Remembering Sir Geoffrey Hill d. 2016
This is a paragraph from the obituary for Geoffrey Hill, published in the Boston Globe today.
In the 1990s, poet Donald Hall called Mr. Hill ‘‘the best English poet of the 20th century’’ — placing him above such luminaries as W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes, and Philip Larkin. When Mr. Hill’s 992-page ‘‘Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012,’’ was published in 2013, critic Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian, ‘‘If the phrase ‘greatest living poet in the English language’ has any meaning, we should use it now.’’
The graduate seminars with Elie Wiesel I attended were packed with everyone who could squeeze into the room. Geoffrey Hill’s seminars on literature and religion were held in a basement classroom, attended by the handful of older graduate students who could pretend we were not afraid of the scowling, demanding, and difficult poet.
Geoffrey Hill, the son of an English village police chief, walked into the classroom for his seminar as if he was walking to his doom, heavily, head down, in a soiled white canvas jacket, a white shirt and a red knit tie knotted once like a scarf. One day he reached for a plastic bag in his side pocket. A bit of the bag popped out through a hole in the bottom of the pocket. As his students watched, he pulled the bag out through the hole instead of up through the top.
He would come in on time, greet us, bow slightly, sit down slowly, direct our attention to a page and begin to read. I realize now that he was reading from his own family tree, the great English poets, the creators and stewards of a wide stream of Western civilization. When he read the works of his direct literary progenitors, his voice, low and grave, became sweet and respectful. Sometimes it sounded like he was singing as he read Chaucer, Herbert, Vaughn, Milton, Donne, Tennyson, Dickinson, Hopkins and others. Before I was Geoffrey Hill’s student I could not have imagined that one could learn so much from hearing another human being read aloud.
He would read a poem and read it again without comment, his voice catching some slight difference in a word or syllable in the second reading. Then he would sit silently as the sound of his voice faded. Sometimes the silence would last for several long moments until one of us made a comment on the poem under consideration or raised a question from the assigned reading, beginning the afternoon’s discussion. Every word from Geoffrey Hill was measured and carefully chosen. I remember reading that Seamus Heaney called him the oboist of the English poets.