Gerard Manley Hopkins

Today I shall celebrate the first poet I fell in love with, head over heels: Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).

Hopkins was a shy man, a Jesuit priest who wrote poetry in obscurity. Many of his papers went up in smoke the day after he died, simply because his superiors had no inkling that their cohort was, in the words of his biographer Robert Bernard Martin, “the most original English poet of the century.”

What made him so original? First, his poems did not scan in conventional ways. He enjambed with aplomb and wrote in a syncopated cadence which he called “sprung rhythm.” His syntax was springy as well; he torqued ordinary word order, used verbs as nouns, and coined words willy-nilly. The coinages were usually compounds of some kind, and some are breathtaking: “dapple-dawn-drawn falcon” . . . “the womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all-night.” Some are silly, “betweenpie” being, in my view, the very silliest. But a poet as playful, and as ecstatic, as Hopkins was bound to be silly now and then. Hopkins was God’s fool.

Was his subject matter as original as his writing style? Hopkins took up some unadventurous nature themes and his religious verse was firmly rooted in his beloved Catholicism, to which he was a convert. Still, his conviction that each person could embody Christ seems nearly Buddhist in its sensibility; it strikes me as a revolutionary stance for the Victorian era. A series of his sonnets, commonly called the “Terrible Sonnets,” portray a dark night of the soul even darker than that of John of the Cross; he embodies despair in these poems as he embodies Christ in others. They have a psychological depth that seems modern, post-Freudian. Hopkins also celebrated ordinary people, a blacksmith, a ploughman, a recently canonized saint who had done little more in his life than serve as a doorkeeper. These “working-man” poems take a new slant on things; they don’t depend on pastoral conventions.

Hopkins did not bequeath many poems to us; despite its scant heft, his opus is amazingly expansive. He wrote about the soul, the flesh, nature, work, longings, fellowship, everything really except romantic love. Someday, if I am fortunate, someone somewhere will note the same things about my own work, and credit the influence of the sensuous Jesuit who came before me.

Hurrahing in Harvest

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes,
Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;
And, eyes, heart, what looks, what lips yet gave you a
Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder
Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—
These things, these things were here and but the beholder
Wanting; which two when they once meet,
The heart rears wings bold and bolder
And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

The Candle Indoors

Some candle clear burns somewhere I come by.
I muse at how its being puts blissful back
With yellowing moisture night’s blear-all black
Or to-fro tender trambeams truckle at the eye.

By that window what task what fingers ply,
I plod wondering, a-wanting, just for lack
Of answer the eager a-wanting Jessy or Jack
There/God to aggrandize, God to glorify.—

Come you indoors, come home; your fading fire
Mend first and vital candle in close heart’s vault:
You there are master, do your own desire;

What hinders? Are you beam-blind, yet to a fault
In a neighbor deft-handed? Are you that liar
And, cast by conscience out, spendsavour salt?

Felix Randal

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reasons rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou as the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!


This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
       As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
       Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
       Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
       Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
       Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
       Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
       To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

(Terrible Sonnet)

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a man, a chief-
wo, world sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked: ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

(Terrible Sonnet)

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

That Nature is a Heralclitean Fire and of
the comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows | flaunt forth, then
           chevy on an air-
built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs | they
           throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, | wherever an
           elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long | lashes lace, lance, and
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous | ropes, wrestles, beats
           earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; | in pool and rutpeel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed | dough, crust, dust; stanches,
Squadroned masks and manmarks | treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, | nature’s bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest | to her, her clearest-selvèd
Man, how fast his firedint, | his mark on mind is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned, O pity and indig | nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral a star, | death blots black out; nor mark
                       is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time | beats level. Enough! the Resur-
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, de-
                               Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                               In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal
                                       Is immortal diamond.

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