Fare Thee Well, Professor Hill

Yesterday evening Geoffrey Hill delivered his final lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry. If the reports coming in on social media are anything to go by it was a characteristically vital, vexing and invigorating critical event. Indeed, his praise for Christopher Ricks (his predecessor in office) could now just as well be applied to himself: ‘He combines the resources gained from a formidable breadth of reading, a process begun in early youth, with a wonderful delicacy of ear, and an exquisite, at times deadly, accuracy of phrase.’ I was lucky enough to be in attendance at his lecture of November 2011 after which I wasted no time in disseminating handouts of choice quotations to my students. Since that time I have been so grateful to have the podcasts of so many of the lectures to download and listen to as I go about daily life: the delight has been endless. My baby son was captivated by Hill’s rendition of the folk song ‘Fare Thee Well’ (as part of his lecture of 10 March 2015) and every one of Hill’s riveting performances as Oxford Professor has been charged with statements that have made me want to rise to my feet and applaud. He has stretched us all and has, through his own exacting readings and ruminations, given us all so much to think about, so much to read, re-read and reflect on. My review of his Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952 – 2012 is due to appear in Poetry Ireland Review this month, but I couldn’t let the occasion of his final appearance as Professor pass without putting together a compilation of some of my most-cherished pronouncements from his time on the podium. The following are from his inaugural lecture ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester’ delivered on 30 November 2010:

‘Do poets approach language as the neutral instrument for confessional themes – on occasion, themes of perjury – or do they, in the very act of writing, manifestly reveal language itself, particularly language twisted into poetic shapes, as a substance of imagination radically perjured?’


‘”Since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.” I love that so much I’ll read it again: “Since our erected wit makes us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.” It seems to me one of the crucial literary-theological statements of that period of the sixteenth century. Certain of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including all of those from which I have quoted, strike us both as the demonstration of “infected will” – which uses the particular vehicle of “erected wit”, that is to say, the sonnet structure – and it is also the indissoluble union of the one with the other. It is the marriage of true minds; in the sense that topos must be of one being with technique. Thought is to be made manifest in structure.’


‘I am a traumatised old man, and my opinions on the matter of poetry in English, particularly contemporary poetry, are decidedly peculiar. I do not have any great desire to encourage the presence of contemporary writing in the university because I believe that contemporary poetry already receives far more encouragement than is good for it.’


‘Blackmur wrote in 1935, and I regard it as one of the great modern, or Modernist, formulations of what poetry is:

‘”The art of poetry”, he says, “is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom. Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality.”

My God, if only I could have written that!’

‘If I were to offer anything to the conventional young poet (apart from the proverbial revolver and a bottle of brandy) I would say: Don’t try to be sincere, don’t try to express your inmost feelings, but do try to be inventive.’

‘The craft of poetry is not a spillage but an in-gathering; relevance and accessibility strike me as words of very slight value. I have written elsewhere that accessibility is a perfectly good word if the matter under discussion concerns supermarket aisles, library stacks or public lavatories, but has no proper place in discussion of poetry or poetics. Poetry of the new millennium is as it is because of what English poetry has been during preceding centuries and a degree of humility when faced with that fact would not come amiss from our latest celebrities.’

‘What is needed from a contemporary critical mind that has both depth and reach of a capacity that few have at any given time but which Ricks has demonstrated super-abundantly, is an analysis of how the skim of contemporary culture relates to, is inextricably part of, the gigantic scam of our times: the bankers’ scam, the Blair-Brown scam, the coalition scam, the big society scam, the education scam, the national happiness scam.

“And gilded honour shamefully misplaced.”‘



About Maria Johnston

Mother of two and freelance writer with a Phd in English Literature
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