Geoffrey Hill is often deemed to be the most important poet working in English today. That accolade was being bestowed as far back as the early 1970s, when Seamus Heaney was already up and running. There was everybody else, one understood - and then there was Geoffrey Hill, whose eminence seemed bound up with the fact that his work was characteristically cryptic.Unlike the work of Heaney or Kavanagh, his poems did not afford easy gaps in the hedge to allow you get into the field.
But the poem people tended to recommend, In Memory of Jane Fraser, was not hard to take at all. The poem described the death of an old woman who insisted on living – and eventually dying - alone in a harsh winter, somewhere in rural England. The four-verse poem was extraordinarily vivid in its array of images, and the second stanza went as follows: She kept the siege. And every day/We watched her brooding over death/Like a strong bird above its prey./The room filled with the kettle’s breath.
If he could be as accessible and coldly beautiful as he was in In Memory of Jane Fraser, there must have been good reason for giving Hill - who was born in Worcestershire in 1932 - a fair chance. This, despite the fact that deciphering his work required an exceptional degree of patience and the kind of diligent attention that was beyond most of us UCD undergraduates.
When you eventually got around to reading Hill, you learned that he was steeped in the history and lore of Anglo-Saxon England, the Arthurian sagas, Merlin and later medievalism ("kitsch feudalism" Tom Paulin would describe such preoccupations of the poet.)
Despite the deliberate use of archaic language in many instances, the work also had contemporary, unsettling edges, where the bright present jolted suddenly against the pallor of centuries past. Yet the poems seemed to hover sometimes above, like clouds, unhinged to any era.
This new collection, edited by Kenneth Haynes, runs to almost 1,000 pages, and includes four books – Ludo, Expostulations on the Volcano, Liber Illustrium Virorum and Al Tempo de Treuoti - that have never appeared before in print. In recent decades, Hill has been extraordinarily prolific.
Reviewing this self-same book recently in The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard, while obviously very interested in Geoffrey Hill, couldn’t resist being cheeky. “From the word go, Hill gave some of his readers problems with his style, “ Lezard wrote, “which, to use the most boring word about it, is "difficult", and there was some small, perplexed part of me that hoped one of the reasons this book is so big is that the answers are printed in the back.” Ouch.