Below is a poem from the sequence ‘Rhine Fugue’ by Hilary Davies, which appears in her fourth collection, Exile and the Kingdom (Enitharmon, 2016). A note by Hilary follows the poem.
Printing William Tyndale’s New Testament, Peter Schoeffer’s Workshop, Worms, 1526
Come here and see the frameset of the word: All night in the printshop we enter its alchemies. Where does it come from? There is nothing apparent That would make man’s silence break. Yet breath breathes out of the mind And starts to move. Like water, it runs As if to no law, but watch more astutely And you will see it ekes mountains Down into dust. What fools would we be In our children’s eyes if we tried to catch This quicksilver under the pump with our fingers Though armies march to its rhythms? Speech is a decanting of souls Into the commonwealth of potential and witness That is life. With the word consolation, A dozen sisters crowd into the room, Full of gifts: compassion, lightness, sweetness, Bringing fortitude or peace – How germane these are, yet none the same.
Words are blood, passed down the centuries; They spill, are spilt, and some, from being tiny Or despised, shape all our destinies: What was a thorn once before it was a crown? Here flow rivers where words hesitate And gather behind pressure Till the flood is right and the freight’s let go.
This man brings it, towards evening When shadows cloak, and we are grinding the inks. He’s known, and watched, for the company he keeps – Men who preach at street corners, deniers Or repeaters of sacraments – He goes into the ghetto and learns from the Jews. And out of it all comes this: In the retort of language to language He turns what can only be guessed at Into a new and startling alloy Whose structure shifts the world.
Our business is this: Using our alchemy to get his message out. From mind to printed page’s a universe, Messy, complex, interlocking. The eye must never cast wrong Or the thought’s thrown out. Pressure brings it to birth In the noise and stink of the print room, The tick of the sorts in the fourme, oils and liquors To fix the impress, the whole purpose Of this distillation of thinking, Grapes or olives sweating their sap. So the press comes down as our body leans to it And the words are strained in their thousands Ready for draught.
But how shall they spread across the frontiers? These words are not for kings nor ecclesiarchs, But for the rock that’s every man’s and woman’s soul. Safety’s paradox is daylight: wagons brought before the door, Awaiting flour or oil or wine to seal the cargo And the softest lamb’s wool weave layered in To safeguard the words. What terror Winching these bales out over the driving Rhine stream, What prayer as she buoys the ships up and out Like crystals on her rolling spine! Elect for London. For the Stapelyard Where our merchants deal among the cranemasts, Where the traders in outlaw slip with their parcels Down Dowgate, All Hallows, Amen Corner As the curfew bites. Tonight, Over all these patchwork islands, In hedgerow and churchyard, The tinder is laid to the stake.
Hilary writes: The Tyndale poem is part of a longer sequence which uses the Rhine as a real river and symbolic metaphor for Europe; this then becomes a meditation on how we live with our neighbours, the origins of war, and the urgent necessity to actively cultivate and work for peace. It arose out of my visits to the Rhine over forty years and the friendships I have made there. I wrote it before the Brexit referendum, but it has since taken on a terrifying actuality as the European project envisaged by Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman begins to be destroyed. My choices of what aspects of Rhenish history to focus on were determined by a desire to show how the Rhine has been not only a frontier, but much more frequently a place of exchange: between Jews and Christians, Frenchmen and Germans, Englishmen and Germans, and a place of great cultural richness. It is only an apparent paradox that Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English should have been published in Worms, for that of course is where a great many free-thinking Protestant printers operated. In this poem I evoke Tyndale’s desire to use language to propagate the Bible, his erudition and probable contact with the learned Jewish community who lived in Worms, the mechanisms of printing and the smuggling of these English New Testaments to England in bales of wool that landed in the Steelyard, London.