Friday, 1 July 2016

death of a poet

So, Geoffrey Hill is dead.  When I read the headline in The Guardian today my immediate reaction was faint surprise that he had still been alive, like when I read of the death of Eric Hobsbawm.  One of Geoffrey Hill's poems was in the book of poetry I had at school during my O level years so I vaguely bracketed him with TS Eliot and Ted Hughes and assumed that he must have been older than he was, when Eliot was fully a generation older than Hughes and Hughes died relatively young.

We never studied the Hill poem in class, so far as I can remember, but it stuck in my mind like glue, except that I had no idea what it was called or who had written it.  Much later, but before the internet really took off, I went and asked at London's poetry library if they could tell me what it was.  The bearded young man at the desk didn't know it, frowned intensely, and hazarded the names of various American poets.  Then the internet began to fill up with poems and song lyrics and Google told me the answer.

Geoffrey Hill was widely considered a difficult poet.  I bought his collected poems on the strength of my one remembered poem, and didn't find anything else in the collection that stuck in the same way.  There again, little that one reads after one's teen years ever does, just as every generation believes that theirs had the best music.  The difference isn't in whether Ed Sheeran or Elvis Costello wrote the best songs (though clearly Elvis Costello did) so much as whether you first heard them at sixteen or forty-six.

Geoffrey Hill went on to become the Oxford professor of poetry from 2010 to 2015, was Seamus Heaney's preferred choice to succeed him as poet laureate, and was knighted in 2012 for his services to poetry.  The poem I learned by heart without even trying I now know was called Merlin, from the 1959 collection For the Unfallen, so it must have been relatively modern when it was included in my school text book, even if our English teacher (who was quite spectacularly dreadful) didn't try to teach it to us.


I will consider the outnumbering dead;
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now, should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locusts' covering tide.

Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone
Among the raftered galleries of bone.
By the long barrows of Logres they are made one.
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.

As a teenager I was much into Mary Stewart's Arthurian novels and had a keen appreciation of the gothic.  I first read The Waste Land at around the same time, under my own steam and with no thanks to the school, and as recently as yesterday was murmuring fondly I had not thought death had undone so many, as I looked at the stream of people passing over the London Millennium bridge from my vantage point on the top deck of the bus.  Merlin could have been written to appeal to teenagers, though I don't suppose it was.  Geoffrey Hill did not believe that it was poetry's job to be instantly accessible.  But you must admit that Merlin is pretty good.

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