Geoffrey Hill was hailed as the best English poet of the 20th century

WASHINGTON • Geoffrey Hill, recognised as one of the foremost English-language poets of his time, who disdained the prevailing style of confessional poetry, choosing instead to use his forceful, solidly built verse to examine age-old moral and historical concerns, died on June 30 at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 84.

His death was announced by Emmanuel College of the University of Cambridge, where he had taught, and by his wife, Alice Goodman. The cause was not disclosed, but he had a history of heart ailments.

Hill announced his uncompromising arrival on the poetry stage in 1959 with the opening lines of his first book, For The Unfallen: "Against the burly air I strode/Crying the miracles of God." He cultivated a style that was often called difficult and allusive, as he borrowed phrases from ancient and modern languages to write poems that seemed to be hewn from stone. He could not be called popular, but over time he came to be widely esteemed.

In the 1990s, poet Donald Hall called him "the best English poet of the 20th century" - placing him above luminaries such as W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. When 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."

One of Hill's best-known volumes was Mercian Hymns (1971), in which he dug into deep veins of British mediaeval history while reflecting on elements of his childhood. Yet, in almost wilful defiance of the norms of his time, his poetry could seldom be called revealing. "I don't regard the poem as a lyrical extension of my personality, as a stream of ectoplasm issuing from one's psyche," he told the Washington Post in 1999. "I regard it as much more akin to drama."

His poems were carefully polished, but were never an easy read. He composed his words with an exacting sense of high purpose, addressing such complex topics as war, religion and the pull of the past.

Viewed from different angles, each line could yield multiple meanings. In Funeral Music, a poem from the 1960s, he wrote: "At noon,/As the armies met, each mirrored the other;/Neither was outshone. So they flashed and vanished/And all that survived them was the stark ground/Of this pain."

The poem was ostensibly about the 15th-century War of the Roses, but it could apply to almost any war, including World War II, which was seared indelibly in Hill's memory from Nazi bombing raids he had witnessed while growing up in northern England.

Geoffrey William Hill was born on June 18, 1932, in Bromsgrove, England. His father was a police constable.

He became enamoured of poetry as a child and graduated from the University of Oxford in 1953. He was strongly influenced by, among others, the American poets John Berryman and Allen Tate.

He taught Shakespeare and other literature courses at the University of Leeds from 1954 to 1980, then spent several years at Cambridge before serving on the faculty of Boston University from 1988 to 2010.

For many years, he had a meagre output, publishing a scant 200 pages' worth of verse from 1952 to 1994, when his first volume of collected poetry appeared. After moving to Boston, however, he remarried and received treatment for what he discovered was chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

From the mid-1990s to 2013, he published no fewer than a dozen books of poetry, plus three collections of essays. From 2010 to last year, he held the prestigious post of Oxford professor of poetry.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Geoffrey Hill was hailed as the best English poet of the 20th century'. Print Edition | Subscribe