Obituary: Brian Merrikin Hill

K. E. Smith
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:34

Brian Merrikin Hill was, in the last decades of his life, widely valued as a poet, a translator of poetry and as long-time editor of the poetry magazine Pennine Platform. Although not inclined to seek fame, he was regarded as a compeer by poets as distinguished as Kathleen Raine and David Gascoyne. The Blakean title of his 1984 book Wakeful in the Sleep of Time gives some indication of how seriously he viewed the poet's vocation.

Yet there had been another life of achievement too. Indeed, although Eighteen Poems had been published as early as 1947, Hill's next 30 years were to be largely dedicated to education. The son of a radical Methodist minister, he had, after leaving Oxford in 1939, declared himself a conscientious objector and eventually become a teacher of French in the progressive independent school of Abbotsholme, in Staffordshire.

Imbued with the twin ideals of educational experiment and the healing of social divisions he came in 1948 to teach English at Wennington School, at Wetherby, in Yorkshire. The school, with its combination of shared, communal effort and exploratory educational methods, its mix of children from liberal, middle-class homes and children sent by local authorities because of family or behavioural problems, proved an ideal setting for him. More significantly, he became known as an inspiring teacher, one who was spoken of as enabling his students to believe in their own efforts and as opening many literary doors to them. Sadly, by the 1970s, when he had become head, economic pressures were increasing on schools such as Wennington, and under his successor the school succumbed in 1975.

Hill's career as a poet was relaunched by the publication in 1977 of Two Poems of Pilgrimage. Characteristically, the pilgrimage was both geographical and spiritual, a trait which would mark his finest volumes of the 1980s. In the first of these later sequences, Wakeful in the Sleep of Time, the poet journeyed from his nonconformist radicalism to generate a series of profound meditations on Catholic iconography of the Virgin as in "Notre Dame de Heas":

Grant me your triumph over ice

falling among jagged rocks.

Be where I arrive when I've found the


Teach me to know why, lady of the

bright snow,

You find this darkness holy.

Towards the end of Wakeful another note was struck, that of a historicising sense of locale which would continue through his next book, Local History (1985). Landscape, history and personal experience are melded in fluid and exciting ways, as memorably with the images of the reclaiming of the Lincolnshire fens in "Somercotes Haven":

Clouds, gales are free

Though in pomp men think to buy

space-time with legal words.

Out of this evil, nobility and folly

May havens remain to reach un-

chartable sea,

Marram, sea-lavender and glaucous


Water among reeds, green land, the

flight of birds.

In 1987 followed a third major achievement, The European Letters. Here intense personal feeling was married to an epic historical sweep over a continent torn between the sufferings of war and the aspiration to peace. In 1993 the University of Salzburg paid him the tribute of producing Dolphins and Outlaws, a broad selection of his poems, and With Planetary Eyes, translations from Saint-Pol Roux and Pierre Emmanuel.

The journal Pennine Platform, carried on with unflagging energy and persistence over 20 years, displayed similar qualities of catholicity and engagement. So long as poets shared a commitment to the larger destiny of poetry and a serious concern with its crafts and disciplines, their very various work was welcome in its pages. Editing displayed again Brian Merrikin Hill's combination of moral and artistic passion with a deep desire for encounter, for understanding and relating to other people, other visions. It was above all this combination of idealism and humanity which underpinned, and unified, all his diverse achievements as teacher, editor , translator and poet.

K. E. Smith

Brian Merrikin Hill, poet and teacher: born 6 January 1917; married 1955 Irene Salkerd (one son, one daughter); died Harrogate 19 February 1997.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments