Geoffrey Hill, recognized as one of the foremost English-language poets of his time, who disdained the prevailing style of confessional poetry, choosing instead to use his forceful, solidly built verse to examine age-old moral and historical concerns, died June 30 at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 84.
His death was announced by Emmanuel College of the University of Cambridge, where Mr. Hill had taught, and by his wife, Alice Goodman. The cause was not disclosed, but he had a history of heart ailments.
Mr. Hill announced his uncompromising arrival on the poetry stage in 1959 with the opening lines of his first book, “For the Unfallen”: “Against the burly air I strode / Crying the miracles of God.”
He cultivated a style that was often called difficult and allusive, as he borrowed phrases from ancient and modern languages to write poems that seemed to be hewn from stone. Mr. Hill could not be called popular, but over time he came to be widely esteemed.
In the 1990s, poet Donald Hall called Mr. Hill “the best English poet of the 20th century” — placing him above such luminaries as W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. When Mr. Hill’s 992-page “Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012,” was published in 2013, critic Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian, “If the phrase ‘greatest living poet in the English language’ has any meaning, we should use it now.”
One of Mr. Hill’s best-known volumes was “Mercian Hymns” (1971), in which he dug into deep veins of British medieval history while reflecting on elements of his childhood. Yet, in almost willful defiance of the norms of his time, his poetry could seldom be called revealing.
“I don’t regard the poem as a lyrical extension of my personality, as a stream of ectoplasm issuing from one’s psyche,” he told The Washington Post in 1999. “I regard it as much more akin to drama.”
Mr. Hill’s poems were carefully polished but were never an easy read. He composed his words with an exacting sense of high purpose, addressing such complex topics as war, religion and the pull of the past.
Viewed from different angles, each line could yield multiple meanings. In “Funeral Music,” a poem from the 1960s, he wrote:
“At noon, / As the armies met, each mirrored the other; / Neither was outshone. So they flashed and vanished / And all that survived them was the stark ground / Of this pain.”
The poem was ostensibly about the 15th-century War of the Roses, but it could apply to almost any war, including World War II, which was seared indelibly in Mr. Hill’s memory from Nazi bombing raids he had witnessed while growing up in northern England.
“Certainly his poems, steeped in history, blood and ambiguity, make some tough demands on the reader,” Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote in 1994, “but they also display such burnish, such sensuality and coiled force that by comparison most other verse looks pale, undernourished and unimportant.”
Geoffrey William Hill was born June 18, 1932, in Bromsgrove, England. His father was a police constable.
Mr. Hill became enamored of poetry as a child and graduated from the University of Oxford in 1953. He was strongly influenced by, among others, the American poets John Berryman and Allen Tate.
He taught Shakespeare and other literature courses at the University of Leeds from 1954 to 1980, then spent several years at Cambridge before serving on the faculty of Boston University from 1988 to 2010.
For many years, Mr. Hill had a meager output, publishing a scant 200 pages’ worth of verse from 1952 to 1994, when his first volume of collected poetry appeared. After moving to Boston, however, he remarried and received treatment for what he discovered was chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
From the mid-1990s to 2013, he published no fewer than a dozen books of poetry, plus three collections of essays. From 2010 to 2015, he held the prestigious post of Oxford professor of poetry.
Throughout his career, Mr. Hill was considered forbiddingly intellectual and exuded the air, even in appearance, of an Old Testament prophet. His views on religious faith and the lessons of history were ambivalent, at best, yet some of his fellow poets dismissed Mr. Hill’s hard-to-grasp poetry as culturally conservative and maddeningly retrograde.
“Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms?” he asked in a 1999 interview with the Paris Review. “I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.”
His marriage to Nancy Whittaker ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1988, Alice Goodman, an Anglican priest and the librettist of the John Adams operas “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer”; four children from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage, and four grandchildren.
In his later poems, Mr. Hill sometimes wrote in a looser, less rigorous style than in his earlier work, but his descriptions and analogies ranged widely across history, science and other realms of experience.
“Whatever may be meant by ‘moral landscape,’” he wrote in “The Triumph of Love” (1998), “it is for me increasingly a terrain / seen in cross-section: igneous, sedimentary, / conglomerate, metamorphic rock-strata, in which particular grace, / individual love, decency, endurance, / are traceable across the faults.”
Then, just when he appeared ready to part the curtain on the mystery of his art, Mr. Hill remained elusive and tough-minded.
I ask you:
what are poems for? They are to console us
with their own gift, which is like perfect pitch.
Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation.