by Alan Jacobs
The Lord of Limit
"I think Geoffrey Hill is probably the best writer alive," A. N. Wilson has written, "in prose or rhyme, in the English language." Michael Dirda confines his judgment to the realm of verse, but disdains qualification: "Geoffrey Hill is the greatest living English poet." And Peter Levi adds to Dirda's assertion a jutting insistence: "Geoffrey Hill must by now be indisputably the best living poet in English and perhaps in the world."
At least Levi's "perhaps" gives us room to dissent from the global judgment. But "indisputably" was surely unwise—what word could better guarantee dispute? Indeed, it is the nature of such claims to invite demurrals, counter-claims, refutations. But they also command attention, and perhaps that is what Wilson, Dirda, and Levi wanted above all, since many otherwise quite literate people do not know the work of Geoffrey Hill.
Hill was born in England in 1932, but has lived for 15 years now in the United States, where he is professor of literature and religion at Boston University. Between 1959 and 1992 he published five slender volumes of verse, plus a New and Collected Poems (the new ones being rather few), and an extraordinary collection of essays, The Lords of Limit. Especially in his first four books, Hill's poems are rather consistent in their tone and their resources: they combine a fascination for the Latinate with a deep, deep immersion in the early centuries of the Anglo-Saxon Christian world. (Of a set of poems called "Funeral Music," Hill wrote, "In this sequence I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks.") One of Hill's finest achievements is surely the sequence of prose poems called Mercian Hymns (1971), which call forth the long-forgotten 8th-century world of King Offa of Mercia—a kingdom in what we now call the English Midlands, including Hill's native Worcestershire. Hill's writing is always difficult to understand—it has often been called obscure—and it seems meticulously wrought, which may explain how little there was of it, until recently.
It was, by and large, this rather slight harvest of four decades' labor that prompted the lavish praise noted above. But in the last seven years Hill has produced four volumes of verse that have stunned his readers not only by their bulk but also by their sometimes quite dramatic differences from the earlier work—differences in tone, style, and often theme. It is difficult to imagine the pre-1990's Hill composing a poem about someone like Diana, Princess of Wales—and utterly impossible to imagine him writing, as he does in Speech! Speech! (2000), of bringing forth his memorial "wreath to the vulgar gates." Reading these poems, one familiar with Hill's idiom is unsurprised to find words like "vitrine" or "pellitory," but doesn't know what to make of "RAPMASTER" and "BEEN THERE DONE THAT," even when they appear in big caps like newspaper headlines. Only Auden, among the major English poets, remade his verse more thoroughly than Hill has. And so soon after the remaking, it would be reckless now to say that Hill is "indisputably" anything. At the moment, I don't like the recent poems at all. But from my studies of Auden I have learned at least this: to wait until the dust has well settled before attempting a serious judgment.
In the meantime, it is impossible not to think of Hill's new book, Style and Faith, as a possible source for clues to this transformation. It contains but seven essays, all previously published, comprising 159 pages in all (the remainder being notes and apparatus). The first links Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Oxford English Dictionary, while the last considers T. S. Eliot; but in between Hill meditates on major figures of the 16th and 17th centuries: Tyndale, Donne, Richard Hooker, Robert Burton, Henry Vaughan, the historian Lord Clarendon, and (sneaking into the next century) Isaac Watts and the Wesleys.
A straightforward reading of Style and Faith would lead to the conclusion that Hill cares a good deal more about style than about faith. On matters of style, or more generally of language, he is always quick to state a conviction: that the revised OED does ill to include "tofu" while neglecting Hopkins' coinage "unchancelling"; that David Daniell was unwise to modernize the spelling of his edition of Tyndale's New Testament; that Isabel Rivers' critical study Reason, Grace and Sentiment "is oblivious to its own compliance with the prevailing jargon of modern communication." But when considering matters of faith Hill assumes the dispassionate voice of a historian: he will demonstrate that the various styles of Burton, Hooker, and Donne incarnate equally various modes of faith, but he will refrain from stating a preference. He will explore with great sensitivity and nuance a single pivotal word in a poem by Vaughan, noting its spiritual resonances but judging them not.