Variant Editions of Geoffrey Hill’ s Mercian Hymns
The text of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns reprinted in full in Hill’s 2006 Penguin Selected Poems bears a strange unlikeness to the poem as it appears in the original André Deutsch pamphlet of 1971, and then again in Somewhere Is Such a Kingdom: Poems 1952–1971 (Boston, 1975) and the Penguin Collected Poems of 1985. Where the earlier books exactly replicate the lineation of the original pamphlet, the 2006 version rejigs the text by packing in more words per line, thus altering the words that begin and/or end any given line, as well the spatial positioning of those in between. Selected Poems ostensibly observes the distinctive shape of Mercian Hymns’ ‘versets of rhythmical prose’, as Hill characterised the form in his interview with John Haffenden:1 short paragraphs justified at both margins, with the first line of each ‘outdented’, slightly overhanging the left margin – like the effigy on Offa’s coins as described in hymn XIII, at once ‘kempt and jutting’. But it’s as if the liquid has set differently in the mould. So, to take an instance at random, the first lines of hymn XXIII in the original read
In tapestries, in dreams, they gathered, as it was en-
acted, the return, the re-entry of transcendence into this sublunary world. […]
while Selected Poems has
In tapestries, in dreams, they gathered, as it was enacted,
the return, the re-entry of transcendence into this sublunary world. […]
This means that while the original verset runs to six (or five and a half) lines, concluding with ‘master- / works of treacherous thread’, the 2006 text falls just short of five. Similar anomalies run through all of the rest of the hymns.
A crucial distinction between poetry and prose, it could be argued, is that the latter lacks the precise spatial coordinates of the former. There isn’t a meaningful discrepancy between, say, a large-print edition of Pride and Prejudice which cuts the first line off at ‘It is a truth universally acknowl-’, budging ‘edged, that a single man in possession of a’ down to the second and ‘good fortune must be in want of a wife’ onto the third, and an edition which fits the whole sentence onto one line, because in prose the sentence or clause is the unit of meaning, not the line. In poetry, most obviously perhaps in end-rhyming poetry, it clearly does matter that a certain word should appear at the end of a line and not at the beginning or in the middle of the next, or vice versa. A poem prompts the reader to make vertical and diagonal associations between words, as well as having to be read horizontally from left to right, and the spatial properties of a poem may often interfere with and modify its syntactic sense. In describing Mercian Hymns as ‘versets of rhythmical prose’ Hill was careful to distinguish the form from the prose poem; nevertheless, his phrase points to a peculiar combination of prose and verse elements, a combination which unsettles the (in)significance of word placement, line ending, and their potential alteration.
This is the first verset of the original hymn III:
On the morning of the crowning we chorused our re-
mission from school. It was like Easter: hankies and gift-mugs approved by his foreign gaze, the village-lintels curlered with paper flags.
Are these line endings are prosily arbitrary or poetically premeditated? There would be a case for thinking Hill means to make something out of ‘mission’, the word gaining a new lease of life from out of the sundered body of the old, like the Word, ‘like Easter’: sense 1 of the OED entry for ‘mission’ is ‘In Trinitarian theology: the sending into the world of the Son or Spirit by the Father, or of the Spirit by the Son, esp. for the purpose of salvation’. But that leaves the conspicuously redundant ‘re-’, which fails to live up its privileged placement as the first line’s last word, being something less than a word. Last words acquire special significance in lines two and three from the internal punctuation, which builds them into enclosures of their own. Somewhat paradoxically though, the definite article that concludes the third denies the line definition as a line, the rhythm of the prose, which is also partly established by the preceding comma, asking us to proceed without pause to the important business of the clause. On the other hand again, taking an awkward break at the end of the line could have the effect of converting the prosier, short-vowel pronunciation of ‘the’ to a longer-vowelled ‘thee’ – an apt aural emphasis for a so-called ‘hymn’. One could even claim a rhyme between ‘re-’ and ‘the’, the quatrain pattern completed by the semantic rhyming of ‘hankies’ and ‘flags’ as a mode of (pseudo-Christ-like) surrender. Yet any such claims are rendered academic by Hill’s Selected Poems, in which the prose imperatives override those of a putative poetic form: the last words in each line in that edition are a restituted ‘remission’, ‘gift-mugs’, ‘curlered’, and, hoisted an inch or so to the left, ‘flags’.
Or consider whether the past participle endings also function as line endings in the second verset of hymn XII.
The men were paid to caulk water-pipes. They brewed and pissed amid splendour; their latrine seethed its estuary through nettles. They are scattered to your collations, moldywarp.
Two such adjacent endings could be coincidence, but three, one hazards, must be technique, although the third of those participles, ‘scattered’, brings into play a randomness that tells against the regimented look of the right hand margin. Moreover, the sense of an inner fluidity threatening to burst its seams (the implication seems to be that the men do not do what they are paid to do), and the piss – at variance with the
Thomas Day: Variant Editions of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns