Guest post by C. M. Gadapee
Geoffrey Hill’s eight-line poem “Merlin” appeals to me for many reasons. I am enamored of the subject matter (I am currently taking a grad class in Grail Lit), and the formalist in me loves the regular rhyme and meter. That all said, however, I am intrigued by a couple of things. First, what can/should we make of the use of the word will in the first line? I see it as a decision to do something not yet done; he will do these things, consider these things. And then, who is the speaker? Is it, as the title suggests, Merlin? And us, perhaps? But to what purpose?
Ah, there’s a question: to what purpose? These mythic figures of British literature have a place both in our hearts and in the canon. But why these specific figures? Arthur, Elaine, Mordred: each name carries connotations and associations throughout literature from text to text, author to author, reader to reader, age to age, from the 1200s to present day. Arthur is a conflicted character, Elaine is the model of loyalty and unrequited love, Mordred is seen as both wronged son and betrayer . . . why these three?
I am also drawn to specific words in the poem, words like barrows, husks, bone, and pinnacled. I think in a short piece, the focus is so much tighter on each and every word. One cannot afford a misstep and still build a cohesive micro-universe. I honestly think that prose—and longer poems—may be more forgiving of vagueness or wanderings, of words that may not ring like a hammer on an anvil each and every time. In this poem, each word rings out clearly.
I also want to talk about poetic resonances and words. Hill’s use of outnumbering calls me to other works such as Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” in which he says that the dead, all of us, will join “the wise, the good,/Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,/All in one mighty sepulchre.” And Whitman also, in his prose piece “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” says that “we see, and ages yet may see, on monuments and gravestones, singly or in masses, to thousands or tens of thousands, the significant word Unknown.” This image of dead without number, or of the living being outnumbered, is both ennobling (as in Bryant’s view) or sobering (as in Whitman’s image). Even Thomas Gray in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” says, “And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,/Awaits alike the inevitable hour./The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Truer words are rarely found.
That all being said, my question revolves around words. What words do you find yourself drawn to? What weight do they carry?
Thanks for having me . . . Carlene