It's probably not surprising that a poet who could write a "Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings", or three exquisitely elegiac sonnets evoking the subtleties of "British India" should find himself persistently underrated in today's stridently multicultural Britain.
Surely, such subjects are admissible only when issuing smug denunciations? The "Requiem" appeared in Geoffrey Hill's first collection, For the Unfallen, of 1958, the sonnets in his Tenebrae of 1978 and three decades later, their beauty still astonishes. Nor are they, we now can see, quite what their titles suggested. The second sonnet on British India concludes:
The flittering candles of the wayside
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts
Krishna from Radha lovingly
Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their
The alien conscience of our days is
among the ruins and on endless roads.
Hill himself has represented something of an "alien conscience" during his long and increasingly prolific career as a poet. He has stood apart not only from manifestoes and from movements — including his contemporaries in The Movement — but from stylistic trends and fashions. Alhough he has the entire tradition of English verse at his fingertips and plays on it with consummate virtuosity, it is difficult to identify any unmistakable precursor. He is as indebted to Shakespeare and Milton as he is to Eliot or Pound, all of whom he somehow manages simultaneously both to acknowledge and to encompass. But this hasn't been a shrewd career move. A poet as unabashedly learned as Hill is "elitist". His poetry is tissued not only with a vast range of reference to many literary traditions and their languages — French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Spanish, among others — but he makes no concessions to the reader. As he has said, he respects the reader's intelligence too much to do so. All this may help to account for the fact that for the 18 years he spent in the US as a professor at Boston University, from 1988 to 2006, he remained relatively obscure. Hill does not "network", he does not lend his name to blurbs, he refuses acolytes — again, hardly shrewd practice among the preening poetic careerists who largely dominate what Americans like to call "the world of poetry". It says more about that little "world" than about Hill's poetry that in his final years there, he was unable to find a publisher for his work.