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From “Mercian Hymns”

July 4, 2016

From 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: moneychanger: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: the friend of Charlemagne.

‘I liked that,’ said Offa, ‘sing it again.’


A pet-name, a common name. Best-selling brand, curt graffito. A laugh; a cough. A syndicate. A specious gift. Scoffed-at horned phonograph.

The starting-cry of a race. A name to conjure with.

Geoffrey Hill, 1979

COMMENTARY: I was sad to hear Geoffrey Hill passed away this week. He’d been a luminary of British poetry for years: erudite, energetic, eccentric. His poems were far reaching in range and intensity and could dazzle as well as move.

These the first two sections of Mercian Hymns, his most well known collection. The book is a sequence of 25 “versets” about “King Offa,” the ancient king of Mercia, an Anglo Saxon confederacy that existed along the Welsh border from the 6th to the 10th centuries. Hill weaves vignettes from ancient history with episodes from his personal life and scenes from the contemporary landscape to create a mosaic of England across time and place. The collection is remarkable for scampering, snare-drum quality of the lines. Here the lists of titles and descriptions accumulate and echo in an auctioneer’s staccato. Though written as prose, there’s plenty of rhythm, like the repetition of the seven f sounds in the second section (graffito, laugh, cough, gift, scoff, phonograph, with), each of which almost rhyme with “Offa”…or Geoffrey” for that matter.

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