The Sunday Poem: No 30 Geoffrey Hill

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work.

Sixty-six-year-old Worcestershire poet who once taught at Cambridge and now teaches in Boston University. Since1959, seven very different collections (most recently The Triumph of Love): complex, visionary, erudite poems, swashbucklingly disdainful of easy reading or thinking, all formally skilful in wildly different ways. With lavish gifts of jewelled image and phrase, plus a granite sense of sacredness (in words, architecture, landscape, art, geography and all history but especially English), Hill has had a fantastic influence on many very different contemporary poets. He is still pushing back boundaries in big, difficult, passionate subjects: religious faith, the responsibility of the artist; war and love; barbarism and Englishness.

King Offa (as in Offa's Dyke) reigned over most of England south of the Humber between 757-796 AD. After that he became legendary: Hill calls him the "presiding genius" of Mercia (ie, the West Midlands) from the eighth century on. In Mercian Hymns, Hill fits his wartime childhood into the maturing of this figure. The "he" is both the legendary king, and a boy who will become a particular kind of poet, mining deep, permanent subjects, growing up in a particular epoch and landscape.

This poem describes the boy growing up at odds with his peers. They boasted about temporary surface things (scars, skin); he identified with unattainable toys, the deep high things ruled by creatures who traditionally symbolise the depths and heights of English countryside (digging deep into earth, commanding the crags). He drank from chill sandstone which to him was honeycombs; he plumbed the clefts and source of a flowing landscape. To convey the ancient magic, Hill uses nouns that coax us into the sacred mediaeval space of an English carol (princes, thrall, resin, candles, mistletoe), plus verbs that are archaic (fruited) or unexpected (garnished), which give a heraldic, church-glass glow to mucky things like snot and impetigo. The poem is about making a choice. About plumping for the ancient, deep, and strange; for alienation, difference and difficulty. Like Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality", it is about the making of a poet - as Hill interprets the role. That source is source of nourishment in landscape but also the source of poetry. He drank from a Worcester version of the Pierian spring presided over by the Muses. Ancient poets supposedly drank it and made the "honey" of their poetry from it, as Hill makes his from honeycombs of the English poetic tradition.

The poem is short, impacted, sombrely sophisticated. This form, bunching words like grapes hung from the single stem of the first protuberant line in each stanza, runs through the whole sequence. And each poem, like the growing boy, runs slowly. This one's most obvious power comes from the chocolate-rich vocabulary. The voice flings linguistic treasures down as if language itself were the gnarled mysterious landscape it describes, beneath which flowed a sacred spring: from which words, like buckets, haul up new meanings, both fizzily fresh and radioactively ancient. Charting a psyche's maturing need for isolation, it says "This is what I wanted. To foster strangeness. Not to look at the easy Xmas magic they wanted me to see. I wanted what this poem is: a complex, packed, sensuous, archaic but utterly innovative vision." Any quotation from other people ("A boy ... lonely among brothers"; "Look", they said and again, "look") is followed by the boy's but of refusal. He goes his own way. (But I fostered a strangeness, But I ran slowly). The compacted symbolism (hoarded, fruited, clefts, gave myself, toys, candles of gnarled resin, mistletoe - which oversees kissing) gives the boy's explorations into landscape and poetic tradition, plus his refusal of convention (that tacky mistletoe), all the charge of his simultaneous discovery of sexuality. In the context of children boasting about their bodies' surface (scars, impetigo), it is a sexualised vision of discovering your own poetic depths.

Like the growing boy, the form refuses conventional layout; cohesion comes from the carefully pitched music. The first two sentences establish two big things about the poem's vowel-world. The first decides the dominance of the two-syllable word (from princes, Mercia, badger, down to candles, landscape, schoolyard); especially raven, a two-syllable word ending in a nasal vowel and echoed in freedom, resin, sandstone, cloakrooms, children (and, less important but part of the whole sound-web, among, again). The second sentence prepares for resonant variations on O and A. The OR of thrall, hoarded, orchards mutates later to AR (gnarled, branches, schoolyard, scars, garnished); the AY of raven is echoed in strangeness, gave, unattainable, which pushes on into again, away; the A of badger in apple, tacky, back plus the nasal AN of candles, ran, landscape. Looking back from the last verse, the central I of impetigo is prepared for in the preceding verses by I, I, I, I; and (to turn to consonants), the hiss of wrists is set up in princes, sandstone, odds in the house, fostered strangeness, mistletoe, landscape, boasted.

Poetry, says Seamus Heaney is a "making strange". One of the many things this poem does is describe, in shorthand, a personal agenda for doing just that. It carries out the "making strange" demand on every fronts, formal, verbal and conceptual; whilst talking about that very process - in which you grow towards your own way of being in the world as discoverer, and uncoverer, of its strangeness. Uncovering your own strangeness, in reacting to it.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Mercian Hymns VI' is taken from Collected Poems (Penguin)

Mercian Hymns VI

The princes of Mercia were badger and raven. Thrall

to their freedom, I dug and hoarded. Orchards

fruited above clefts. I drank from honeycombs of

chill sandstone.

"A boy at odds in the house, lonely among brothers."

But I, who had none, fostered a strangeness; gave

myself to unattainable toys.

Candles of gnarled resin, apple-branches, the tacky

mistletoe. "Look," they said and again, "look". But

I ran slowly; the landscape flowed away, back to

its source.

In the schoolyard, in the cloakrooms, the children

boasted their scars of dried snot; wrists and

knees garnished with impetigo.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor