Saturday, October 15, 2016

Discussing Geoffrey Hill's Poem "Merlin"

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


Tom said...

For such a short poem, there are so many words to choose from! I’m immediately drawn to many of the same words you point out, Carlene, (husk! just love the sound of it!) but for the moment I’m lingering on “pinnacled corn.” “Pinnacled” so perfectly evokes the turrets and spires of Arthurian castles. I love the way that Hill suggests the persistence of nature amongst the decline and death of the Arthurian cultural achievement; even in their deaths the cycle of life persists. It is as if even though they have failed and passed on, something of their civilization (“over their city”) grows again in the architectural pinnacles of the renewed growth of grain.

I have to confess, though, that I think American ears always encounter “corn” as a real stumbling block – so hard not to think of those ears of yellow corn! In trying to mentally squeeze away that Mazola-tinged image, though, I’m recalling lines from Herrick’s “Hock Cart”:
COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
I just love the density with which Hill compresses imagery of death and harvest, failure and regeneration.

Lingering more on “corn,” I’m thinking more of those end rhymes and slant rhymes: “dead” and “fed” are the one true rhyme, emphasizing the essential core of the poem, that these deaths feed the cycle of regeneration. “Gone” and “one” rhyme slantly, more visually perhaps, but it’s wonderful how the “one” is contained within “gone.” “Seed”/”tide” and then “bone”/”corn” also beautifully echo one another both in sound and sense.

On the level of sound, too, I’m loving “raftered galleries of bone.” Something in their syllabic movement is just lovely and final.

Carlene said...

Thank you; I agree entirely with what you are hearing/sensing in the corn imagery, especially since corn did not always refer to what we think of as could be wheat or other life-sustaining grains. And yes..."lovely and final" is a good way to put it re: the "galleries of bone" image. I see the stone ribs of cathedrals AND I see ossuaries. Even, in some odd way, the human ribcage.

Dawn Potter said...

I want to return to Carlene's original curiosity about the word "will" in the first line. I think the use of the future tense makes this poem very different from some of the others meditations on death that you mentioned because the speaker (if it is indeed Merlin) is himself deathless. He "considers" and he "will consider" loss because he has no choice to do otherwise. He is the only one who lasts.

Carlene said...

Now I'm intrigued by this juxtaposition of "will" and no choice to do otherwise. Hm.

Ruth said...

Somehow I think Merlin is not the speaker. He, the center of the magical, mystic world has gone. Gone also, are they "the husk of what was rich seed" who believed in the magic Yet, the life giving grain "the pinnacled corn" remains. Therefore the future tense use of WILL looks back at what was and what still remains.
Now, just who the speaker might be remains a question.

Dawn Potter said...

Does anyone else question the speaker' identity? If the speaker is not Merlin, what do you make of the title? And the verb tense?