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