Geoffrey Hill

Text of Citation of Award

The following remarks were made by Emily Taylor Merriman of San Francisco State University on the presentation of the award in absentia to Geoffrey Hill on December 29, 2009, in Philadelphia.

Recently the Dean of my College, a scholar of English poetry, announced to me: “I have been reading a lot of Geoffrey Hill, and now I see why you consider him to be so important. He is a major poet.” My Dean's conversion experience anecdotally supports the reasons for Geoffrey Hill being honored with this Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature. When Hill's poetry is read with deliberation, its value—its performative testimony to how words in unusually crafted associations can alter the mind and heart—becomes apparent. When one describes someone as a “major poet,” the designation usually indicates that not only is his work serious, it is significant for the age. Hill’s work matters for this age partly because he captures the challenges of remembering the past and believing in Christianity in a technologically sophisticated, capitalistic, militaristic, globalizing, and religiously multiple era.

Hill’s poetic voice, however, is not only sometimes lecturing or hectoring, but often personal and intimate, even when drawing on other languages and art forms. His tone can shift from biblical to Romantic to metaphysical to postmodern from one equivocating turn of the breath to the next. See, for example, “Pavana Dolorosa” from Lachrimae in Tenebrae.

Most, although not all, “major” poets are also prolific. In his early career, Hill published rarely, and wrote strong, dense, often formal, verses such as the sonnet I just mentioned. Until recently at least, critics referred to the productive, looser, but no less passionate, rich and allusive work that Hill has been publishing since 1998 as his “later” work. Yet word on the street has it that this designation is now premature, that the “later” work is still being written, and what we have from the last decade of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first is in fact the “middle” work.

Unless one wishes to hear only the musical sound of the sense, as Robert Frost might say, one cannot read any of Hill's poetry inattentively; the metamorphoses and scene changes happen too fast. One also cannot read masterfully, for as in the modernist tradition that formed Hill, the poetry defies, by design, paraphrase and totalizing interpretation. At the same time, it is not the kind of contemporary poetry that invites the reader to make of the lines or of the juxtapositions and gaps what he or she will. Hill’s poetry asks to be read with attentive humility—an attitude characteristically but not necessarily religious.

Hill has been, at least intermittently, a practicing Anglican as well as a practicing poet. Most of his poetic and scholarly work is imbued with a consideration of the relationship between religion—primarily Christianity—and poetry. The dust-jacket of his long poem The Orchards of Syon speaks of such spiritual matters euphemistically, as inclusive religious language requires. It says, “Nature, the remembered landscape of childhood, great poetry and music and images of faith, all offer glimpses into the real life to come—a life not of wisdom or the illusion of wisdom, but of truth.” One important phrase here, “not of wisdom or the illusion of wisdom” slightly recasts a phrase from the closing lines of the book itself: “neither wisdom / nor illusion of wisdom” (LXXII). In the tortuous theology of The Orchards of Syon, religious truth is something that transcends human wisdom. Yet the book also acknowledges that its speaker, and its audience, being human, have nothing beyond the limits of human wisdom—and yet again that our limitations do not necessarily mean that there is nothing beyond what we can regularly see. “Momentary shinings,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines an older meaning of “glimpses” are not to be lightly dismissed.

Even human wisdom, despite our inevitable failings (Hill's work is informed by his belief in the doctrine of original sin) can go far. Hill is a powerful critic; his recently published Collected Critical Writings have been received with acclaim, including the 2009 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. For many decades and at several institutions, he was also a superb teacher. In his writings as well as in the classroom, he demonstrates remarkable, often witty, skill in marrying together the old, the new, the borrowed, and every color under or over the rainbow.

Criticized (and renowned) as a poet of difficulty, he has defended himself against such charges partly by pointing out that human beings are difficult (Paris Review, Spring 2000). Perhaps because of this, it is his treatments of the natural world that most immediately captivate many readers. Hill’s descriptions of local English countryside, marred but not destroyed by industrialism, open out through his lines into imaginative vistas of redemptive possibility, even though the poems hesitate to announce anyone’s salvation. I will close by reading one example from The Orchards of Syon, section XX, which begins with a northern English river and wends its way, concretely and abstractly, across the landscape and via allusions to Gerard Hopkins and other poets, to the paradoxical eternity of our mortality, “the image that is / to die, the creature, the rock of transience.”