On Offa’s Dyke

More than twelve hundred years ago, King Offa of Mercia ordered a dyke built along the border between Wales and England. The Mercians dug a huge ditch on the Welsh-facing side and piled the soil into a rampart with open views to Wales. The story goes that “it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman who was found to the east of the dyke, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it.”

These days, Offa’s Dyke is more notable for sheep, intent on their grazing or crowding into a dyke-side divot to get a bit of sleep. There are no bloody battles now, at least not of the human kind, only small bands of walkers in sensible shoes who amble on or sit a while to take in the view. Sheep and walkers, walkers and sheep, astride strata of history more than a thousand years deep.

I don’t know this history. Unlike any British student of English literature worth her salt, I’d not read a single line of Anglo-Saxon verse or prose, not even in translation. (I discount my attempts at Beowulf, which sits on my shelf glowering at me still.) This seemed a terrible lack as I, one of those walkers in sensible shoes, sat with my sandwich and looked out. I wasn’t present, after all, solely in a landscape of surpassing loveliness, but also one that had stories to tell.

Into the breach came a book of Anglo-Saxon poems in translation, The Word Exchange, opening a path to a past full of battles, riddles, prayers, charms, and meditations on death and life.

The minstrel Deor bemoans the loss of his position, though that’s not what he reveals at first:

Welund him be wurman     wræces cunnade,
anhydig eorl     earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe     sorge ond longaþ,
wintercealde wræce;     wean oft onfond,
siþþan hine Niðhad on     nede legde,
swoncre seonobende     on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode,     þisses swa mæg!

In Seamus Heaney’s translation:

Weland the blade-winder     suffered woe.
That steadfast man     knew misery.
Sorrow and longing     walked beside him,
wintered in him,     kept wearing him down
after Nithad     hampered and restrained him,
lithe sinew-bonds     on the better man.
That passed over,     this can too.

Weland managed, by ruthless ingenuity, to escape King Niðhad’s grasp. His is the first in a litany of ancient stories Deor recites, each ending with the refrain, “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg!” That passed over, this can too.

Only at the last do we learn the import of Deor’s recitations:

For years I enjoyed     my duties as minstrel
and that lord’s favor,      but now the freehold
and land titles     he bestowed upon me once
he has vested in Heorrenda,     master of verse-craft.

“Þæs ofereode,” Deor consoles himself, “þisses swa mæg!”

Reaching for ancient myths to make sense of present problems is one thing, but what did the landscape signify to Anglo-Saxons? As I imagined them, they were encased in their own present, busily engaged in the business of eating, sleeping, and battling. Until I read The Ruin, I wrongly thought they weren’t prone to ruminating on ruins in their midst:

Wrætlic is þes wealstan,     wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston,     brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene,     hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen,     hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge     scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone.

In Yusef Komunyakaa’s translation:

Look at the elaborate crests chiseled into this stone wall
shattered by fate, the crumbled city squares,
and the hue and cry of giants rotted away.
There are caved-in roofs, towers in shambles,
rime on the limy mortar,
a storm-wall tilted and scarred,
half-fallen, slumped by time.

The poem itself is a ruin, a burn across its pages rendering it incomplete, so that its full meaning can’t be retrieved.

And what of a child today, scrabbling up the dyke’s rampart, scattering the sheep? Does she know what came before her, or does she live in her present imagination, a toy sword and helmet her only referents of the past?

Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, a sequence of thirty brief prose-poems, refracts the ancient landscape through the prism of his childhood, undermining the ordinary sense of what is present and what is past. This ingenious entanglement of past and present, from which neither can escape, is evident from the first lines of the poem:

The past dissolves into the present, and the child becomes a king of sorts:

In Section X, the exchange of “gifts with the Muse of History” that permeates Mercian Hymns is made explicit:

The prized desk is at once Offa’s and the child’s; Smut licks the child’s hand while the strata of history shift beneath.

The child adds his own layers of chaos and violence to a history replete with them:

Hill excavates, unearthing shards of history, and bends each to the poem’s will. He takes from Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, Whitelock’s The Beginning of English Society, and even one of actor Michael Hordern’s answers on the quiz show Call My Bluff. In an endnote he writes, with recognition but without apology, “I have a duty to acknowledge that the authorities cited in these notes might properly object to their names being used in so unscholarly and fantastic a context.”

We are never in a single time; we are buffeted by time:

Three of the poem’s sections bear the title Opus Anglicanum, including medieval embroidery within the poem’s reach:

Yet Hill isn’t content to confine his ruminative quest: “I have, with considerable impropriety, extended the term [Opus Anglicanum] to apply to English Romanesque sculpture and to utilitarian metal-work of the nineteenth century.”

His poetic embroidery stitches in Olivier Messiaen (“‘Et exspecto resurrection mortuorum’ dust in the/eyes, on clawing wings, and lips”) and John Ruskin:

That impossible to ignore lion of literary critics, Harold Bloom, puts it like this: “There is no present time, indeed there is no self-presence in Mercian Hymns.” He writes that, “despite the limpidity of its individual sections . . . .”

It is not only hard to hold together, but there is some question as to what it is “about” . . . Hill has at last no subject but his own complex subjectivity, and so the poem is “about” himself, which turns out to be his exchange of gifts with the Muse of History (Section X).

Hill disagrees:

I think it is less solipsistic than that description suggests. I was not merely interested in the phenomenon of my own sensibility, I was genuinely interested in the phenomenon of King Offa and of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Mercia. My feeling for Offa and Mercia can scarcely be disentangled from my mixed feelings for my own home country of Worcestershire.

Bloom poses “that the structure and meaning of Mercian Hymns is best approached through its rhetoric, which as before in Hill is largely that of metaleptic reversal or transumption . . .”.

The poem becomes encrusted with interpretations, each reader setting down a layer of her own.

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Olivier Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (parts 1 & 2)

Parts 3 and 4 are here; part 5 is here.

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Credits: The quotation in the first paragraph is from Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery by George Borrow (1862), Chapter IX, p. 46. The quotations from Deor and The Ruin are from The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, Greg Delanty (Editor, St. Michael’s College), Michael Matto (Editor, Adelphi University), with a foreword by Seamus Heaney. With one exception, the quotations from Mercian Hymns, Bloom, and Hill are from Somewhere is Such a Kingdom, Poems 1952-1971 by Geoffrey Hill, with an introduction by Harold Bloom. The Hill quotation disputing Bloom can be found here.

14 thoughts on “On Offa’s Dyke

  1. Scott

    Incredibly thoughtful. I enjoyed it all. A story in itself. Presented in a unprejudiced way, inviting interpretation. Such a nice quality. A student and teacher of sorts.
    Can you imagine the equipment they used to build that thing back then? I guess they were a pretty rugged bunch,cutting off the ears of trespassers and all.
    A need to explain. A presence. A relationship to it. Words,music, poetry Mercia or your hometown. A life.What’s in it. I like it.Sing it again. .

  2. shoreacres

    I confess my favorite part of your entry is this snippet of found poetry: Sheep and walkers, walkers and sheep, astride strata of history more than a thousand years deep. Wonderful!

    Beyond that, I had to smile at the construction of the dyke, and the treatment accorded those who crossed the boundary. My parents grew up in two Iowa coal-mining towns that were separated by a road no wider than the dyke. It, too, took on mythical proportions as a barrier. With Dallas on one side and Melcher on the other, the battles raged.

    I don’t think there were beheadings or ear-cuttings, but there were bar fights and cornfield scuffles galore. Many of the miners were Welsh immigrants. I’ll have to check the book I have which chronicles the history of the towns, including their ethnic makeup. If it turns out to have been an English/Welsh thing, we’ll have something else to ponder.

    Your mention that the poem itself is a ruin, a burn across its pages rendering it incomplete, so that its full meaning can’t be retrieved interests me. It seems to me finding the “full meaning” of any poem (essay, novel, painting) is impossible. Only if the reader is discounted entirely and “meaning” presumed to be something separate and unchanging could that make sense. Well, at least to me. I once heard the phrase “surplus of meaning”, and recognized its truth immediately. Even after all the interpretations have been exhausted, there still is that “something else”, that “something extra” that lingers.

    I know one thing for sure. I’d never, ever go out for a drink with Harold Bloom. ;)

  3. JMS

    Makes me wonder if the reason human nature tends to progress at a glacial pace is in part due to an innate tendency to retreat to Solipsism when the surrounding idiocy becomes too much to bear. Nature, the great equalizer…

  4. Mark Kerstetter

    Serious music to accompany serious poetry! The difference between Bloom’s perception and the poet’s is something to ponder. I like this: “We are never in a single time” and your musical phrase: “Sheep and walkers, walkers and sheep, astride strata of history more than a thousand years deep.” That mind-expanding realization that people in the distant past pondered the enigmas of people in their distant past is beautiful to think about. You once expressed some surprise that I’m so fond of Melville. Reading this reminded me of one of the most striking things about his first book ‘Typee’. A man jumps a whaling ship and escapes to an island in the South Pacific. While there he lives with a tribe of natives who live a happy, close to the earth life. One day the man comes across some mysterious ruins. He can’t figure out what they are, but at the same time can’t escape the weird feeling that they belonged to the ancient ancestors of the natives, that at one time they lived in very different types of houses and had a culture unlike the contemporary one, and that this distant past was now completely lost to them. It’s a cosmic WOW moment.

    Shoreacres: Maybe Bloom’s reading is less rigid when he’s drunk.

  5. David

    When we next take up our plan to follow the whole of the Offa’s Dyke way – which can now be joined up with the whole of the Welsh coastline, and which we’ve only really just begun – I’ll think of your many time-lines. Such skies, too, in that opening photo.

  6. friko

    Do be careful, ‘here still be dragons’ , which will come out of their caves if you praise the area too fulsomely.

    I am so glad you got such a lot out of your week.

  7. Britta

    Dear Suze,
    please forgive me that I’m so late at commenting: but I’m up to the ears in work, and though I enjoy reading your post very much, I don’t find the leisure to write a longer comment. I read Beowulf (and liked it immensely), but never Hill’s Mercian Hymns. I will try to throw a glimpse into it (though my workload will continue, I even think of quitting my literary circle in Berlin) – maybe after that glimpse I succeed in writing anything substantial then -I just can’t now.

  8. The Solitary Walker

    Really enjoyed this, Susan — fascinating, and beautifully written. A lot of care and attention and research has gone into it, like so many of your posts. And nice, once more, how you interweave history, poetry and music with your own personal experience.

    I have a lot of catching up to do with Anglo-Saxon poetry, though Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’ sits here above me on the shelf. As for Geoffrey Hill — I know his reputation, and I can appreciate how good he is; however, I’ve found him difficult to ‘get into’ till now. Must give him a more considered and lengthy read!

  9. Susan Scheid Post author

    Scott: I love the way you’ve put this. You do have to wonder how on earth (I think I’ve just made a pun!) they pulled it off back then. And as for “sing it again,” so glad you noted that. That line in Hill’s poem appeals to me so much. Couldn’t say why, though I think you have: “A life.What’s in it. I like it.”

    Shoreacres: Found poetry? But I made it up! Just kidding, I know what you mean. I thought about deleting the repetition, but I guess I just wanted to “sing it again.” As for internecine battling of all kinds, I remember running across that in both Iowa and Georgia, where I spent a good deal of time in other incarnations of my life. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? And I agree with you entirely about finding the “full meaning” in poetry. The best of poems have no end, but keep opening out, don’t they? And we need say no more about HB . . . towering intelligence, appalling man.

    JMS: Now that’s a fascinating observation!

    Mark: All right, that’s it, Typee goes on the Kindle (it was $0.00, after all). I haven’t succeeded in getting through Moby Dick, but you make this compelling—though, in return, you remind me of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, in which a missionary sets out to convert the “natives” on a remote island and ends up a convert (of sorts) himself. An entirely different story, but it certainly provided a WOW moment for me. Back to what you wrote, though, The Ruin was mind-expanding for me, to be sure. More than a thousand years deep . . .

    David: We’ve vowed we must go back and explore further. The weather wasn’t with us the day we went (hence the very few photos—kept having to protect the camera from the rain), but all that means is we want very much to return and do more of this walk. I didn’t realize it joins up with the Welsh coastal walk, too! I did a tiny bit of the coastal walk, out of Cardiff, only enough to give me a hankering to do more. I love your plan and hope you will bring back photographs. Isn’t it such a rich part of the world? (As I write this, I’m listening to the celesta’s final notes in Shostakovich Symphony #4. I can’t thank you enough for introducing me to that piece.)

    Friko: A cautionary note, for sure! We did have a wonderful time in your Shropshire, though I have to say that the highlight of the whole thing was meeting you, Beloved, and always-to-be remembered Benno. Just seeing the photographs of your garden in autumn made me wistful all over again.

    Britta: I know I must read Beowulf, and I suspect it will happen one day. To think you are so busy you might quite your literary circle in Berlin! I hope your project goes well.

    Solitary Walker: I am glad I’m not the only one with Beowulf sitting on a shelf unread. As for Hill, I took to Mercian Hymns immediately, but as yet have not found another poem of his that resonates. I’m sure the appeal of Mercian Hymns had partly to do with having walked in that very landscape, though, beyond that, Hill had me at the first section of the poem. I really couldn’t resist the way he had Offa come alive and chime in with “I liked that . . . sing it again.”

  10. Steve Schwartzman

    As a senior in college a long time ago I took a course in Anglo-Saxon and read through Beowulf and various other poems in the original language, though I remember little of all that now.

    Most Anglo-Saxon is opaque to modern speakers of English, thanks to the huge changes in the language that followed the accession of the Normans (the North men, i.e. the northern French) after the Battle of Hastings, but occasionally most of the words in a line happen to have descendants in the modern language and can therefore be (mostly) understood. For example, if you translate

    Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg!

    literally, you have
    That over-went, this so may!

    The letter þ has been respelled th. The original letter survives only in whimsical names like Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe, where the þ has been misconstrued as a y (and mispronounced as such).

    Coincidentally, just last week I saw a television show with a segment about Offa’s dike, so I was surprised to find it the topic of your post.

  11. hilarymb

    HI Susan .. I obviously have much to learn – first off … finding your recommended play and then reading your post … I’d love to have a better (any actually) understanding of literature as a whole .. I guess your blog is a good place to start … especially with all the links we can access to find out more …

    I imagine the walk around Wales will be a wonderful one .. be it by the coast, or along Offa’s dyke …

    Perhaps the rain was a good omen – you’ll be back to find some sunshine! and walk once again .. cheers Hilary

  12. Susan Scheid Post author

    Steve: You are a compendium of fascinating information, and that you read Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon and I can’t get it together to read Heaney’s translation puts me to shame. Ah, well, as you say, “That over-went, this so may!” (I love that. Sing it again, as Offa said!) Also loved the story behind Ye of coffee shop fame. Layers and layers, or as Walt Whitman wrote of the spider: filament, filament, filament.

    Hilary: Lovely to see you there. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could all meet up and walk along Offa’s Dyke? Perhaps one day, eh?

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