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A Name To Conjure With: Reading ‘Mercian Hymns’

When I first started reading poetry as a teenager, poets seemed to come in three flavours. There were urbane cynics living in the fast lane or sulking in the suburbs. There were the everyday poets who were fond of anecdotes and who wandered into kitchens, started listing things and then tried to force an epiphany over the toaster. And there were the shamans, who were more real and authentic than you could ever be, because they lived in the country and sometimes watched animals die. Reading Mercian Hymns smashed all that.

Mercian Hymns showed me that there could be a poetry that was very much here, in the England where I lived, but still connected to the world of myth we carry with us. History and myth didn’t only belong to poet-spirit-guides who lived on a moor and shouted back findings on what life was really about. Mercian Hymns presented this England, where history clutters up the place annoying town planners and attracting ice-cream vans in summer. The muddle of it all, the incongruity, there were no separate tin cans marked ‘human’ and ‘natural’, ‘past’ and ‘contemporary’. There were ‘Gasholders, russet among fields’ and an eighth century King was crowned again to the proliferation of tacky gift-mugs and a bonfire in the pub car-park, where:


… the chef stood there, a king in
his new risen hat, sealing his brisk largess with
‘any mustard?’

(III, The Crowning of Offa)


Here, I saw my childhood day-dreams (the ones fuelled by watching Prince Valiant cartoons and a fascination with castles) all unapologetically, sometimes viciously, grown-up. Lyrical images of love for one’s home were contrasted with an often chilling hero, and making sense of this contradiction is at the heart of the sequence. This is a book in which historical cruelty cannot be written off as belonging to the Bad Old Days because everything is happening in one all-encompassing anachronistic moment.


                                              … he drew upon grievances from the
people; attended to signatures and retributions;
forgave the death howls of his rival…

… He swayed in sunlight, in mild dreams. He tested the
little pears. He smeared catmint on his palm for
his cat Smut to lick.

(X, Offa’s Laws)


I learned a lot from Mercian Hymns. It revealed to me ways of writing honestly about home and history which neither preached nor diminished its importance. It showed me, masterfully, how a character could be two completely different things at the same time, (not an extended metaphor but actually two things) and while I’ve done a lot more reading since I first came across this book, I still haven’t found another poet that manages this so brilliantly. I want to read Mercian Hymns with you because I’m still finding new things in it and because these thirty tiny poems, some of them just a couple of lines long, bend the world around them in a way only the greatest poetry can.

At only £15, why not top up your Poetry School course this Autumn with one of our online reading groups? This term: Holly Hopkins takes you through Geoffrey Hill’s masterpiece, Mercian Hymns. Book here or give us a ring on 0207 582 1679.

CAMPUS group:


  • Tony Linde

    Hi Holly, I’m interested in the Hill course but am doing another online course (’Versus, Vehemence and Vision: Poetry Of Social Engagement’) starting 25th Sept with first chat 9th Oct and fortnightly thereafter. Will your course conflict with this one or is it ok to do both at the same time?


  • Will Barrett (Poetry School)

    Hi Tony – without wishing to speak too much on Holly’s behalf – the Online Reading Courses work really well alongside one of our normal online courses. There are no live chats on these and all the discussion is done in your own time via the group message board. There’s also no obligation to participate (although obviously we encourage it) – you can just sit back and read through the notes in your own time and at your own convenience.

  • Tony Linde

    Thanks, Will. I will sign up for this then: have long admired Hill’s work and would love to get to know more about it.

  • Holly Hopkins

    Brilliant Tony, great to have you aboard!

  • Tony Linde

    Thanks, Holly. Now signed up and looking forward to it.

  • Steve Ely

    I have written a homage to this fantastic poem in my next book, ‘Englaland’ (out next year with Smokestack. However, it does cause animals – and people – to die.

  • Holly Hopkins

    Hi Steve, I hope Smut the cat survives! More seriously though, I’d be interest in what you took from it?

  • Claire Trevien

    Proper excited to join in on this one Holly!

  • Steve Ely

    Hi Holly – I’d planned a longish, narrative poem -‘The Battle of Brunanburh’ in which four voices tell stories set in the same landscape, but separated by hundreds of years. I thought that this synoptic vision of past/present future had an affinity with MH, which I was then re-reading. On re=encountering the verset form of MH, I realised it was perfect for what I wanted to do in Brunanburh, so I appropriated it. . Further, I saw my poem as being pamphlet length – my tendency is to write too much – so I arbitrarily gave myself a 30 section limit – it seemed about right with MH. In the writing I chucked in a few deliberate allusions to MH. Brunanburh is a narrative poem though, so its only in these relatively superficial aspects that it is ‘like’ MH. If you’re interested I’ll email you a copy.

  • Holly Hopkins

    Hi Claire, it’d be lovely to have you in the mix!

  • Holly Hopkins

    Hi Ely, if you’re writing a narrative poem about an Anglo-Saxon battle and disrupting its historical context, you might be interested to read ‘At Maldon’ by J.O. Morgan. (If you haven’t already!) He’s more influenced by Christopher Logue rather than Hill, but I think you might enjoy it:

  • Steve Ely

    I own that and like it. And please, call me Steve.

  • Holly Hopkins

    Sorry Steve!

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Image Credits:

Image: 10th century Anglo-Saxon illustration of a two-horse chariot, in a copy of Prudentius’s Psychomachia

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons