Reading Geoffrey Hill's 'Mercian Hymns'

'Mercian Hymns' consists of thirty prose (ish) poems that deal with Offa who was King of Mercia between about 758 and his death in 796. This statement is accurate but does nothing to convey the complexity and strength of this unique piece of work. Hill addresses national identity, collective memory, the nature of authority and worth, Englishness and the English landscape whilst narrating aspects of Offa's life and rule.

The other thing to note is that it is immensely readable, Hill's language is clear and direct with none of the obdurate phrasing that is present in the rest of his work. Hill also mixes the remote past with the present in ways that will be described below. The sequence possesses a fierce intelligence and a willingness to take remarkable risks in order to produce what can only be described as poetic brilliance.

The opening poem sets the tone:


    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 her-
mitage in Holy Cross; guardian of the Welsh Bridge
and the Iron Bridge: contractor to the desirable new
estates: saltmaster: moneychanger: commissioner for
oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

'I liked that,' said Offa, 'sing it again.'

This is quite clear and heralds much of what is to come, signalling the 'mixing' of past and present and autobiographical elements that Hill includes along the way. The M5 runs from Exeter to Birmingham and (in part) more or less marks the England/Wales border. The road takes in both Bromsgrove and Worcester which are personally significant for Hill. There continues to be much uncertainty as to how far Offa's reach extended, he was certainly in control of the Midlands and some of the southern counties- his conquest of Sussex is reasonably well documented. His relationships with Kent and Wessex are still open to doubt but it is fairly clear that he was an immensely powereful individual who was intent on extending his 'reach' as far as possible.

Holy Cross is the name of a hamlet in the District of Bromsgrove - which is where Hill was born. I'm taking it that the 'Welsh Bridge' refers to the structure that crosses the River Severn at Shrewsbury. It also seems reasonable to assume that the 'Iron Bridge' refers to the iconic structure which was built in 1775 and spans the Severn Gorge.

The fortifications at Tamworth had been used by the Kings of Mercia for at least two hundred years before Offa and he did correspond with Charlemagne, offering one of his daghters in marriage to one of the French King's sons. However, Charlemagne ruled over most of Europe and Offa held only a part of England, so 'friend' might be taking things a little too far.

Hill has an abiding interests in martyrs and martyrdom - some of his best work muses on the fate of 16th century English Jesuits and on those few German Christians who opposed Hitler. Offa is credited by some to have discovered the bones of St Alban and to have founded the influential monastery to mark the site. As far as I am aware, Offa had nothing to do with the use of the rampart and ditch in English Castle building- his claim to building fame rests almost entirely on the Dyke that bears his name and is only mentioned once here.

I'm assuming that 'commissioner for oaths' refers to the practice of client kings and lords swearing loyalty to their overlord and that this was one way in which Offa extended his rule. The other significant point is the fact that Offa is known for the high quality of his coinage- this will be further developed in the sequence that follows.

The last line introduces us to our hero and reminds us ('sing it' rather than 'say it') that this is meant to be read as a hymn or song of praise.

'Mercian Hymns' was published in 1971 and still stands out as radically foreign to anything else Hill has written. The last line is perhaps echoed in one of the more quoted passages from 'The Triumph of Love' (1998), this is from the penultimate poem in that sequence.

   Let us commit that to our dust. What
ought a poem to be? Answer, a sad
and angry consolation.
What is
the poem? What figures? Say,
a sad and angry consolation. That's
beautiful. Once more? A sad and angry

The seventh poem in the Mercian sequence is an example of Hill at his dark and disturbing best. In my head it's what Harold Bloom was thinking of when he referred to Hill as the strongest poet that we have:

    Gasholders, russett 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.

I'll try and unpick some of this, first of all there's the modern / Saxon split (biplane, gasholder, sandlorry v Ceolred, flay, milldam) together with the Hill / Offa split. Hill was born in 1932 and is therefore likely to have had a 'heavy snub' biplane as a toy. 'Ceolred' is an Anglo Saxon name and was the name of one of the earlier Mercian kings.

Children down the centuries have been known for their casual cruelty to animals, so the destruction of the frogs isn't any great surprise. The same can be said about two friends falling out over a lost toy. What is unusual is what happens to the sniggering Ceolred. To flay is to remove the skin and to be 'flayed alive' is to be put through quite unbearble agonies. Thankfully these practices were much more common in Offa's time than they are now so it is unlikely that Hill is refering here to his own childhood although Michael Peverett has pointed out that "in Hill's childhood, "flay" was quite often used hyperbolically in school idiom and manly adventure fiction to mean (specifically) belting, thence (more generally) bashing or duffing up". It's likely, in my view, that Hill had both senses in mind- another example of the late modernist fondness for ambiguity.

The first verse lines build up a picture of a stark and quite ugly countryside, the gasholders are russet because they are being corroded by rust. It's not entirely clerar as to whether it is the milldams that have created the static marl pools or whether the pools encourage us to hear Milton's description of Hell; "His Spear..He walkt with to support uneasie steps Over the burning Marl". Both swarms of eels and the mass gatherings of frogs and toads have been the subject of superstious belief and practices through the ages. The other slightly macabre aspect is that the 'stillness and silence' does not refer to the normal quiet of the English countryside but to the absence of noise and movement from the creatures that 'he' has destroyed.

We know nothing (at all) about Offa's childhood but he was the grandson of a king and may therefore have been given special attention and deference from those around, so Ceolredwas always going to be the subservient friend.

Offa was one of the first kings in England to succeed in maintaining dirext rule over a large part of the country. Given this fact, the derelict state of the sandlorry / nation raises some further queries, is journeying alone an attempt to describe Offa's campaigns or is it about the fact that he wasn't very keen on alliances? Is Albion said to be derelict in the now of 1971 or during Offa's reign? Hill's view is certainly that our nation has been in terminal decline since 1945 so this might refer to the now.

'Mercian Hymns' makes cunning and insightful use of the past/present mix throughout the sequence but this one, I feel, is especially effective in contrasting the two and using this to say something more about our cultural and political past.

I've already indicated that Englishness is a key theme to the sequence and in poem XXVII Hill manages to evoke a strong sense of nationhood and our personal identities as members of the same 'tribe'. It's also the most lyrically beautiful poem in the sequence:

    Processes of generation, deeds of settlement. The urge to
marry well; wit to invest in the properties of healing-
springs. Our children and our children's children, o my

Tracks of ancient occupation. Frail ironworks rusting in the
thorn-thicket. Hearthstones, charred lullabies. A solitary
axe-blow that is the echo of a lost sound.

Tumult recedes as though into the long rain. Groves of
legendary holly; silverdark the ridge gleam.

Here we have reiterated the concerns about kingship and authority. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Offa took special care to ensure that he was succeeded by his son but that the son died shortly after his father and the crown was passed to a distant relative who only got the throne because Offa had killed those more direct relatives who might have challenged his son. Even today the issue of royal succession is hotly debated and has been an abiding concern hroughout British history.

The other theme is the survival of pre-Christian beliefs and practices. Recent scholarship undertaken by Alexandra Walsham has shown how strong these undercurrents have been and how they have flourished (especially wells and springs) deep into the modern period. The middle verse is particularly adept at bringing things together and I'm guessing that the last sentence is a veiled reference to the execution of Charles I and the effect of that act on our subsequent history. I'd like to conclude by pointing to the quiet perfection of 'Hearthstones, charred lullabies' which is beautiful, tender and manages to say many, many things about our essentially rural past in just three words.