Geoffrey Hill joined the staff of the Department of English Literature in 1954. During a teaching career at Leeds spanning almost three decades, he came to know all but one of the Gregory Fellows in Poetry, and taught a number of students who went on to become successful poets.
Geoffrey Hill was born in 1932 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. He attended Friarfield Junior School and Bromsgrove County High School; and went on to read English at Keble College, Oxford. He graduated with a first class honours degree in 1953, embarking upon a teaching career that has included posts at the Universities of Leeds, Cambridge and Boston. His first poems were published in a Fantasy Press pamphlet in 1952, whilst he was still an undergraduate. In the same year, his poem 'For Isaac Rosenberg' was published in Isis. His interest in war poetry, and Rosenberg in particular, is one that he shared with Jon Silkin.
Hill was appointed to a lectureship in the Department of English Literature at the University of Leeds in 1954, a post for which he was recommended by the poet John Heath-Stubbs, himself an Oxford graduate and Gregory Fellow in Poetry at the time. His first full-length poetry collection, For the Unfallen, was published in 1959 when Hill was 27. He was awarded an Eric Gregory Trust Fund Award in 1961, which enabled him to take a term off from teaching in 1962 in order to write.(1) His next full collection, King Log, was not published until 1968, although in the intervening period his poems continued to appear in little magazines, including Agenda and Jon Silkin's Stand. In 1964 Hill's Preghiere was one of the first three publications in the Northern House Pamphlet Poets series, produced by Silkin and Andrew Gurr from the Department of English at Leeds. His next major collection, Mercian Hymns, was published in 1971.
As well as teaching and lecturing, Hill was instrumental in the establishment of the Department of English Literature's Poetry Room, becoming its first director when it opened in December 1962. From its earliest days, the Leeds Poetry Room was engaged in making audio recordings of poets reading from their own works, and exchanging recordings with the British Council's Recorded Sound Section and the Poetry Room at Harvard University. A recording of Hill reading poems from his collection For the Unfallen was amongst the first to be sent out from Leeds in May 1963. Hill resigned as Director of the Poetry Room in 1968, but continued to act in an advisory capacity to the Poetry Room Committee.
In 1973, the composer James Brown, a member of staff in the Department of Music, approached Hill regarding the possibility of collaborating on a choral work to mark the University of Leeds' centenary in 1975. Hill agreed to the proposal and between October 1973 and February 1974 wrote words for a cantata, which was titled Ad Incensum Lucernae.
Leeds University Library, Special Collections MS 420. James Brown, Cantata: Ad Incensum Lucernae (1976)
Brown thoroughly enjoyed working with Hill's text, describing it as "thrilling and rewarding to work on."(2) The cantata was performed at the University's centenary concert in Emmanuel Church on 5 February 1975.
Hill's words for Ad Incensum Lucernae were later worked into 'Tenebrae,' the title poem of a collection published in 1978 which won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. Other awards won by Hill for poetry during his time in Leeds include the Hawthornden Prize (1969), the Faber Memorial Prize (1970), the Whitbread Award (1971) and the Heinemann Award (1972).
Hill was made a Professor of English Literature at Leeds in 1976, and continued to teach at the University until 1981, when he took up an appointment at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. During nearly three decades at Leeds, he came into contact with all but one of the Gregory Fellows (James Kirkup); he collaborated with the last Gregory Fellow in Poetry, Paul Mills, on the poem 'Plowland'; and taught a number of students who went on to become successful poets including Tony Harrison, James Simmons, Ken Smith and Jon Glover. (3) In 1977, when the future of the Gregory Fellowships came under the scrutiny of the University's Planning Committee, Hill was amongst those consulted. In a letter to the Committee, he commented "The existence of a Fellow in one field, attached to one particular School or Department confers general benefits upon the University and upon the community as a whole." (4) He also referred to the importance of the Fellowship to the poets who held them, remarking "One hesitates to speak of 'a Leeds School of Poets' ... Nevertheless ... one notes a quite striking number of creative writers who have been students at this University since the inception of the Poetry Fellowship."
During his time at Cambridge, Hill published The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1983), and a collection of critical essays, The Lords of Limit (1984). A volume of Collected Poems was issued in 1985. In 1988, Hill left Britain to take up the post of Professor of English Literature and Religion at Boston University. He has continued to write and publish, producing two volumes of critical essays and nine volumes of poetry (including a new Selected Poems (2006)) since the early 1990s, as well as contributing to literary magazines and other periodicals. He has continued to lecture abroad, and in January 2006 returned to the University of Leeds to deliver the Oliver Goldsmith Lecture. He retired in August 2006.