(Poem #37) Mercian Hymns
I King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5: architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: money-changer: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne. 'I liked that,' said Offa, 'sing it again.' VII Gasholders, russet among fields. Milldams, marlpools that lay unstirring. Eel-swarms. Coagulations of frogs: once, with branches and half-bricks, he battered a ditchful; then sidled away from the stillness and silence. Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and irreplaceable, two inches of heavy snub silver. Ceolred let it spin through a hole in the classroom-floorboards, softly, into the rat-droppings and coins. After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with fright, down to the old quarries, and flayed him. Then, leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone, in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion. XVII He drove at evening through the hushed Vosges. The car radio, glimmering, received broken utterance from the horizon of storms... 'God's honours - our bikes touched: he skidded and came off.' 'Liar.' A timid father's protective bellow. Disfigurement of a village king. 'Just look at the bugger...' His maroon GT chanted then overtook. He lavished on the high valleys its haleine. XXV Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg. The nailshop stood back of the cottage, by the fold. It reeked stale mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its low roof. In dawn-light the troughed water floated a damson-bloom of dust --- not to be shaken by posthumous clamour. It is one thing to celebrate the 'quick forge', another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire. Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent in the nailer's darg.
from 'Mercian Hymns', 1971. Quoting extensively from George Macbeth (since I have no other sources for this poem): "This comparatively short, but very wide-ranging and pregnant, sequence is Hill's most ambitious work to date. With Ted Hughes' "Crow" and Seamus Heaney's "North" [both of which I will run in the near future - t.] it has perhaps been the most discussed and studied new book of verse of the 70s - deservedly, since its rich qualities yield themselves only gradually. The originality of the sequence lies firstly in Hill's merger of elements from the career of King Offa of Mercia, the last great king of the midlands, with details from his own childhood in the 1930a and during the war. We confront a small boy proud and recalcitrant, identifying his lonely genius with the royalty of a past local monarch, honouring his family and his country through the enriching metaphors of history. Although quite brief, the poems is buttressed with a series of impregnable footnotes, recalling Eliot's notes to "The Wasteland" [another poem I'll be sending soon - t.] in their scholarly irrelevance. Everywhere the tone and drive of the style is deeply original, and justifies large claims for the status of Hill, even on the basis of so few lines. At one swoop he has naturalised the prose poem as an English form, and freed it once and for all of French associations." I find Hill's early poems (those published in the 50s and 60s) dense and impenetrable - they may have hidden depths, but I cannot grasp their meaning with any surety. I much prefer his later work, especially today's sequence - quite apart from the many resonances with history and myth, they have a simple beauty and flow to their language which I like. Returning to Macbeth: "I. This hymn and commentary form to the best of my knowledge, the one flash of humour in Hill's work VII. A recollection of massacring frogs in wartime, and of a schoolfriend losing a cherished model aeroplane. The two names 'Ceolred' and 'Albion' are almost all that link these memories with the England of the past, but they are enough. XVII. There seems here to be a memory of a childhood bicycle accident sandwiched between two brief images of a later, slightly dangerous piece of driving between France and Spain. The word 'haleine' (breath) is meant to conjure up the idea of the horn of the hero Roland, and the word 'chanted' suggests the Chanson de Roland in which his adventures are recorded. The village-king is presumably Hill-Offa, who has been hurt in the accident. XXV. An elegy for the poet's grandmother, who worked making nails. There is a grim bitterness in the comparison between the traditional literariness of a Shakespearean phrase like 'quick forge', and the brutal reality of the disfigurement inevitable in using the tools of the nail-maker's trade. The repetition of the opening paragraph, at first a surprising device in so concentrated a piece of writing, serves to create both a harsh re-emphasis and perhaps also the ritual effect of a chorus in a dirge. 'Fors Clavigera' is Ruskin's collection of letters to the workmen and labourers of England, published in 1871-84. The title refers to the image of Fortune bearing a club, a key and a nail." Nothing much more for me to say. thomas.