Amid the weltering turmoil of recent days, now our greatest poet Geoffrey Hill has passed away: would it be too fanciful to suppose that the tawdry spectacle of England descending into mean-minded, parochial nationalism might have speeded the decline of a figure George Steiner described as "our most European" poet? Hill was a model of that older sensibility that managed to be both engrainedly English ( even critics who quail at his mandarin "difficulty" seldom begrudge the astonishing lyric beauty with which he captures the landscapes and countryside of his beloved West Midlands) and as thoroughly immersed in the poetic traditions and historical dramas of mainland Europe as any writer since Browning. He achieves this sense of the Matter of Britain being inseparable from the wider context of European history by applying the same remorseless moral imagination and linguistic vigour to the First World War, Stalinist Russia or the Holocaust as he does to the Battle of Towton, the Reformation or his own boyhood remoulded as Offa's.
Coincidentally I have just been reading Andrew Duncan's marvellous collation of four different pieces on Hill in a recent Angel Exhaust blogpost. In the context of Canaan, a volume excoriating against the "slither-frisk" of Thatcherite privatisation and social division, this sentence of Duncan's rings particularly true in our current climate:
"My country sometimes appears like a vast refugee camp, without shared symbolic structures, patrolled by officers alien to their subjects; any rebel who can talk convincingly for five minutes can achieve more following and reputation than the camp authorities."
Then, in his discussion of A Treatise of Civil Power, Duncan reminds us of the magnitude of Hill's poetic accomplishment and the unparalleled manner in which he has gone from the highly-wrought, hard-won density of his early works to the far more free-ranging and prolific later books, an arc incredible both for its consistency and its diversity:
"At the outset, at his virtuosic debut, Hill wrote in a cloud of doubt which was equated with the ebbing of the Anglican consensus, letting poetry survive into a new era of autonomy and anxiety. Later, he represented rectitude as far as it was possible in a society based on possessive individualism. Hill's poetry was not hedonistic like some others: he wanted to reach an ethical solution, not wallow in emotions while retarding an outcome to the problem. There is a link between the scrupulousness of his work up to 1971 and the anxiety which, in common opinion, cut the flow of his creativity in the following decades. The master of painstaking truth was seemingly shaving grains off the judgement until there was no pattern left to record. The revival of Hill’s career was astounding not because his work of 1953 to 1993 had not been wonderful, but because his new found creativity and enthusiasm were near miraculous."