Professor Geoffrey William Hill

Doctor of Letters

16 July 2009 - Orator: Professor Robert Fowler

Madame Chancellor Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey William Hill is regarded by many critics as the greatest poet writing in the English language today. Such an accolade is not given without hard contestation among those who would bestow it; all the more remarkable then is the number of voices in agreement. To make such a judgement is not of course to declare the winner of some kind of competition. It is to make a statement about what matters most in life; about a body of work which, however it is measured, is profoundly important to modern literary endeavour and consciousness; about poetry that is to our time what the greatest poetry has been to the past.

Geoffrey Hill was born in 1932 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. In 1936 the family moved a short distance to Fairfield, where his father was village constable. Hill received his primary and secondary schooling in these two villages, and showed from an early age an interest in song and poetry, responding particularly to the beauty of church music. He has said that he has been a poet as far back as he can remember. His parents encouraged his interest and talents, and were ambitious for him, as the following story makes clear. When Geoffrey was a child the family often took its holidays at Weston-super-Mare. The year of this story is fixed as 1945 by Geoffrey’s memory of the landlady of the boarding house bounding up the stairs with the news that President Roosevelt had died. Geoffrey and his parents made a trip to Bristol to see the University. The city had suffered much in the blitz, and the Wills Building, which then housed most of the University, lay in ruins. The great foyer was intact, but the hall in which we are now sitting was utterly demolished. As they contemplated the wreckage, Hill senior remarked to his son, ‘Some day, Geoffrey, you may come back to this place.’ Today is that day. Welcome back, Geoffrey.

Geoffrey’s prophetic father had no doubt that the University would be rebuilt. In this the University’s Centenary year we have good reason to be grateful to him and thousands of others for such absolute confidence. In 1945 the University was only 36 years old, and still had much work to do (quite apart from the challenges of the post-war years) before it could be sure of its permanent standing. Rebuilt it was, and over the coming decades it established its national and international eminence. The elder Hill was a visionary too when it came to his son. He and his wife had left school before the age of 14, and prevailing social conditions and expectations could easily have led him to dismiss any thought of his son’s procuring a university place. In the end Geoffrey did not come to Bristol as an undergraduate, but won a place at Keble College, Oxford, where he earned a first-class degree in 1953. 

He was appointed the following year to a lectureship at the University of Leeds, where he taught until 1980, achieving promotion to professor in 1977. As an academic, Professor Hill’s career has been impressive by any standard. In 1981 he moved to Cambridge as University Lecturer in English and Fellow of Emmanuel College; in the same year he was made an Honorary Fellow of his undergraduate college at Oxford. In 1988, he was appointed Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University, where he is now Emeritus Professor. These eminent academic positions were won not only on the strength of his growing fame as a poet, but also as a critic. In 2008, Oxford University Press published Professor Hill’s Collected Critical Writings, embodying a life’s work of the highest importance. In writing both as a poet and a critic, Hill continues a noble tradition of English letters exemplified by figures such as Dryden, Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, and Eliot. In some of these cases, one may estimate the work of the poet differently from that of the critic, in quality or influence; one would not do so in Hill’s case. Both are at the top end of any possible scale of estimation. As often, when essays of this calibre are assembled, the collection seems to be greater than the constituent parts; the true scope and impact become even clearer than before. These are classic works.

It is precisely 50 years since Hill’s first major collection of verse, For the Unfallen, was published. Between 1959 and 2007, twelve further volumes appeared: King Log, Mercian Hymns, Somewhere is Such a Kingdom, Tenebrae, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, Canaan, The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech!, The Orchards of Syon, Scenes from Comus, Without Title, and A Treatise of Civil Power. These brought global recognition in the form of major literary prizes, fellowships in both the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, visiting professorships including a spell as Churchill Fellow in the University of Bristol in 1980, and honorary doctorates from Leeds and Warwick. 

In his writings Hill returns again and again to a group of interrelated themes: history, memory, war, authenticity and the poet’s voice, God and religion, the aesthetics, morality and status of poetry itself. As the story of Babel illustrates, language is part of humanity’s fallen state, an imperfect condition wherein one can neither express the ineffable nor remain quiet. Residing precariously between reach and grasp, language is at once a temptation to claim presumptuous understanding of the eternal mystery, and a reminder of human impotence. More than any other poet, Hill is aware of the moral difficulties implicit in the commonplace notion that poets stretch the limits of language. His own style (a concept Hill has described as something the poet forges between ‘the hammer of self-being and the anvil of those impersonal forces that a given time possesses’) is unique and unmistakable; but this is merely the entry requirement of the artist. Hill continually astonishes with the creation, or is it the discovery, of new capacities in words and their collocation, with a density reminiscent of Donne or Hopkins. Contradictory meanings are evoked and kept in tremulous equilibrium. The poems demand to be read again and again; the texture becomes thicker with each reading, yet in some ways more transparent; but on the other hand, still resisting any obvious mapping. There is a perpetual, intricate relation with other poetry of many traditions; Hill’s affinity with Eliot and the modernists is clear in this respect. Geoffrey Hill speaks both for and against our troubled times, with deep intelligence, anguished sympathy, and sorrowful humour; he has described poetry itself, in a typically beautiful and resonant phrase, as ‘a sad and angry consolation’.

In its Centenary year, the University celebrates great achievement, in itself and in those who exemplify what it stands for. It stands, among other things, for the love of letters, with all their power to unsettle, challenge, transform and redeem, and at the last to deepen the meaning and understanding of life. The writings of Geoffrey Hill exemplify this power to an extraordinary degree. They have been the object of rewarding study in the Faculty of Arts for decades already, and, since this is a day of fulfilled prophecy, we may safely predict that they will still be studied when the University celebrates its bicentenary.

Madame Chancellor, I present to you Geoffrey William Hill as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa. 

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