The central question of this thesis is: how does the politically-charged and spiritually-inflected poetry of Geoffrey Hill draw on the work of poetic predecessors? Hill has proved a contentious figure, accused of being reactionary, parasitic, and elitist, as well as lauded as the greatest living poet in the English language. The controversy surrounds his politics, Christian faith, and poetic influences.
At the root of Hill’s poetics, faith, and politics is the imperative for contemporary poetry to constitute a “memorising” and a “memorialising” of the dead (“Language, Suffering, and Silence” 405). His poetry witnesses to the dead through allusion, echo, and quotation: he revisits, revises, and re-envisages the work of precursor poets, especially T.S. Eliot and John Milton.
The extent of Hill’s debt to Eliot’s poetry, literary criticism, and social and political theory is one cause of contention. Echoing Eliot’s self-description as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” (For Lancelot Andrewes vii), Hill calls himself “an Anglo-Catholic conservative” (“Between Politics and Eternity” 331). Such a self-characterisation invokes all three areas of controversy: his Anglican faith, his seemingly conservative politics, and his debt to Eliot.
Yet Hill’s politics and faith are not as clear-cut as his self-characterisation suggests. He also calls himself a “sort of Ruskinian Tory” and expresses admiration for “the whole Radical Tory Tradition” (interview with Jessica Campbell; interview with John Haffenden 86). I suggest that Hill’s political thought is more radical than has been represented by critics on both sides of the question of Hill’s literary merit: those who praise and those who condemn. Radicalism calls to the roots of things and, although occasionally employing quotations from other languages, Hill’s poetry is grounded firmly in the English-language poetic tradition. Thus, Hill is a poet of tradition and change, of rediscovering the roots of contemporary poetry and pulling up by the roots the canonical.
John Lyon’s cogent assessment of the controversy surrounding Hill’s poetry and criticism, that “there is something wrong with Geoffrey Hill” (11), inspires the premise of this thesis: for Hill, poetry and politics together form a cracked mirror of the Divine which reflects the simultaneously “fallen” and “noble” state of humanity (interview with Carl Phillips). Both Hill’s poetry and humankind as he sees it are “fallen” – their roots reaching towards the chthonic – and “noble”: with their roots in Eden.