The Burden of Authentic Expression in the Later Poetry of Geoffrey Hill

Jack Baker


Geoffrey Hill’s later work is increasingly concerned with the authenticity of the poet’s civic voice, and with the extent to which persuasive lyricism is at odds with the apprehension of moral truth. This concern provokes in his poetry a fierce, at times anguished obsession with the possibilities and limitations of language. Hill’s determination to forge an authentic and autonomous idiom, even as he acknowledges the essential “otherness” and intractability of language, underlies the strenuous difficulty that has characterised his work from the publication of Speech! Speech! in 2000. But, whereas many of Hill’s peers, from John Ashbery to J.H. Prynne, revel in linguistic indeterminacy, the poet-figure in Hill’s recent work emerges as one who strives to resurrect language, to preserve its capacity for “eloquence and apprehension” against the destructive tendencies of the age (CCW 349). These semantic preoccupations inform a broader anxiety about the public role of a poet in the modern world. Can he still aspire to the status of Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators”, or has this aspiration since been undermined by Yeats’ dictum that “[w]e have no gift to set a statesman right” (Shelley 233, Yeats, MW 72)? Hill’s own acknowledgement of his diminished influence is coterminous with his refusal to accommodate popular whim, so that the authenticity of his verse as public utterance derives precisely from its difficulty, its anti-materialism and its resilient heterodoxy. 

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