Mercian Hymns

The book that changed my life

I was riffling through the school library’s generous selection of modern poetry in an idle hour, each slim volume holding out the same diffuse excitement I had felt when coming across pirate stations on my brother’s valve wireless. I was in the lower sixth at Marlborough College, my parents far away in Cameroon (my father worked for Pan Am).

And I knew only one living poet, a Cameroonian lecturer at Douala University whose name I have, alas, forgotten. The names on the shelf – some of them familiar from English lessons (Sassoon, Eliot, Hughes) – rang with a quasi-mythical force, whether living or dead. I picked out Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns – published just three years earlier, in 1971 – because Mercia had intrigued me in our history classes. A pagan kingdom under Penda at a time of royal mass conversion to Christianity, it was run in the 8th century by a Christian despot called Offa, who expanded his ruthless rule to southern England. Mercia not only covered the area my family came from, but was alluringly murky.

What I was hoping for was a slit-window on to that primitive, pylonless world. Instead I read, on the very first page: “King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sandstone: overlord of the M5 . . .”

I still remember the shock of that line as I sat at the library table. Overlord of the M5? You mean, he was still around? And what was something as nasty and banal as a motorway doing in a serious poem? And was it, in fact, a poem at all? Because all 30 of the brief “hymns” were set out as prose – albeit with every line (except the first in each stanza) indented three spaces.

I was experiencing the same frisson as when, a little earlier, I had come across T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. Little did I know it, but I was belatedly experiencing the shock of modernism.

There was plenty in the book of what I had initially opened it for: “So much for the elves’ wergild, the true governance of England, the gaunt warrior-gospel armoured in engraved stone.” This had a lovely, Tennysonian richness only lightly undermined by that dismissive “so much for”. But that same “hymn” included an image of Offa as “Dreamy, smug-faced, sick on outings . . .” Suddenly there he was, the pudgy boy throwing up in the back of the car after too much ice cream.

The effect on me of these mingled registers and periods, the palimpsestic patchwork of lexical fields, was one not of alienation but of recognition. Offa’s crowning takes place in an anticipation of Diana-worship, “hankies and gift-mugs approved by his foreign gaze”, and ends in the car park of the Stag’s Head, with “the chef . . . sealing his brisk largesse with ‘any mustard?’”. It was a little like my favourite old toy kaleidoscope with its shifting coloured crystals, only here the crystals were different periods of English literature and history. Most attractively of all, perhaps, there was an elation about the poet’s wit that I rejoiced in even then: “Merovingian car-dealers . . . a shuffle of house-carls.”

The sheer daring of this verbal promiscuity seemed to have a subterranean effect on the language itself, as if Hill was mining it for its origins, breaking its surface crust. This was combined with an absolute precision of detail, particularly in the verbs: when I read that the meadow was “scabbed with cow-dung”, I felt again (as I had felt with Keats and Shakespeare) that there could be no finer vocation than to match concrete reality with words so closely that the two were virtually indistinguishable.
It was bewitchery!

I took Mercian Hymns back to humid Douala, where it acted as a cool English talisman, redolent with crab apple and hearthstones. Reading yet again how the young Offa lost his toy biplane thanks to Ceolred, flaying him in revenge down in the old quarry, afterwards “journeying for hours, calm and alone, in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion”, I realised that the book was not only an intimate memoir of a 1940s Midlands boyhood, but that it was saying something very large about England; about nationhood; about cruelty and power. I looked out on the mangrove estuary with its little pirogues and huge cargo ships, and Offa seemed close enough to touch.

Geoffrey Hill’s “Mercian Hymns” are included in his “Selected Poems”, which is published by Penguin (£8.99) Adam Thorpe’s latest novel, “Hodd”, is published by Jonathan Cape (£17.99)