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Geoffrey Hill and his Contexts


Edited By Piers Pennington and Matthew Sperling

Geoffrey Hill is one of the most significant poets currently at work in the English language. The essays gathered in this book present a number of new contexts in which to explore a wide range of his writings, from the poems he wrote as an undergraduate to the recent volumes A Treatise of Civil Power (2007) and Collected Critical Writings (2008). Connections are made between the early and the later poetry, and between the poetry and the criticism, and archival materials are considered along with the published texts. The essays also make comparisons across disciplines, discussing Hill’s work in relation to theology, philosophy and intellectual history, to literature from other languages, and to the other arts. In doing so, they cast fresh light upon Hill’s dense, original and sometimes challenging writings, opening them up in new ways for all readers of his work.


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Kathryn Murphy - Hill’s Conversions 61


Kathryn Murphy Hill’s Conversions In a sermon preached on Ash Wednesday 2008 at Trinity College, Cam- bridge, Geof frey Hill spoke, appropriately, on Christian repentance. He approached his topic via Reformation semantic disputes, beginning with a debate between Thomas More and William Tyndale on whether the Greek word μετάνοια, frequent in the New Testament, should be trans- lated ‘penance’ or ‘repentance’. Rather than entering the lists on either side, Hill instead approved their alertness to verbal distinction, and the intimate interconnection of matters linguistic and doctrinal in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English: ‘our language at that time could sustain nuance and fine distinction in ways not now sustainable or understood. Who now cares for the authority of metanoia or whether it is translated as penance or repentance?’1 The modern failings are twofold: a lack of ethical sensitivity and recognition of the necessity of penitence; and a failure of responsibility and discrimination in the use of words. One answer to the rhetorical question – who cares? – is, of course, Geof frey Hill. The OED’s compound definition of metanoia in part confirms Hill’s complaint at modern semantic laxity, by eliding the nuance of the dispute: ‘The act or process of changing one’s mind…spec. penitence, repentance; reorientation of one’s way of life, spiritual conversion’.2 For More and Tyn- dale, penitence and repentance were not equivalent, the former implying a Catholic ceremonial duty, the latter a Lutheran internalisation of guilt. 1 Geof frey Hill, Ash Wednesday Sermon, delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, 6 February 2008,...

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