On Thursday the 27th of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the second part of my contribution to the evening.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a 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 áll trádes, 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:
At its most immediate ‘Pied Beauty’ is a poem of praise to God, deriving its form and purpose from the psalms of the Hebrew Bible. It is a hymn, in that the words are directed to God, speak of God’s good works, recognise him in all things, and are “lost in wonder, love, and praise”, as Charles Wesley would have it. It uses the sprung rhythm that the American poet Robert Hass says transcends the “easy fit” to “give the feeling of overmuch.”
It is, though, not a conventional praise poem. Rather than listing the many beauties of creation, as we find in that opening hymn of the Bible, in Genesis chapters 1 and the start of 2, Hopkins goes into select and very detailed description of some favourite features of the English countryside. Only then to say that “all things”, by extension, meaning the whole of creation, pied as it all is, deserves our praise. “All things counter, original, spare, strange” is everything. Hopkins takes very particularised effects – “a brinded cow”, “finches’ wings” – as examples of how the whole universe in fact is “pied beauty”. The shift from the particular to the general, an elementary strategy of essays and debates, happens between the two verses, thus making the poem a miniature exercise in rhetoric; the rhetoric beloved of Oxford dons and Jesuit orators.
The poem is also an invitation. How do we read the final lines? “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.” While we hear this as praise to the maker of all things, the poem is also asking us to praise him. It is stating that we too may engage freely in the expression of praise, in our own words, our own somewhat unique and human way, in our own time. Hopkins has just shown us how to do it, and how to do it if you are Hopkins. He ends by saying it is your turn to do this, in your way.
‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ is the motto of the order that Hopkins joined: ‘To the greater glory of God.’ He would have seen this motto frequently,
probably written in chalk at the top of blackboards in tutorial classes: it is a reminder to offer everything to God in God’s Name. We sometimes think of the Jesuit dedication as austere and absolute, which is why ‘Pied Beauty’ is such a release. Instead of cautious reserve the poem comes from a personal state of joyous, even ecstatic, bliss. Instead of the kind of ‘us and them’ Catholic language we find in Hopkins’ letters sometimes, here the poem is all-embracing, almost delirious over the marvels of difference, one could even say ecumenical in its divine understanding of the world.
Hopkins, who took a huge interest, like Robert Bridges, in English word history, knew that ‘pied’ is Middle English for ‘black and white’ or any marked colour on white. In other words, blemished or marked, as distinct from unblemished. The acceptance of the world as blemished, as fallen from some perfect state, seems to exist consciously or not, behind the poem ‘Pied Beauty’. While this is a tentative argument that cannot be pushed too hard, we have to remember that Hopkins has been given a thorough grounding in the reality of sin, in his own life as well as in the seminary, and that his poetry is the verbalisation, in various forms, of that awareness.
We also have to remember that Hopkins was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, someone who proposed challenging ways of understanding nature, some of them at odds with conventional religious thinking. ‘Pied Beauty’ is a nature poem. The examples it gives of God’s ‘fathering-forth’ are nearly all from nature and Hopkins, through his condensed language, teaches us to look upon nature with new eyes. He would have us see the wonders of nature in their own right, not simply as products of a process of unremitting natural selection. We are being placed in the reflective mode that respects the inscape of each individual being.
This leads to my final way of reading ‘Pied Beauty’, which is that we see the living world glorified in its physical presence and ongoing existence, albeit mortal in its passage. In some ways the most important clue to the poem is not in the famous words like “dappled things”, “fickle, freckled”, or “rose-moles all in stipple”, but in the very plain English word “change”. Everything he talks about is open to mutability, will alter and age with time. Only God does not change and yet it is only through God that we may see the true wonder of what God has made possible. His “beauty is past change.” As happens frequently in poetry, the last line is the one that shares the underlying meaning, and makes us read it again.
‘Pied Beauty’ shows how this style of rhythm and stress render an argument effective. A simple theology lesson is transformed into a living hymn of praise, a universal sermon, urging us to see the world anew. It is theopoetic before the fact. Yet Hopkins discovered that his style could serve internal dramatic monologue as well. He takes the conventions of prayer and expands the results into a present drama.
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
We can hear ‘Carrion Comfort’ as a stark testament to the state of ‘fight-or-flight response’. Each temptation to give in to despair, “to avoid and flee”, is quickly countered by the alternative, to stay, meet, and overcome. Each phrase details a new part of the internal contest. Grammatical sense is pushed to breaking point in order to include all the vying forces of emotion and reason. The second half of the sonnet reveals what has already been implied, that this is a struggle with God, whom he both addresses directly and speaks of as the one he wrestles.
While it is useful to know the poem was written during an Ignatian retreat using the Spiritual Exercises, and is therefore an acute expression of his soul at the time, our interest is only secondarily in biography. As in all his poetry, the form Hopkins invented is utilised to depict a spiritual experience, a struggle, an epiphany, a revelation. It is we who cry ‘I can no more’ only to counter with ‘I can’. The slow overcoming of despair is imitated in the poetry. He uses biblical images – ‘I wretch lay wrestling with my God’ – but this is secondary to their use as meaning to his, and our, own shared experience of learning God’s will.
The last years of his life were hard. He wrote to Richard Watson Dixon that “Liverpool is of all places the most museless,” a despondent state that changed little after he took up the offer to teach in Dublin. The so-called ‘terrible sonnets’ evidently written in a state of spiritual turmoil and crisis, keep his unique eye for nuance and fine detail while shifting in their directness of speech closer to the Metaphysicals like John Donne. This change in composition will always leave us wondering what other changes may have occurred if Hopkins had lived as long as Robert Bridges. Here he is, near the end of his life, taking his cue from the prophet Jeremiah:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
Hass, Robert, quoted in a review by Scott Esposito of his ‘A Little Book of Form’, San Francisco Chronicle, 19 April 2017
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected with an introduction and notes by W.H. Gardner. Penguin, 1953
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Selected letters, edited by Catherine Phillips. Oxford University Press, 1990