It was in Afghanistan nearly eleven years ago that Geoffrey Hill came back to me. The war was the biggest story in the world: I was the Independent’s South Asia correspondent, and as the Taliban fled Kabul I filed seven days a week. Meanwhile colleagues were dropping like flies – four killed coming down with the Northern Alliance, a personal friend and three others butchered on the road from Jallalabad. And all this among the untended debris of former wars, the blocks of buildings so shattered and hollowed by bombs and mortars that only their crippled skeletons remained. Everything – the treeless hills, the hovels in which people lived, the smashed-up university, the ubiquitous weapons – compounded the impression of a land degraded and debased by centuries of abuse by mischievous foreigners. And here we were, glad forward party for the next lot.
In all my years out of England I had never been homesick but now I got it bad. And nostalgia attacked me in an odd way – peppering my brain with snippets of half-remembered verse by the poet who, with blazing eyes, had lectured us on Shakespeare when I was an undergraduate at the University of Leeds.
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods/with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine/out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;/ the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,/rests in its laurels and its injured stone,/replete with complex fortunes that are gone,/beset by dynasties of moods and clouds… [from ‘The Laurel Axe’]
Never had poems brought such balm, balm and longing combined. I discovered that I was desperate to get out, to get home, and the desire stood before me in the form of Hill’s words:
November rips gold foil from the oak ridges…/The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don/ bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges… [from Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654]
Fast forward ten years. My 18-year-old son is trying to interest me in Game of Thrones. He has read all the doorstopper novels and watched the television adaptations and is evangelical about how good they are.
Slowly I find I’m getting hooked. In this medieval fantasy world, parts of which strongly resemble northern England, everyone is closer to the edge than we, 60 years into the great EU Peace, will ever understand. Torture and death are just around the corner; honour, courage and loyalty face the sternest tests.
Then, with the harrowing public execution, in sight of his young daughters, of the good Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, as sturdy a northerner as ever strode through the Dales, I was back with a jolt in the world of Geoffrey Hill:
Processionals in the exemplary cave/Benediction of shadows. Pomfret, London./The voice fragrant with mannered humility,/With an equable contempt for this world,/‘In honorem Trinitatis’. Crash. The head/Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood… [from Funeral Music]
Hill sings peerlessly of England but it’s never just “immaculate music”, as it has been called. Terrible things happened in our green land, too, things we are ever more brilliant at forgetting – “a nation with so many memorials” as he writes in The Triumph of Love, “but no memory”.
Game of Thrones is only an elaborate fantasy, but it plays cutely on those notes of pain, guilt, doubt and dread of which Hill is master. And his vocation is to make us see that we don’t escape the nightmares of our history simply by surviving and forgetting them: we trample the earth where these things happened, our mouths are filled with the words that justified and consecrated them.
“A field/After battle utters its own sound/Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth” he writes in Funeral Music of the Battle of Towton (1461), known as the bloodiest battle in Engish history. “Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable mole emerge, blindly we lie down, blindly among carnage the most delicate souls/Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’.”
This month [Oct] Hill returned to Leeds and gave a reading, to mark both his 80th birthday and the gift of his archive to the university library. The poet who wrote and published so little 40 years ago has been replaced, rather wonderfully, by an old poet of stunning fluency. “I used to write seven poems a year,” he boasted, “now I write seven poems a week.” Lack of time is one reason: “In the past I would wait 20 years for a line,” he said. “I can’t do that any more.”
For decades scholars have been describing Hill as the best living British poet, so it is strange how few people seem to know his work. The standard explanation for this is that he is difficult; being difficult, his harshest critics go on to call him an elitist and hence, in an ugly leap which usually involves dragging in Ezra Pound, a bit of a fascist. Attacks of this sort have built a firewall between the poet and his potential readership.
This is a pity. If a wider readership were merely missing out on some colossal old bore, the ‘elitism’ stigmata wouldn’t matter. But Hill is a wonderful poet, unsurpassed in his earlier years for his lyric gift, and ever richer, funnier, denser, more acerbic in the volumes that have flooded from his pen recently.
The ‘elitism’ argument is a tragic hangover from the age when our national culture was under the sway of a sort of prescriptive populism, a condescending compulsion that produced the New English Bible and figures like Philip Larkin, whose reactionary politics went hand in hand with an insistence on being instantaneously understandable to everybody.
But why should we demand to understand poems at a single sitting, as if poetry were under the jurisdiction of the Plain English Campaign? We think nothing of exerting ourselves to learn a language or master a new software programme – why should it be regarded as anachronistic to demand a fraction of such effort to understand a poem? If a poet has something to teach, poetry lovers should be prepared to make the effort to learn.
Hill has never worn his politics on his sleeve, but he is clear about the dangers of deliberate simplification, quoting the dictum that “tyrants always want a language and a literature that is easily understood.” “Tyranny requires simplification,” he maintains. “Genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.”
All of which is to erect another discouraging firewall between Geoffrey Hill and a wider audience. But in an age when a little light research is as easy as saying ‘Google’, when a book-length annotation of Hill’s most difficult (and amazing) long poem “Speech! Speech” is available for nothing on the Internet, we really have no excuse for not diving into this amazing man’s oeuvre.
after that intro i was expecting you to quote from mercian hymns. kudos for going for tenebrae