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Mercian Hymns -- Geoffrey Hill

extracts from
(Poem #37) Mercian Hymns

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.'


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


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


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.
-- Geoffrey Hill
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.


30 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Miriam said...

The 'Mercian Hymns' are magical. I urge everyone
to read them in full.

Andrew Peters said...

Mercian Hymns

I heard a brilliant production of Mercian hymns on radio 4 some years
do you know if it is available on tape-cd or any other audio works by
Geoffrey Hill

Andy Peters

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