Geoffrey Hill, Professor of Poetry Lecture (8th March)

The second Professor of Poetry lecture was given in the Oxford Exam Schools on Tuesday by Geoffrey Hill. Hill is a formidable poet and critic, known for pushing hard against the limits of the English language. He has a prophetic air—helped along by his white waterfall of a beard—in his public utterances. His inaugural lecture, for example, drew a connection between skimming and scamming: giving a cursory glance to the world or to a poem leaves you susceptible to political fast-talking and deception.

In Lecture Two Hill said that he wishes to focus on poetry from the period 1520 to 1720 in his lectures (all fourteen remaining ones, was my impression). As a student of exactly this period, this was all very gratifying, as were admiring references to Thomas Wyatt, John Donne and especially William Shakespeare’s sonnets (a guide to the ‘intelligence of the age’). Hill spent around twenty minutes talking through a lyric poem by the lesser-known Cavalier poet, John Suckling. The perceptiveness of his reading aside, Hill’s analysis was intended to show how poetry from this period is invariably well-crafted, even when written by John Suckling. The attention to conceits, paradoxes, shifts of meaning, ambiguities, versification, rhyming, syntax and so forth is all there. This sensitivity makes the poetry more difficult to read, but this is entirely positive. It’s like preferring chewy wholemeal bread to unfilling white.

He ended by referring to a recent trip to HMV in which he bought the new PJ Harvey album, which apparently wasn’t all that displeasing (he was less impressed with The Streets’ ability to rhyme—’knitten’ and ‘thicken’ didn’t impress). The appeal is less surprising given that her record’s called ‘Let England Shake’. His lecture enforced the value of canonical English poetry to create tough, alert readers who are responsive to today’s political and cultural situation. He also suggested that young poets should look to the masters, or even imitators of the masters, and try to recover their technical innovations. You may not agree that England is a stagnating morass, and you may not think that Renaissance lyric poetry is where all the literary wholemeal bread is. But there’s a valuable reminder about the importance of literary study here, and Hill hopes that his lectures convey a ‘blank intransigence’ (Hill quoting from A.D. Nuttall‘s Overheard by God) about what he believes in.

An example. Hill pretended to throttle himself to convey the strength he felt in the language in line 8 of this Thomas Wyatt lyric. It’s about the perils of court-life and fame:

1   Stond who so list vpon the Slipper toppe
2   Of courtes estates, and lett me heare reioyce;
3   And vse me quyet without lett or stoppe,
4   Vnknowen in courte, that hath suche brackish ioyes.
5   In hidden place, so lett my dayes forthe passe,
6   That when my yeares be done, withouten noyse,
7   I may dye aged after the common trace.
8   For hym death greep’the right hard by the croppe
9   That is moche knowen of other, and of him self alas,
10   Doth dye vnknowen, dazed with dreadfull face.

(Thomas Wyatt, Poem CCXL [Stond who so list vpon the Slipper toppe], text from Literature Online)

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