Outside, a waterfall from a blocked gutter flowed down the kitchen window. Three sodden and rather stately sheep trooped by in single file. Geoffrey looked at me across the table and nodded with satisfaction. "I love weather like this," he said, "Don't you?"
I nodded back. You don't, after all, buy a farmhouse halfway up a Welsh hillside for the joys of perpetual sunshine. He finished his coffee and picked up one of the black notebooks in which he writes his poetry. "I am," he sighed, "very, very tired."
Geoffrey Hill, England's greatest living poet, published his first pamphlet of verse in 1952 while an undergraduate at Oxford University. Now, in his old age, he is writing with intense urgency and concentration. His Collected Critical Writings (2008) recently won the prestigious Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. The news that he had allowed his name to go forward as a candidate for election to the next Chair of Poetry at Oxford saw almost 50 senior academics pledge their immediate support.
Geoffrey Hill: Supreme voice
"If you sit up half the night writing, you're bound to be tired," I replied, unsympathetically. "Why do you do it?"
He did not, he replied, have any option. "At my age, you know you haven't got that long and I am trying, I suppose, to make up for those long periods of time when I was unable to write."
Those blank periods are a matter of public record: serious health problems, severe depression, a move from Leeds, where he had taught for 26 years, to Cambridge. In 1988, he was invited to join the University Professors Program at Boston University. He published just one book of poetry, The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy, between 1978 and 1997. Finally, in 2006, he retired. "Fifty-two years of university teaching," he once said to me, rather ruefully, "It must be some kind of record."
Make up for it he most certainly has. In the last three years, Hill has completed four unpublished books of poems and is currently working on a fifth. Could he, I asked, say something about the genesis and nature of these late poems?
- The Legacy of John Maynard Keynes
- Was Crucifixion a Jewish Penalty?
- Sweet Crude
- Four New Poems
- Two New Poems
- My Five Husbands
- Spain (With Apologies to Auden)
- A Ballad of Bo-oz and Ruth
- The True Origins of the Royal Academy
- Three New Poems By Ruth Padel
- A Sequence of Seven Poems by Blake Morrison
- Annunciation: A new poem by Anthony Thwaite
- Irwin Isaac Meiselman
- An Open Letter to Günter Grass
- Pauline Maria 1965-2008
- The New Intolerance
- Democracy in Danger: The Origins of European Technocracy
- New Poetry
- Spain and the Conquest of China