geoffrey hill

I admire Geoffrey Hill and his work (especially Mercian Hymns). I had the wonderful opportunity to study with him in the 1990s at Boston University, and I consider the experience — learning about Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sir Thomas Wyatt, John Dowland etc. — a highpoint of my grad school career.

But when I opened the pages of the newest issue of the TLS, I was also reminded of the times we’d sit in class and wait for him while he smashed a trivial detail with the full, devastating weight of his intellect.  (He would probably take a pencil to that last sentence of mine and scratch in the margins, “Sir, no detail is ever trivial. Every detail is moral.”)

…which brings me to his TLS piece, a review of a biography about Charles Williams, extraordinary fantasist (whose work is less known than his Inkling peers, Tolkien and Lewis), poet, and literary critic (for me, The Figure of Beatrice is essential reading for any Dantist, professional or otherwise).

Hill begins his treatment thus:

I welcome the appearance of this book though not unreservedly.

Ok, so far. Then, however, in sentence two, he lays into the biography’s subtitle.

“The Third Inkling” is a lobbyist’s phrase and implies that Oxford University Press’s publicity office lacks faith in the viability of its product; very much as the BBC, with catch-penny titles such as Poetry, Please and A Good Read reduces major writing to the level of polite entertainment…

Publishers lobby on behalf of books, Professor, and so do teachers.  (Well, not all of them.)

The inference to be drawn is that a nobody (Charles Williams) must have a bunch of celebrities (Inklings) in close support in order to get what is called a “hearing.”

It is an association, Professor, that’s all.  Why are you beating up on the publicists?  The subtitle is an attempt to catch some browser’s eye in the local bookstore before they reach for something else.  Publishers don’t have the luxury of living in ivory towers.  What happens to a publishing house that does?  It goes out of business.

The piece is a good one — as Hill’s always are — and it honors a writer deserving of far more recognition.

Still, I’m boggled by Hill’s obsession with publicity-office motivations and how much this carries through the entire piece.  There is so much to Williams — why use this as the taking-off point for a major piece?  What a waste of space!

But I can only imagine what would have happened to the poor editor at TLS who suggested cutting everything  before paragraph four.  He/she would’ve felt Hill’s glare right through the phone lines.



  1. “Every detail is moral.” I need to sit with that for awhile. Take it in. Believe it. Hold steadfast to that truth in the face of those who would assert otherwise.

  2. That’s definitely what Hill would say. Even a dropped comma or a misspelled word is further evidence of Eve listening to the serpent in Eden. I remember it well. Every class with him was exhilarating (even when he bludgeoned an idea to death).

  3. I remember reading Charles Williams and liking his work. I’m pretty sure I found Williams in the British Library when I lived in Mexico City. Something with Lion in the title and The Descent of the Dove. It’s been a while though. (no doubt ((hopefully)) Hill would approve of my using a while instead of awhile…). I’m sort of prone to curmudgeons, so no doubt I now need to search Geoffrey Hill….

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