Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

John Dyer: Quarrying Grongar Hill

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

John Dyer: Quarrying Grongar Hill

Article excerpt

Bucknell University

The link between seeing and feeling, between the carnal sense of sight and the emotion, that membrane: readers used to think of it as a window, a lens--or, more active yet, Emerson's transparent eye. But what does one make of the eye when the eye, that human window, is absent, or when language stands in for the eye's faculty, if not for feeling itself? One makes a study. Or one builds a house.

Grongar Hill--now known to cartographers and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales by as Welsh spelling, Grongaer--stands in Carmarthenshire, six miles east of the medieval borough of Llandeilo and between the abandoned medieval castles of Dryslwyn and Dinefwr. It was and is a hill, indeed a green hill, as the name suggests. At the crest lies the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, or so I am .assured by the ordnance survey map by Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (hereafter, RCAHMW). I was staring up into its bracken not long ago, from the ancient track that skirts the southern flank. I could have trespassed to the summit, but I didn't.

John Dyer (1699-1757) had moved to the Aberglasney estate--in a dell just east of the hill--as a boy after his father Richard bought the property in 1710. He drafted "Grongar Hill" in 1716 and rewrote it in 1726, several years after he'd left his family's country estate for London, in octosyllabic couplets of four cadences each. In London, and later in Rome, Dyer mostly tried to establish himself as a painter, and mostly failed. Returning to Britain, he estranged himself from some of his relations, lived on money inherited from the rest, experimented with farm schemes, got himself ordained as a minister in the Church of England, in 1741, married a woman half his age, and prospered, more or less, according to the standards of his day. In final form his signature poem runs to some 158 lines, opening "Silent Nymph, with curious Eye! / Who, the purple Ev'ning, lye / On the Mountain's lonely Van. . . ." A lot follows, although Wordsworth belatedly paused long enough to praise Dyer as a worthy kinsman.

One must make allowances. Dyer was a moony teenager when he first drafted the poem, and an anxious acolyte of the English literary and artistic scene, in London and then abroad, when he rewrote it. He would go on to write a book-length vision-quest in verse about sheep farming entitled The Fleece. As Wikipedia helpfully explains, "The Reece is a four-book blank-verse Georgic poem dealing with the tending of sheep, the shearing and preparation of the wool, weaving, and trade in woolen manufactures. The epic was written in a lofty manner, inclusive of a moral and patriotic material for the point is made that England has a respect for trade and consequently prospers. On a more personal level, he reflects on the benefits that trade will bring to him. The Fleece failed to gain recognition." Indeed. Samuel Johnson sums up the case well when he notes "Dyer is not a poet of bulk or dignity sufficient to require an elaborate criticism," in spite of his most famous poem.

When I visited Grongar Hill it was autumn: dark, wet, and dank. Aberglasney, the erstwhile Dyer estate, had a checkered subsequent history; it was abandoned in the 1950s and allowed to settle into advanced decay before volunteers and an American-funded trust began restoring both the house and its famous gardens, renowned as far back as 1477, when another Welsh poet, Lewis Glyn Cothi, had praised them. The track to Grongar Hill threads past what had been the service range of the estate towards Grongar Farm, once a dependency of the estate but subsequently set off and sold to a tenant. It's still a working farm, and it's private property.

Allowing for the rise and fall of oaks, most of the views from Aberglasney's celebrated gardens, which John Dyer also memorialized, in "The Country Walk," seem designed not to enable views of the hill, but to block the prospect. …

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