When he was six, his family moved to nearby Fairfield in Worcestershire, where he attended the local primary school, then the grammar school in Bromsgrove. In 1950 he was admitted to Keble College, Oxford, to read English, where he published his first poems in 1952, at the age of twenty, in an eponymous Fantasy Press volume.
Upon graduation from Oxford with a first, Hill embarked on an academic career, teaching at the University of Leeds from 1954 until 1980, from 1976 as professor of English Literature. After leaving Leeds, he spent a year at the University of Bristol on a Churchill Scholarship before becoming a teaching fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he taught from 1981 until 1988. He then moved to the United States, to serve as University Professor and Professor of Literature and Religion at Boston University. In 2006, he moved back to Cambridge, England.
Hill was an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Hill was married twice. His first marriage to Nancy Whittaker, which produced four children, Julian, Andrew, Jeremy and Bethany, ended in divorce. His second marriage to the American poet, and later Anglican priest, Alice Goodman occurred in 1987. The couple had a daughter, Alberta. The marriage lasted until Hill's death.