Archive for the ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Category


Reading Selections from Giorgio Buccellati’s Trinity Spermatiké

June 27, 2013
Our redemption means also the securing of the order of ontology, made possible because Jesus withstood the temptation to sin.

Our redemption means also the securing of the order of ontology, made possible because Jesus withstood the temptation to sin.

I recently led a discussion of Giorgio Buccellati’s Trinity Spermatiké at St Clements Eucharistic Shrine in Boston. This is a long piece from two editions of Communio, some 60+ pages in all. A previous posting is here.


The Church As The Foundational Element In The Constitution Of Reality
The Church is proposed as the foundational element in the constitution of reality. This is no small claim. And it is the ultimate aporia [vocab:  The expression of real or simulated doubt or perplexity]. the Church is the vehicle that perpetuates through time the redemptive action of Christ: through it, all humans are given the opportunity to “be with him in Paradise” (to quote the words of his last promise from the Cross). But — this is the claim proposed here — redemption means also the securing of the order of ontology, made possible because Jesus withstood the temptation to sin. (see discussion later in this post on plural “ontologies” and the secular view of being)

In the tempter’s view, the possibility that Jesus might succumb to temptation would have caused a seismic rupture such as to rent asunder (again, in his view) the very core of Trinitarian life, hence the order of being in its integrity. If so, it was by avoiding sin that Jesus saved the whole of reality from ontological collapse. In this perspective, the Church is the constitutive mechanism of this new order. In a Trinitarian dimension, it is the operational gift to the Father, by the Son through the Spirit, of a world newly immaculate (i.e., freed from the stain of sin and of ontological collapse.

Upstream of preaching the “good news” to the end of the earth (in fact, of the universe), the Church is the good news: for it is the constitutive mechanism of this new order…

Sacramentality As A Mechanism Which Is The Exclusive Vehicle Of Sanctity
It is clear to everyone that in the Eucharist we are grafted very specifically onto the Son; that in Confirmation we are enabled and vivified very specifically by the Spirit; that in Baptism, at the start of it all, our position of utter creaturely dependence acquires the character of sonship vis-à-vis, very specifically, the Father… The aporia of technology. The tool is sacralized because it is perceived as having power in itself, a power that is operative of its own accord, somehow capable of transcending limits.

A Link With Sacramentality
The material element in the sacraments is very much tied to, precisely, the material sphere; it is more than a poetic symbol. The water, the oil, the touching through the laying of hands, the articulation of one’s own conscience in words, the spousal physical interaction, and above all the bread and the wine are not sentimental images. They are carriers of a reality that cannot be conveyed otherwise.

Hence the aporia — the aporia of sacramentality: the spiritual dimension is inescapably bound with the material. It is a stumbling block, a no exit situation (the definition of aporia), even for those Christians who cannot accept such a deep level of incarnation: in this respect, the aporia of technology may indeed help us to understand their reaction as it found expression especially in the Reformation.

They see sacramentality as a form of that mechanics over which one pretends to claim control without in fact even knowing what the ultimate goal truly is. Such a realization can helpfully jerk us out of a humdrum acceptance that indeed would validate the critique.

Sacramentality asks for a startled assent to the sacrality of the material medium that is placed wholly in our human hands. This sacrality is not sacralization, in the sense that it is not our invention. It comes from the truly sacred. And yet it cannot be actualized without our participating in the many acts that make it possible. The final control is beyond us, we are wholly conditioned, but we are at the same time the sine qua non condition through which the sacrament can be effected

The Practice Of Christian Life
The practice of Christian life, at its most basic and simple, can indeed illumine the theological search for spiritual realities.
The attitude towards providence is a concrete embodiment of this fact. It is in our everyday life struggle that we see, etched deeply in our experience, what, abstractly, we may call the Trinitarian dimension of trans-vectorial dynamics. (See discussion of trans-vectorial dynamics in previous post – link above)

When we can see no further than anguish allows, i.e., not far at all, we Christians instinctively sense that there is a far distance that is not distant, a dynamics that does not pivot around a fixed point, a providence, precisely, which, however darkly, bends over us without bending.

Recall Gerard Manley Hopkins here:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last light off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with, ah! Bright wings.

And thus gives meaning to our anguish. It is an experience which knows both that we are not stuck, statically, in a no exit situation, and yet, at the same time, that this is not a computer game where vectorial dynamics is bound to provide the eventual exit.

Therein the difference between trust and reliance on providence on the one hand and, on the other, the wishful expectation that statistics will somehow be the palliative that moves us on to a different state of mind. The Christian experience of providence is profoundly and inescapably Trinitarian.

The Concept Of Ontologies
The branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being is ontology and is referred to in the singular. The plural of the term which affirms a plurality at the core of being has become entrenched in the literature about digital systems, and it may seem at first like an innocuous lexical inaccuracy for it refers to the varieties of categorizations that make up the structure of the data
. “An” ontology is the representation of a shared conceptualization of a particular domain.

From the standpoint of classical philosophy, this may be said to be simply a terminological “abuse,” not all that significant because, used in this sense, “ontology” does not refer to multiplicity within being, but rather within the phenomena. But it is more, I submit, than a mere example of a cavalier usage, or even a gross negligence, of a classical concept. It is instead indicative of a deeper intellectual posture, which I view as a reflection of the polytheistic matrix of our culture.

The concept of plural ontologies is consonant with the belief that there is no fundamental integrity to being as such. It affirms, in other words, a relativism that touches the very core of reality — it relativizes being as such. The kernel of the aporia is analogous to what we saw with regard to the relativization of the absolute. Both poles (absolute vs. relative, integrity vs. aggregation of being) are proposed as being valid at one and the same time.

Subtle though it may be, this is a form of supreme polytheism, revealing not so much ignorance of a basic tradition of thought, but, in fact the negation of its foundational meaning. By being proposed as a mere categorization system, the secular and anonymous acceptance of multiple “ontologies” debases “being” by denying its integrity, by fragmenting it into crumbs that proclaim concreteness in the name of abstraction.

The contrast with the aporia of the ecclesial ontology is enlightening, and it provides, at the same time, a close correlation of results. For ecclesial ontology, too, ties “being” to a concrete, historical dimension, by seeing it incarnate in a physical person and in the equally physical continuity he has established in time and space with the Church. But while the polytheistic ontologies crumble an abstract unity into concrete fragments, ecclesial ontology presents a coherent concrete mechanism through which concrete moments and aspects cohere into the overriding unity of ‘being.”


Gerard ManleyHopkins: Death and Posterity by Fr. Aidan Nichols

September 1, 2011


Glasnevin Cemetery Dublin Hopkins Gravesite Jesuit

FROM 1881 TO 1882 Hopkins fulfilled the requirements of the “Tertianship”, a sort of second novitiate for Jesuits in midlife. The notes he wrote then on Ignatian Exercises have been regarded as illuminating not only for his spirituality but for his poetry too. In the late summer of 1882, he returned for the last time to Stonyhurst with a commission to prepare for university the high-Hying classicists among the school’s cream of students. (His stay was notable for the intense correspondence he initiated with an “established” Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore.)

This was, in retrospect, a preamble to the post he received in 1884, when he became professor of Greek and Latin literature at University College, Dublin — the institution founded by Newman as the “Catholic University College” but newly acquired by the Jesuits from the Irish hierarchy, who considered it a white elephant. At the same time he was made a fellow in classics in the Royal University of Ireland — as its name suggests, a national body which had campuses in Belfast, Galway, and Cork, as well as a constitutional connection to the college in Dublin.

Unfortunately, the tedious slog of examining (a considerable part of his duties under the latter rubric, and the scripts were numbered annually not so much in hundreds as in thousands), combined with the homesickness and sense of alienation he felt in Ireland to undermine his mental peace. These were years of nationalist agitation, and Hopkins, whose English patriotism was passionate, felt isolated and wrong-footed by his new colleagues. He acknowledged the historic grievances of the Catholic Irish, but not the rightness of the solution proposed: dissolution of the bond with Britain and the empire. In the notes of his last retreat, after acknowledging what was positive about his work, he went on:

Meanwhile the Catholic Church in Ireland and the Irish Province in it and our College in that are greatly given over to a partly unlawful cause, promoted by partly unlawful means, and against my will my pains, laborious and distasteful, like prisoners made to serve the enemies’ gunners, go to help on this cause.
[Cited from the papers of Robert Bridges, as deposited in Bodley's Library at Oxford, in R. B. Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins]

Not that all of the Irish parties involved wanted his help. The provincial of the Irish Province disapproved in principle of English converts working in Ireland, and in Hopkins’s case, through inverted intellectual snobbery, the president of Maynooth and the Archbishop of Dublin agreed. His appointment “was a lasting grievance to the defeated fiction”. [N. White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography] Moreover, the students to whom Hopkins delivered his over-prepared lectures were unreceptive and sometimes boorish, the library facilities quite inadequate. Above all, his persona — and therefore, it seemed, his person — was out of place.

Many of his characteristics — appearance, way of talking, Newmanite conversion, shyness and reclusiveness, educated upper-class English and Oxonian mannerisms, scrupulous habits, interests in music and the visual arts, poetic compositions — appeared typical facets of an English aesthete…. He could be understood in Dublin only as an example of English aesthetic Catholicism, with which the Irish had no sympathy.
[N. White, Hopkins: A Literary Biography]

In these unpropitious circumstances, the various demons he had faced down — or at any rate faced — in the course of his short life now took up their abode. Deeper than the rational complaints there was a well of dreadful and — humanly speaking — unassuageable loneliness. The “Dark” or “Terrible” Sonnets are the upshot. He wrote to Bridges:

All impulse fails me: I can give myself no sufficient reason for going on. Nothing comes: I am a eunuch — but it is for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.
The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges, ed C.C. Abbott (London, 1955)

But though Hopkins’s Dublin period was in one sense a disaster, inducing melancholia and depression, he also knew periods of buoyancy, usually coinciding with spells in the Ireland of the countryside and the coast, or holidays in the rest of the British Isles. Not all the poetry of these years is a poetry of desolation. At the same time, the poems written under the impact of his negative experiences are superb testimonies to the human spirit in its capacity to endure.

In early May 1889 Hopkins fell ill with fever. He seemed to be mending but during the night of 5 June took a turn for the worse. His parents were called, and on the morning of 8 June 1889 he received the last rites. He died that day. Hopkins was buried in the plot owned by the Jesuits in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. The sanitary arrangements at 86 St Stephen’s Green had left much to be desired. The typhoid fever to which he succumbed was not a specialty of the city on the Liffey, dirty as it was, but a periodic danger in any conurbation of Victorian Britain.

Hopkins and Posterity
BY AND LARGE, Robert Bridges served Hopkins well as his literary executor. [However, Bridges' public apology for the ungrammatical quality of Hopkins's language, though doubtless designed to forestall criticism, sent many critics down the wrong track. Inspired by his study of dialect and philology, Hopkins's poetic "heightening" of current language was an intensification of the force not of standard prose but of common -- and especially of rural -- speech: thus J. Milroy, The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London 1977), 2-32, and passim. For Victorian word-collectors, rural speech had preserved "older forms unsullied by standardization, bookishness and artificiality"]

To keep his memory alive, he arranged for the publication of some few poems, by way of a memoir, more or less straight away. This fell resoundingly flat. So he waited until he judged the literary climate propitious for the release of the complete oeuvre. In his wartime anthology The Spirit of Man he ventured to include half a dozen complete poems and some parts of others. This time the response was different. Given Bridges’ standing as poet laureate front 1913 until his death in 1930, his advocacy was already a major point in Hopkins’s favor. But that was by no means the whole story. In September 1917 he wrote to Hopkins’ mother:

I have had lately some very authoritative appeals for the publication of all Gerard’s poetical remains. The `Spirit of Man’ has had a wide sale, and his poems in it have commanded a good deal of attention. The other day Sir Walter Raleigh, [professor of English literature at Oxford] whose judgment is very highly esteemed, said to me that Gerard’s poems in The Spirit of Man were the only ones among the comparatively unknown writers whom I had introduced, which stood up alongside of the greater writers. And this afternoon I met a man who had just come from Petrograd, who said much the same thing. He was very urgent about having a complete edition.

And he added, “I think the time has come to publish all the poems”. [E. Stanford (ed.), The Selected Letters of Robert Bridges (London 1983)] The first edition of the poems appeared, accordingly, in 1918 — with Hopkins’s middle name, Manley, included on the title page owing to a worry about confusion with his nephew, also Gerard, by then a well-known translator. Ever since the second edition, dated to 1930, Hopkins’s stock has continued to rise. Many would now rate him the outstanding English poet of the nineteenth century — a century of extraordinary literary flowering in our country. He and his work have been the object of some three thousand books and articles. One notes that among the most distinguished critics are his fellow Jesuits.

That process of reclamation began in 1920, when an unsigned group of Hopkins’s confreres, writing simply as “Plures“, contributed an important memoir to a commemorative issue of the then-premier British Catholic journal, The Dublin Review. Their judgment has been borne out by the best scholars since. As one of the latter sums up:

The judgment of Plures amounts to this: Hopkins was `an English mystic compounded of Benjamin Jowett and Duns Scotus’, with an extraordinary talent for `freakish’ mirth and for searching out `the odd and the whimsical’. He had nonetheless chosen a hard and unrewarding life as a Jesuit, fit neither by character nor by discipline to be one… Plures argued that Hopkins’ sensitive nature had been built upon Walter Pacer’s and John Ruskin’s aestheticism, his philosophical views upon Jowett’s Platonism, and his Catholicism upon Cardinal Newman’s doggedness…. The influence of Oxford had been crucial.
T. Zaniello, Hopkins in the Age of Darwin

In Plures’ opinion, plainly, Hopkins could have said with Newman, it was not Catholics who made him a Catholic. It was Oxford that did so.

Gerard Hopkins entered into the Catholic Christian vision of creation and redemption with all the rich energies of his mind and heart. He also suffered acutely from a sense of the failure not simply of projects for books that never saw the light of day but also of the pastoral and educational charges he undertook in the Church’s service. The latter were not burdens thrust upon him by the Jesuit Society in a spirit of making round pegs fit square holes. Within the — inevitably — limited range of possible assignments with which his superiors were faced, the difficulties he encountered were simply the way, for someone of his diffidence and sensitivity, things fell out.

To a limited degree, the English Jesuits gave him a sense of belonging to a holy brotherhood. The Society of Jesus was a clerical organization (though with “temporal coadjutors”, lay brothers who did the domestic labor). It was not an order of monks or canons regular, consisting of stable communities each with a closely bonded conventual life. In any case, the personality traits which made Hopkins prey to recurring feelings of self-disillusionment and loneliness were well established before entry and would not have been easy to dislodge. In his meditation notes on the Spiritual Exercises he had written, “Let all consider this: we are our own tormentors”.

Hopkins’s secular biographers have recorded a verdict of contradiction between the lives of priest and poet, or, more recently, the celibate and the man in love with human (especially male) beauty. Discounting the strata of the human personality where grace and nature — not without some tension — meet and embrace, they run the risk of counting for nothing, then, his dying words, “I am so happy, I am so happy”. [Cited R. B. Martin, Gerard Manley Hopkins] Probably such critics have not weighed sufficiently an entry in his retreat notes for 1883, on the eve of his mission in Ireland:

In meditating on the Crucifixion I saw how my asking to be raised to a higher degree of grace was asking also to be lifted on a higher cross. Then I took it that our Lord recommended me to our Lady and her to me.
The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1967)


The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe – Fr. Aidan Nichols on Gerard Manley Hopkins I

August 30, 2011

Gerard Manley Hopkins depicted by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillsepie

I had featured this poem under another post “Anthem Poems” before but I’ve been reading Fr. Aidan Nichols’ seminal work on Gerard Manley Hopkins  and he featured it in his collection of Hopkin’ poetry, so here it is again. A little longish so I chopped into two posts.

I confess that I have learned most of my theology through literature and writings like Fr. Nichols and Anthony Esolen. See if you don’t see what I mean:


The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe
                Gerard Manley Hopkins

                Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

                 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name. 
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air. 

                If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

                 Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

                So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

                Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Written in May 1883 at Stonyhurst, this is another example of the “May offerings” to the Mother of the Lord to set beside “The May Magnificat.” This poem was not a great favorite of Hopkins (Hopkins’ friend and future Poet Laureate to whom we owe the great debt of knowing anything about Hopkins at all), who probably considered its meter too unadventurous. It is written in trimeter couplets, which are quite common among the Latin hymns of the Roman Office. But Bridges, despite his Protestantism — or Protestant agnosticism — found it admirable, rather to Hopkins’s surprise. (Of course a more doctrinally committed Protestant might not have so well kept his literary cool.) In the third (1948) edition of the poems, W. H. Gardner summarized the theme. In this paean to the Blessed Virgin, Hopkins:

says that just as the atmosphere sustains the life of man and tempers the power of the sun’s radiation, so the immaculate nature of Mary is the softening, humanizing medium of God’s glory, justice and grace. Through her the ineffable Godhead becomes comprehensible — sweetly attuneable to the limited human heart.’
The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner (London 1948).

Here Hopkins places himself square in the tradition of the seventeenth-century “Metaphysical” poets, who delighted to work out sustained analogies between utterly disparate aspects of experience: in this case, the air in which our biological life functions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the gracious intercession of the Virgin, crucial as that is — so Hopkins maintains — to our spiritual life. Gardner’s summary raises a major question of theological sensibility: in pursuing this analogy how well has Hopkins succeeded in avoiding the impression that the “softening, humanizing’ effect of the Mother of Jesus in her distinctive role in the economy of salvation might actually threaten to replace, in this regard, of the humanity of her Son?

The opening is very striking. The air to which Mary will be compared is no gentle breeze. Rather is it “Wild air”, and the adjective is repeated twice more, once in identical if inverted terms — “air wild”, and once when the Mother of Christ is described directly as a “wild web”. Norman MacKenzie points out how, in Hopkins’s distinctive language use, “wild” always has some reference to the way a being expresses its own nature in (more or less consummate) freedom [N. H. MacKenzie, A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins].

This air — which so far is simply the physical atmosphere of planet Earth — is, Hopkins continues, “world-mothering air”. No life is possible without the atmosphere that surrounds the planet. Hence all the complexly interrelated organisms which compose our world may be said to have their nurture in this element. Hopkins draws our attention to the exquisite delicacy with which the air enters our physical environment, so gently and unremarkably that I am almost always unaware of the atmosphere around me: “Nestling me everywhere”, girdling each eyelash or hair”. In the outdoors cold (in the Pennines there could still be snow in early May) the air “goes home betwixt / The fleeciest, frailest-flixed [fluff-like] / Snowflake”, nor is this anything unusual for it “is rife / In every least thing’s life”.

Hopkins has now positioned himself so as to be able to explain the “world-mothering” accolade with which he began. Manifestly, the air is “This needful, never spent, / And nursing element”. One would look odd without it: “This air, which by life’s law / My lung must draw and draw”. And now, says the poet, he is drawing it so as to sing air’s praise.


Poem: The Lantern Out of Doors by Gerard Manley Hopkins

July 8, 2010

G. M. Hopkins

A poem I hadn’t noticed until Anthony Esolen introduced it in his chapter on Hopkins from Ironies of Faith. The interpretation that follows is so true and rather sad in some ways but in the end deeply affirming of our Catholic faith.

Before the poem, a short bio on the poet written by Fr. Joseph J. Feeney, S.J.

Hopkins the Poet, Hopkins the Jesuit
The major, the finest, poets of Victorian England were Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yet Hopkins was almost unknown until 1918 when his book Poems was first published, as edited by his friend Robert Bridges, then Poet Laureate.

Born on 28 July 1844 in London suburb of Stratford, Essex, Gerard Hopkins grew up in the London’s Hampstead, among a comfortable family talented in word, art, and music. In 1863 he went up to Oxford where he did brilliantly and anguished over religion. With the counsel of John Henry Newman, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church on 21 October 1866, and after finishing Oxford in 1867 he taught for some months at Newman’s Oratory School near Birmingham.

Hopkins entered the Society of Jesus on 7 September 1868, and did his novitiate in London and his philosophy in Lancashire. After a year of teaching in the Jesuit Juniorate, he began theology at St. Beuno’s College in beautiful North Wales where, in the winter 1875-76, he flashed into poetic splendor with the long, great ode “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” His annus mirabilis as a poet was 1877, the year of his ordination, when he wrote eleven sonnets including “God’s Grandeur,” “The Starlight Night,” “As Kingfishers catch fire,” “Spring,” “The Windhover,” “Pied Beauty,” and “Hurrahing in Harvest.”

In October Hopkins left Wales, his “Mother of Muses,” to teach and minister variously in Derbyshire, London, Oxford, Bedford Leigh, Liverpool, Glasgow, and (after tertainship) Stonyhurst College. In these middle years Hopkins wrote fine prose sermons and such excellent poems as “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” “Henry Purcell,” “Felix Randal,” and the poignant, wonderful “Spring and Fall.”

In 1884 Hopkins went to Dublin as Professor of Greek at University College and examiner in the Royal Univeristy. But on Stephen’s Green his chronic depression was magnified by bad eyesight, political irritation, spiritual desolation, and exhaustion from grading hundreds of examination papers.

In 1885-86 he wrote seven sonnets, the “Terrible Sonnets” or “Dark Sonnets,” which scream with pain amid technical perfection. But other poems express patience, even jubiliant hope in Christ, though his final poem describes a “winter world ” in which his “sweet fire” of poetic inspiration has waned. A few weeks later, on 8 June 1889, he died, a victim of typhoid fever.

Hopkins’ poems, first published in 1918, grew into fame after the second edition of 1930. Hailed as experimental and strikingly modern, they display rich music, novel rhythms, clustered words, craggy strength, and poetic power. Later, Hopkins had distinguished followers: notably such important modern poets W.H.Auden, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, David Jones, and Dylan Thomas.

The Lantern Out of Doors
Sometimes a lantern moves along the night
That interests our eyes And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
there, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.

We think we love, but how slow and lukewarm our hearts are! How fortunate that salvation depends not on our love, but on God’s. Hopkins seems to have been as naturally curious about other people as anyone alive, but he is honest about how far this love of neighbor takes him:  not far.

Many a man would not travel with the lantern carrier to the end of the first stanza. But we are each of us that lantern carrier, traveling the darkness alone. And more: we are that darkness, too. For the physical or intellectual beauty of a man has to fight its way to us: it has to “rain” “rich beams” “against our much-thick and marsh air.” Then we notice him, we of the dismal marsh: a beautiful man with a lantern, going somewhere.

Where does he go? The way of all flesh. He fades into death or, what serves as well for the speaker, into distance. With that, the speaker loses all interest. The metaphor is financial as well as psychological. Death or distance buys up everything we have invested, and then “out of sight is out of mind.” Thus Hopkins says, with sadness, that even friendship is little more than the flickering interest kindled in us by a lantern swinging in the hand of a night traveler.

No, we do not know love from ourselves. That is the affront Christianity delivers to the sentimentalists who divorce the dignity of man from God. The sentimentalist will make a god out of love; Christianity asserts that you do not even know what love is unless in some fashion you know God, for it is God who is love, the Creator and no other. He chose us that we might choose him. We do not say he is our friend, deriving the image by analogy from human friendship. Rather we say that all human friendship is the far and shadowy reflection of God’s true love for us.

For here in a world of night foundered wayfarers, there is yet one who seeks us out. We may “wind our eye after” someone in whom we are interested, but we do not follow. Christ follows. Moving among us mind-misted people of the marsh, who half forget even as we begin to love, is one who not only remembers, but who loves and amends what he sees.

We think we enjoy fellowship, says Hopkins, but that is but an interruption of our solitude. Yet in the same solitude, unseen by us and unsuspected, walks Christ. His interest does not flag, because His is the creature, as His are the winnings. He buys us back from death and distance; He loses, so to speak, that He may win. He alone is our “ransom” and “rescue.” In the beginning, now, and evermore, Christ is ours before we know we are His, closer to us than we are to ourselves, our “first, fast, last friend.”


Drawing Closer To The Heart Of The Lord: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty

July 1, 2010

Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough...

This is not the first time I have introduced this poem on Paying Attention To The Sky, but I shall do it again to showcase Anthony Esolen’s prodigious talents of interpretation. I first studied the poem back in a lit class in college and counted syllables and stress, marveling at the intricacies of structure and form of the sonnet. Elsewhere I have related how this poem can easily become a prayer — a cool summer morning following several days in the nineties — you can memorize this and recite it on the way to bus stop. You’ll be surprised how many more counter, original, spare, strange things you’ll notice on the way to work.

“God is Love”
WE ARE USED TO hearing the biblical verse, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and nodding knowingly to ourselves. “Ah yes,” says the modern agnostic with a taste for religion. “I don’t know whether God exists, but I do know that if he does, then He is love. So I will try to live according to love.”

That’s better than nothing. But we are too familiar with the verse. We no longer hear its thundering challenge to the entire Greek philosophical system.

For if God is love and not necessity (since what is determined or compelled cannot be an act of love), then none of this universe need have been. Nor need it have been the way it is now. The belief that God creates from nothing, freely, is a logical consequence of believing that he creates from love.

But how can God love man? God needs nothing from man, not even man’s love. Christians believe that God already is a communion of three persons bound by love, each distinct, yet each fully God. Man knows a trace of the love that moves God, or that is God’s movement within himself: as he moves not from need, but from superabundance, from generosity one might even say from playfulness.

Man will cherish animals from which he derives nothing of use; he will potter about a flower garden for delight in the flowers; his heart will soar at the strains of music; he cheers at the sight of a big and boisterous; family. Unlike every other creature on earth, man needs what he does not need, and loves where he does not lack — and he feels that he loves more fully from his plenty and strength, from his fascination with life, and from his will-to-beauty, than from his sense of incompleteness and insufficiency. In those high-hearted moments, man is close to God.

In no classical author do we find the great Zeus, father of gods and men stooping to limn a blade of grass or smooth out a dewdrop. Such affairs would be relegated to some deity so low on the scale as to he nameless. But our God, who made even the creeping things that creep upon the earth, who cares for ostrich egg because the hen is too bird-brained to do it herself (Job 39:13), whose kingdom is as a mustard seed, and who decks the lilies of the field in such glory as would put to shame the tailors of Solomon, delights in works. He enjoys them, he calls them good, he loves them. And, to paraphrase Jesus, if God so loves the grass, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more does he love us, us of the hard hearts?

We might think such things beneath our notice, but the incomparably great God notices them. Small as they are, they provide for the attentive a powerful way to draw closer to the heart of the Lord (Paying Attention, don’t you see!!!). Such was the insight of the Victorian priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The more unusual creature, the more it is peculiarly itself, the greater the delight. Consider this magnificent miniature sonnet on the beauty of all things great and small:

                           Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as brinded cow
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift slow sweet sour adazzle, dim,
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change
Praise him.

The bustling corral of things animate and inanimate defies category, exactly as Hopkins intends. No one really looks upon the sky and thinks of the splotches on a calico cow, probably because no one looks appreciatively enough at the sky and its cowishness, or at a cow and its reflection of a weathering sky. That odd second line brings heaven to earth with a delightful bump. The point, after all, is that heaven can be seen where no one sees it, especially upon the peculiarly beautiful things of earth — on the rosy stipples of a freshwater trout, for instance.

Not only there, though; Hopkins would never settle for being a dreamy little nature poet, a devotee of the pretty, and therefore a pretender of love. For how can you love weeds and thrush’s eggs and not love man?

If God delights in the making of chestnuts, the more does he delight in waking beings who can delight also in his making of chestnuts and everything else. Therefore, man, his labor and his ingenuity, must also be praised; for the quirky beauty of man’s own creativity, as evinced in sickles and ice-tongs and flails and adzes, reflects its source, the beauty of God. Fishing lures, wrenches, lathes, ropes and pulleys, pails of tar, seedbags and harrows, all in “trim,” in order, share in Hopkins’s hymn to muscular love.

But in the second stanza the poet leaves these particular things behind and turns his attention to their typical qualities — there is not one specific noun for the rest of the poem. That is because he wants to reverse the kaleidoscope: we shift our sights from the ever-changing and exuberantly various individual things to the never-changing God who made them.

Now the ironic thing about this shift is not just that a never-changing God would create things which, since they are not God, would be subject to change. It is rather that God would delight in having his never-changing beauty pieced out among, refracted through, so many forms and so odd. Yet it is no derogation of his one and eternal beauty that it should be made manifest in the swift and the slow, the dazzling and the dim. For he does not simply make, as an artificer. He “fathers-forth.”

We should meditate upon that phrase. It suggests neither the pantheism latent in earth-mother cults (whose goddess is identified with the mindless fecundity of nature), nor the fatalism latent in rationalistic theologies such as deism. God “fathers-forth”– the begetter and maker of what he did not have to beget or make. He has loved all things into being.

Begetting them, he is to be found by means of them, whether the spiraling galaxy or the conch on the shore. Man’s proper response, then, after he has paid his loving attention to trout and finches and things that show forth that breathless list of adjectives, is a quiet movement of the heart: “Praise him.” Two simple words, for a simple act that does not change: praising the Maker of change, who dwells in eternal light.


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