Monday, January 24, 2011

Geoffrey Hill: Mercian Hymns

Among the snippets of information available on the internet on the Mercian Hymns, Geoffrey Hill’s celebrated cycle of poems, I thought the article “Archaeology of Words – Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns by Louise Kemeny” to be a worthwhile read.
It provides the reader with a framework of reference that illuminates some of the characteristics of Hill’s Mercian Hymns: the verset structure, the Anglo-Saxon historic strata and the fractured introspection from which a series of stark, mutinous, pulverized and highly musical musings emerge.

To the writer of this post, the Mercian Hymns are the essence of a setting of a modern day Shakespearean drama about to happen, shifted on deeply set, introspective co-ordinates and tottering on the verge of the absurd:

“Exile or pilgrim set me once more upon that ground: my rich and desolate childhood. Dreamy, smug-faced, sick on outings – I who was taken to be a king of some kind, a prodigy, a maimed one.” 

(Mercian Hymns, V)

The landscape of the thirty versets that make up the cycle of poem in keeping  with a ‘name to conjure with’ is that of the:

“Heathland, new-made watermeadow.
Charlock, marshmarigold.”  
(Mercian Hymns, XI)

A ghost inhabits the poem: the legendary king Offa, believed to have reigned over Mercia (region situated sounth of the Humber river in England) at the end of the VIIIth century.

The opening of the poem invokes Offa and provides us with clues into the themes of the poem: 

"King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of theM5: 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.'"
(Mercian Hymns, I)
These themes evolve, in symphonic spurts of meaning, images and aural harmony,
 concocting a haunting poetic space that we feel compelled to visit and re-visit – yet again. 
“Their spades grafted through variably-resistant soil.
They clove to the hoard. They ransacked epiphanies, vertebrae of the chimera, 
armour of wild bee’s larvae. They struck the fire-dragon’s faceted skin.”
(Mercian Hymns,XII).


Conrad DiDiodato said...


thanks for reminding us that, amidst the clamor and noise of postmodern poetries, there's still this lovely classicism in verse.

Here's poetry in the same league as Saint-John Perse & C.Day Lewis.

Irina said...

Thank you Conrad.

The brooding, Shakespeare-like atmosphere of the Hymns is not something that can be easily forgotten.

The grueling marathon that you are running on two blogs has impressed me and humbled me at the same time.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


not a marathon so much as a series of sprints:))I have to catch every citation that comes my way. And it's actually a lot of fun. I'm trying to show that even randomly selected bits from the blogs I read have to be shored up with some authorial intention & attention to basic grammatically (conventions that die-hard "assimilationist" poets wilfully ignore)

I've almost got 2 pages of my Introduction to my "Blog poetics" text, to be updated & posted soon. The thought that in time an entire book could be written this way intrigues me. I'll see how I feel about a Chapter One after my Introduction.

Then it'll turn into an ultra-marathon.

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