Strange English Work: Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen

“Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant.” Penda’s Fen.

“Not strangeness, but strange likeness. Obstinate, outclassed forefathers, I too concede, I am your staggeringly-gifted child.” Mercian Hymns.

The two works under consideration here both concern Mercian kings from the Anglo Saxon period. They were produced within three years of each other (Mercian Hymns 1971, Penda’s Fen 1974) and they are both in some way concerned with rulers of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia. David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen imagines the transformative resurrection of England’s last pagan king into the pastoral setting of the Malvern Hills. Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns traces the psychogeographical imprints of King Offa through a temporally-shifting excavation of Mercian soil. Both works posit an underlying mythical residue that dwells in, or emerges from, the English landscape. In both works, this theme is treated in complex ways; it is not merely a simple matter of discerning a sublime or transcendent greatness in the landscape. Instead, both works, in distinct and divergent ways, point toward continuities and discontinuities of English history and place. Indeed, these continuities and discontinuities flow between as well as through these works. Continue reading “Strange English Work: Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen”