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
"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
In the schoolyard, in the cloakrooms, the children
boasted their scars of dried snot; wrists and
knees garnished with impetigo.