The Sunday Poem: No 30 Geoffrey Hill Every Week Ruth Padel Discusses a Contemporary Poet through an Example of Their Work

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Sixty-six-year-old Worcestershire poet who once taught at Cambridge and now teaches in Boston University. Since1959, seven very different collections (most recently The Triumph of Love): complex, visionary, erudite poems, swashbucklingly disdainful of easy reading or thinking, all formally skilful in wildly different ways. With lavish gifts of jewelled image and phrase, plus a granite sense of sacredness (in words, architecture, landscape, art, geography and all history but especially English), Hill has had a fantastic influence on many very different contemporary poets. He is still pushing back boundaries in big, difficult, passionate subjects: religious faith, the responsibility of the artist; war and love; barbarism and Englishness.

King Offa (as in Offa's Dyke) reigned over most of England south of the Humber between 757-796 AD. After that he became legendary: Hill calls him the "presiding genius" of Mercia (ie, the West Midlands) from the eighth century on. In Mercian Hymns, Hill fits his wartime childhood into the maturing of this figure. The "he" is both the legendary king, and a boy who will become a particular kind of poet, mining deep, permanent subjects, growing up in a particular epoch and landscape.

This poem describes the boy growing up at odds with his peers. They boasted about temporary surface things (scars, skin); he identified with unattainable toys, the deep high things ruled by creatures who traditionally symbolise the depths and heights of English countryside (digging deep into earth, commanding the crags). He drank from chill sandstone which to him was honeycombs; he plumbed the clefts and source of a flowing landscape. To convey the ancient magic, Hill uses nouns that coax us into the sacred mediaeval space of an English carol (princes, thrall, resin, candles, mistletoe), plus verbs that are archaic (fruited) or unexpected (garnished), which give a heraldic, church-glass glow to mucky things like snot and impetigo. The poem is about making a choice. About plumping for the ancient, deep, and strange; for alienation, difference and difficulty. Like Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality", it is about the making of a poet - as Hill interprets the role. That source is source of nourishment in landscape but also the source of poetry. He drank from a Worcester version of the Pierian spring presided over by the Muses. Ancient poets supposedly drank it and made the "honey" of their poetry from it, as Hill makes his from honeycombs of the English poetic tradition. The poem is short, impacted, sombrely sophisticated. This form, bunching words like grapes hung from the single stem of the first protuberant line in each stanza, runs through the whole sequence. And each poem, like the growing boy, runs slowly. This one's most obvious power comes from the chocolate-rich vocabulary. The voice flings linguistic treasures down as if language itself were the gnarled mysterious landscape it describes, beneath which flowed a sacred spring: from which words, like buckets, haul up new meanings, both fizzily fresh and radioactively ancient. Charting a psyche's maturing need for isolation, it says "This is what I wanted. …