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Ted Hughes


Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes, by David Levine. Copyright New York Review of Books








Ted Hughes, by David Levine. Copyright New York Review of Books

This course pack also offers you a short introduction to Geoffrey Hill, as well as a more systematic overview of Ted Hughes, including an article by Al Alvarez on the Hughes/Plath story and the making of the film Sylvia, and an essay that discusses Ted Hughes in relation to The Movement. In the seminar we will almost exclusively be focussing on Ted Hughes.

Owing to copyright issues I am unable to post the poems on the website, and have had to type them in by hand. Please forgive any mistakes I may have made.



Poet Laureate of England, and one of the most controversial poets and literary figures of his time, Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was born Edward James Hughes in Mytholmroyd, in the West Riding district of Yorkshire. Hughes began writing verse as an adolescent. The foreboding, violent atmosphere of his poems was influenced, according to him, by his father's accounts of service in World War I, and his own early experiences on the moors, a dramatic landscape where he hunted small game with his brother and became an avid observer of the natural world.

Hughes constructed a mythic rather than explicitly political framework for this world, using both lyric form and dramatic monologue to give voice to the intense struggle between the hunter and the hunted, the human and the divine. To my mind his early work is chiefly influenced by his long readings of Shakespeare, by the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, D. H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas. His later work (from Crow onwards to say River) takes in the influence of Eastern European poetry in translation. His last poetry absorbs the Classics and returns to Shakespeare.

Animals appear frequently throughout his work: as deity, metaphor, persona and icon. Perhaps the most famous of his subjects is "Crow," an amalgam of god, bird and man, whose existence seems pivotal to the knowledge of good and evil. His books of poems include The Birthday Letters (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), Wolfwatching (1990), Flowers and Insects (1986), River (1984), Selected Poems 1957-1981 (1982), Moortown (1980), Remains of Elmet (1979), Cave Birds (1979), Gaudette (1977), Crow (1971), and Lupercal (1960); he published several books of verse for children, acclaimed translations, and a volume of occasional prose entitled Winter Pollen (1994). Appointed Poet Laureate in 1984, he also received the Whitbread Prize in 1998.

After completing national service at a remote RAF station, Hughes studied at Cambridge University and began publishing his poems in literary journals. In 1956, he met the American poet Sylvia Plath who was continuing her studies on a Fulbright Fellowship, and they were married in June of that year. On Plath's encouragement, Hughes submitted his first manuscript, The Hawk in the Rain, to The Poetry Center's First Publication book contest, which announced him as the winner. The book, published in England and America in 1957, received much critical praise, and established Hughes as an important and innovative poet of his generation. The Hugheses had two children, Frieda and Nicholas, in addition to their burgeoning literary careers. Hughes and Plath spent a year teaching at Amherst and Smith Colleges, respectively, before deciding in 1959 to return to England to devote their full-time energies to their writing.

In the summer of 1962, they decided to separate. Plath's suicide in early 1963—and the astonishing poems she left behind—made a substantial mark on the literary landscape, and followed Hughes for the rest of his life. Feminist critics lambasted him for his infidelity and abandonment of his wife; controversy surrounded his editorship of Plath's poems and prose. Hughes destroyed or misplaced key entries from the journals, and re-ordered his wife's final collection, Ariel. Ironically, the woman he allegedly left Plath for—Assia Wevill—also committed suicide, and by carbon monoxide poisoning, the same method his wife used. It took Hughes thirty-five years to break silence on the subject: his final collection, The Birthday Letters documents every phase of his relationship with Plath. Published a year before his death from cancer, the book re-ignited the famous controversy and met with mixed critical response. Ted Hughes died in October 1998 in Devonshire, England.



Out (CD 2 T23)

Full Moon and Little Frieda (CD2, T 28)

February 17th (TAPE A WITH GOOD INTRO BY Hughes)

Examination at the Womb-Door (play a few of these off CD CD2, 1-5)


From the sequence Cave Birds with illustrations by Leonard Baskin

Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days (with picture) (tape B)


from Gaudete (CD1, T19)

"Collision with the earth has finally come"




Al Alvarez:

On Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the making of the film, Sylvia


This is interesting not only for the background to the business of writing and publishing, but also goes some way to exploring and exploding the Hughes-Plath myth.


Ted, Sylvia and Me

January 24th, 2004, Copyright: The Observer

It was The Observer, in fact, that brought the three of us together. At that time, the books pages were edited by Terry Kilmartin, a gifted, idiosyncratic man whose taste in literature was catholic and unconventional. One of his idiosyncrasies was the belief that poetry really mattered and it was the paper's duty to bring new work to the attention of its readers. Then, as now, the Sunday papers rarely published poems, except when they needed to fill a column, but Kilmartin was determined to make it a regular feature. Since I was the resident poetry critic, he asked me to choose the poems for him.

We began in March 1959 with a poem by R.S. Thomas and ended in 1977 with four poems by novelist Jean Rhys, the first she ever published. On some Sundays, there was room for just one poem, on others none at all, but more often than not a quarter or a half of one of the books pages was filled with verse, sometimes by a single poet, sometimes by several - the known and unknown all jumbled together.

We published famous elder poets like Auden, Graves and MacNeice, figures from the newly emerging establishment such as Larkin and Kingsley Amis, and many Americans who were still barely known in England at that time: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, Richard Eberhart. We were also the first to bring the work of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert and the Czech Miroslav Holub to British readers by featuring groups of their poems in translation (with brief introductions written by me).

The poets who interested me most were my contemporaries - Ted Hughes, Peter Redgrove, Thom Gunn and Sylvia Plath. The Observer was publishing the extraordinary poems that Plath wrote in the last months of her life when virtually no other British weekly would touch them. So I knew Ted and Sylvia because, as often as not, The Observer was where they wanted their work to appear. And because Sylvia knew I liked her poems and trusted my judgment, it seemed natural for her to bring them to me to look at when Ted was no longer around to try them out on.

Writing, like talking, is a two-way process; it presupposes that there is someone out there listening. Even while the work is being written, there is already an audience in the writer's head, a handful of imaginary listeners whose good opinion you crave. Some of those spectral presences may be long dead - literary heroes, like Shakespeare or Donne, whom T.S. Eliot called 'men whom one cannot hope to emulate' - but the ones who matter most are people you know: the person you live with, a writer you admire, an editor you respect, a critic you trust, someone who is sympathetic but tough-minded and not easily fooled.

Ted and Sylvia had used each other in this way throughout their marriage, reading each other's work, nurturing each other's talents, sniffing out each other's faults, egging each other on. When Ted walked out of her life in the summer of 1962, Sylvia, in lieu of anyone better, sometimes came to me.

In the bad autumn months that followed, when she was coming up from Devon to go flat-hunting in London, she used to drop by my studio near Primrose Hill. I would pour her a drink and she would settle cross-legged on the floor in front of the stove and read me her new poems. I no longer remember how many visits she made - three or four at most - but it was enough for me to hear a fair proportion of the poems that went into Ariel and recognise that what I was listening to was new and extraordinary.

As far as Sylvia was concerned, I was merely an attendant lord, someone to cheer her up and tell her how well she was writing. Yet the fact that I was an established critic who responded to her new poems and published them in The Observer made our friendship seem important to her - for the time being, at least. So did a fighting introduction I had written for my recently published Penguin anthology, The New Poetry, in which I attacked the cult of gentility in the English poets who were then fashionable - their very British habit of averting their eyes from unpleasantness and pretending all is well.

All was far from well in Sylvia's life at that time and she was using her troubles as a source for her poetry. By doing so, she was on her own artistically as well as socially, exploring territory where few other poets had yet been, and I think she was glad to know there was someone making a case for the new style of poetry she was now writing.

My listening to her poems and encouraging her did nothing to alleviate her terrible loneliness and despair. She also needed someone to take care of her and that was not a role I could fill. I loved Sylvia in the way I love other friends - for her intelligence, her liveliness and the pleasure of her company, and for the disinterested passion for poetry which we shared. But my own life was a mess back then and I was neither willing nor tough enough to shoulder her despair. In the end, like everyone else, I let her down. All I can plead in my defence is that, since her death, I have done my best to show that what she wrote matters a great deal more than how she died.

For all those reasons, and also because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a participant who survives long enough becomes an exhibit, I had been written into the script of the movie they were shooting. I'd known this was going to happen since last winter when Jared Harris, the actor chosen to play my role, came to talk to me about it or, rather, to study me while we talked and check me out for mannerisms and tone of voice.

I don't know what he was expecting, but I suspect he had me pegged as some dry-as-dust intellectual, because he was touchingly relieved when I told him that back then I had been almost as wild and troublesome as his beloved father, the actor Richard Harris, who had died a few days before Jared and I met. He was even more relieved when I told him that even in the 1950s we wore jeans and he needn't bother with a tie. For my part, I was delighted that the actor they had picked was blue-eyed and six foot something tall, instead someone more my size, such as Danny DeVito.

The meeting with Harris was cheering but the movie, when I saw it, sobered me up. According to Shelley, the magus Zoroaster 'met his own image, walking in the garden'. Now I know how he felt. Watching a stranger supposed to be me up there on the big screen re-enacting another stranger's version of scenes from my own life was a chilling experience, like reading my own obituary.

Even the meticulous detail of the sets seemed a way of saying: 'This is the past - interesting but dead and gone.' For me, the 1950s and early 60s are my youth - confused, messy, uncomfortable, but not all that long ago. For the designers, they were not even retro chic; they were ancient history, a period setting like any other, to be reconstructed with care. In their eyes, the dingy, ill-lit interiors with no mod cons were as quaint as the Old Curiosity Shop, the drab utility clothes as exotic as crinolines and frock coats.

Having gone to such trouble to recreate the studied shabbiness of every detail, it seemed to me perverse to have skimped on big things that matter, such as locations.

The house in Chalcot Square, for example, where Ted and Sylvia first set up home in London, and the one around the corner in Fitzroy Street where Sylvia died, are still standing, smartened up but otherwise unchanged. Why not paint sets to look like them, instead of creating anonymous suburban façades, particularly since both places have become shrines for literary pilgrims?

Likewise, the rather grand house in Devon, which the two young poets laboured so hard to modernise and make shine, is turned into a bleak, dilapidated Cold Comfort Farm, sinking remorselessly into the mud. The Devon squalor, I suppose, is there for a purpose. It suggests that Sylvia was a household drudge, chained down by babies and domestic chores, while Ted was free to write and gad around as he wished. That is not how I remember her in Devon or anywhere else.

Sylvia was an intensely ambitious young woman and she wanted to excel in everything she did. In those pre-feminist days, when motherhood and domesticity were talents women aspired to, that meant caring properly for her children, cooking well and making the house pretty. So she went at these humdrum responsibilities with the same intensity as she wrote - not resentfully because she was in her husband's shade, but because she had got straight As in everything when she was a student and now she wanted an A in marriage as well as poetry.

I have always believed that it was this unrelenting competitiveness that helped to precipitate her final breakdown. When Ted and Sylvia first met, he was far ahead of her as a poet, not technically - the apprenticeship she had served was long and hard and effective - but because he had easy, immediate access to the sources of his inspiration, a permanently open hot line to his unconscious.

Over the years, he kept the line open through a weird mishmash of astrology, black magic, Jungian psychology, Celtic myth and pagan superstition, and he encouraged Sylvia to do the same. Her sensibility was different from his - more urban and intellectual, more nerves than instincts - so a belief in shamans, ouija boards and the baleful influence of the stars didn't come naturally to her.

But she was a fast learner and high achiever; anything he could do, she could do better. She was also determined to break through, as he had done, to the inner demons that would make her write the poems she knew she had in her. But when she did, the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write great poetry, but they destroyed her marriage, then they destroyed her.

Gwyneth Paltrow's interpretation of a hopeful, gifted woman haunted by nightmares is wonderfully inward and restrained, but there is not much to set it off against. The filmmakers have, as it were, reversed reality by presenting Ted as a simple northern boy with no demons of his own, who is bewildered by the furies his laddish philandering stirs up.

As a result, Daniel Craig has to play Hughes as an oddly lightweight presence, often exasperated and impatient, but without any of the darkness, authority and sense of danger that made one awestruck woman say: 'He looks like God would look, if you ever got there.'

For me, the problem is with the scriptwriter John Brownlow's dialogue. This is a movie about poets, people who loved language, spent their lives trying to make it come alive on the page and prided themselves on the clever things they could do with it in conversation. Yet there are just two scenes, both of them early and set in Cambridge, that capture the verbal fizz and delight of young people more drunk on literature than on booze. In one, they challenge each other to gabble off speeches by Shakespeare; in the other, Plath stands up in a punt and recites the prologue to Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale to an audience of bemused cows.

After that, the level of conversation drops badly. On the fateful weekend when Assia makes her play for Ted, for instance, the Hugheses and the Wevills go walking on Dartmoor. The scene, like all the others, is beautifully shot, misty and mysterious, but all you hear through the Turneresque glow is Assia's breathless 'How inspiring!', a remark that would have stopped Hughes dead, even if Assia had been Helen of Troy.

Later, the character who is supposed to be me looks deep into Sylvia's eyes and tells her she is beautiful and a great poet. Well, she was a great poet and by then I knew it. But if I ever start talking like that I want to be put down like a sick old dog. Even worse, from my point of view, the scriptwriter has me telling Ted that Sylvia has made a pass at me. Treachery posing as confession and gossip may be the lifeblood of soap opera, but in the real world friends don't behave like that, especially friends who know each other's secrets and wish each other well.

These are minor quibbles, of course, and the reasons they grate on me are entirely personal, but they are also out of key with an astonishingly restrained and serious movie. A conventional Hollywood production would probably have turned it into just another tale of genius gone wrong - racked brows, clattering typewriters, scandal, heartbreak and disaster - in other words, 'Ted and Sylvia Meet Jerry Springer'.

Christine Jeffs, the young New Zealand director, has cut out the melodrama and concentrated, instead, on creating a portrait of a troubled artist that aims to be as beautiful and dis turbing to look at as Plath's poems are beautiful and disturbing to read. Jeffs may even have been helped by the Hughes family's objection to the project and their consequent embargo on the use of the poems. This has led to occasional anomalies - when Hughes gives a poetry reading to an enthralled, doting and mostly female audience, the poem he reads is by Yeats, not by him.

Plath, however, gains by the restriction. Towards the end, we watch her when her demons finally had her by the throat and she was turning out a poem a day, sometimes more, and all we hear of this turmoil is fragments - isolated lines and phrases jumbled together. Yet the impression this produces of a creative mind working flat out is oddly more convincing than any doom-laden, voice-over reading of a whole poem could ever have managed.

Last summer at Shepperton, there was no way of telling how the movie in the making would turn out, and anyway, anything can happen between the daily rushes and the final cut. But the people I spoke to seemed not to be spooked by their tricky subject and intent on doing it justice, and the tension on the set between Paltrow and Craig was appropriately high.

So I went home hoping for the best and believing they would somehow manage to pull it off - against the odds, the obstacles and all expectations, and despite the Plath-Hughes curse that, until now, has doomed every attempt at biography.

As one of a handful of surviving witnesses, I was pedantically irritated by factual errors of no concern to anyone who wasn't there, and disappointed by the bland clichés in the dialogue. But Paltrow's performance is wonderful and so, too, are those of Blythe Danner - Paltrow's mother playing Sylvia's mother - and Michael Gambon as Sylvia's eccentric neighbour.

As for the look of the movie and its portrait of two gifted young people locked together in an impossible marriage and pulling each other down: I came out thinking, that's how it really was back then. Thank God it's over.

© Al Alvarez

· Born in London in 1929, Al Alvarez is a poet, novelist, anthologist and the author of several non-fiction books. His most recent are his autobiography, Where Did It All Go Right?, and Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats. His New and Selected Poems were published in 2002.



Poetry in the Postwar World: Ted Hughes and the Movement

Elizabeth Owens


This is taken from the online European poetry journal Transference



for the full transcript and footnotes

By the 1950s, English poetry had not seen a significant break in established styles since the advent of Modernist poetry at the beginning of World War I, roughly forty years earlier. 20th Century poetry had, up to that point, been characterized by the high Modernism of Eliot, Yeats, and Pound, and the neo-romantic poetry of Dylan Thomas that defined the war years. The reaction to this elitist Modernism and the 'poetic sensibilities' of Thomas took the form of The Movement, a group of English poets who arose as a manifestation of postwar English society and culture.

Movement poetry, produced in the exhaustion and disillusionment of the postwar world, is marked by a sense of boredom, hopelessness, and ambivalence, and, as John Press describes, a 'general retreat from direct comment or involvement in any political or social doctrine. While Movement poetry was thought by many to capture and define the average sentiments of postwar England, it began to see some reaction by the late 1950s, as many began to feel, as Alfred Alvarez describes, that 'what poetry needs, in brief, is a new seriousness. I would define this seriousness as the poet's ability and willingness to face the full range of his experiences with his full intelligence. Around this time Ted Hughes arrived with the 1957 publication of his first collection of poetry, A Hawk in the Rain, a collection that deals with war, suffering, and violence and delivers a style of poetry utterly unlike that of The Movement. Hughes's poetry filled the gaps left by the Movement, bringing to the poetic world a new vitality and a willingness to confront life and all of its parts as he saw it.

The primary division in the literature in postwar England centered on issues of war and suffering, a rift between those poets who sought to avoid the issues raised by the war, and those who sought to confront and deal with these issues. Of the former category were the Movement poets, who were thought to represent the 'typical Englishman' of postwar England. Hughes himself describes the overarching tone of Movement poetry as one, of having had enough…enough rhetoric, enough overweening push of any kind, enough of the dark gods, enough of the id, enough of the Angelic powers and the heroic efforts to make new worlds. They'd seen it all turn into death camps and atom bombs. All they wanted was to get back into civvies and get home to the wife and kids and for the rest of their lives not a thing was going to interfere with a nice cigarette and a nice view of the park.

The Movement was, in other words, 'bored by the despair of the forties, not much interested in suffering, and extremely impatient of poetic sensibility turning from the distress and political unrest of the 1940s to instead 'record the drab facts and emotions of ordinary life,' a life which no longer wanted anything to do with war, suffering, or idealism.

The expectations of postwar England were many and pervasive, as the prevailing Socialist climate 'encouraged writers to accept society as a guide to their literary aims and as a source of discipline in their studies' At the same time, the Movement poets came from academic lives, with nearly all teaching as university professors. The combined influence of the Socialist state and the demands of academia led to a poetry characterized by a polite, civilized sensibility, an intellectual detachment, and, as Blake Morrison describes in his book, The Movement, 'a quiet concern in which political enthusiasm had no part.' The election of a Labor party government in 1954 and the Welfare state of 1948 left much of the English population feeling content that the new, postwar era of England was liberal enough, humane enough, and that, while they approved of it, there was no longer any need for active support.

Another influence of 1950s England was a pronounced provincialism and 'Englishness' in Movement poetry. The influence of two world wars had created a socio-political and economic climate that fostered a distinct prejudice for anything foreign and a disdain for anything to do with 'abroad.' This prejudice, combined with Britain's imposition of a £50 travel allowance, greatly discouraged foreign travel. Further, the Movement's ties to the Laborite and Socialist movements created a sense of obligation to play to the 'long history of lower-middle class envy directed against the upper-middle class traveler.' The Movement poets catered to these ideals with a poetry that is strictly English, creating, as Anthony Hartley argues, ' a sort of mythical virtue out of necessity, pretending that Birmingham is as interesting a place to inhabit as Berlin, or that the amenities of Manchester compare to those of Milan.' Viewed from this stance, the poetry of Philip Larkin, as Morrison points out, serves well the needs of post-war Britain, helping people to feel content to remain within their own country.  This sense of 'Englishness' in Movement poetry can also be seen in the political neutrality of the poets, espousing a complacency towards life – a complacency encompassing the socio-political state, existence as part of the lower-middle classes, and simply being English.

By the late 1950s and early 60s, however, England began to experience reactions against the fatigued sterility of Movement poetry. In a sort of response to Robert Conquest's Movement anthology, New Lines, Alfred Alvarez published his anthology The New Poetry, which featured, among others, the vivid poetry of Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill, with a particular emphasis on Hughes. In his introduction to this anthology, Alvarez makes an indirect attack on the polite urbanity of Movement poetry, stating that lives in postwar England were influenced profoundly by forces which have nothing to do with gentility, decency, or politeness. Theologians would call these forces evil, psychologists, perhaps, libido. Either way, they are forces of disintegration which destroy the old standards of civilization. Their public faces are those of two world wars, of the concentration camps, of genocide, and the threat of nuclear war.

Movement poetry shut out these 'forces,' taking instead a view that 'life is always more or less orderly, people more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent, and more or less controllable; that God, in short, was more or less good, and hence was totally incapable of expressing and coping with the horrors and suffering of the century, opening the stage for Hughes's 1957 publication of A Hawk in the Rain.

Hughes was far from accepting, as did the Movement poets, society as a guide to his art. Indeed, we find instead a profound distrust for society and its cultural constraints and hypocrisies, and a drive to return to the primal honesty of nature. Where the Movement poets settled for complacency in England's having reached a new socio-political liberalism and stability, Hughes saw, instead, civilization as 'an evolutionary error,' a society which, by ignoring nature, is driven towards the violence of war and environmental destruction.  And unlike the Movement poets, who wished to confine war and suffering to problems of the past, Hughes's poetry confronts their continuing relevance, writing through and about, in the words of Alvarez, these 'forces which have nothing to do with gentility, decency, or politeness'.

The sense of the century's two world wars, so successfully avoided by the Movement, is ever present in Hughes's poetry. Having grown up under the influence of his grandfather's service in the First World War, Hughes, as an adult, stated that he could 'never escape the impression that the whole region is in mourning for the First World War' Hence, his poetry is heavy with the sense of history and suffering, and an attention to violence in its various forms. His poetry is intricately concerned with two types of violence: violence inherent within, and therefore in accordance with, nature, and violence that opposes nature. It is the latter kind of violence that produces war, and which Hughes found so pervasive in postwar society and so disturbing in the ignorance of postwar culture.

Hughes's poetry also strays from the strict provincialism of the Movement, evidencing a deep influence of both foreign cultures and primitive mythologies. Much more than with any Movement poet, Hughes showed an affinity with his Eastern European contemporaries such as Vasko Popa and Janos Pilinszky, saying of their poetry that

Though the Christian culture has been stripped off so brutally, and the true condition of the animal exposed in its ugliness, and words have lost their meaning – yet out of that rise the poems, whose words are manifestly crammed with meaning.

Here Hughes could nearly be describing his own poetry, a poetry which tries to evoke this very ' true condition of the animal exposed in all its ugliness' that he finds in Popa and Pilinszky. And, as he believes of Popa and Pilinszky, it is in this state that we encounter the truest meaning. In contrast with Movement poetry, the poetry of these Eastern European writers seems to be very intensely about something, a difference Hughes would have welcomed. In an essay on Popa, Hughes describes Popa's poetry as 'trying to find out what does exist, and what the conditions really are,' a marked contrast from Movement poetry which seems to content to remain within its own comfort zone and professes no interest in 'the conditions' of life beyond their own narrow, provincial realm.

The conflicting ideals between Hughes and the Movement are evidenced in Hughes's treatment of nature verses that of Philip Larkin, one of the most prominent of the Movement poets. Larkin's poem, 'At Grass,' depicts a nature that has been domesticated and tamed. The poem portrays former racehorses, domesticated animals, in a typically English, pastoral setting of 'unmolesting meadows.' The horses' significance stems not from their inner nature, nor even from their place in nature, but rather, from their place in English society and sport. These horses are valued for their former role as sport and entertainment for 'Numbers and parasols,' and 'squadrons of cars.' 'Almanac ked, their names live,' yet they themselves do not really live, at least not for themselves – a quality also evident in Larkin's human narrators. In sharp contrast to the domesticity of Larkin's horses stands Hughes's 'The Jaguar,' 'hurrying enraged/ Through prison darkness after the drills of his eyes/ On a short, fierce fuse.' (Hughes 5). While Larkin's horses inhabit cropped pastures, the Jaguar's mere stride is 'wildernesses of freedom:/ The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel. Over the cage floor horizons come'. Beyond being intensely alive, Hughes's Jaguar is alive for his own sake with his own inherent vitality. Where Larkin's horses are complacent, if not content, in their confined world, the Jaguar finds 'wildernesses of freedom' in his very movements.

Many of the key issues at the heart of the Hughes-Movement dichotomy can be further examined in a close comparison of Hughes's poem 'Egg-Head' with Larkin's 'Wants.' The Larkin poem reads as follows:

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:

However the sky grows dark with invitiation-card

However we follow the printed directions of sex

However the family is photographed under the flagstaff-

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:

Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,

The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,

The costly aversion of the eyes from death –

Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.


The most obvious quality, even at first glance, of Larkin's poem, is its tone of boredom and monotony. The poem deals with precisely the 'drab facts and emotions of everyday' that Perkins describes, treating existence with a sense of wan hopelessness. Social engagements, sex, family, even life and death, become merely a part of a drab cycle of being. The line, 'The costly aversion of the eyes from death,' is particularly interesting in comparison with the poetry of Hughes, in which death can become either horrific or sacred, but is in either case a part of something beyond the scope of human control, and never treated lightly. Here death melds into the everyday, slipping ambivalently into Larkin's treatment of the overarching tedium of existence. Again, the casual mention of 'life insurance' as just another item in a list of life's monotonies emphasizes a pronounced ambivalence concerning the possibility, and inevitability, of death.

Larkin's use of language and structure further emphasizes this fatigue and monotony that the narrator feels. The poem's compact form, combined with the neat closure of both stanzas, since the first and last line of each are the same, gives the poem a closed in feeling, evoking the sense that the poem itself could be neatly contained and isolated. The repeated use of the word 'However' in the first stanza defines the sense of a monotony that is impossible to escape; indeed it is impossible even to look at the poem without registering on this repetition. The use of the words 'beyond,' 'beneath' and 'despite' provide a repeated negation that holds the poem back, effectively restraining it from even the possibility of moving towards any optimism. The language is furthermore controlled and unpretentious, evidencing the Socialist and academic influences on Larkin's writing. Both the poem's title, 'Wants,' and the repetitions of the words 'wish' and 'desire' within the poem are extremely ironic, as the poem is marked by precisely the opposite of 'wants;' it is defined by its utter lack of desire.

In contrast to Larkin's dry monotony is Hughes's 'Egg-Head' a poem that could almost be addressing the narrator of 'Wants,' and, in many ways, Movement poetry as a whole. Hughes's poetic character 'shuts out the world's knocking/ With a welcome, and to wide-eyed deafnesses/ Of prudence lets it speak,' echoing Larkin's narrator's 'wish to be alone,' to shut out every part of life. These 'wide-eyed deafnesses of prudence' can furthermore be equated with the attitude of polite, academic aloofness that Larkin's poetry assumes, an attitude which strives to block out all sense of real suffering, and, in 'Wants,' desires even to block out the occurrences of everyday life. Again, Hughes's 'eggshell' character thinks that it can exist within the sheltered sphere of its metaphorical shell, just as Movement poetry tends to remain within its provincial comfort zone, and Larkin's narrator's 'desire of oblivion' is the same desire that drives Hughes's character, which 'feeds/ On the yolk's dark and hush.' By remaining within its shell and feeding on this yolk, Hughes's 'Egg-Head' believes it can shut out not only the external forces of nature like violence, war, and suffering, but its own internal nature as well. These same beliefs drive Larkin's narrator, who has already sealed himself off, not only from experiencing life around him, but from experiencing his own emotions, refusing to feel any differently towards sex, love, or death than towards 'the artful tensions of the calendar.' This desire to retreat to 'the yolk's dark and hush' is precisely what Larkin's narrator longs for, and precisely what Hughes's poem says is futile.

It is significant that Hughes chooses for his defense mechanism the metaphor of a chick within a shell, as not only is an eggshell exceedingly fragile and easily shattered, but this state of existence within the egg is necessarily a temporary, artificial state. Sooner or later, the chick must either emerge from the shell or die; there is no other option. Hughes's character will be forced to confront nature, and Larkin's cannot succeed at becoming finally alone. The character's 'Braggart-browed complacency in most calm/ Collusion with his own/ Dewdrop frailty,' echoes the utter apathy of Larkin's narrator, whose boredom towards life seems indeed to be in a sort of conspiracy with his own 'dewdrop' frailty, his anesthetized emotional state allowing him a means by which to shut out the world – a means by which to remain in this state despite his own frailty. The 'forgetfulness, madness,' near the beginning of 'Egg-Head' are what Hughes's character attempts to hide behind, and what Larkin's narrator longs for, yet in the end it is the 'fervency to the whelm of the sun' that triumphs.

The differences in diction and structure between the two poems further emphasize these diverging ideals. In contrast to Larkin's straightforward familiar diction, 'Egg-Head' is littered with descriptive words and phrases like 'whaled monsetered sea-bottom,' manslaughtering shocks,' and 'juggleries of benumbing.' While Larkin's language is strictly familiar, Hughes's aggressive and descriptive language works instead to defamiliarize, invoking forces in nature far beyond the scope of everyday life. These descriptions seem especially striking next to the virtual absence of adjectives in 'Wants.' Where 'Wants' tends to pull back, slowing the reader down, Hughes's use of longer, polysyllabic words pulls the poem quickly forward. Further, Hughes repeatedly uses assonance and alliteration throughout the poem, allowing the poem to flow quickly forward. The opening stanza's 'whaled,' 'monstered,' and 'eagled,' also serves to quickly defamiliarize the language. The alliteration of 'complacency,' 'calm,' and 'collusion,' or 'foot-clutch,' 'flea-red Fly-catching fervency' roll off the tongue, again given the poem a rapid forward progression that seems to pull its character forcefully out of 'the yolk's dark hush' even as he wishes to remain there. The poem's very language reminds us that to remain within this shell permanently is impossible.

At first glance it may seem that the poetry of The Hawk in the Rain is inherently pessimistic with its emphasis on violence and suffering. However, the new vitality that it brings to poetry can actually be seen as a breath of optimism and new life after the hopeless apathy of The Movement. While Hughes does not deny the violence and anguish inherent in nature, and believes strongly that the state of civilization is in desperate need of help, still he believes that life is yet worth the urgency and passion. Where the Movement poets espouse 'a shallow denial of human potential for change and development', Hughes's poetry instead works towards exactly this development. The Hawk in the Rain is the first glimpse at a poet whose work would go on to increasingly face these aspects of life, continuing to approach issues of violence, suffering, nature, religion, and, in later works especially, environmental destruction – though traces of this ecocriticism can be found as early as Hawk. By confronting and dealing with these issues, Hughes opens the way for improvement and leaves the reader with an optimism not readily found in the poetry of postwar England.

Ted Hughes

Collected Poems, Faber, 2003

New Selected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1957-1994, 1995

Birthday Letters, Faber & Faber, 1998

Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Faber & Faber, 1992

Winter Pollen, Faber & Faber, 1994

T. Gifford and N. Roberts, Ted Hughes, a Critical Study, Faber & Faber,


K. Sagar, The Art of Ted Hughes, Cambridge U.P., rev. ed. 1978

K. Sagar, ed., The Achievement of Ted Hughes, Manchester U.P., 1983

S. Hirschberg, Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, Wolfhound Press, 1981























Geoffrey Hill by David Levine, from The New York Review of Books



September Song

born 19.6.32 - deported 24.9.42

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.

(I have made
an elegy for myself it
is true)

September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.

This is plenty. This is more than enough.





Poet, essayist, lecturer, and professor of English Literature and Religion, was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a former market town. When he was six years of age, the family moved to nearby Fairfield where he attended primary school. It is an area of England that has been interwoven into much of his poetry and continues to do so in The Orchards of Syon. From the age of seven until he entered university, he was a choir member in the Anglican church.

At Keble College, Oxford, he read English literature. It was there, in 1952, that he published his first poems at the age of twenty - Geoffrey Hill by Fantasy Poets which was edited by the American poet, former teacher, and writer - Donald Hall. About the same time, he published the single poem, "For Isaac Rosenberg", in Isis, a small poetry publication, also edited by Hall. While at Oxford, he worked "independently", and was not involved in either poetry movements, or the views of his "immediate contemporaries."

After graduating from Oxford, he taught at Leeds University from 1954 until 1980,and from where, in 1988, he received an honorary DLitt. During that period, he taught in Michigan, 1959-60, and in 1967, he taught in Nigeria. Before going to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he received a one year Churchill Fellowship, and spent the academic year at the University of Bristol. He was at Emmanuel College from 1981-89.

Since 1997, while still giving public lectures and teaching, four volumes of poetry have been published: Canaan, The Triumph of Love, Speech! Speech! and the Orchards of Syon, with the last three following in very rapid succession of each other since 1999. Style and Faith , a collection of essays, was published in 2003. A further publication, Scenes from Comus, is forthcoming.

Geoffrey Hill has read his poetry and lectured in Russia, Europe, the United States, Canada and India. He is a Fellow of the Warwick Writing Programme at Warwick University, having taught and read at Warwick in 2002. He is currently professor of English Literature and Religion, and co-director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University.

copyright: S. Paul, 2002

Liverpool: University Press, 2000, updated August 23, 2003

From: The Centre for Ted Hughes Studies at:



The praise singer

Robert Potts, Saturday August 10, 2002, The Guardian


Geoffrey Hill's first poems were published when he was a working-class student at Oxford. Dogged by depression for many years, he finally found personal happiness in America. But his new work is as passionately uncompromising as ever


When Geoffrey Hill's Collected Poems were published in 1985, the publisher took some pleasure in running critical reviews up against the positive ones: "unbearable, bullying, intransigent, intolerant, brilliant... mandarin and rarefied... warmth in these poems is like a dying sun seen through a wall of ice". The publisher's blurb concluded that "this poetry... has disturbed the critical consensus for three decades".

Despite the plaudits of such distinguished and diverse writers as George Steiner, Harold Bloom and AN Wilson, Hill seems now, nearly two decades later, still to be disturbing the critical consensus, and to have a more enthusiastic following in the US, where he lives and works in Boston, than in his native England. The irony being that Hill is a profoundly English poet, rooted in the landscape and history of his native country, to which he returns every summer.

Hill was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, in 1932. "If you stood at the top of the field opposite our house," he once recalled, "you looked right across the Severn Valley to the Clee Hills and the Welsh hills very faint and far off behind them." At the age of eight, he witnessed the Nazi bombing which destroyed Coventry.

Hill's work is marked by memories of the war, and contemplations of European history. His father and grandfather were village policemen. Hill identifies himself as working-class - indeed is "glad and proud to have been born into the English working class". He commemorated his maternal grandmother, who had spent her life making nails, in poem XXV of Mercian Hymns : "I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg [a day's work]... It is one thing to celebrate the 'quick forge', another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire."

Hill was educated at Bromsgrove High School. Despite deafness in his right ear from the age of 11 because of severe mastoiditis, he was an excellent student, and although "somewhat apart", in the words of Norman Rea, a contemporary, he played soccer, acted in school plays, and became a prefect.

One of his roles was to introduce a piece of classical music in morning assembly, which, Rea recalled years later, was a task he performed "with enjoyment and aplomb... he demurred only once, in a stage-managed gesture, when he felt that to introduce Danny Kaye's 'Tubby the Tuba', even for educational ends, was rather beneath him. With a sudden, winning smile, he delegated that task to the headmaster." Hill went on to Keble College, Oxford, where he read English, gaining a first.

At Oxford the American poet Donald Hall told him that he was taking over the editorship of the Fantasy Poets series and asked Hill to submit a manuscript. Later, Hall recalled receiving the poems: "I could not believe it. You can imagine reading these poems suddenly in 1952. I was amazed. I remember waking up in the night, putting on the light and reading them again. Of course I published them."

Those poems were eventually gathered in Hill's first volume For the Unfallen. It remains a powerful book, astonishing as a young man's debut; ornate, rhetorical, thematically and stylistically ambitious. "Genesis", the very first poem, takes the Creation myth as its own creative occasion. The poet and critic Anthony Thwaite met Hill at Oxford, at a literary party. He recalls that "I recited a poem; then this youth in the corner stood up and recited 'Genesis'; I felt like Larkin when he met Kingsley Amis, you know, that 'here was a talent greater than my own'."

Hill recalls his time at Oxford with mixed feelings. "Certainly my first year was pretty wretched. Things changed quite significantly when they took my poems for the Fantasy series, and I began to be sought out by other young writers. So by the second year I had made some friends but the first year was awful, awful. I was lonely, desperately out of my depth, socially in particular. It isn't that people set out to intimidate, but if you have a certain temperament you are intimidated by the sheer circumstances."

Hill himself could be an imposing figure. Thwaite describes him as "fascinating; dark, brooding; but also hilariously funny. He would look at you with a toad-like expression, as if he could transmit poison, and then he'd be laughing; he has a wonderful sense of humour. He could appear stand-offish; that's partly his deafness in one ear and partly his apparent sense of social inadequacy, his humble origins as he'd see it; though he's always had a very strong character."

It seems likely that Hill was suffering, for much of his life, from either depression or, as he sees it, "undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can think of no other explanation. The terror of utterance, of committing oneself to anything public... that was mainly how the disorder took shape with me." The condition was treated in the 1990s, when he moved to Boston, initially with lithium, and then with other drugs, though not, as has been suggested, Prozac.

After Oxford, Hill began his career in academia. He says he can't imagine what else he could have done to earn money. Certain professions were closed because of his deafness - the army, the navy - and, he says, "I couldn't follow my father and grandfather and uncles into the police force; no, really, I could only have been a schoolteacher or a don."

Hill became a lecturer at Leeds, where he married Nancy Whittaker in 1956. Two years later the first of their four children, Julian, was born. After For the Unfallen, published in 1958, Hill did not produce another complete book for nearly 10 years: "I just found it incredibly difficult to write in any way that satisfied me. Certainly between about 1959 and 1964 I doubt if I had written more than seven or eight poems."

Hill has written several essays in which he considers the pressures under which certain poets write, including a judicious appraisal of Dryden's negotiation with financial demands and frequent libels. Asked whether the combined demands of academic and family life had left him without the space and leisure to create poems, Hill replies that "I believed that I wrote very little because of the encroachments of duty... but I don't think it can have been that. I think the encroachments were encroachments of chronic anxiety, which also affected my ability to produce criticism and scholarship. I was simply afraid to put down the next sentence. And since 1992, I've been able to write more fluently and easily. Now the malaise has been alleviated the scholarly and critical work and the poems have come more easily."

The poems on which Hill worked throughout the 1960s, culminating in King Log in 1968, were antipathetic to the fashions of that decade; on the one side, the success of Larkin, the Movement poets, or Ted Hughes; on the other, the "pop" and "performance" poets. Hill's Funeral Music is a sequence about the Wars of the Roses; it attempts, as Hill's own note says, "a florid, grim music broken by cries and shrieks... ornate and heartless music broken by mutterings and blasphemies and cries for help".

The heartlessness is not Hill's, though the chilling scrupulosity of its phrasing has sometimes misled casual readers. Hill regards, for example, the battle of Towton (1461) as "a holocaust" which "commands one's belated witness". The violence, horror and hopelessness are captured; the poetry also asks difficult questions about remembrance, aesthetics, martyrdom and witness.

Hill's sense of history and topography were always remarkable. Jon Glover, the poet and editor of the recently revived Stand magazine, was a student of Hill's at Leeds, between 1962 and 1963, and remembers him as "an enormously impressive tutor. Hill's work is described as 'tortured and demanding', but we took it for granted: when you think about the landscape of Yorkshire, you think about Funeral Music, Towton, the pogrom of around 100 Jews at Clifford's Tower in 1190. In the 1960s, in a strange way, we were talking about that sense of language being a product of torture... there was a sense of seriousness about what we were doing with language."

Only three years later, Hill published Mercian Hymns, a sequence of 30 prose poems, combining the life of the eighth-century Mercian ruler, King Offa, with memories of Hill's own childhood in the modern Mercia of the Midlands. Hill had now established himself as one of England's more remarkable poetic talents. Thwaite considers that "Mercian Hymns was the high point [of Hill's English reception]; Ian Hamilton's New Review had a symposium, and a majority of the respondents rated Mercian Hymns as one of the important books of the previous 10 years."

It is a book admired even by Hill's detractors, and by both experimental and mainstream writers. The poet Roy Fisher, whose roots are very close to Hill's in terms of both geography and class, wrote that "it is thought of as tending to make an aesthetico-political sound far to the right of what I'm about. And there is this priestly and hieratic quality which some of the people who like what I like would think of as rather tight and bombastic. I was caught by it very much. The idea of there being a history of quite savage energy which is almost recoverable from the body of Middle England, that seems to me worth looking at and worth exploring."

The note of political disquiet in Fisher's comments has been shared by others. By the 1980s, Hill was being described, by critics including Tom Paulin, as if he was a conservative nationalist and a nostalgic imperialist. In fact he is, one friend believes, " a life-long Labour voter". To account for this aspect of his reception, Hill notes that "in 1978 I was interviewed by the New Statesman when Tenebrae won some sort of prize. The interviewer asked me where my political sympathies lay. And I said - and this sealed my fate - that I greatly admired the 19th-century radical Tories. And yet if one knows anything about the radical Tories of the 19th century - particularly Oastler, who, for example, ameliorated the working conditions of children in factories - some of the noblest work was done by people like him, and I think radical Toryism is a vitally democratic thing. From then on I have been pigeonholed as a right-wing reactionary, chthonic nationalist and imperialist."

The political angle to the criticism persisted even after the 1996 publication of Canaan, where the corruption of the Tory party in the early 1990s is met with forensic contempt: "Where's probity in this - / the slither-frisk/ to lordship of a kind/ as rats to a bird-table?" Today, Hill simply says that "The right-left divide is wholly redundant; there is scarcely any difference I can detect between Blairite Labour and Thatcherite conservatism; they're both utterly materialist from top to bottom."

Hill had become a professor at Leeds in 1976. In 1981 he became a lecturer at Emmanuel Cambridge. His first marriage had broken down in the 1970s, in cirumstances that friends describe as "agonising". It ended in divorce in 1983. Hill still suffered from mental health difficulties that would not be resolved until he went to America in 1988. One description of his demeanour at the time - "walking round Cambridge as if he'd been raped by God" - seems to have passed into folklore. The poet Rodney Pybus, who saw something of Hill around that time, has a different view: "Well, he was very dour at times, but if he thought he was on safe ground he would actually be relaxed, genial, very funny. It's a myth that some Churchillian black dog had him by the throat every day."

Critically, Hill's stature grew enormously while he was at Cambridge, in part because academics such as Christopher Ricks and Eric Griffiths "beat the drum for him", in the words of one former student. Yet, during this period, Hill published only two poems, the second a long sequence on Charles Péguy, the French Catholic intellectual, which invites a difficult contemplation of the relation between poetry and political action, between words and deeds, and the nature of honour.

There was then a considerable period of near silence, though Hill continued to write essays and long reviews, all of them wrestling with precise discriminations of language and ethics. His style is, as one admirer conceded, "treacly". Hill himself regards some of the linguistic agonising of his earlier prose as "neurotic". In fact, the essays do their subjects the courtesy of diligent attention and understanding, while doggedly promoting precisely those qualities. They require a reader's full and slow appreciation.

Late in the 1980s, when Hill was still at Cambridge, he had a heart attack. Last Christmas he had another. He now feels "fitter than I have been for many years". He works out in Boston, spending an hour on an exercise bicycle in a gym, taking a detective story to read while he pedals, followed by a swim. He says that "it's clearly make or break; I had a triple bypass in 1988 - which was very good, as triple bypasses go. But I was very foolish in the way I organised myself - I ate foolishly and took little or no exercise and so on; so this has been a moment of truth and I am taking this whole exercise thing very seriously."

In 1988 he married Alice Goodman, the librettist for John Adams's Nixon in China, among other operas. They have a daughter Alberta, who Hill is clearly "nuts about" according to the poet and translator Alistair Elliot, a contemporary of Hill's and a friend. Hill is unflagging in his admiration for his Jewish-born wife who is now an ordained Anglican priest, maintaining that she is one of the people whose advice on poetry he will always listen to. Hill's recent happiness, which surprises those who see the misery in his work but not the tenderness and wit, must owe as much to his family as to the curing of his disorder.

In the late 1990s, a combination of the freedom granted him by anti-depressants and a sense of impending mortality propelled Hill into producing work much faster: Canaan appeared in 1996, The Triumph of Love in 1998, Speech! Speech! in 2001, and The Orchards of Syon this year. The candour with which he has spoken, in interviews and the poems, about "the signal/ mystery, mercy, of these latter days" granted by the drugs has "of course given ammunition to those who don't like me... they say 'Hill has just turned the tap on and now he can't turn the tap off'".

Canaan did displease critics, in England at least. It is a stern book: its apocalyptic Biblical epigraph, its prophetic tone and its breadth of allusion ran very much against the taste of the time. Critics accused Hill of unearned grandiosity, of being deliberately difficult, of being "inaccessible".

Rodney Pybus thinks that "part of it is fashion; swings and roundabouts. Part of it is an over-emphasis on the aspects which I think struck a lot of poets in the 80s and 90s as being 'reactionary'; Tudor history, and admiration for the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, say. The poetic climate of the 1980s was antipathetic to Hill's enterprise, though; there is much more variety than he's credited with. The critics who slam him for being abstruse, or elitist, are missing so many of the points. I'm as democratic as anyone, but I don't think poetry has to adopt an easy read-it-once-and-throw-it-away approach to be democratic."

The Triumph of Love in 1999 continued to divide critics, some of whom took exception to the fact that the work (a long sequence of 150 poems - the same number as the Psalms) includes within its reflections the very arguments they had with his work. The poem is self-critical, but also rounds on Hill's detractors (whom he conflates within three pseudonyms, "Croker, MacSikker, and Sean O'Shem") and the culture in which they were writing. Some of the ripostes are very funny, self-deprecating and splenetic in the same breath: but some are pure anger, deploying blunt Anglo-Saxon ("Up yours"; "Bugger you MacSikker") in what Hill describes in the poem as "thirty/ vicarious rounds of bare-knuckle".

The book had its admirers too. The Reverend Peter Walker, former Bishop of Ely and a friend, describes The Triumph of Love as "a plea for tenderness". Picking up on Hill's conclusion, that poetry "is a sad and angry consolation", Walker argues that Hill's is "a sad and angry love, that cares passionately; the consolation being the caring itself".

Walker emphasises a side of Hill often overlooked by admirers and detractors alike; Hill is a Christian, with a deep grounding in theological thought, and for him "the English church is a church on the ground, engaged, suffering, not a metaphysical or high-church abstraction". In a recent essay, Hill suggested that giving alms is a more appropriate response to suffering than "declaring solidarity" in a poem. When he writes about Gerard Manley Hopkins, he treats him as a priest first and an artist second, despite his intense admiration for Hopkins's poetic gifts.

Speech! Speech! was still more demanding, deliberately making even fewer concessions to the "accessibility" demanded by his critics. Instead, in 120 sometimes harrowing sections of theology, history, commemoration, autobiography and cultural criticism, the allusions are more wide-ranging and less glossed than before. Peter Walker points to "the sheer specificity of every reference" in Hill's poem, and is irritated by critics who say that Hill "jumbles together" disparate elements. He is also concerned by the failure of some critics to understand Hill's theological references and arguments.

Hill says of the accusation of "inaccessibility" that "the word accessible is fine in its place; that is to say, public toilets should be accessible to people in wheelchairs; but a word that is perfectly in its place in civics or civic arts is entirely out of place, I think, in a wider discussion of the arts. There is no reason why a work of art should be instantly accessible, certainly not in the terms which lie behind most people's use of the word.

"In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings. So much of the populist poetry of today treats people as if they were fools. And that particular aspect, and the aspect of the forgetting of a tradition, go together.

"The poems are not simple diatribe. They are tragi-comic drama. What is unnerving about some of the reaction to them, is that it is as if these people had never encountered tragi-comic drama before. Without trying to elevate my status, if any of these people had read the plays of Ben Jonson, or Pope's Dunciad, if they had any sense of the tradition they'd see that what I'm trying to do - I'm not saying I've succeeded - is to reinvent the tragicomedy of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, certainly in Speech! Speech!"

Jon Glover agrees: "He's always been conscious of poetry as performance. A lot of the academic criticism of his work is detailed scholarship, and that's fine, but the impression I have from his earliest poetry is that it's enormously dramatic; I can hear those voices as I read the poems. In that sense he was always a performer, and now he's become a very funny one."

Speech! Speech! also contains a number of poems about the Biafran war. During the 1960s, Hill spent a brief period teaching in Nigeria shortly before the war which divided the country and ended with the mass starvation of the Biafran people. There he met the poet Christopher Okigbo, who later joined the Biafran forces and was killed in a skirmish. "I thought: what a dreadful waste. It was a bloody and terrible thing."

Hill commemorates Okigbo, a talented and erudite poet, in one of a series of "praise songs". Another figure Hill praises is Colonel Fajuyi, who died refusing to surrender a guest to the Igbo coup leaders in 1966. "Fajuyi is for me the heart of the matter; he behaved nobly in the midst of total moral chaos. I'm fairly old-fashioned in the qualities I admire - simple courage, simple dignity. When I arrived in Nigeria in January '67, a month or two after the assassination of Fajuyi, the radio was broadcasting praise-songs for him. And I took very much to the idea, so certain sections of Speech! Speech! (and of The Triumph of Love) are praise songs. And I wouldn't say that I meant much more than that; but I do seem to seize on figures who seem exemplary to me, and what I believe I know of Fajuyi is worth a praise-song or two... Everyone says how negative I am, and I don't think I am, I think I'm very positive, and I love to praise, I love to admire."

Hill's latest book, The Orchards of Syon , is published in the UK next month. It is a more reconciled work, full of the detailed descriptions of landscape for which he has always been admired. Hill's work will never be fashionable but it is a corpus of such passionate seriousness and ethical thought, its every phrase written with a consciousness of the weight of history and language, that it is hard to imagine it ever being ignored.


Life at a glance and Reading

Geoffrey Hill
June 18 1932, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England.
Education: Fairfield Junior School; County High School, Bromsgrove; Keble College, Oxford.
Married: 1956 Nancy Whittaker (three sons - Julian '58, Andrew '61, Jeremy '63; one daughter Bethany '67), (marriage dissolved '83); '87 Alice Goodman (one daughter Alberta '87).
Career: 1976-'80 Professor of English literature, University of Leeds;'81-'88 university lecturer in English, University of Cambridge; '88- Boston University: university professor and professor of literature and religion; co-director of Editorial Institute.
Some criticism: 1984 The Lords of Limit: Essays on Literature and Ideas; '91 The Enemy's Country: Words, Contexture, and other Circumstances of Language; (forthcoming) 2003 Style and Faith.
Poetry: 1958 For the Unfallen; '68 King Log; '71 Mercian Hymns; '78 Tenebrae; '83 The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy; '85 Collected Poems; '96
Canaan; '99 The Triumph of Love; 2000 Speech! Speech!; '02 The Orchards of Syon.





A matter of timing

Mercian Poet Geoffrey Hill on how he creates 'beautiful energy' in his work
The Guardian, Saturday September 21, 2002

I turned 70 in June and have been cheered by a Blake quotation received from a well-wisher: "In [the Imagination] I am stronger & stronger as this Foolish Body decays."

At one point in The Orchards of Syon (XXIII), I say "I write/ to astonish myself". This self-astonishment is achieved when, by some process I can't fathom, common words are moved, or move themselves, into clusters of meaning so intense that they seem to stand up from the page, three-dimensional almost.

The main landscapes of the new book are two that I know well: the Bromsgrove area of Worcestershire where I was born and grew up and the valley of the River Hodder in north-east Lancashire. There are also a few New England touches here and there.

In strong contrast to the previous collection, Speech! Speech!, the new book is concerned with forms and patterns of reconciliation - not the easiest of states to move into, so there are numerous lapses and relapses throughout the sequence. It is about depth of memory and broken memory, but that could be said of all my poetry, most particularly perhaps of The Triumph of Love (1998). The cultivation of depths of memory I see as a civic duty as well as a private burden and consolation.

Depths of memory relate to depth of language in some way; and to speak of depth of language raises questions of accessibility. Some years ago I came across a note by the German philosopher Theodor Haecker (1889-1945). He writes that "Tyrants always want a language and literature that is easily understood." I think that legitimate difficulty (difficulty of course can be faked) is essentially democratic.

It is to be hoped - I mean, I hope - that the poetry I have been writing since 1992 squares up to, takes the measure of, weighs up, the violent evasions and stock affronts of the oligarchy of fraud. I don't, even so, write poems to be polemical; I write to create a being of beautiful energy. So, I admit, did Edgar Allan Poe.

For this creating to take place (as it does from time to time) words have to be accepted as heirs of their forebears, as we are of ours. And in each case, what exists is often only a bankrupt inheritance; or the hinterlands of the unspoken.

In my childhood the word "cancer" could not be said aloud; it was mouthed silently. In my own approach to language, that aspect of fraught mime is as significant to me as are the history and contexts of etymology.

I think that I've learnt as much from Daumier, Hylda Baker and Frankie Howerd as I have from John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the end it is a matter of timing and facial gesture - especially gestures with the mouth - and finesse of silences. If I'm asked how you get bodily gesture into the rhythm and syntax of poetic speech, I answer that we can hear and see it in poets as diverse as Wyatt, Donne, Dryden and Hopkins.

The physical is important to me although - or because - I'm a physically awkward person. The irruption of spoken questions and demands breaks into my thinking self like a physical blow. Teaching - if I last through September 2004 I will have been in that job 50 years - has always been a psychosomatic drain.

Writing is a basic physical thing for me. I use either "Beginners" or "Exercise" pencils on yellow "legal-pad" paper - as I am doing now. A patient friend transfers the results on to disc.

My concern is not with "accessibility" so much as with the "naked thew and sinew of the English language", as Hopkins names it. An achieved poem is always beautiful in its own way, though such a way will many times strike people as harsh and repellent.





"Not least among Geoffrey Hill's curious virtues as a poet is that in reading him we have no sense of an art other than his own: also that in re-reading him our sight goes more and more through the glass into the kingdom beyond, taking in further movements and features, in ever greater detail." - John Bayley, Geoffrey Hill: Essays on his Work (1985)

"Strong poetry is always difficult, and Geoffrey Hill is the strongest British poet now active, though his reputation in the English-speaking world is somewhat less advanced than that of several of his contemporaries." - Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hill (1986)

"Geoffrey Hill may be the strongest and most original English poet of the second half of our fading century, although his work is by no means either easy or very popular. Dense, intricate, exceedingly compact, his poetry has always had great visionary force." - John Hollander, The Los Angeles Times (20.9.1998)

"Hill's work has always been difficult, a resistantly private art weighted with literary allusion." - Langdon Hammer, The New York Times Book Review (17.1.1999)

"Hill is a moralist, and a severe one. He is not much given to metaphysics, or interrogations of Nature. He deals with the world on the understanding that it has already taken certain social and cultural forms, good and more often bad. Laus et vituperatio are civic acts, moral and political: they take the world otherwise for granted, it is what it appears to be, given, primary, objective. The question now is: How to live, what to do ? What is a writer's obligation ?" - Denis Donoghue, The New York Review of Books (20.5.1999)

"Hill's poetry for nearly half a century has defined the limit of modernist allusiveness. Can he take the benefits of opacity and then complain when misunderstood ?" - William Logan, Parnassus (2000)

"But no reader of Hill could have predicted, in 1994, that in the next eight years he would publish almost as much work as in the previous forty, that his style would be brutally re-made and the whole shape of his achievement transformed. (...) (I)t is not the case that Hill has become a tamer or more ingratiating poet. But now one can come to grips, as never before, with the kind of poet he really is." - Adam Kirsch, The New Republic (27.5.2002)

"If in his racy, eclectic language and in his wide range of reference he is plainly postmodern, in his themes he evokes comparison with the great modernists W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. (...) As a philosophical poet, Hill may not be at the level of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (not to mention Goethe or Dante), and not just because he lacks their degree of systematic clarity. But he is perhaps the best our "mean unpropitious time" affords, and that is saying a lot." - Thomas L. Jeffers, Commentary (6/2002)

"Hill is one of those poets, along with Jeremy Prynne and Mark Ford, whose poems are most often about how difficult it is to read them. In Hill's work, this takes on a moral charge. The thing that upsets him most is inattention, and a failure to honour the dead. (...) Maybe this is why so many readers approach his work with awe and feel humbled by him. Critics queue up to say, unequivocally, that he is the best poet working in English." - Tom Payne,  Daily Telegraph, 2002

"In reading his last collection The Orchards of Syon I was startled to realize that Hill has been writing his incomparable poetry for over fifty years now and that each new book of his has been a fresh, and sometimes unexpected, triumph. The combination of immaculate poetic skill with intense originality is always rare, and never more so than in our diminished age. Perhaps this explains why Hill has been so largely ignored by the purveyors of accolades and fat cash awards; while bevies of mediocrities stagger under their unmerited laurels, Hill continues to compose his grave, raucous, piercing, and marmoreal lyrics, drawing on a huge range of reference to many cultures and languages from antiquity to the present." - Eric Ormsby,  The New Criterion, 2003