In June 2010, Geoffrey Hill was overwhelmingly elected the 44th Professor of Poetry at Oxford University — a post established in 1708, that has been held by such celebrated poets as Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney. Until now, he has been conspicuously passed over for such honours. The witty name of his 2006 collection Without Title, has now lost its punch.
Hill’s poetry has often been criticised for being deliberately allusive, complex, and full of red-herrings, partly because he uses foreign words (untranslated) and obscure references (unfootnoted). In this he has often been compared with T.S. Eliot. According to Gregory Wolfe of Image, “The subjects that preoccupy Hill” are “the mystery of sin, our forgetfulness of the past, the enormous responsibility that rests on those who use words in the public realm, and the triumph of vanity and superficiality in contemporary culture”.
The following excerpt is from the book-length poem, The Triumph of Love (1998). It consists of 150 sections — perhaps reflecting the number of Psalms in the Old Testament — and like the Psalms it is both penitential and accusational. One target of the poem is the error of World War II and its sad aftermath; here he also wrestles with finding an appropriate poetic voice for expressing the horrors of the war and the postwar period.
from The Triumph of Love XVII
If the gospel is heard, all else follows:
the scattering, the diaspora,
the shtetlach, ash pits, pits of indigo dye.
Penitence can be spoken of, it is said,
but is itself beyond words;
even broken speech presumes. Those Christian Jews
of the first Church, huddled sabbath-survivors,
keepers of the word; silent, inside twenty years,
doubly outcast: even so I would remember—
the scattering, the diaspora.
We do not know the saints.
His mercy is greater even than his wisdom.
If the gospel is heard, all else follows.
We shall rise again, clutching our wounds.
Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the award-winning author of the poetry collections Poiema (Wipf & Stock) and So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed (Rubicon Press). They are both available at: www.dsmartin.ca