In his second collection King Log (1968), in the poem History As Poetry, Geoffrey Hill wrote:
"Poetry as salutation; taste/ Of Pentecost's ashen feast. Blue wounds./ The tongue's atrocities. Poetry/Unearths from among the speechless dead// Lazarus mystified, common man/Of death."
I heard these words first in Oxford in 1969 in the company of a Dominican (Herbert MacCabe) and instigated by a Jesuit (Peter Levi). I was hooked. Later the Jesuit produced a copy of The Isis , from 1953, which claimed Hill's first spoken words were "Jam-Jar". Preserve, conserve, contain. Shorthand for the ambitions and achievements of Hill. All are present in this magnificent and substantial collection of 21 individual volumes edited by Professor Kenneth Haynes who also compiled The Collected Critical Writings Of Geoffrey Hill (2008).
A quibble on behalf of new readers and others, including myself: an introduction would be helpful, and minimal notation of biographical and bibliographic chronology welcome. There are "Acknowledgements" of sources for epigrams but it would be more useful to have had further background information to such early works as Mercian Hymns (1971) and specifically The Mystery Of The Charity Of Charles Peguy (1983).
Weary of the repeated gaffes of Google, I turn to my own files. This is constituted of wrinkled press cuttings used as book-markers, weathered issues of The Isis and the ever reliable pages of Agenda, champion of Hill since the 1960s.
Geoffrey Hill was born June 18, 1932, the son of a policeman, in Fairfield, near Broomsgrove, a small market town in the Mercian West Midlands. According to his schoolmate Norman Rea he was a very tall "spear carrier" in Caesar And Cleopatra, who from 1946 had begun to write and publish poetry.
A "scholarship boy" he went on to Keeble College, Oxford. In 1956 he married Nancy Whittaker but, in the bleak language of the times, the marriage was "dissolved", though not before they had three sons and a daughter.
His first collection, For The Unfallen (1959), was respectfully received. The focus was on "Uttering love, that outlasts or outwastes/Time's attrition." King Log attracted prizes.
After that reading in Oxford in 1969, I approached the High Anglican Druid (in my eyes) and energetically praised the poems/ translations of Sebastian Arrurruz (1868-1922). Did I detect complicity between my friar companion and the Druid? No. Years later MacCabe gave me a copy of the poems of Fernando Pessoa and gently told me that Hill's Arrurruz was a fiction. Dates, texts and translations were as fictional as the personae adopted by his "fellow" Portuguese Pessoa. Yet as Arrurruz wrote "it is proper to find value/in a bleak skill, as in the thing restored:/The long-lost words of choice and valediction".
Mercian Hymns follows the tales of Offa "taken to be a king of some kind, a prodigy". In prose-poetry format (similar to that introduced by Arrurruz) these are 30 fables turning with disconcerting but entertaining effect from the medieval to the modern. A fledgling poet listens as "the wireless boomed" and "huddled with stories of dragon tailed airships and warriors who took wing immortal as phantoms". Tennebrae (1978) divided the critics but was loved by me for its almost devout evocation of Robert Southwell. Published five years later, The Mystery Of The Charity Of Charles Peguy still leaves me uneasy with its equivocation between guilt and retribution in war-time Europe. Then there was silence.
For 13 years no work appeared. We now know he was rewriting the exquisite 21 Hymns To Our Lady Of Chartres. Canaan (1996) was his next publication: a book of power and majesty deserving more space than allowed in an overview like this.
Another yellowing cutting tells that Hill is again married: "a vicar's spouse". As he writes, "Even now one is amazed/By transience; how it/outlasts us all". There is a wistfulness in The Triumph Of Love (1998) and a wry self-contemplation in Scenes From Comus (2005). It echoes the affection permeating Speech!Speech! (2000) dedicated to the deaf South African poet David Wright. Personal content is reflected in the later Daybooks. Now in his 80s, Hill writes: "Bless hierarchy, dismiss hegemony, /Thus I grind to conclusion". Conscience preserved.