Dona eis requiem aeternam
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).