For I will consider my cat Jeoffry…
We lost a major figure in the world of poetry at the end of June, Geoffrey Hill, and as I’ve scrolled through the posts of Call of the Siren, I realize I haven’t written very much lately … but when I have, some of it seems to have been about Hill.
Maybe that’s because no one – aside from talking to W.S. Merwin a few years ago and listening to him describe visiting Ezra Pound – has given me a greater sense of poetry’s living tradition than when I sat at a table and listened to Hill talk about Eliot, Hopkins, Thomas Wyatt, Dryden, Auden, Lowell, Southwell, and so many others.
I studied with him in the graduate program at Boston University in the 1990s. When I enrolled, I had no idea the maker of Mercian Hymns was on the faculty, and when I learned that he was, I rushed over to his office to sign up for his class on poetry and religion. I was gushing with excitement as I reached the top floor and entered his office.
“I’m so happy to have found you!” I said as I set my Add slip on the desk in front of him.
“Found me?” he said, looking up. “I didn’t know I was hidden. I’ve been here three years.”
He gave me that trademark look you find in the Guardian photo accompanying this post. I think this photo was taken around the time he lived in Brookline and taught at BU. That’s the way he looked when I made my gushing declaration on that autumn day in his office.
But forget that sour expression or what some people have said about his crankiness -- I want you to know that Hill was a warm, generous teacher. There were six of us, including him, gathered around a conference table.
He played recordings of John Dowland for us that were hypnotic; the notes of the lute floated down the hall. He described the torture of recusant priests in Protestant England and then recited Southwell’s “The Burning Babe” as if he were composing it in his head. The way he read poems was a revelation to me. He was gruff and good-natured, and he was always patient with our ignorance of the subjects he knew so well.
“Mr. Owchar, and how is your Bunyan today?” he asked me once, smiling, as we studied Grace Abounding in the Chief of Sinners.
“Fair to middling, sir,” I said.
“Well then,” he said, “give us some of the fair.”
Everyone laughed, and then I did my best to explain some passage in Bunyan, and when I was done, Hill improved on my thoughts the way a jeweler polishes a dull stone.
As I've been reading obituaries and tributes about him, I've learned how prolific he was in the past decade. My reading of him stopped with the Peguy poem and the Enemy Country essays … and the occasional item I found in the TLS.
That’s because I like the earlier phase of his career – the later works are too compact, too elusive for me. But the balance between contemporary England and its legendary past that you find in Mercian Hymns, for instance, to me is, well, perfect. It is magic.
There’s a line in one TLS tribute that talks about Hill’s discouragement over his royalties checks even in his laureled, later years. He was discouraged not because of the money but because it suggested to him that he didn't have a readership. Poetry has never really been a big seller (unless you're Seamus Heaney or Ted Hughes), but I hope Hill is enjoying some kind of adulatory compensation in the afterlife that he never found in those royalties.
And hopefully he can add my middling post to that compensation, too. Rest in peace, Professor.