Geoffrey Hill died last Thursday, June 30th. Hill has in recent decades been called the “greatest living poet in the English language”; now he is one of the greatest dead ones.
I first read Hill’s poetry five years ago, then put him out of my mind until last March, when I read his Collected Critical Writings. They made a tremendous impact on my thinking about poetry, language, history, religion… not so much particular things he’s said, as his way of asking questions. Or rather, not asking specific questions, but sounding out various words and phrases. I also went back and looked again at his poetry; his earlier work now matters a great deal to me, though I’m still (as almost everyone seems to be) baffled by the more recent productions.
Even as I read a lot of Hill I was not thinking much at all about Hill the living human being. Then a few months ago I had a conversation with my advisor about Hill, whose office at B.U., it turned out, had been next to hers. When I mentioned how strange it sounded to hear first-hand anecdotes about someone who always seemed to me a “book person,” she exclaimed that, far from a “book person,” Hill was more alive than most people. He was full of life, full of moral and critical and poetic energy. After that conversation I tracked down the recordings of Hill’s lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry (you can find them here), and listened to them in early June. I came to share my advisor’s assessment: he sounds aged in those lectures, but not at all decrepit.
It’s strange to learn of Hill’s death just weeks after he most seemed to me alive.
I don’t think Hill would have appreciated the kind of sentimental outbursts one seens on the occasion of celebrity deaths. He loathed celebrity, including his own, and he loathed memorial kitsch. He was grotesquely fascinated by the Holocaust, by the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of responding to it without making it about our own feelings of horror. His elegy September Song explores the problem incisively:
born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.
This is plenty. This is more than enough.
Am I sad that Hill has died? A few months ago I said that his was one of the only celebrity deaths that would, hypothetically speaking, bother me. It does bother me as I predicted, but perhaps one ought not to make an elegy for oneself after all. Or at least, one should realize for whom the elegy is written—or else it won’t be true.
Everyone I’ve talked to who knows what they’re talking about has said that David Jones influenced Hill immensely. But HIll has written hardly a word about this supposed influence. A few months ago an acquaintance said that we’re all waiting for Hill to write an essay on Jones; now, I suppose, we’ll wait forever. Or perhaps in Hill’s papers somewhere there’s a draft of such an essay to be found, and it can be published posthumously. Time will tell.
They say Mercian Hymns is the most Jonesian of Hill’s books of poetry. It’s also among my favorites; a bizarre sequence of thirty prose-poems mingling the life of Offa, king of Mercia, with that of Hill himself. For example:
Mercian Hymns VII
Gasholders, russett among fields. Milldams, marlpools that
lay unstirring. Eel-swarms. Coagulations of frogs: once,
with branches and half-bricks, he battered a ditchful;
then sidled away from the stillness and silence.
Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the
day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and
irreplaceable, two inches of heavy snub silver. Ceolred let
it spin through a hole in the classroom-floorboards,
softly, into the rat-droppings and coins.
After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with
fright, down to the old quarries and flayed him. Then,
leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone,
in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion.
Hill was married to an Anglican priestess, and he wrote often about theology and theological poetry; but he does not seem quite to have brought himself to belief. Since today is the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, this Hill poem seems particularly appropriate:
Canticle for Good Friday
The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.
A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He
As yet unsearched, unscratched,
And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)
In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).
On the shift from just intonation to equal temperament, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, cf. this passage from a 1910 lecture by one Alfred Daniell to the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion entitled “Some remarks on certain vocal traditions in Wales”:
Violins and their kindred generally can produce the true harmonic scale, or any other scale; so, they say, can trombones but harpsichords and other instruments of fixed pitch led to horrible results if they were tuned to the key of C or G or F with pure intervals in the harmonic scale of that key. You had to keep to the key for which the instrument was tuned; if you ventured on transitions, or played in other keys, the instrument gave beats and was said to bay like a wolf. If you wanted to avoid this you must have an impracticable number of keys to the octave on the harpsichord or organ. The difficulty came to a head in the time of John Sebastian Bach, who cut the Gordian knot by splitting the difference. “Don’t try to put anything exactly in tune put everything a little out of tune; make the octave consist of twelve exactly equal semitones. We know that’s wrong, but we shall get accustomed to it.” Such was his advice, and all the advances of orchestral music since his day have been rendered possible through everything being a little out of tune.
(I encountered this passage in a quotation of one of David Jones’ letters.)
Charles Williams (1886-1945). Anglican. Eliot admired his novels, and wrote an introduction to one of them. Tolkien knew him through C.S. Lewis, but disliked him, and thought his writing too modern. Jones wrote approvingly of his Arthuriana, but thought his writing not modern enough. Auden adored his theological writings, every year reading again his The Descent of the Dove.
Thomas Sterns Eliot (1888-1965). Anglican (and really American, not English, but he pretended it were otherwise). Tolkien despised what was called modernist poetry, including, presumably, that of Eliot. He edited Jones and Auden at Faber & Faber. Jones liked him and made “the waste land” a key term in his own thinking, though he thought Eliot ultimately too subjective. Auden liked but distrusted him, and said his books should be kept on a high shelf away from young poets.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Roman Catholic. Taught Auden at Oxford about Anglo-Saxon poetry; Auden later defended The Lord of the Rings against “highbrow” critics. Jones read and recommended Tolkien’s philological essays.
David Jones (1895-1974). Roman Catholic. Auden called Jones’ The Anathemata a masterpiece; Jones said that Auden better say so, he borrowed enough from it.
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973). Anglican.
Most of these poets met each other at least once. I’m not sure about Tolkien-Eliot, Jones-Williams, or Jones-Tolkien; there may be anecdotes of which I’m unaware. The younger writers on this list usually had opinions about their elders’ work; less often, the elders had opinions about them. Again, I haven’t read all their papers so there may be opinions expressed which I haven’t taken into account.
None of these writers, however, were close friends, and to my knowledge no three of them were ever in the same room at the same time. They do not form a coterie, only a nexus of people who I think can fairly be called at the same time English, modernist, Catholic, and poet. This is the nexus in which I happen to be particularly interested. Of course there’s little point in drawing these sorts of boundaries too precisely, and it was a more or less arbitrary decision to exclude from this list people like Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), and Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966).