I/really admire the way her bum twerks”.