We’d love to put this poem here but copyright permissions don’t allow us to do that. We’re going to trust that this will intrigue you and you’ll go out and find the poem in our Poetry By Heart collection, published by Penguin Books!
Background to the poem
Mercian Hymns is a collection of thirty connected poems that lie somewhere between prose and poetry. Hill refers to them as ‘versets’. They focus upon Offa, King of Mercia between 758 and his death in 796. He is remembered for the massive dyke that marks, to some extent, the border between England and Wales. Hill interweaves his own experiences and memories from the 1930s and ’40s with elements taken from what is known about Offa’s career.
Think of the ‘he’ in the prose poems, as both the young Hill and the legendary king. In Hymn VII, look for the Saxon/twentieth century fusion in the poem. What is conjured up by ‘biplane’, ‘Gas-holders’, ‘sandlorry’ and words rooted in an ancient past such as‘flay’, ‘milldam’ and ‘Ceolred’ (one of the earlier Mercian kings)? The synthesis of an ancient past with a recent past may even be captured in the one word ‘flay’, which can mean to remove the skin but was also used hyperbolically in Hill’s childhood with the meaning to ‘beat up’ someone.
In exploring a cultural and political past in a poem full of intriguing sound patterns, Hill gives us complex insights to his childhood and the making of a poet.
About Geoffrey Hill
Geoffrey Hill was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in 2010 and knighted in 2012, marking his position as one of the most significant poets writing in English over the last fifty years. His critical fame is greater than his popular readership, but his uncompromisingly robust and often unpredictable poetry commands widespread respect.
Publishing poetry while still at Oxford in the 1950s, Hill followed an academic career, teaching at various times in higher education in Leeds, Cambridge, Bristol and Boston.
Hill’s powerful and tightly controlled poetic voice can be heard in over twenty volumes of poetry. His work is erudite, full of allusions, musicality and rhetorical devices. He believes that complexity, or what some people might call ‘difficulty’, in poetry acknowledges intelligence and curiosity in the potential reader.
Hill is also a distinguished essayist, winning the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2008 for his Collected Critical Writings.